How To Take Notes Such That You Can Think About Things Better Later


Thursday, 5.29am

Sheffield, U.K.

I’m a compulsive note-taker, and I used to feel self-conscious about pulling out my little notebook and taking notes during a casual conversation. Then I noticed that people really seemed to enjoy it; the fact that I was taking notes made their remarks seem particularly insightful or valuable. Now I don’t hold myself back. – Gretchen Rubin

In my previous post I said I’d look at some approaches to capturing information.

This is going to be a first pass, a non-exhaustive list, to help me see it too.

The diagram above lists a few approaches and I think three categories started to emerge.

First, there are the notes you make when you capture raw material – the stuff directly from the source.

Then there is what you do when you start to process and make sense of what you’ve collected, although sometimes you can try and capture and organize for sense-making at the same time.

And then there are notes that are really meta-notes, notes about how to take notes and these are more akin to computer programs, where you have inputs and outputs and, most importantly, feedback.

Let’s look at these ideas in some more detail and see if some sense starts to emerge.

The world of graphemes and phonemes

One of the consequences of the pandemic has been that I had to spend time learning what is taught in primary schools and I came across the idea of graphemes and phonemes.

A phoneme, in case you don’t know, is a sound you make – what you say.

It’s sort of there in the root of the word – its about the phonic, the sonic element.

A grapheme, on the other hand, is a mark you make to represent that sound – graph as in draw.

So graphemes are literally representations of sounds using drawing.

Now, if you start to look at how writing has developed over time you might come across Irving Finkel, a curator at the British Museum.

To give you a flavor of the person, have a look at this talk, in which he tells you about the evolution of writing and says, “The shift from pictographic use to writing sounds was the only real giant leap man has ever made apart from the development of the Electric Guitar.”

Writing started with drawing – if you wanted to represent a bird you would just actually draw a simplified bird form.

The sort of thing you get with Egyptian hieroglyphics.

But there are lots of words that you can’t just draw, where there isn’t a physical equivalent – words like “word”, for example.

So you end up developing alphabets and if you look at their history you’ll see how the letter “A” has its roots and shape in an ox.

Look at an A upside down and you’ll see the horns and head – but rather than the “A” representing a literal ox, it starts to be used for the sound.

So, you first had pictographs which were useful for quantities and physical things and then you had the alphabet, which lets you capture all the words you can say.

This little digression is important, I think, because writing is really a form of drawing – and I think you can do something quite useful when you combine the power of the two approaches.

On to taking notes

The first function of note taking for many people, then, is to capture the words people say – the sounds they make.

In many cases chronology is important, you capture notes in a linear fashion as the words come at you.

For example, think of what a police officer or a journalist does.

They have a pocket notebook and they ask questions and take down facts and direct quotes.

A police officer’s interest is in the timeline and the facts – what happened first, what happened next, what did you see, what evidence is available.

A reporter is interested in the facts, but is also looking for the story, which you will usually find in the feelings people have about the situation.

As a reporter, then, you will also take notes about the situation, the surroundings, the feel of things – the sort of details that add context and flavor and bring a touch of reality to your story.

With police officers and reporters your notebook is also a legal record, which means that you have to preserve those documents and show that they haven’t been tampered with.

And because you’re taking notes in a bound notebook they are necessarily linear and chronological, you write down things one after the other and the pages stay in place.

A different kind of linear notebook approach is taken by people who need to record thoughts and ideas rather than spoken words – the kind of work engineers and research scientists do.

They use laboratory notebooks, bound and numbered pages and again record things chronologically, with results and ideas and experiments.

A linear approach works when you have to do one thing at a time but there are several situations where you the restrictions of the bound notebook gets in the way.

If you’re a lawyer, counselor or business person, for example, you’re probably going to have several meetings where you’re taking notes.

You could have all that in a single notebook but you rarely ever see a lawyer using that approach.

If you picture a lawyer you’ll probably see them using a legal pad – and that’s simply because once you’ve made your notes on a particular case what you want to do is tear off the relevant pages and add them to the case file.

Using individual sheets of paper to take notes comes in useful when you have to maintain a filing system – when you’re building up notes on many subjects over time.

This approach is also useful when you’re collecting research in addition to recording spoken words and your own thoughts and ideas.

If you’re reading and making notes on what you come across then loose sheets help you organize that by topic later.

Now, most notes, whether linear or non-linear, are probably word based but what you can do to help improve understanding and retention is add pictographs to your graphemes – use the power of drawing and writing.

That’s what you do with sketchnotes – bringing in visual elements that capture concepts and things more effectively than words alone and that also help you emphasize or indicate relationships between the notes you take.

The transition from simply recording what is said, what you think or what you read to analyzing what you are putting down is an important one.

Sketchnotes are a first step to making that shift – as you move from a vertical arrangement of words on a page to arranging concepts in space, like in the image below.


This is the kind of thing I use in my own work which combines traditional note taking with sketches and an infinite sheet of digital paper to leverage the power of spatial note taking.

As someone who primarily works with organizations, where systemic approaches are important, this kind of note taking approach is more helpful when you’re trying to work out what’s possible and achievable in the situation you face with the resources you have rather than what’s the task, case or story.

That’s the difference between what a manager or entrepreneur does and what a professional typically has to do.

Moving on

I think this post is long enough and really only covers the areas that aren’t circled in the picture at the start of the post – the elements of note-taking in the raw.

The other two elements are really about analysis and method – ways to help you think better once you’ve taken down your notes and I think we’ll look at those in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

What Is The Process Of Listening And Taking Notes?


Wednesday, 5.50am

Sheffield, U.K

One thing scientists do is to find order among a large number of facts, and one way to do that across fields as diverse as biology, geology, physics and astronomy is through classification. – Alan Stern

I’m looking for an entry point into this question of how to listen well and this post is about finding something that works.

Let’s start by looking up at the stars.

Since time immemorial people have looked up and seen the night sky.

And at different times they’ve tried to capture it – from pre-historic times to early manuscripts.

When you look up you see points of light – individual, discrete, separate – dots of randomness.

As you keep looking, however, you start to realize that there are patterns in the randomness – patterns you can see from your point of view.

