The Wicked Podcast

Simon Roberts: The Power of Not Thinking

May 25, 2021 [email protected] Episode 47
The Wicked Podcast
Simon Roberts: The Power of Not Thinking
Show Notes Transcript

We talk to Simon Roberts, who talks about getting better insights by using less logical data and more insights directly from reality and how this is easily done.

Author page: http://www.thepowerofnotthinking.com
Book on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1788703049/

The Wicked Podcast:
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Music:
'Inspired' by Kevin MacLeod
Song: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3918-inspired
License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Marcus Kirsch:

Welcome to the wicked podcast where we read the business books you don't have time for. I'm Marcus Kirsch.

Troy Norcross:

And I'm Troy Norcross.

Marcus Kirsch:

And we are your co hosts for the wicked podcast.

Troy Norcross:

Hey, Marcus, what's the word you use on our podcast? More than any other word, you use it on average five times per episode. Do you know?

Marcus Kirsch:

Is it

Troy Norcross:

It's lovely. It's lovely, lovely

Marcus Kirsch:

Lord. Yes,

Troy Norcross:

everything is lovely. My guess

Marcus Kirsch:

what it is lovely. Isn't that

Troy Norcross:

I know you are a lovely person.

Marcus Kirsch:

Oh,

Troy Norcross:

note, tell us who is a lovely guest today.

Marcus Kirsch:

Our lovely guest today. And his is Simon Roberts, which is lovely book called The power of not thinking. And why say my lovelies, why don't you tell me what the insights are.

Troy Norcross:

So you're working in the startup world. I do spend a lot of time dealing with startups. I work with enterprises as well, who always want to kind of, quote unquote, be more startup. And we were talking about, is it really the case that startups spend more time doing this kind of anthropology work? Getting out in the field, figuring out how people really are and listening with both mind and body to situations that improves their products? Or is it just that they're out there flailing around? And I pulled the old quote from many, many years ago, that even blind squirrels occasionally find acorns. And I think we kind of settled on that. But at the end of the day, whether you're a startup or whether you're an enterprise, get out there, get in the real world, figure out what's really happening. Don't sit in your ivory tower. And don't sit in your, your, your Hoxton coffee shop and decide what your product will and will not do. The other one we were talking about was sometimes organisations can apply some of their strategies have a better understanding their customers by looking how do they better understand their teams. And so that's a really interesting thing where you can do some good anthropology and some good ethnographic research as a leader, and go and sit and spend time with your team and really figure out what is going on with them what's going on in their daily lives. And those were my two takeaways, what about you?

Marcus Kirsch:

Yes, so great insights, I had a some of the question answers, or the conversation had reminded me of a workshop I did just before COVID in Saudi Arabia, where the cultural difference and realities in their lives was like, really humbling for me, because I had never been there. And I'm feeling very comfortable, different backgrounds. So I brought Lego around, which is helped me greatly there to communicate because everyone knows Lego. So that was brilliant.

Troy Norcross:

But also to have them snap on ones that could really feel it.

Marcus Kirsch:

It was no, it's not there with me means. But like,

Troy Norcross:

if you ask any parent, the most painful experience in the world is stepping on a piece of Lego with bare feet,

Marcus Kirsch:

or stepping on them. So snap on, you said yes. Stepping on four piece, right. Yeah. most painful experience more than a snake spider bite or something? Yeah. No, I don't do that with people a jungle workshop. Especially people? I don't know. No, but I used to dare to build scenarios, right. So the idea is to have their builds the build the realities of that in Lego form, which then quickly gets into a conversation Hang on a second, if this is there, people will not go there, they will not see this, they have to go there. And we have to move this or therefore this happened. So it's sort of a bit of reverse of what Simon's talking about when he said check with reality as we build our little realities. And that got the right information into the idea discussion, which is Hang on a second me on being I've been to an airport before with designing this for an airport. That doesn't work like an airport, because I would have been there, right? It brought that out. And he mentioned one of the, you know, service design, design thinking methodologies or tools we're using, it's called body storming. which essentially is your reenacting your idea. So you be an actor for a minute or two, and you play it through. And while you're playing through, you'll realise that certain things work and certain things don't. And you start to think about it quite in detail. what that actually means is the idea you just come up with, and that often leads to really good discussions and de risking and understanding that hang on a second. That's not going to survive in reality because it doesn't exist in reality, or people wouldn't do that, right. So body storming Nice, someone brought it up again. I love that.

Troy Norcross:

Well, the other thing, and I don't want to give away too much, but we do talk about open knives, and muggings episode. And those are scary things. But well, we want to talk about our lovely things. So what would be really lovely right now Marcus is if we did what?

