Do People Really Get How Computers Can Be Useful To Them?


Wednesday, 8.44pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Most of the time spent wrestling with technologies that don’t quite work yet is just not worth the effort for end users, however much fun it is for nerds like us. – Douglas Adams

I have spent a lot of time playing with computers – mostly because time has just passed without really taking any notice of my opinion on the matter.

Throughout that time the terminal has been my friend – the command line and plain text – have been all I have needed for my own purposes.

To work with others, however, I’ve had to slow down, to use graphical user interfaces and do things more than once – which if you have spent any time programming is not the kind of thing we like to do.

We’d rather spend three hours coding something that will do something you could do in five minutes manually.

My thoughts on this were sparked by a Twitter comment by Paul Graham, the founder of YCombinator, on the lines of tech people don’t really use that much tech – we only use what’s needed for the problem we’re working on.

And I think that’s true – we have more computational power for the jobs we have to do most of the time.

Problems that really need some heavy duty computational hardware are probably not ones being addressed by the average individual or business.

The problem is that most of those individuals or businesses don’t really get the real power of a computer.

A lot of people use applications that help them do the things they would do using paper pretty much the same way using an application.

And I guess that makes sense – I wrote a few days ago about how tech companies build tools to let people do things the way they do them now – and why should that be different for individuals?

Why wouldn’t you design software that helped people take notes the way they would on paper, or let the write in the way they would longhand?

The point I’m reaching for is that technology builders build things that people can see themselves using – and as a result they don’t really get that much more productive.

And, in real life, they don’t get much faster but they’re also restricted by all kinds of security policies and technology shackles that they end up worse off than before.

There are lots of people out there who have spent much of today in critical roles – jobs that involve protecting and saving lives – trying to make their technology work rather than doing their job.

But one problem is that for many people it’s not worth their time trying to get better at understanding and using the technology – and they’re comfortable doing it the long, hard way.

Now, I don’t know what makes someone go one way or the other – I suppose it has something to do with temperament.

Today, for example, a small person wanted to use a computer.

If you give one of them a regular machine, with a browser and everything else – they’re onto some kind of website with games in a second.

So I fired up one and logged into a terminal.

And the small person was fine, pressing keys and making letters scroll around – and along the way he invented a game – hiding a word inside that random bunch of letters.

It took a while but he did it.

So, the next time round, I got him to write a program – one that generated random strings of a certain length for a certain number of lines – and then replaced a set of characters with the words he wanted to hide.

And I watched his eyes.

They didn’t really tell me anything – he went through the task and then wanted to do something else.

Which was fine.

The thing I was wondering, however, was whether he “got it” – whether he could do something in a few minutes that had previously taken ten or fifteen – whether he could do it again and again in seconds – now that he had created a program that did what he was doing manually.

Because that’s the real power of a computer – not in helping you do the things you can do but in doing things that you can’t.

But I’m not sure people really get that yet.


Karthik Suresh

How A Lifeline Can Help You Make Sense Of Where You Are


Tuesday, 9.12pm

Sheffield, U.K

Any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with. – Douglas Adams

I was watching a video on YouTube of a visual facilitator and one of the exercises he started people off on was drawing their career history in a single line – something I’m going to call a lifeline.

It’s an interesting way to look at the ups and downs of what one has gone through.

When I look back at my experience it’s not really that exciting.

If I look back over the years, there are ups and downs.

I was lucky to have a background with lots of books – and I liked reading, which made it easier to learn things.

I didn’t know what I really wanted to do so I did what was expected of me.

Not enough though, because I didn’t get into certain majors but I studied how to study – and got the marks I needed.

That didn’t help all that much because I couldn’t find a job and started a PhD – which was pretty boring.

But I learned some things that were interesting along the way – mostly around driving computers and that was useful when it came to business problems involving data.

But then I had to learn how to manage people and that was much less fun than playing with code – and so I went back to uni and the books and learned some more about organisations.

And these days I write and draw and keep trying to learn – which is where you find me writing these words now.

Like I said – nothing very interesting.

But at the same time, it hasn’t been boring – not to me anyway.

Because there is so much out there now – so much to read and consider and learn – available in forms and ways that make it easy for you and me to follow whatever tendrils of thought happen to interest us.