And so people started to draw patterns to make it easier to show what they saw in the sky – and we now have constellations.

You probably know how to look up and see the Big Dipper and from that work out where the north star is.

Let’s start with this idea of points and connections and see where it takes us.

Picking up on the little things

There are many situations where you have to listen – you might be practicing to become a counselor or a therapist.

You could be a journalist or a lawyer.

You might be an ethnographer or anthropologist.

Or you could be listening for work, as a consultant, a meeting participant or as an entrepreneur.

The process of communication is a complex, nuanced activity.

One way of looking at it is to see it as a series of steps where someone takes what’s in their heads, encodes it in a message using language, speaks it aloud, at which point it enters your head and is decoded and creates meaning for you.

You don’t get exactly what someone else is thinking directly – you recreate a thought in your head from the message you receive.

Some things are inevitably lost in the process and you will probably add some things that weren’t in the original transmission at all.

Which actually adds a couple of dimensions to my starting point of nodes and connections, which is the intent and motivation of the participants in the conversation.

The purpose of a journalist might be to find the story, find something juicy and salacious, while a lawyer is looking for facts, specific things they can evidence, and an ethnographer looks for the hidden meaning and culture that underpins spoken words and actions.

If you’re in business you’re probably looking at all those points, even if you don’t realize it at the time.

But you’ll always start by collecting the points that are being made by people.

Collecting points

The first way to start is by just listening to what’s being said, remembering the points in your head.

What do people who are very good at just listening do?

How do they take in what’s being said and remember it pretty well later on?

If you watch such people there’s a to-and-fro process taking place.

First, they’re listening intently, taking in every word.

There’s a real interest in the narrative, in the story, perhaps a personal connection.

As they listen they’re connecting what’s being said to what they already know, and they’re asking questions and restating what they hear to make sure they understand it and, in the process, fixing it in their memory.

After all, this process is the oldest form of social communication, as people sit together, walk together and have a chat – gossip and share information and connect with each other.

What’s shared will always be affected by the intent of the people involved – perhaps it’s gossip, news about what’s happening.

Or it’s sharing a concern or worry with a friend, someone who will listen without judgment and let you unburden yourself.

Or it’s working through a problem, figuring out how to do something, what you need or what the order of activities needs to be.

The process of talking it out is the process of problem solving or problem sharing in the moment.

In many situations you need things to last for longer than the moment, where you need to remember and come back to the points that were made and show what happened.

That’s when you need to start taking notes.

Let’s run through a quick list of how people take these notes.

Ethnographers talk about headnotes, the points you remember in your head while you’re in the middle of a situation that you want to remember but can’t pull out a notebook or where it would be inappropriate to do so, like in the middle of a ceremony or ritual.

The minute you have some time you jot down points that will help you to remember what went on – jottings on a scrap of paper or in your notebook.

In many other situations it’s natural and expected to take notes – as a lawyer, journalist or business person you can pull out a notebook and start taking down points and no one will really complain unless they’ve asked to be off the record.

This stage is all about collection, getting down the points that are made so you don’t lose track of them as the conversation progresses.

When do you start making sense of them?

Making connections

As you write you will find that points are naturally connected in the way they are expressed.

No one comes out with completely random or disconnected ideas.

Most sentences will relate to the ones before and after them in some way, unless they are truly the start of a new idea or concept.

So even just taking down notes of a conversation as it develops, linear notes of point after point will have a narrative structure and reflect what is in someone’s mind.

The only thing is that what they have in their mind is not linear – it just comes out that way because you have to say one thing after another when you speak.

There’s actually a construct in someone’s mind, a collection of connected ideas that they don’t necessarily see as one but that underpins what they tell you.

They have to convert that construct into words that come out one at a time and, if there aren’t too many words, you may be able to reconstruct that construct from the words you capture on the page.

But the natural next step is to look at methods that help you make that construct physically obvious, by moving from linear notes to maps of notes – using visual methods to represent the points and the connections.

This activity of grouping, whether done by classifying at the linear, paragraph and sentence based level or using visual approaches, is what helps you bring some order to everything you’re hearing, it’s what makes it easier to make sense of what’s going on.

But it’s not a question of one or the other – it’s really about what’s best at what time.

Understanding is an iterative process

The reason you’re listening is to understand and that means you are going to go around a loop a few times.

If you’re just listening without taking notes, you do that by asking questions and restating what you’ve heard in your own words to check that you’re understanding things correctly.

If you’re taking notes then you have to put things in a form that someone else can look at to confirm whether you’ve got things right.

The three basic capturing methods I’ve looked at very generally in this post – remembering things in your head, writing things down in a linear fashion and writing things down in a visual fashion will need some expanding – there are a number of methods out there.

Some of these are trademarked and well known while others less obvious.

There does seem to be a tendency for people to create an approach and then look to protect it in some way, which ends up with a number of approaches that are fundamentally similar but have different names and slight subtleties that let the creators claim ownership over them.

I think the next post is about listing some of these approaches and resources, so we’ll come to that next before we go onto the task of making connections and creating meaning.


Karthik Suresh

What Are You Trying To Listen For When You Listen To Someone?


Tuesday, 5.24am

Sheffield, U.K.

The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do. Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

It’s hard to see things from another person’s point of view.

Your own opinions, views, ways of thinking about the world keep pushing forwards, getting in the way.

And the way we see things causes us to judge the way others say they see things as we listen to them – and that’s something we have to stop doing if we want to understand what’s going on.

So, how do you do that?

How individualistic is your approach?

Cultures around the world vary in the degree to which they balance individual freedom against the needs of the group.

Then again, there is no such thing as a “culture” – it’s a way of doing things that emerges from the way in which individuals go about doing things in the context in which they exist.

A romantic notion of the individual is one where there are no constraints on you – if you want to do something and believe in yourself then you can do anything.

If you look at your social media feed right now the chances are that there is someone pushing the idea that success comes down to hard work and effort.

If you agree with this then the natural thing to do is work harder on yourself – push yourself to the limit.

If something doesn’t work out then focus on what you can do to change.