Marcus Kirsch:

We go to the interview before we take the knives out. Hello, everyone Today we have Simon Roberts with us. Hello, Simon. And thank you for being with us. Hello, and thank you for having me. So, we start as usually at the top, which is can you please tell our listeners who you are and why you wrote the book.

Simon Roberts:

I am Simon Roberts. I'm calling myself a business anthropologist, which means I've applied my PhD in anthropology to working with companies who are trying to figure out difficult or as you might say, wicked problems relating to product or business strategy. And and I wrote the book The power of not thinking, because I was intrigued by how organisations tended to view that thinking about the world and how to understand it. And I was irritated, shall we say that they had seemingly foregrounded a particular way of knowing to the expense of what I believe is a is a very good complimentary, if not necessarily, substitute way of understanding the world. So the book was an attempt to make a case for, for that different way of understanding the world.

Troy Norcross:

So before we even kick off on this, I worked for digital cell bi for a short period of time, and it was the first time that I'd really come across the word anthropologists in a modern sense. And so I'm gonna assume that I'm not the only one that is lacking an understanding of the word anthropologist, in a 21st century sort of context. Can you describe that for us and for the listeners?

Simon Roberts:

Yeah. I mean, anthropology, you know, the ofs offshoot of the colonial enterprise. So, you know, initially designed to, to help, primarily the Brits, but other colonial powers understand, quote, unquote, the natives. And it's an approach which is essentially premised on the idea that if you want to understand people, you need to go to where they are. So you don't hike them into focus group facilities, in the, in the modern context, you go to where they are, and you try to understand them on their terms to understand their kind of cosmologies you know, how they make sense of the world around them, how they create meaning, and culture, and what their physical and other material kind of artefacts mean to them. And so, it's often seen as a new enterprise, within the world of business, the first business anthropology actually happened in the late 1920s. And it's been going on, more or less ever since. But over the last 20 years, for certain it has grown significantly, in popularity. And most of the big kind of tech companies and many other companies, besides now have people, either trained anthropologists, or people who do one thing that anthropologists do, which is ethnography, which is this form of fieldwork of emotion observation on their staff. So it's, there's nothing new under the sun. And anthropology is, is quite old. And it's quite old in business, too.

Marcus Kirsch:

Yeah. And it's lovely, because there's a lot of, there's a couple of things you mentioned, as well, in the book that go back to my own background, which is part of Art and Design. So I had to do a male road college and we worked a lot with ideas, methodology, and, you know, field excursion and understanding people now behaviour. Yeah. So for designers, it's quite, I think there's a lot to relate with, in this particular book, that you probably already know, and for others, are things good to learn to that that side of things is going to product design on our services. I'm going into the UK quite relevant. So um, one of the terms you're using to describe in the book is term of this embodied knowledge. Can you elaborate a little bit on what is embodied? Knowledge is?

Simon Roberts:

Yeah, certainly. I mean, I suppose all books need, you know, need an argument. And if you have an argument, you need somebody to push against, right. And what I'm pushing against in the book is, is a form of knowledge, which I characterise as this embodied, and I'm doing that to make the case for kind of getting more embodied knowledge of the world. So this embodied knowledge is something there's a lot of about, right? It's it's kind of facts and figures and its data. And it's in a sense that it comes from a particular way of of kind of trying to to understand certain present a model to build frameworks about the world which are, if you will, based from based on analysis based on data collection, at one remove. So, you know, you, you kind of you do surveys, you build, you build datasets from that you analyse it, and then you create this kind of this disembodied model of the world, you know, big data is, in a sense, another form of disembodied knowledge of the world. And so the book is really an attempt to say, Well, yes, great that that stuff is all useful for driving businesses and making decisions and building products. But it has a series of disadvantages, and not least, the primary disadvantage it has for any large kind of modern organisation is it does a really good job of insulating people that are building those products are making those decisions from understanding what the world is really like. Right? So you start to view the world through your models, and through your frameworks, and not through the lived experience of the people you're seeking to serve.

Troy Norcross:

And I think you almost went a step ahead of what we were what we were thinking, we're going to kind of lead the conversation, which is great, because things got to jump all over the place. But the beginning part of your book, is really focused on helping individuals understand how much knowledge they have that's outside of the brain or outside of the mind. And so I was like, that's interesting. And yeah, I can, I can see that, you know, the, the gut feeling and how the gut feeling actually kind of, you know, comes into play. And I like some of the explanations that you use. But I said, I wonder if the human beings in teams and organisations are indeed the body of the brain, that is the organisation, the institutional knowledge, the institutional learning, the frameworks that you're talking about. And if the brain listened more to the people, maybe the organisation would function differently? How does that hit you?