And there’s an echo of this in Donald Knuth’s book Digital typography where he writes about why it’s important to find something of interest in what you are doing – and how it’s no one else’s responsibility but your own to do that.

Now, I also think there are a couple of interesting things about lifelines.

I suppose it would be nice to build from where you are rather than going downhill.

Some people seem to be able to skip the long plod, rocketing up to something they call success.

And somewhere along the way do you reach a point where you have enough, where you happy?

Or were you happy all the time?

Or were you waiting for things to happen to make you happy.

And, of course, people’s lifelines are ideally more complex – you’ve hopefully had relationships and families and all the things that matter.

And every once in a while it rains.

If you’re in a dip when that’s happening – I suppose it’s all the more reason to feel down.

When I look at this lifeline chart I think it tells you quite a lot about where you are right now.

Imagine it was a chart of a company’s stock price.

If you have a business with a decent product that people want you will probably grow over time, experiencing ups and downs along the way.

If you are a high growth business, fuelled by hope, then you might rise into the air, hoping that gravity doesn’t notice what you’re trying to do.

Or you might be in the wrong industry or get your timing wrong or make some bad decisions – and find your chart dipping down and to the right.

In the first and last case, time will tell what happens next.

In the middle case, however, which is probably the vast majority of us, the thing to remember is that dips are normal – even steep dips.

But if we’ve built what we have over time – then that lifeline should eventually start trending back up.

We just need to keep faith.


Karthik Suresh

What To Do To Jumpstart Being Creative Right Now


Monday, 6:00 pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use – do the work you want to see done. – Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative

If you are in a difficult place right now then it may be time to start being creative.

But how do you go about doing that – surely only some people are creative and the rest aren’t?

That isn’t the case, according to Edward de Bono – as I dug out his book Serious creativity to remind myself how this works.

I’m not always sure what to make of De Bono’s writings – apparently he’s very clever and he seems to think so.

Lots of people copy his ideas, he says, and he came up with lots of stuff before science caught up.

So, I don’t know – but I watched a video of him talking and drawing once – and well – you might as well listen to his stuff and judge for yourself.

He says that you can deliberately be creative – you don’t need to sit around and wait for inspiration.

What you’ve got to do is get your mind out of the grooves it’s currently rolling along – look at things in a new way.

There are three main approaches he suggests: challenge, alternatives and provocation, along with tools that help you with them.

You’ve probably heard of a few of them – six thinking hats, for example.

But right now I want to look at the top level criteria and see where that takes me.

Take challenge, for starters.

This comes down to looking at everything that is the way it is now – and asking why it is so.

Why do you do things a certain way – why is that process followed – why do you create this document?

In many jobs in many organisations you do not have permission to question what is happening – to question the status quo.

If you do you will probably get told off.

That’s the way we do things around here and all that.

But, you have to give yourself permission to question, to be a pain in the proverbial – if you want to do something different anyway.

Then you have the idea of alternatives.

What else could you do? How else could you get there? What other options are there for the thing you want?

At one time you had to rely on yourself for all this thinking.

These days you have the Internet on your side.

For example, I once wanted to get a microphone holder – but was too cheap to pay.

It turns out that if you bend a coat hanger in the right way you get a very effective, zero cost microphone holder.

And finally you have the idea of provocation – starting with the opposite approach or a confrontational option.

Right now a provocation many are using is “I run my business from home”.

Such a provocation will often result in many thoughts about why it’s not possible – and you have to work through them to get to the new ideas that are possible.

Our way of life as we knew it is being put on pause.

It is time to get creative.


Karthik Suresh

What Creating A Game Can Tell Us About Creating Value


Sunday, 9.10pm

Sheffield, U.K.

We do not stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing! – Benjamin Franklin

Somewhere along the way I stopped playing games – they were things I engaged in when other people wanted to – not something I thought of doing myself.

Or is that not really true?

I played games when I had time – before small people came into the house.

And small people love games but you can’t really always figure out what game they’re playing.

I spent an hour yesterday playing a game that was a graft of a video game interface onto a set of plastic toys – really being there as a presence that the small person involved was going to beat.