This kind of thinking is internally focused – it looks at you in alone.

Now, turn this around and think about what happens when you listen to someone else while bringing along your assumptions that what matters is the individual.

You could listen very carefully and ask lots of questions to understand how that person thinks, what they’re all about.

If they were a circle you’d fill in everything inside – you could see them for what they are and understand what they stand for.

Or at least, what you think is important from an individualistic viewpoint.

After all, you might ask questions like, “What’s important to you?” or “What do you want to achieve?”

Is this going to help you get somewhere, to move things on?

Does the environment matter?

It’s hard to imagine anyone who is truly completely individual – someone who does not have to depend on anyone else.

Most of us are part of a web of connections to other people – we have families and friends and work with colleagues in organizations.

If we were truly individual, like marbles that were free to roll anywhere, then there would be no restrictions on us at all.

But in reality we’re almost always connected to other people, connected within networks.

In fact many of us spend a lot of time trying to increase or strengthen those connections.

And, as a result, we are inevitably constrained by the connections we have built, by the strands we have put in place.

For example, when we’re young, we could do anything but we’re going to stay with our families until we feel safe.

When you go to university, away from home for the first time, it’s common to quickly find a group where you feel safe and welcomed and stick with that group for the rest of your time there.

And it’s the same when you join the world of work – when you’re part of a team or have an organizational system where you have a role to play.

It’s much easier to imagine situations where you’re part of a group than ones where you are truly on your own – in fact being on your own is probably quite an isolating and worrying place to be.

What this also leads to is the notion that much of what is possible for you to do depends on the nature of the situation you are in and the kinds of connections you have with others.

Your background matters – if you come from a family or community that has business experience then you will probably find it easier to access capital than someone else.

If you come from a family of musicians then becoming an artist is going to be much easier for you.

Yes, in theory anyone can do anything but book learning is not enough – you need practical experience.

You can get that through an apprenticeship, through learning through practice – but it takes time to get to that point and it all depends on the availability of the opportunity to do what you want to do.

When you look at things in this way you start to appreciate that getting results matters just as much on the environment you are in as it does on what you want to do as an individual.

What does this mean for you as someone trying to listen and understand and move something on?

Listen to see the web, not just the individual

What this means is that you really need to practice seeing the context, the environment, the situation if you want to make a difference.

For example, let’s say you’re trying to understand why a person finds it hard to lose weight – you could focus on them as an individual.

Why don’t they have the willpower to stop overeating, what kind of diets have they tried, what will work for them?

Or you could try to understand their situation – do they have a job that requires long hours and they need to grab food on the go and make something quickly?

Do they live in a food desert and where they find it hard to buy fresh food, relying instead on packaged and processed stuff?

What are the constraints and environmental conditions – how does their family operate, what do their friends do?

Without an understanding of what normal looks like for them can you really make a lasting change in their personal situation.

The thing you need to appreciate is that what things are like right now is the natural result of the system of which that individual is a part.

Stafford Beer, the British theorist, coined the term POSIWID – the point of a system is what it does.

It’s a simple statement but a crucial one to understand if you really want to learn how to listen more effectively.

What you see in front of you results from the system that exists – and the purpose of your questions is to illuminate that system – the nodes and connections that make it up.

We’ll look at ways to approach that task in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

Constructing Your External Memory System To Capture Knowledge


Saturday, 6.42am

Sheffield, U.K.

‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ says the White Queen to Alice. ― Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

It never occurred to me to ask why I think the way I do, how I acquired knowledge.

Most people probably don’t – after all it’s equivalent to a fish stopping to ask what water is.

It just is – it’s all around you and its the way it always has been.

But, is that really the case?

I must be a product of my community, of a way of thinking that has been passed along through generations.

Attitudes and behaviors and stories – how we were at home, what we valued and what I was told by grandparents – all contributed to developing a world-view and set of values.

A culture.

And then I grew up and entered a different kind of culture – schools and curricula, shaped by vested interests and politics.

How do you start to make sense of all that – what kind of approach would you take to understand the bewildering mass of information that you find in front of you.

This was the challenge faced by the 8th Century Indian philosopher Adi Shankara.

I don’t know much about Adi Shankara – but my culture and community is inextricably linked with him and his work.

Adi Shankara was born in a time where the Hindu faith was splintered, with many schools of thought and competing approaches.

In his short life he brought together a number of strands of thought and established a philosophy, traveling across India, founding monasteries and spreading his ideas.

The community I come from is relatively non-materialistic – an ascetic approach, perhaps even monastic, is viewed as an ideal way to be.

It values knowledge for the sake of knowledge – learning is prized as an activity.

That, I suppose, is how culture works – ideas created more than a millennium ago affect the way whole communities think and act now.

I have been literally bathed in that culture – going through an initiation ceremony at Kaladi when I was around eight, the purported birthplace of Adi Shankara and the site of one of his monasteries.

But I have spent my life in a predominantly Western culture, at least intellectually.

What I received from that experience was first a positivist education.

Positivism essentially says that knowledge is derived from your senses and logical reasoning.

In other words, the truth is out there and you have to go and find it.

Later, I was introduced to an interpretevist philosophy – which says that people are complex and see things differently.

In other words, people construct their own truth and you have to try and understand what they see from the point of view of how they see it.

Now, if you are interested in this kind of thing – how do you help yourself make sense of it all.

Or, for that matter, make sense of anything big and complicated, with many strands of thought and competing, compelling arguments?

What did Adi Shankara do?

One of the things he developed was an epistemology, a means to gain knowledge.

And part of that was an idea that if you want to understand something – in his case a treatise – you need to understand six characteristics.

Let’s say you’re reading a paper.

The first thing you want to do is look at the introduction and conclusion – what’s the common idea in those two parts?

Second, look at the original message, see it as it’s written.

Third, look for what’s unique about it, what’s the novel concept in there?

Fourth, what’s the result, the fruit of that idea?

Fifth, what’s important about that point, about the concept?

And finally, sixth, can you verify this yourself – does it make sense to you and align with your reasoning?

These six concepts seem simple but they helped me make sense of some of the mistakes I was making as I tried to collect knowledge and make sense of it.