Simon Roberts:

Yeah, I think that's right. I mean, look, I think part of part of what I was trying to argue, I think, is that, you know, it's part of the, the Enlightenment, if you will, that the idea of, of kind of scientific progress is, you know, all springs from this idea of kind of mind versus body, you know, if we kind of get to get the distance, you know, we can look at the world, you know, in kind of in isolation from ourselves being in it, right, and therefore, we get some truer picture of it. And, and that's sort of, okay, but it's any, okay, up to a point. And I think when you sort of, you supersize that to the level of an organisation, and it builds these knowledge acquisition, kind of infrastructures, it builds repositories of data, you know, insights, catalogues, whatever it happens to be, what those serve to do at the end of the day, is, is is deny, deny the very important role that individuals themselves have in trying to understand what matters to people and how things make sense. So I think, you know, in a way I talk about the, you know, the infrastructure of modern businesses being almost modern organisations being seen as kind of huge computers, right, you know, the act rationally that run a series of processes, kind of, if then type processes, and come up with idea, you know, solutions or strategies or products or, or business models. But there's, there's a different step. And there's, there's a step in there, which helps build empathy and understanding, which is a very different nature comes from a very different place, a model of the world doesn't give us empathy for the world. It gives us a model of the world. But you know, the map is not the territory, right? You know, our maps of Northern survey map is great. It tells us where the rivers are, and where the hills are, but it doesn't really give us a feel for the landscape we're around and the smells and the sights and the sounds. So yeah, that's what I'm arguing for a little bit more groundedness.

Marcus Kirsch:

Yeah, and I think, when you say grown in us, again, are going to fall back into my designer hat on premises, and I had one. I remember in quite many projects and work across lots of different different industries. The simplest thing for me to get across was often just to drag people outside of the office and just put them into either the shop they were working for, or amongst the people. I just watched them to start with, you know, just you want to know how it feels. Go there. Interestingly, you know, and some of the better podcasts, maybe better than ours, maybe not, you know, some of the better CEOs seem to be doing that and they seem to perform really well because they know that people To actually know the problems that don't go, as you said, it's more if it's modelled after the machine and the machine, famously ones on ones and zeros, then we end up a lot of black and white things. Not necessarily that computers can only do one when they were so display, but the data seems to be following. So you know, it follows the tool, right? So what do you then say to organisations, how to, to start from that? Bring those things, and you have some examples? I think, in the book of organisations where there is a bit more done or some historical examples, can you can you elaborate on some of those, please?

Simon Roberts:

Yeah, I mean, you know, 2020 odd years ago, when I finished my PhD, and started to try to sort of sell the idea of this anthropological or ethnographic approach in the UK, I ran up against a lot of a lot of scepticism, a lot of cynicism, and a lot of, well, you know, we've got our focus groups, thanks very much. So we're just fine. And, and you don't see that same hesitancy anymore. And, but I think there is there is still a sort of a latent concern, for many organisations, that this type of knowledge is is either kind of too personal, or it's too emotional, it's to kind of based in the realm of feelings rather than facts. But I wanted to make the case for it being an amazingly accessible form of knowledge that isn't, that doesn't require much equipment, you know, it does require time, you know, in the book catalogues a range of ways in which, in which you can kind of make use of it, I mean, you could talk about the world of design, and I talk in a case study with a team from, from the Motorola organisation who, who went to build, wanted to build a phone for the developing world. And it had a series of features in it, which they thought, based from the comfort of California would work brilliantly in the favelas of Brazil, right. And, and they had some man trial it down in might have many people trial it down in Brazil, and I'm one of them came back and said, Well, this, this feature doesn't work. And they were like, yeah, of course, it works. Like you just do this. And he's like, No, no, it doesn't work. And he got really frustrated with these California designers telling him that something worked, when he said it would, it just doesn't, it won't work, it's a feature to allow me to indicate that somebody mugging me and it's going to call the emergency services. So we actually disappeared to the kitchen and got a large kitchen knives, and then grab the product manager by you know, around the neck and said, right, I'm mugging you now, you show me how you can use this bone to mergency service visceral, visceral. And so what that allow the product manager, you know, Product Manager to figure out was, okay, he's got a point, like, not only his he made that point, but I know now, the, the, you know, the reality of that point, the truth of that point that he's making to me, and they changed the feature. So, you know, in many ways, that was a exercise it, you know, that wasn't necessarily designed to adopt this more visceral embodied approach. But I think it's a powerful example of what happens when that does happen.