Today, I was pulled into yet another home made game – and I have to confess I was not looking forward to it.

But that’s not the kind of thing you say to eager young things that are desperate to spend time with you.

So, I decided I might as well pay attention and take notes – start writing a match report of this game I was going to play.

And something interesting happened.

As I took notes and started paying attention to what the small people were saying, I started to see what they were on about.

They had put in a huge amount of time into what they had created – they knew everything about their characters and setting.

This wasn’t some hastily put together rubbish – but a product of deep knowledge about a topic that I, as a grown-up, was completely ignorant about.

And, as I wrote, I started to get into it – to discuss finer points and debate the rules and structure.

By the end of the day, after five rounds and a special extra round, we had a game that we could sit and play for half an hour – and it was actually really quite interesting.

At which point the other half was drafted in to play.

At this point, I was fully into it – reading off the rules like an expert – while my other half listened politely and pretended to be interested – probably much like I was at the start of the day.

Now, the game itself doesn’t matter – mainly because we still have some work to do to get everything set up – it’s a project to do with the kids – one that I am quite keen to carry on with.

But it did get me thinking about what a game is – what makes it fun – and I am not sure there are very many good analyses out there.

There’s a hint in this paper about factors that matter and a sort of analysis here which leaves me a little cold.

So, here are the factors that seemed to make our game work.

First the basics.

You have to have assets, points, things you collect, powers you have.

These are the things you play with.

You have to have rules that govern how you play – constraints on what you can and cannot do.

And you eventually have to be able to get to a point where you win, lose or draw.

Then the bits from the first paper.

Playing the game has to engage your imagination – get you to create a fantasy world that you like to visit.

And it has to have elements of surprise – if you can predict everything then it’s no longer a game – unpredictability has to be a core part of the game.

And it has to have a flow, a rhythm.

Now, when you set out the components of a game like this, without an example, it becomes really quite dry.

But, you can probably imagine a game you like and see if it has these qualities.

Because I don’t think the point I have to make has anything to do with games at all.

It has to do with assumptions and routine and what is normal.

We live in a world where our concepts of ourselves, what we do, how we live, what we contribute, are probably being questioned – and we’re wondering what it’s going to do to us.

If you know the game you’re playing, if you’re comfortable where you are – if you’ve grown old and stopped playing – this is the time to start afresh.

You may not want to do so – you may be reluctant, resistant, hoping to do what you have always done.

But when you’re faced with change the knowledge you need is not inside you.

If it were, you would have changed.

The knowledge you need is with others – as it was with the small people who invited me to play.

I should have been grateful, happy to join – but I wasn’t.

I’m glad I made myself, though, I’m glad I took the time to listen and take notes – because I learned what mattered to them.

And when I learned that, I also learned how I could contribute – how I could add value.

Value that mattered to them.

If you want to stay relevant – this is the only thing you need to remember.

Add value to someone else.

Not work – don’t think of what you do as work.

There are two kinds of things you do that could be called work.

One of these is what Professor John Seddon called “Failure demand”.

Failure demand is the work you do because something has gone wrong somewhere else.

It’s the bug fixing, the query chasing, the cleaning and sorting – the sort of stuff that says something is going wrong somewhere upstream and causing this problem here.

Value demand, on the other hand, is the stuff your customers want and need.

If you can provide that, then you will create a customer.

And isn’t that the point of you being in business?


Karthik Suresh

Do You Think Covid 19 Will Change The Way We Live?


Saturday, 8.31pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Long-term commitment to new learning and new philosophy is required of any management that seeks transformation. The timid and the fainthearted, and people that expect quick results, are doomed to disappointment. – W. Edwards Deming

This is a fascinating time to watch what is happening with businesses as they respond to the impact of the Covid 19 virus.

We’re in a position where we can see what people think, how they’re affected, what they’re feeling and doing because they tell us on social media.

Now, we have to remember that there is real suffering, real tragedy – and people trying very hard to keep the world’s population safe so that more people don’t die.

And while it’s tempting to try and point fingers, to blame individuals and their behaviour for the reason we are where we are, what we need to always remember is that’s the most basic error we usually make.

We blame people for how things work out rather than the system – their situation.