Take the idea of a copy of the original.

We are swimming in information now – you can find pretty much everything on the Internet somewhere.

If you tried to save it all it would be impossible – you just haven’t got the space.

You simply have to accept that everything you could possibly know is out there somewhere.

When you come across something worthwhile how are you going to keep hold of it?

One way is to make a copy and one of the oldest ways to do that is to keep a commonplace book.

Copy out the idea into your own book – perhaps by hand.

Now, that sounds a little crazed – why would you do that when you could just save the content?

Well, the increased effort will force you to filter, to keep only those things that you actually need to keep.

You can find anything you need later when you need it – but the point is to start keeping only what you want to study further.

Now, just storing it isn’t enough – you need to process that information and start to make sense of it.

That’s where sense-making tools come in, from diagrams and models that help you explore the concepts you’re learning to systems based on the Zettelkasten, a box of notes that help you to order and move ideas around until they fit together well.

In Adi Shankara’s time, one way of doing this was to create sutras, knowledge compressed into verses that could be memorized and passed on.

You had to unpack a sutra to understand it but the core of the idea was in there.

Then there’s the stuff you find yourself, through direct experience or reflection – which you can put into fieldnotes, a record of the stuff in your head, as jotted notes, short pieces or as longer, thought through articles.

The material you read and the material you generate are effectively secondary and primary research – and the first purpose of your external memory system is to help you collect them.

Then, the purpose of the other tools you have is to help you reflect and make sense of what’s in that stuff you’ve collected.

For me, what these ideas bring together is a system of working with knowledge that works for me.

I have a way of collecting relevant primary and secondary information – using fieldnotes and a commonplace book.

I make sense of that information with diagrams, models, and slips of paper – try to codify and compress it into forms that make it easy to remember later.

And, in doing so, I have the tools I need to generate knowledge and an empathetic understanding – supporting positivist or interpretevist approaches, depending on which one fits the situation best.

With this toolbox I am, hopefully, ready to listen and learn.


Karthik Suresh

On Taking Notes And Seeing To Learn


Friday, 5.44am

Sheffield, U.K.

He listens well who takes notes. – Dante Alighieri

I’m going to spend a little time on note taking.

Perhaps a couple of posts, because this is something I need to work through.

I was never someone who took many notes – I liked to read but the things I read went in and went out again.

It seemed to me that things I needed to know would turn up when I needed them – the right books seemed to appear at the right time.

And I think I can remember when I started to think about taking notes.

I was an average student at school, below average probably, perhaps in the bottom third of the class.

I made careless mistakes and didn’t really try that hard.

And at some point I started to struggle – with chemistry in particular.

I had some kind of block with chemistry – I just didn’t get it and it made no sense to me at all.

My parents sent me to stay with a friend, someone with a huge library and someone who introduced me to flashcards.

This person, I remember, had decided that he wanted to learn about stars and so he had a drawer full of cards with the names on one side and the characteristics on the other.

I went through my chemistry textbook and copied all the content onto small cards and then carried around the material, effectively memorizing the textbook.

I remember getting in trouble once – one of my teachers thought that the cards were a cheating aid rather than a study aid.

The flashcard method worked, for chemistry and other subjects.

I could memorize everything I needed and regurgitate it for the exam and that was fine – I did well in my exams as a result.

This method of taking the content and putting it into a form that made it easier to memorize the content changed my ability to study and pass exams.

But I wasn’t learning anything – I was simply getting better at cramming facts into my head for a purpose.

When I went to university the methods went with me and adapted to fit a new environment.

I used blank A4 paper and adapted my note taking system to the lecturing format and used a four color pen.

Each sheet had a code at the top – date/subject/page number – and that made it easy to add content in class and then drop the notes into folders, cereal boxes actually rather than carrying around a notebook for each subject.

I used red for main headings, blue for subheadings, black for content and green to circle or draw attention to points.

I carefully took notes all through the semester and at the end went through them and created a mind map using the headings.

I’ve always been slow at things like this but I never really realized that the teacher had a structure to what they were covering.

The content came at you day by day, like someone throwing a number of tennis balls at you and requiring you to catch them as they flew through the air.

The mind maps showed the structure and links between the concepts and made it easier to focus on the elements I needed to memorize – and that content then went onto flashcards and I went through the same process.

Read, memorize, write.

Once again, I did well in exams.

But I did no real learning.

My first work placement was perhaps the time when some learning really started.

I was introduced to the world of programming and I started reading all about how to do it better.

For the first time I had something to do and I could go and learn about how to do it, do it, look at whether what I had done worked or not and then try something different.

I still have some of the books I bought and, somewhere in my files, an article I wrote about this experience.

I think that was the first time I actually learned something – and I only learned it because I did something.

Then, there were several years of work where I learned how to take notes as a defensive art.

You have lots of meetings, lots of things to do and the only way to keep track of it all is to keep track of it all.

I filled notebooks with daily notes and lists and logs and actions.

I taught myself shorthand to keep up, first Greggs and then Teeline.

Greggs I’ve forgotten entirely but I still use Teeline from time to time.

Taking notes in the workplace was about accountability – about being able to look back and check what was said when and what was agreed.

My notes helped me move things on, and I experimented with methods like “Getting Things Done”, by David Allen – and spent a lot of time thinking about note taking and records for operational purposes.

The notes I took helped me manage large numbers of projects and make sure everything was captured and moved on – that decisions and next actions were clear and if anything went wrong it was demonstrably not my fault.

And it all worked – for a number of years until the diligent work started to seem a little pointless – why was I doing all this?

So, I went back to university and did some more studying.

The note taking methods I had from before were still just as helpful, but I had also discovered sketchnotes – a way to add visuals into my note taking.

This changed the structure of my notes completely.

Instead of lots of words that I was going to have to memorize I started drawing images that captured concepts that I could relate to other concepts.

It was hard to change – I was used to making sure I got absolutely everything down.

In fact, I had adapted my note taking to making sure I typed everything, got all the content down at the start of my course.

But there was something different about the situation I was in.

For the last 33 years I had taken notes either because I was trying to get a good score in an exam or because I needed to show that I was on top of things.