Troy Norcross:

I worked on a project in India, it was a joint venture between Nokia and a very large software company. And it was a small business service that was being pre loaded on to Nokia phones. And part of the study was to put the phone box in the shops, have the salesperson sell the phone service to the small business owner, let the small business owner give their money away. And only when they got to the door, stop them and say it's an empty box. Because at that point, they had actually proven the truth about whether or not somebody was really willing to buy that product. Only once it actually surrendered the money and they were headed to the door happy with their purchase. I thought that was a really great way to really authentically test, you know, our product. That's bad faith, coming back to a different question. So we talk a lot about experimentation. And you mentioned experimentation very briefly there. Also a lot we talk about fear of failure, you know, and the embodied sense of failure, the embodied sense of fear that keeps people from making these decisions that keeps people from making these decisions. Does anybody do anthropology in an organisation or on an organisation to look at what's really happening? With their actual teams, so they can figure out how to physician heal thyself before they even start figuring out what their customers want?

Simon Roberts:

That's a very good question. I, I mean, in many ways, you know, so the way that we at stripe partners have gone about, if you will, packaging up or productizing It's a horrible way of putting it, you know, this idea about embodied knowledge is to take teams out into the world. And clearly it works better in a, in a post COVID world and pre COVID world and a mid COVID world. But, you know, we would take a team away for a week. Right? And, and part of that is about giving them that fullest exposure possible to the world that they're designing for. And perhaps what it's doing, you know, is, I think three things. So one is, it's potentially helping them swap, you know, fear of failure for sort of certainty that what they're doing is right, it feels right, you've seen the evidence, you felt the evidence, or you know, what's wrong, or you know, is wrong, right? So you have, you have the feelings that kind of either backup the facts or contradict the facts as you currently understand them. And at least one other thing, I think it does two other things, I think, one, it gives people the space and time as a team to digest both kind of where they're at as a team where their businesses are, you know, corporate iidx, you know, their strategy, reflect, Stand back, get out of the, the, you know, the humdrum of, of half hour meetings day in day out endlessly. And then, you know, and by, by kind of extension, what it does is it aligns them around a shared experience of the world and a shared experience of making sense of what they felt and seeing together. And so, we never sold it as this kind of, with this HR, or this team building, kind of magic to it. But over time, what we saw was, you know, I, the way I put it was a line teams just know what to do. And for me, embodied knowledge is when your body just knows what to do, your body doesn't have to think when it gets on a bicycle, it just rides. And I think what what great teams and good companies need is this knowledge of know just what to do. But having that in a shared, tractable kind of format, is vital. Because no strategy document ever survived the impact with the enemy.

Marcus Kirsch:

Yeah, and some of the some of the things you say as well about, you know, colliding with reality reminds me, you know, as a as a, again, as designer, thinking, we sort of also tend to sometimes use the other way around, right. So we don't have the opportunity to actually go into reality, we try to create an very simple forms to reality in a very tangible way. I think probably the most famous and borderline notorious tool for that is Lego. So these Lego, serious play sessions that sometimes people cringe at does exactly that, you know, you come up with an idea and because you don't materialise it, or you don't get in contact with the reality of the idea, you miss a lot of things, and then they're just ideas you're not proving and when you actually tried to build them, and suddenly realise, Oh, hang on a second, this is way too far away, when someone comes in here, that'll never look at this. You know, that's, I think, where a lot of as you said, your body knows this, you know, you don't have to be a specialist to know certain obvious thing, because we're all people who all have been in a shop, we all have been travelling or whatnot. Because I remember doing that over in a in a workshop in Saudi Arabia, and I was really, really humble about the cultural difference, and how, what am I gonna do? And Legos saved my life. But when you look at this, and you say, there's a lot of people that already knows a lot of things Anyways, what for you then sort of the role of specialists was as a jack of all trades, or people who don't have necessarily tied to specialists and specialist solutions in that equation?

Simon Roberts:

Yeah. Well, it's a good question and one that's, you know, I suppose has chased me around mentally for the last 20 years being it to some degree, a jack of all trades consultant, right. I mean, in many ways for people, like me, perhaps people like you, you're, you're running processes, you know, you're you're wayfinders for people, your guides, your were never claiming necessarily to be the experts in how to build x, or why you're there to facilitate a process to keep it on the rails to keep to keep it kind of honest versus you know, the world out there. And, you know, I think, I think in a way, I'd like to call my I think I call myself a specialised generalist, right and my specialism is, is in people and I understand culture, and what what makes things tick. And, and, and then the generalist bet is that that that can be applied to a whole range of different kind of environments or teams. However, I think I am a fan of specialism. And I think, you know, it's, you teams need to be specialised in some way. But I think what comes with specialisation is, you know, like it or not, is a form of of kind of mental, you know, blinkers. And so, a little bit of suppose my philosophy is about saying, in a way, I think it's harder to be a generalist and to be a specialist. Because you you as a specialist, you know, what frameworks or ideologies or ways of thinking you need to hold on to and subscribe to a generalist, you know, has to duck and dive a little bit and be a bit more of a magpie. And I think, you know, magpie type thinking kind of stealing the best bits for everywhere is, is actually what a lot of organisations kind of need, you know, to help them just stay stay true to to a world that's never changed, never stopping changing.