We are where we are because of the system – the systems involved.

The systems of global transportation, of holidays, of long supply chains, of office work, of entertainment – the myriad other systems of modern life.

All these systems create the conditions that enable the spread of this virus – and it’s not surprising that the way governments have chosen to contain it is by stopping those systems from functioning at all.

Which leads to the obvious question.

What stops this from happening again when those systems are restarted?

Now, we’re not going to solve all those global systemic questions in one go, but an interesting and topical one to look at is the way in which we work.

For the vast majority of people who do non-critical jobs there is now a way you used to work.

You might have commuted to an office and spent the day in front of a computer.

You might have had meetings with a manager, with co-workers, with suppliers and clients.

You might have socialised, gone out for drinks, gone to networking events.

What’s happening now, it seems from the number of pictures that are being put up of brand new home working spaces, is that the office has come home.

People are jumping onto team calls, having chats with managers, setting up social mixers online.

Nothing has changed except for the physical distance between people.

As someone online said, it’s social distancing, but not distancing yourself from society.

In effect, there’s a thin layer of remote working technology that enables you to carry on working exactly as you’re doing now.

So that’s good for people who like how it is now.

It’s good for managers who like having the ability to check up on people – perhaps to the extent of having a tool that takes screenshots of their screen every so often to make sure they’re still working.

It’s quick and easy and people are finding that this whole remote working thing is quite easy after all.

They just thought it was hard – and it turns out there is no difference at all.

And that shouldn’t surprise you.

It’s easy because the large tech firms have spent the last several years trying to create tools that let you do the same thing you’re doing in the office using their technology.

If you weren’t doing it that didn’t mean the tech didn’t exist – it just meant you weren’t aware that it did.

And now you are – subscriptions for these tools are skyrocketing and demand has increased.

They built something that would work for you now – and unsurprisingly, it does.

The tragedy is that it does.

Because we’re going to miss out on the real potential that this crisis offers us – a way to change the way we’re doing things entirely.

In reality, we could be arranging work so that it works to fit the unique circumstances of each individual.

We could create working practices that enable more diversity – that use the same kind of remote working technology but that make it easier for disabled people to participate in work, for disadvantaged groups to access opportunities.

And, for your own workforce, you could create working practices that work for them – rather than for the most vocal or for the dominant managers.

But that’s not going to happen unless you change the system – and that’s the responsibility of management.

Will management respond in a way that looks to improve the system?

Or will they look for the quickest way to carry on doing things the way they’re working now.

The answer shouldn’t surprise you – because the other option requires the willingness to learn and study and try and few people have the time to do that.

So, in the short term, the forced stoppages of systems will clear the air, remove pollution, heal the planet.

And then it will go back to normal.

Won’t it?

The fact is that without changing the system the underlying mechanism will remain the same and produce results that are the same as before.

If we want to create better, more fulfilling lives for people – we have to work on improving the systems they live in.

If we want a cleaner planet, one where we pollute and emit less and where we consume fewer resources, we have to work on the systems.

This virus is not going to change our world.

It may interrupt how we live for a while.

But if it’s short-lived, we will probably go back to normal quickly.

If it lasts for a longer time then we may start rethinking how we do things.

But the change will still have to come from us.


Karthik Suresh

How A Crisis Reboots Our Entire Way Of Thinking – With Stories


Friday, 9.32pm

Sheffield, U.K.

People like to think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around. Stories exist independently of their players. If you know that, the knowledge is power. – Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad

You have probably all noticed the scramble for attention online – the rapid repositioning of resources as companies deal with their inability to be in the same space at the same time as others.

Organisations that specialised in face to face services now have to change their models overnight to distance communications and no-contact delivery.

And they’re doing it amazingly well.

Close to us is a sustainable food business that used to be based on group catering that has transitioned to offering delivered meals – a full week’s menu.

Organisations that did conferences have moved to webinars.

Meet ups that required you to go down to a space now have a call in.

So, we’re rapidly reconfiguring the way in which we network with others.

On the one hand this has the effect of a tidal wave swamping our existing communications.

On top of the regular stuff we get there is a lot of additional material as the newly digital promoters tell us what they’re offering.