This time, when I went to university, I had nothing to prove.

I wasn’t there to get a mark or prove I could do anything – for the first time in my life I had chosen to do something because I wanted to learn about it.

The learning was what was important, not the grade.

I had no need to get a particular score or prove to someone else that I was competent – I could do that with other evidence.

This time, I just wanted to learn.

So, I relaxed, stopped trying to capture everything and tried to listen.

For the first time, really listen.

And I took notes of concepts and sketched them on the page and tried to link them together.

Here’s that first note – one that I made around a third of the way through the course.


I didn’t realize it the time, I couldn’t have, but this shift in thinking – from having to capture everything so I could reproduce it later to learning to listen in order to understand – would change everything.

The reason I had started drawing concepts in the first place was because I had a young child and I had started to use drawing as a way to communicate with him – an approach we called drawing a story.

You could use drawing to communicate with a three year old – but you could also clearly use it to communicate with thirty-year olds.

One of my lecturers saw one of my drawings – I had used it in a presentation – and introduced me to the idea of rich pictures and the work of Peter Checkland.

I learned about Soft Systems Methodology and used it for my dissertation.

Now, as we come to the present, these approaches to note taking, integrating drawing and connecting concepts have come together with some of the work I do, applying research-based methods to practical projects in industry.

A conversation with an academic introduced me to more work in this area, especially around concept maps and other methods of visual thinking.

The methods I have developed work well for me but then you have to ask yourself the question: why do they work well for me, and would they work for others?

And, of course, how does what I do now compare to what else is out there and how could I improve.

That question led me to anthropology as a discipline and writing ethnographic fieldnotes as a particular aspect of anthropology.

When you look at these disciplines you start to dimly perceive a model that can help you make sense of what is going on.

And in these posts I think what I have to do is try and illuminate that model a bit further – because I can’t see it clearly yet and maybe writing about it will make it visible.

I’ll have to start by going back a way and looking at one person’s way of thinking – but that’s for the next post.


Karthik Suresh

How Much Of Anything Can We Really Understand?


Thursday, 5.39am

Sheffield, U.K.

I never knew anybody . . . who found life simple. I think a life or a time looks simple when you leave out the details. – Ursula K. Le Guin, The Birthday of the World and Other Stories

There must be something built into us that looks for the easy route, the answer, the magic bullet.

I took the opportunity provided by a teaching moment to remind one of the small people in the house how to do long division.

At the prospect of having to do work there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth – surely it was just possible to arrive at the answer.

At least long division has answers.

Much of life is more complicated.

Life is complicated and mysterious

Is life simple or not?

I used to think it was simple – and then I started to read.

At the moment I’m browsing through old ethnographic studies written in the early 1900s that describe the places and communities I come from in India.

If you put aside the casual racism and focus on the observations you start to realize certain things.

For example, there was no technological innovation happening in rural parts of India.

The land was incredibly productive, the accounts wrote, but the people incredibly unproductive.

It took ten people to do the work in an Indian village that one person could do in England.

No one tried to change things because the attitude to life was fatalistic and there was a culture of abstinence – things happen because they happen and in any case we don’t need any more than we have.

These attitudes were barriers to progress, the ethnographies concluded.

At the same time they noted that there was no poor law despite the poverty.

In other words, you didn’t have a need for the state to look after destitute and hungry people.

The world they were describing meant that everyone had work – inefficient work but they were still able to sell their labor and the social system meant everyone was fed because of the mutual obligations in place between workers and employers and the way family ties and support worked.

In the 20th century, progress has brought us the things we see now – and life is different.

You could argue that it’s the opposite situation around the world – people feel more in control of their lives and options because they are better educated and abstinence has been replaced by consumer societies, where there is an abundance of everything at reasonable prices.

But in the richest of societies you have very poor people, including those who could not possibly live without state support.

In a world of abundance there is desperate poverty and decreasing opportunity to sell your labor.

Now, just making sense of those different times and people and places is going to be an exhausting endeavor.

The ethnographic studies are slices of a time and place – vital records of a past that has perhaps already disappeared.

And what we look at now is also in slices – perhaps we collect more data but I don’t know if we collect more value or insight.

After all, we know that people consume too much.

Is abstinence the answer?

Or do we need to make the same number of things and more but somehow reduce their impact on the planet?

Questions lead to questions and still more questions.

Perhaps the first thing we should accept is that our understanding is going to be limited in some way.

A small theory of something

When you’re trying to make sense of this mass of complexity facing you, then you probably have to start with a small bit.

To understand a people start by understanding a person.

To understand a person start by understanding how they think.

To understand how they think start by asking questions about a particular subject.

When you’re done you’ll get a thin slice of knowledge – an understanding of their world from their point of view.

Perhaps that knowledge will help illuminate more than just that point of view – it’s capable of being generalized into a broader statement about how that person will behave in different situations or how people like that person will behave as a group.

And people do this all the time – come up with a grand theory of everything – wrap these observations into general theory.

Then you run into conflict, into argument about method and how valid your generalizations are and what the evidence is for them.

All this can make thinking really quite difficult and it’s tempting to resort to gut feeling or shortcuts – rules of thumb.

Superstitions of one sort or another.

Or we can recognize the limitations of our thinking and try and adjust the way we approach the world to deal with the reality in front of us.

One person, one time at a time

I don’t think I am being particularly clear with my ideas in this post so far, but the purpose of having a blog is not just to put out clear and thought through ideas.

It’s also to work through the ideas in the first place – to collect them and see if there is something there or not.

And perhaps what it comes down to is something like this.

You have to learn to tell the difference between something that is emergent and the things that, when they act together, result in something emerging.

Take a company, for example.

You know there is a company out there – it has a name – let’s call it Elementary Industrials Inc.

But you don’t talk to a company, you talk to a person or people in that company.

It’s easy to think about Elementary Industrials behaving in a certain way – perhaps they treat their workforce badly.

But in reality, the bad treatment of workers is an emergent property – it happens because individuals within the organization work together in certain ways, influenced by the culture and behavior that has developed over time.