Troy Norcross:

Okay, so duck and dive, and magpie and all of those things. First thing I think of our startups, and startups are supposed to be lean, and they're supposed to be agile and big, lumbering, behemoth legacy companies are always striving to be more startup, you know, and all the rest that kind of goes along with that. Do you really think that the startups are any better at being connected and actually doing the work? Or do you think they're just out there flailing around? And as my old friend Peter used to say, even blind squirrels sometimes find acorns?

Simon Roberts:

Yeah. Now, yeah, so that's a very good question. I mean, it certainly, I reflected the other day, I was looking at some, some new, you know, some product on some startup, it will remain nameless, somewhere on LinkedIn. And, of course, what it had was the founder story, you know, I started this company because i x, you know, I had this personal experience. And of course, that's now a formulaic kind of way of talking about a business, right, but I think, you know, like all truisms, there's an element of truth in it, which is that many of the big startups that we know, Airbnb being a really good example, you know, Brian chesky, oh, we need some money, or, you know, when there's a conference coming to town, let's rent out our room, right, and, and Airbnb, or whatever it was initially called, was started. So there is something in the nature of many startups, which has now been kind of almost productize, which is that the founders have had an insight based on their real life experience, which they think they can build a business around. So I think there's an element of it. But I think it's also the case that many startup teams, you know, sit in darkened rooms, you know, drinking that kind of proverbial Diet Coke and eating pizza, right, and are building things that really bear very little reality to the world. So, you know, when you drive down from San Francisco to San San to the valley, you know, you see billboards for a load of services that are built by people that clearly have very little relationship with the world that the rest of us live in. Right, you know, as people say, their services for people that are just left out, you know, the things they want that they would like their mom to do, but they're no longer living at home. And, and so there is a still a cloistering and a blindness that startups have. So yes, I think they do end up like blind squirrels. And of course, there are a huge failure rates with startups. So you know, it's curious in a way that the big companies want to be always liked startups because I think they big companies do have more methodical ways of, of going about exploring territories. But it's not very trendy anymore.

Marcus Kirsch:

Yeah. And talking about things that move fast, sorted, sorted on time. And as we always have more questions than time, if the last one. So what is sort of your favourite small exercise to help people understand the power of not thinking, what do you do with people

Troy Norcross:

in a workshop because we do a lot of workshops.

Simon Roberts:

Well, so I mean, I write about it in the book and and we've done it quite a lot. I don't think it's kind of a staple. But I got really interested in this in this in this practice of body storming, which is essentially, you know, acting out scenarios either acting out scenarios for for kind of with prototype technologies, or even acting out ideas, you know, at the end of a sort of an ideation session within a workshop. And I think a couple of different things kind of happen when you do that, one of which is that, you know, the knowledge that you know, about the world already, you know, gets gets kind of pushed up against your idea, right, and almost the act of acting it out, makes you realise, either where it kind of could work better, or would never work, or could be, or could be kind of improved in some specific way. So, I love this idea of, of kind of acting out our knowledge, not just because it reveals what we already know. But it actually makes it much easier to communicate ideas to other people, you know, which is essentially what acting kind of is, right? You're you are communicating ideas or concepts or emotions to people THROUGH THROUGH THROUGH performance. So, so I'm actually quite into into that concept of body storming and think it has a lot of potential but it seems pretty nice right right now.

Marcus Kirsch:

Lovely. Well, then, therefore, thank you, Simon, for your insights and for your time and all the answers and thank you for being with us. My pleasure. Thank you.

Troy Norcross:

You've been listening to the wicked podcast with CO hosts Marcus Kirsch and me, Troy Norcross,

Marcus Kirsch:

please subscribe on podomatic iTunes or Spotify. You can find all relevant links in the show notes. Please tell us your thoughts in the comment section and let us know about any books for future episodes.

Troy Norcross:

You can also get in touch with us directly on Twitter on at wicked and beyond or at Troy underscore Norcross also learn more about the wicked company book and the wicked company project at wicked company calm