And maybe things will subside – after all most of these organisations have customers and lists they have built over decades and they are talking to the people who already care about what they offer.

It’s just that the story they’re telling about what’s going on has changed.

Or has it?

Terry Pratchett’s book Witches abroad has the penetrating vision of his other books – as an impossible land filled with impossible characters that play out their impossible lives – while revealing fundamental truths about how we live ours.

We’re surrounded by people, things, events and institutions.

We don’t often question these – wonder how they came into existence.

Most of them seem like they’ve always been there – and they have been – for our lifetimes anyway.

Things like democracy, a parliament, libraries and the NHS.

But what created them in the first place?

What’s there, binding everything together, like an invisible ribbon coiling around the world we think we live in, is a story – many stories.

The stories that have created the way we think now.

What happens in a crisis is that some stories start to fray and rip and others take their place.

We replace stories about how important it is for managers to see what their workers are doing with stories about better remote working and mental health.

We dig out forgotten stories about community and helping others which we didn’t need when we all had cars and supermarkets and could get everything we needed without speaking to a single person.

When you think about it this is something we’ve always known.

Stories are like a programming language for our brains.

We use them to program our children – with language, with ideas, with thoughts, with ways of being, with kindness.

And when we’re older we still crave those stories – although we think that we’re too old for them now.

For a few decades now I’ve read mostly non-fiction – and over the last couple of years I’ve started to realise just how thin and translucent and fragile most non-fiction is.

Fiction, on the other hand, is deceptive – while it seems like a child’s pastime, like something you read on holiday at the beach – it captures the human experience far more completely than any dry analysis of the situation.

With Pratchett, who I rediscovered recently, I started with the book on the left and started moving right.

And then they closed the libraries…


The point I think I’m trying to make is that life is complex and wonderful and deep – but while we’re experiencing it it’s too hard to understand what’s going on.

A fish, for example, probably doesn’t have a word for water – even though it spends its life in the stuff.

A story, on the other hand, picks out a few essential lines from that complex life picture and shows us more with those few lines than we could ever see by living the whole.

And that’s how it shapes how we think.

And that’s why stories have power.

Use them wisely.


Karthik Suresh

Why The Scientific Method Is Of No Help When It Comes To Understanding People


Thursday, 9.25pm

Sheffield, U.K.

CEOs can talk and blab each day about culture, but the employees all know who the jerks are. They could name the jerks for you. – Jack Welch

I thought I would take a quick look at Robert Pirsig’s book Lila: An inquiry into morals to refresh myself on what he wrote about organising information.

But I found myself following a trail of words that were really about something different – something that describes what I’m slowly understanding now – something that I just didn’t see when I last read it.

Perhaps it’s just that I’m seeing more of this thing around me now – and so I’m more aware of just how important it is to us.

What is this thing?


Now, I’m not going to try and define culture – but many people have.

And when they do, it starts to become complicated – you get long sentences filled with jargon as people try and pin down exactly what they think “culture” means.

In a nutshell Pirsig argues that people trained in the scientific method – logical positivists – say that you should only look at facts.

Facts are things you can see, observe, document.

So you can write down things about the culture you’re observing.

For example, in an office, you can document how people do their work, how different people approach tasks, how they spend their day.

An anthropologist would do this but what they wouldn’t do is generalise – say that the behaviour they’re seeing is because of certain values.

And that’s because “value” is another hard thing to define – and if you start saying anything about values – well you’re in the territory of various “isms” and you’re going to get in trouble.

For example, if you say your staff are lazy, or you talk about characteristics that are related to ethnicity or gender – you’re going to get hauled in front of HR or a tribunal pretty quickly.

From a scientific point of view, however, value is not something you can measure – you can’t objectively study it and so, for all practical purposes, it does not exist.

So, on the one hand, people who study culture for a living are too scared to say anything about it and people who live that culture don’t know enough to really talk about it sensibly.

Yet it exists.

Let’s ground this in the topical example of the Covid virus’ impact on the global economy.

You have read the stories – you’re cheered by the resilience of people, warmed by the generosity of many, buoyed by the support given to staff and suppliers by some organisations.

You’re annoyed by the stockpiling and selfishness of some, incensed by the laying off of workers by rich firms and shocked at the way some people have been forgotten.