Individuals will have different contributions to make – people that are constrained by their situation have less of a chance to influence things than others who are less constrained.

In a very hierarchical society power is tightly controlled.

But even if people have more freedom they may put controls on themselves – worried about what others will think and how they will be judged.

If you really want to understand something, really see what that slice of life looks like from that one perspective you have to start by being willing to put aside the idea that things are simple – get ready to engage with the detail and complexity of real life.

And be willing to suspend judgment.

Start by seeing one person for what the are and listening to exactly what they have to say.

What I’m getting at here is that life is complicated enough in its own right without you getting your ideas and thoughts and judgments in the way.

To see what is really there you first need to get better at dropping your own interpretations and ideas about what is going on.

First you need to see and hear and taste and smell what is actually out there.

Terry Pratchett calls this First Sight.

Let’s look at that in some more detail in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

How Can You Start To See What Is In Front Of You?


Wednesday, 5.35am

Sheffield, U.K.

When we talk about understanding, surely it takes place only when the mind listens completely – the mind being your heart, your nerves, your ears – when you give your whole attention to it. – Jiddu Krishnamurti

Do you ever wish that life were simple.

Perhaps you actually believe that it is – that if you work hard and have clear goals the universe will make things work for you?

You just have to be positive.

On the other hand, has anything about the life you’ve lived so far actually been simple?

Think back to the crucial life decisions you made – what to study, where to live, who to marry – each of which have changed the course of your future.

Most of us, when we look back, will not see a straight line – important decisions made logically leading from one point to the next, always leading to success.

Instead, we will see a series of related choices, choices that emerge from and are constrained by previous choices and actions, and that are made in the light of potential future choices and actions.

For example, I grew up in India, a country where we are all told to become engineers.

Why engineers?

There are many reasons but the most important one for me was that studying engineering kept future choices open.

If you study something technical, something that is “useful”, then you can make a living.

Then you can figure out what you want to do with your life later.

This decision logic is shared, I am sure, by hundreds of thousands of other children right now.

And there is truth to this.

If I had studied something I really liked – like history or writing, then that would have been a different life.

How might that have worked out?

Perhaps well – with professional success and recognition.

Perhaps less well – with few prospects for jobs and a limited income.

But the real point is that looking at yourself, someone you know very well, and really understanding what you’re looking at is hard.

Really, really hard.

So how much harder is it to look outwards and see what is out there – really see it for what it is?

Tools for seeing

Mike Wesch in The art of being human writes about the basic tools of the anthropologist: communication, empathy and thoughtfulness.

These tools help you enter someone else’s world and look around.

You can’t tell what’s going on in someone else’s mind unless they tell you – and sometimes they don’t know what’s going on until they get the chance to tell you.

For humans thinking and talking is inseparable – the act of putting we think into words affects how we think about the things we’re thinking about.

The first skill we have to master, then, is how to communicate.

How, you might think that’s simple – communication is something you do all the time.

But it’s easy to do it poorly, it’s too easy to see things the way you see them and assume that others see things in the same way.

It’s easy to jump to conclusions, decide why people do things, assign motive to their actions and come up with explanations for why things happen the way they do.

For example, have you ever had to do a sales pitch that fell flat, that didn’t connect with the audience.

Did you walk away fuming, believing that the people in the room were clearly not intelligent enough to get what you were saying – they couldn’t see what was in front of them, what was obvious and true?

It seems natural in such situations to react emotionally, with anger and resentment when things haven’t gone your way.

And you could resolve to do things the same way the next time, double down on your message.

Or you could think about it – think about what just happened.

The second tool, thoughtfulness, is about reflecting – about going back over what happened and trying to understand it better.

Why did that pitch fail?

Is it possible that you assumed that the listeners knew something that they didn’t?

Is it possible that they didn’t know enough to know that their strongly held beliefs were flawed in some way?

For example, most people have no real concept of how their lives are affected by global markets.

If you buy something that has copper in it then the price for that copper depends on the trading history for that commodity – which so far this year has swung pretty wildly.

Now, if you understand markets but the person you’re speaking to doesn’t – they you might as well be speaking different languages.

Much of what you say will simply not be taken in.

But the person you’re speaking to may have strong opinions of their own.

For example, many people believe that house prices will always go up.

Perhaps that’s true in the long term, most things tend to see an increase in valuation if you look over a long enough period.

That doesn’t mean prices always go up in a straight line.

Just take a look at a chart of house prices and you’ll see up and downs, and whether the price goes up for you depends on where you enter and exist that cycle.

When you get away from things like markets, which are on the whole understandable, and get into other subjects like strategy or positioning or motivation – things get much harder.

And you’re only going to understand what’s going on by asking questions and thinking about the answers.

If you do this well then what emerges is understanding – an insight into how someone else sees what is going on.

That understanding is empathy.

Empathy is something that emerges from the way you talk to others and think about what they are saying.

Let’s to back to that sales pitch.

If you spend less time pitching and more time asking questions that help you understand how the people you’re talking to think and the kind of situation they are in, then you will be in a better position to work out how you can help them.

Being able to ask good questions is the starting point.


Karthik Suresh

The Three Challenges We Face When Trying To Understand Others


Monday, 5.46am

Sheffield, U.K.

Anthropology, n. The study of all humans in all times in all places – Mike Wesch, The Art of Being Human

What is anthropology?

Where do you begin when you need to understand how someone else is thinking?

What’s in their mind, what kind of approach are they thinking of taking, how can you work out what it means for them and you?

How can you make sense of what is going on?

The field of Anthropology gives us some clues.

Anthropology is about people, wherever they are, and understanding what makes them tick.

It is a very wide subject – you can think about people in terms of biology, archaeology, society and culture, or language – or all of them at the same time.

It is one of the very few sciences that look at societies across the globe, rather than focusing on Western culture.

But can it help us do better business?

Anthropology and business

You can think of any business, one you work in or are trying to work with, as a small society in itself.

A business is, after all, a collection of individuals who have come together.

Some businesses have a few members; they are a small tribe, while others have thousands, hundreds of thousands, and are like countries.

Each business will have a way of doing things that they have developed over time that works for them.