What you’re seeing is the manifestation of cultures.

The problem happens when you try and name what’s going on.

Pirsig argues that you have subjects and objects – the things that are doing things and the things that are being done.

I’m probably off on the grammar, but if you put your hand on a hot stove, and you swear – one is a subject and the other is an object.

A voter marking the ballot paper is making their view felt on the politicians out there.

The difficulty arises, according to Pirsig, when we try and ascribe values to the subject or object.

When you try and say something like that person is a conservative or that viewpoint is conservative – both of which are value judgements.

This is easy to do – and it’s hard to see why it’s not the thing you should do.

Value actually lives between the subject and object – it’s the thing that you sense directly, the thing that you experience.

For example, when a manager shouts at you – what you experience is value – low value to be sure – but that’s the value.

The value doesn’t exist in the person shouting or in the feelings you have later – but it’s the thing you sense that comes from one and results in your feelings later.

And knowing this distinction matters because you have to experience what is going on before you can get a sense of the values at work, and therefore the culture at work.

Going back to our Covid example.

There are undoubtedly companies out there who talk about their values – set out a list of things that they believe in.

And they also, at this time of trouble, treat their employees like disposable commodities.

That experience – which you see documented all over social media – those are their real values.

Now, the other thing about these values is that they are as real as anything else out there – you’ll experience them all the time.

At this point you’re probably thinking – so what – what is the point of all this?

The point is this.

When you’re trying to sell to someone, to help them change, to make a difference – you won’t get anywhere if you try and put them in a basket conveniently labelled in some way that makes sense to you.

Using segmentation and personas and all that stuff is a way of trying to bottle culture and value.

You may be lucky and there may be an overlap between what you describe and the person you talk to.

But really, you’re better off trying to really understand them – by listening and watching and experiencing their values directly.

When you do that you’ll quickly realise which ones you want to work with and can help and which ones you should walk away from very quickly.

The better you get at sensing value – the better you will get at understanding the culture you’re working with.

And the better you will get at doing better business.

And there’s nothing scientific about this – it’s just getting better at being human.


Karthik Suresh

Will We Go Back From This Rapidly Reshaping Society?


Wednesday, 9.00pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Society is always taken by surprise at any new example of common sense. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is a lot of stuff happening in the world right now – people are scared and fearful and worried about what’s going to happen to them, their families, their livelihoods.

And they’re talking about this – about the impact it’s having on them – millions of voices having their say.

And it feels like other people are listening.

When you think about the hard choices that governments are making – you get a sense that the response, in fairness, is on the right track – that there is method behind what is going on.

What people do for work seems to be recognised in terms how it can be done – rather than how a manager wants to do it.

Some services are ones that need people to be in certain places at certain times – healthcare, retail logistics, bin collections – and so we need to organise society to make sure they can get to work if they can.

Other work can be done from anywhere – and it makes no difference to these people whether they work at home or not.

In fact, all things considered, they might prefer to work from home but suffer through a commute because their boss comes from a generation that believes that work happens in the office.

And then you have work that’s affected by the policies that have been put in place to contain the spread of the virus – the entertainment industry, travel, hospitality, child care, construction – where work simply cannot be done.

Now, what’s going to happen is this.

People who need to be somewhere will be helped to get there.

People who can work from home will start doing so.

People who are in difficulty because of what is happening will be helped.

And, in several months, things will be back to normal.

And during that time, the damage will be covered by the state.


Now, when we go back to normal – will we return to a world where a virus can stop everything functioning around the world in a matter of months?

Or will the new ways of working we put in place – ways of working that, one assumes, are more resilient in the event of this kind of threat – stay in place?

Will we see a wholesale shift from office based work to home based work?

Will that result in demand for different kinds of spaces?

Will the main reason we go out become because we want to socialise – and will the entertainment industry get a boost from that, while office space takes a hit?

There are lots of people who believe that working from home is the wrong thing to do – that people need the social and control structure of the office.

This assumption is about to be severely tested over the coming months.

The SAAS world will see a surge in interest in off-premise solutions.

Commutes, for those who have to, will become easier as the roads empty of non-essential traffic.

Carbon should go down.

This is a difficult situation for many – there is no doubt about that.

Some people will see this as judgement day, as doomsday, as something that is punishment for the way we live.

Others will be more optimistic – believing that society is better placed to weather this storm than we have ever been in the past.

I am in the optimistic camp.

And I would hope that once we go through this hard reset on our nineteenth century attitude to work – we make the choice not to go back.

Because the new way is better for us as individuals, as a society and for the planet.


Karthik Suresh

Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid Of A Post-Industrial Future


Tuesday, 7.42pm

Sheffield, U.K.

We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately. – Benjamin Franklin

Day 1 of self-isolation and it’s a window into a new world – is it one that we will embrace or is this the end of civilisation as we know it?

Times like this bring out the basic instincts in us.

We respond with fear and greed – and much of what you see on social media falls into these two buckets.

People are afraid, for their jobs, their industries, their future.

Others are looking for opportunities, pushing their services, angling for position working out new scams and profiteering.

So far, so natural.

And then you have behavioural responses – social, cultural ones.

These are empathetic acts – where you reach out to those who are afraid and reassure them.

Or more practically you organise into local support groups, helping those affected by restrictions on movement or those that are more vulnerable.

People rail against the selfishness of others – but also marvel at the unselfishness and community spirit of even more.

And then you have the responses of governments – and that’s a different kind of approach depending where you are and the kind of economics they believe in.

We’re seeing at least three kinds of responses then – instinctive, cultural and economic.

What should we make of all this?

The instinctive response is the one that has worked for many millions of years – find a safe place, keep a stockpile of stuff you need – depend on yourself and try to survive.

This is the world of the doomsday cults – the ones who believe that the world is going to end and that this is divine retribution.

Or, in a less extreme fashion, they’re conservative.

The kind of people who live within their income, have a decent savings pot and know they can ride out three to six months without an income.

But they’re probably in the minority, in developed economies anyway, because of the link between consumerism and economic growth.

Developed economies depend on people going out and spending money, keeping money circulating.

That stop in money circulation is devastating for individuals and industries.

It’s a connected web and while we all have a place to stand, things are ok – we keep bustling along and living our lives.

But what the people in charge know is that all this is built on a web of confidence – on the belief that we can live this way.

The social reaction to people in trouble is to reach out and help.

But not all the time – most of the time we ignore what’s going on.

The fact is that lots of people fall off our social web all the time – some were never on there in the first place.

We respond with social action – we raise money to help, there are charities that do what they can and philanthropists who spend money to solve the biggest problems.

But when we have a crisis, like the one we have now, the biggest thing a government has to do is maintain confidence.

And the way they do that is by not allowing anyone to fall – by helping them through this difficult time.

And you can see that happening – with loans and payment holidays and help of various kinds.

Help, you should note, that is given now but will need to be paid back later.

That way it’s not a handout but help to put people back on their feet – so they can carry on participating in the confidence game we call a modern economy.

What’s going on right now is a forced social experiment in creating a post-industrial society.

This is one where we work at home, get everything delivered and only go to a place of work when we have to be there because it’s critical for operations.

But we’re probably going to realise that there are few of those situations.

Most factories, docks, warehouses and places where things happen can be managed with a small staff – only a few of whom have to be on the premises.

A lot of things run themselves these days – and what we’re seeing at the moment is a good reason to make more things that way.

If you live in a modern economy it is probably a scary time, especially if you aren’t in a situation where you can survive on your own resources for very long.

And the thing people should realise is that it isn’t their fault – these kinds of shocks are a characteristic of the system they live in.

And it’s the people who are in charge of the system who need to make sure that a short-term shock does not result in a long-term impact on the people living in that system.

There are many reasons why this needs to happen – but the simplest reason is that people have long memories.

If you fire your staff now or make them take pay cuts when times are bad now – then when times get better you’ll find that they’ll get even by leaving.

Look after them now and they will repay you with loyalty in the future.

This is counter-intuitive behaviour for our basic instinct.

That just wants to run and hide, cut away the costs, pare to the bone, hunker down in order to survive.

Which is a little last century, perhaps even Jurassic.

What we now need to do is make sure no one falls off the web – by helping now.