This way of doing things, this structure, may be almost invisible to them – it’s just the way in which things are done around here.

You can think about that structure in different ways – in the relationships, the politics, the economics and so on.

For example, think about your business – the way people are hired, the way decisions are made and the way money is allocated – and you’ll see how you’ve created your way of doing things that is going to be different from the business in the next building.

If you want to work with others, and you will have to do that as an individual or for your business, you have to realize that they are different from you and make an effort to understand them.

And there are three hurdles you will have to overcome – three tempting ways of thinking and acting that will stop you from being able to appreciate and understand the people you want to work with.

This is my way

The first of these is called ethnocentrism – being the center of your own world.

You know what you know and have beliefs and values that you hold dear – sometimes unconsciously.

You may have gained these because of your training and your experiences but, regardless of the source, they have a powerful hold over how you think.

A classic division in a business is the difference between engineering, accounting and legal.

If you have an engineer, accountant and lawyer in a room, each one will probably think that they have the most important job, the one that’s most vital to keeping the organization going.

Each professional speaks a different language, believes in different things and finds it very hard to see things in any other way than the way they see them.

What is a no-brainer for the engineering is a conundrum for the accountant and an impossibility for the lawyer.

What is an option for an accountant is impossible for an engineer and a loophole for a lawyer.

What you’re seeing in these situations is a clash of cultures, an inability to appreciate how someone else thinks and feels.

And that’s because they have to learn a particular way of thinking first.

My way is the right way

This way is called cultural relativism and comes down to being able to see things the way others see them.

You’ve heard of the golden rule – do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

That’s an ethnocentric rule.

The platinum rules says do unto others as they would have you do unto them.

That’s cultural relativism in action.

Cultural relativism is taking the time to listen, to ask questions, to seek to understand what is going on from the point of view of the other person involved.

For example, one of the reasons engineers cannot understand why accountants don’t go ahead with an idea is because they don’t see how accountants look at ideas in the first place.

An engineer might think in terms of whether something works or not, and if they can make it cost effectively.

If something can be made better and you can make money by doing it then surely you should go ahead?

The accountant, on the other hand, may be thinking of things like the impact of the project on budgets and cash flow, and whether there is any room for a new expense at all.

How do these two individuals reconcile their differences?

You’re doing it all wrong

The most common approach people take is to try and get other people to change the way they do things.

This might be expressed in debates in meetings, in contributions to policy papers and in negotiations about calculation methods – but it comes down to one thing.

You’re looking at this wrong and it would be much better if you did it my way.

This approach almost inevitably leads to conflict as both sides dig in and nothing gets done.

Engineers carry on doing things the way they do them, looking for projects and creating business cases.

The accountants keep doing their thing, reviewing cases and rejecting them.

And nothing actually gets done or changed or improved unless someone else gets involved and makes the decision for them.

The way to change this behavior is by changing the way you interact with others – through something called participant observation.

When you look at someone else’s world from the outside then you can’t really understand it, it’s like standing on the beach and looking to see how fish interact in the water.

You get a dim view but to really see what’s going on you need to get your fins and snorkel and duck underwater.

If you’re an engineer the best thing you can do is spend a lot of time with accountants and learn how they see the world.

When you do that you’ll be able to go back to your own world and look at projects in the way an accountant would and put forward opportunities that they will see as attractive in the way they see them.

But you’ll never be able to do that as long as you persist in being an observer, at keeping at arms length.

This is something technology people find particularly difficult.

“Give me the specs,” they say, “And I’ll build you a system.”

The problem is that no one actually knows exactly what the specs should be and it’s only by getting involved that you will understand what people are trying to do and how you can help them out.

The first step to fixing a problem is understanding what’s causing it.

And the three things that stop us from being able to understand others are thinking that the world revolves around us, that the way we do things is the right and only way and what we need to do is change others to be more like us.

These ways of thinking lead to conflict and misunderstanding.

Now that you know what’s in your way the next thing to do is understand how you can fix this.

Let’s look at that in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

Can We Be Scientific In Our Approach To People?


Sunday, 6.52pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge – Carl Sagan

What does it mean to think scientifically?

One way of looking at this is to see a scientific approach as one that has a body of accepted knowledge and a collection of methods that are used by practitioners.

The difference between this and a non-scientific approach is something that only one or a few people believe in and where the methods are opaque or known to a few.

Or is it?

In 1962 Thomas S. Kuhn published The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, an essay that observed that arguments around method were much more common among scientists who studied people than scientists who studied stuff.

Stuff is simple, you look at it, break it down, pour stuff on it, spin it, roll it, burn it… and all the time you learn more about it.

But that doesn’t mean stuff is easy to study.

Take electricity, for example.

Did you know that the battery was invented because people thought that electricity was like a liquid that moved through other things and so if you could bottle it then you would be able to store and use it later – like hot sauce?

The first batteries were literally built using jars, designed to hold liquid.

Kuhn argued in his essay that it was very hard to tell what was “proper” science – if you looked at it carefully you would have to accept that the way people looked at the world a thousand years ago was just as scientific as the way people look at the world now.

People don’t change when it comes to how they think – brains are pretty much the same design.

What happens is that the body of knowledge they take for granted is taken for granted for only as long as people agree it’s true.

Now, that is actually quite a revolutionary statement.

It means that truth is temporary – it’s the case until something better comes along to replace it – something that changes things fundamentally.

Kuhn called this a new paradigm.

Now, this approach works very well in the “hard” sciences – but when it comes to people the arguments about methods and paradigms have a habit of carrying on.

If you have a scientific mindset then you come at things from a view that there is a “right” answer.

And this doesn’t work with people.

Let’s look at how people who work with people deal with things.

Take lawyers, for example.

If you ask a lawyer a question, there will be a sucking in of the breath, a low whistle, as they contemplate all the ways in which things can go wrong and how you will argue your position.

If you have ever been in a commercial negotiation you will have seen how this “people” problem plays out in practice.

There is a temptation to get all “scientific” about your approach – to do lots of modelling and maths about what’s possible.

That’s why any venture capitalist wants your assumptions and five-year projections – that’s an attempt to make you apply the methods of science to your thinking.