Well – governments – the owners of the system need to do that.

Because this crisis will last a short time and then there will be a long period of growth and recovery.

That’s how these things work.

And why should governments act this way?

Once again – because people have memories.

A government that fails to act to support the system it manages will not stay in government very long.

So, there are two things we should remember.

There will be – there has to be – a safety net for people who are in trouble.

But you also need to help yourself – the changing economy will create new opportunities – for new products and services delivered remotely or by post.

The online economy will accelerate along with all its support services – see this post for the list.

Here’s what it comes down to.

You aren’t going to be allowed to fall – governments can’t afford for you to fall.

Not these days, with everyone watching them – urging them to do the right thing.

If you fall, we all fall.

So stop being afraid.

Take a helping hand, if you need to – and start thinking about what you’re going to do next to participate in the economic and social web we’re all clinging to.

Because that’s what matters now.


Karthik Suresh

Why We Have To Learn How To Keep Learning


Monday, 7.59pm

Sheffield, U.K.

I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship. – Louisa May Alcott

There is a saying about learning which I think is used quite a lot by surgeons.

I think it goes something like “See one, do one, teach one.”

I think this approach works in lots of cases – where you’re learning what is effectively a craft skill.

A surgeon might not think of what they do in that way, but what they’re doing is training for specific eventualities – complex ones, carried out on a live person – but it has a lot to do with craft, with technique, nonetheless.

A surgeon who knows how to remove an appendix is not then qualified to carry out a knee replacement or brain surgery.

Then there are other situations which are less well defined – things that need to be improved in organisational and social situations, creative work where what is good and what is bad depends on who perceives it and how.

In these cases learning is different – and I was wondering how you might approach your own learning if you do that kind of work.

For example, let’s say you’re a management consultant and help companies improve aspects of their business.

One approach you might take is the one that is in every business textbook.

You start by having the company define its mission and vision and goals, and then you create a strategy, which is followed by detailed plans, which then requires a forecast of resources and time which you take to decision makers, and then a projects gets approved and then you do it as planned and it’s successful and comes in on time and on budget and everyone is happy.

You were probably with me until the point where it goes as planned and is successful.

If you’ve done many real world projects, that’s the point at which your memory of what happens next doesn’t quite match the rhetoric that came before.

You will see variants of this approach with almost every consultant you come across.

There seems to be a need by service providers to codify – to create a method that can be repeated and scaled – that you can put a name to and own.

But I think there is a problem.

Method works well when your task is to take out an appendix.

It works less well when you want to create art or improve the way a business works.

And I wondered how the learning approach I started this post with might cope with bubbles.

If you have kids you must have, at some point, had to get them to blow soap bubbles.

You probably showed them how to hold the wire loop and dip it into the soap solution and blow.

Your bubbles came out perfect and soared with the wind – and you were pleased.

You showed them how to do it.

Then, you let them try and they had a go.

Maybe they struggled and maybe they got it – and they made the bubbles fly.

Now, the thing is that no two bubbles are going to be the same.

This is not something where you come out with the same product – with bubbles that meet a specification for size, quality, reflectivity, translucence.

It’s all about process – about the experience of doing it.

For example, as I stood in the kitchen today making dinner, bubbles started to fill the room.

A small person had decided this was the right time to try out the process.

And I think with the type of uncertain, complex situations I’m talking about process is something that gets recreated and developed by each person that acts in the situation.

You might learn a method from a teacher or from a book – but then as you practice it and learn from the results you start to make the method your own.

There is a limited amount of discretion a surgeon has when working on your appendix.

It would probably not be a good idea to start the incision near your ear – however novel that might be.

With a complex problem, on the other hand, the entry point that was used the last time doesn’t have to be the same one you use this time.

It depends on what you’ve learned and the kind of situation you’re in now and how you apply that learning and how you then learn some more.

I think that if you’re doing creative work or improvement work then you should forget the idea that you’re a master of anything.

Being a master implies that you know all there is to know.

And you have nothing more to learn – you now only teach.

But what you teach is from another time, another place – and the world has a unsettling habit of moving on.

And the only way to keep up is to get good at learning when that happens.


Karthik Suresh