In practice, however, people only follow the mathematical reasoning when you’re not worried if you lose or if the issues aren’t that important.

The people who are in the room when they make the decision are usually the ones who understand people.

But, hold on a second, you say.

Surely everything online is now about analytics – about the way in which people respond to A/B tests and isn’t that completely scientific?

If you look at it you’ll probably find that it comes down to people skills again.

If you’re selling something online then you need to answer people’s questions and put pictures on that look good.

It’s not that hard to do that, so now if you want to win you have to cheat.

People buy on price, but if you’re the cheapest you’re probably shipping straight from the manufacturers, probably from overseas.

It’s quite hard to tell from most listings where something comes from – people are trying quite hard to stop you asking the question – hoping you will buy the cheap option.

If you’re not the cheapest then you have to pay to climb the listings – to be “boosted” by paying to be higher up.

These techniques work when the item is cheap – a few dollars.

But when it comes to large items, a car for example, people are much more careful, but they’ll still go with impulse purchases.

Is this kind of thinking scientific?

From one point of view it’s a bunch of hypotheses that can be tested – you can try different things and see how people respond.

But it’s biggest application is when you’re buying stuff – we’re back to stuff again.

If you’re studying stuff or selling stuff then a scientific approach is very helpful.

As you get away from stuff and move into people’s minds, it gets harder – people can’t be broken down and studied like stuff.

Not their minds anyway – not what makes them them.

But obviously we have to try, which is where the arguments about method come into play.

What kind of methods should we use if we want to understand other people?

Let’s look at what the field of people has to say about this in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

How To Stop Being The Expert In The Room And Instead Be A Facilitator


Saturday, 6.32am

Sheffield, U.K.

I have a lot of empathy, and I think that’s where mothering starts. You are there to empathise and facilitate. – Viv Albertine

The world of experts is over – we just haven’t realised it yet.

Sometime in the last five hundred years people realised that knowledge was power and if you could bottle and control knowledge you could control others.

If you could make them believe that you were the expert and they were there to listen and follow what you said then you would effectively own them.

The problem is experts have a track record of making bad decisions.

Don’t treat people as things

There’s a great line in one of Terry Pratchett’s books that goes, “Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things.”

Just think about that in the context of a school, for instance.

Imagine you’re a teacher going into the traditional classroom many of us went to – the one where you stand in front of rows of students, and act as an expert, delivering information for the audience to quietly absorb.

Now, you may be the kind of teacher who knows the names of every student, knows about them and what they are good at and what they want to do with their lives.

Or you might be the kind that sweeps in, sees a sea of faces, delivers a message and sweeps out again.

Regardless of what kind you are the chances are that you have to think about students as statistics, as numbers, as things that have to meet certain standards.

If they don’t then you could get punished individually as a teacher or a school.

It’s clear to any observer that the education systems in most places have a problem – and well meaning people are trying to fix it – by treating everything they can see as a thing.

The buildings, the teachers, the students – they’re all things that can be measured and manipulated and moved.

Is it too harsh to say that has led to evil?

Perhaps – but you can hardly say that what’s happening to young people as they go through many education systems is good.

And “not good” is a step in the wrong direction.

What can we learn from teachers who are trying to do this better?

Help people learn the way they do best

In teaching there is a movement called “Flipping the Classroom”, which in essence is a shift from a lecture based environment where the teacher is an expert to a learning based environment where the teacher is a facilitator.

What’s the difference?

In a traditional classroom most of the time is spent delivering content – standing in front and lecturing to the students, with less time allocated for practice and discussion.

In a flipped classroom, less time is spent delivering content – and more time is spent on practice and discussion.

The details of how this is done can be found in other places – but I particularly like the material from Lodge McCammon about his approach to flipping the classroom.

We can also use this idea of flipping in our own professions.

Take consultancy, for example, a traditionally expert based profession.

Consultants get called in because they are the experts, or so they would like to think.

A consultancy sales pitch will often stress their expertise – try and get across their years of experience and superior knowledge of the subject matter.

This can mean they end up lecturing quite a lot during a pitch – spending most of the time talking about themselves.

How would you turn this pitch around.

You’d start by throwing out everything about yourself – the introduction and history and client list.

That will save you twenty minutes.

Get straight into the situation that you think the client is facing – and briefly describe what’s going on.

For example, let’s say your business is to help businesses sell better online, spend five minutes talking about what the key factors are that contribute to success when it comes to digital retail.

Then, open the conversation up – ask participants how easy or difficult each part of that is for them – let them tell you what is going on in their business.

With that simple step you’re moving from lecturer mode to facilitator mode.

What you’ll find is that people learn by talking things through – resaying things in their own words.

In any pitch you know you’ve gotten the message across when the participants stop talking to you and start discussing the idea themselves – putting it into the language of their business and using their terminology.

That’s when they really get it – really understand what you do.

The better you get at facilitating the conversation the better you will be at selling yourself.

Knowledge is worth nothing and everything

You can’t really charge for your expertise any more.

That’s because there are fundamental problems with the entire supply and demand economics of the knowledge business.

First of all, the supply of knowledge is endless – when you sell what you know you still have it.

Secondly, any one who doesn’t know what you have to tell them can’t tell whether it’s worth anything.

It’s like a book – you can’t tell if it’s any good until you’ve read it.

If you want to be paid for your expertise, then you will find that it gets harder in a world where you are not already the recognised expert.

And the experts get there by putting out lots of material for free – they show you everything before they ask you to buy anything from them.

It’s a strange thing, knowledge.

Its value comes not from giving it away but by helping others get it.

And when you move your way of thinking from seeing people as things to people as people it changes the way you help them get knowledge.

For example, the traditional language of marketing – funnels, prospects, hooks, leads – should make you very uncomfortable.

This kind of language dehumanizes people, it treats them as things, as objects that flow through your marketing system.

And this results in a huge amount of effort being put into manipulating people – and it’s done at every level – most obviously with the media and politics, as you can see if you simply read the news.

But that’s a different problem.

Here’s the takeaway.

When you help people learn, you’ll get paid in turn.


Karthik Suresh