Tom Cheesewright spends his life gazing into the future to help businesses identify and respond to trends and technology, but his advice for writers is rooted in the here and now. A fascinating conversation taking in principles for business survival in a fast-changing world along with super-practical tips for writing – and editing – effectively.
Plus a great tip for writers that is much more fun than most!
Tom’s site: https://tomcheesewright.com/
Tom on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookofthefuture
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
See all PI-Q webinars and replay links: https://practicalinspiration.com/pi-q
The EBBC Summer Reading List 2020: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/34626998-alison-jones?shelf=ebbc-summer-reading-list-2020
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge Sep 2020: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/
Alison Jones: I’m here today with Tom Cheesewright, who is an applied futurist, helping people to see tomorrow’s challenges and solve them today. He works with many of the world’s most successful companies, including Facebook, Google BMW, HSBC, as well as government, charities and industry bodies. And he’s the author of High-Frequency Change: Why we feel like change happens faster now and what to do about it. And also his latest book, Future-Proof your Business. And he’s also a previous guest. So welcome back, Tom.
Tom Cheesewright: Thank you, Alison.
Alison Jones: It’s about, well, it was last summer, wasn’t it? That we were talking on the show.
Tom Cheesewright: It was indeed. Yes. I think High-Frequency Change had just come out then.
Alison Jones: Which makes you quite prolific. Embarrassingly prolific for somebody like me, who who’s thinking it’s coming two, three, well, two years after they published their last book….
Tom Cheesewright: I won’t tell you that I’m thinking about the next one then.
Alison Jones: No, you’re making us look bad. Will you please stop… When we spoke, you were researching this book, weren’t you and you were saying how much you were enjoying the curiosity of it because it wasn’t a subject… Well, you tell me, how’s it gone?
Tom Cheesewright: I guess this book, if the last book was the why, why do these big companies call me up and ask for help? Why do so many of us feel like we’re a bit unsteady on our feet at the moment with the way that sort of pace of changes has changed? this was the how book, how do you, what do you do about it really?
How do you respond to that challenge? Particularly if you’re leading a business and there is, the research was really interesting because I’ve been teaching these courses for a few years about basically, how do you do futurism, if you’re anything between the MD of a small furniture manufacturer we had on the course through to in the department for international trade or HMRC, or, you know, the CEOs of huge international companies, If you’re one of those people, how do you respond to this sense?
How do you look to the future? How do you accelerate your decision making? You know, you do all these things, but it’s very, very different teaching that in a one to one context, with a small group of people to try to capture it in a form that is comprehensible without me standing over you and explaining things and doing it in a really condensed form as well.
It’s quite a compact book, and doing it in a really original way as well. I needed sort of new examples, new stories to go into it. So collecting all of that was really good fun.
Alison Jones: Yes, I can imagine. And your timing’s exquisite, isn’t it?
Tom Cheesewright: Yes. I mean, it’s, it’s a, the book was meant to come out 30th of July and it still will in paperback, but about three weeks ago, now I know it was a Thursday afternoon. I got a call from my publisher Penguin who said look, we’re thinking of bringing the publishing date forward, particularly on Kindle, because we think this is such a relevant book to the current crisis.
And I said, ‘Yes, brilliant. That sounds great. When do you think you’ll launch it?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, Tuesday.’ ‘Right.’ ‘So we’re going to have to get moving in terms of, you know, launching this and how we launch this and how we get this story out there.’ But yes, the response has been fantastic. It has been a, there’s been, had a huge traction from business groups, lots of people interested in taking that story out to their audiences, whether they are local industry bodies and, you know, Oxford or Liverpool or Leeds I’m doing on Thursday, or whether it’s actually, you know, national groups like British Interactive Media Association, you know, we’ve had loads of different groups saying this is really relevant to our clients, really relevant to our customers. You know, can you come on and talk about, talk about this to our people.
Alison Jones: And there’s a few things. Well, just for context, we’re talking on the 18th of May, 2020 the episode will go out a few weeks after that. But that’s when we’re talking just now and another interesting thing of course is the way that you can deliver content these days. The print book has to go through all the hoops of the print book supply chain, which is fearsome and actually all the bookshops are shut.
So, you know, that wouldn’t be good, but the electronic version… eBooks are having a bit of a moment because they’re so accessible. So just as online meetings are very fashionable, suddenly, you know, eBooks and digital audio, you know, they’ve always been… particularly digital audio has been growing very fast recently, but suddenly they’ve really kind of taken on new importance haven’t they.
Tom Cheesewright: Yeah, absolutely. I think this is one of the really interesting things of the whole lockdown, COVID-19, whatever you want to call it, is that it’s accelerated a lot of trends that were already there. I don’t think it’s brought about much that was completely new, completely unique, completely original. But it’s really accelerated some of those trends and yes, one of those is around audio content. One of those is around remote working and video communication. And one of those is definitely around eBooks. I think some of the industry stats don’t always capture how big, how important eBooks have become, because they don’t necessarily capture all the publishers, all the producers, all the independents out there.
But for me, I think that’s been a trend that’s been bubbling under for a long time. And it’s really just come to the fore, as you say, you know, during this lockdown.
Alison Jones: And of course, futurology is also having a moment as we indicated that that sense of, it’s not just for the big companies, the idea of resilience and agility and hyper decision making, which is, I thought it was a great phrase that you used. So what have you noticed, I guess, particularly for small businesses who perhaps haven’t given us attention in the past, you know, what, what what’s changing now?
Tom Cheesewright: For me, the really big thing that underpins all of the changes that are happening and it really underpins the book as well, the book is a very practical book, but it’s underpinned by this fundamental shift in business philosophy that’s happening. And so if you like for the last 30, 40, 50 years, the overriding business philosophy has been about optimization, about efficiency.
It’s been the, sort of the Joe Wicks of business philosophy. You know, Lean in 15, you are trying to make your business as lean as possible. Whereas actually, you know, that’s great when things are going well. When the market’s growing, when your customers just keep wanting more and more of what you do, but when the market changes dramatically as it has with this crisis, or actually in many crises in different industries where the sorts of high frequency change I talked about in the first book, come through and disrupt everything.
Then being hyper lean and hyper optimized is a real problem. It gives you no bandwidth, no scope to break out, to do things originally to do innovation. And so, you know, you really need to shift your business philosophy now, and it can’t be all about being lean and optimized and efficient.
You have to think about sustainable success and agility and flexibility. And that’s as true if you’re, you know, five people making furniture in Yorkshire as it is if you are a global multinational bank, you’ve got to build into your organization, those processes, those behaviors, those thought patterns and that structure that gives you that agility, even if it shaves a few percentage points of your margin each month of your profit each month, you’re much better off building that platform for sustainable success.
Alison Jones: And I’m guessing that that’s a message that people are now ready to hear.
Tom Cheesewright: It is. And I guess, I think it was, it was a message that people were already starting to pick up on. And I was having really interesting conversations, pre locked down with some CEOs and MDs and you know, and frankly, people only call me if they’re starting to think, and it is slightly…
Alison Jones: Ye, it’s a bit of a self-selecting…
Tom Cheesewright: Exactly, a nice self selecting client base. They filter themselves, but now it’s becoming much more widely accepted. I think we’re seeing it particularly in people’s response to government’s, you know, response to the crisis, their inability to respond, the way which local authority has been so stretched. Yes. There’s been no sort of capacity for agility and change in response there. And so both in public and private domains, people are thinking now, do you know what, I’ll accept lower profits. I’ll accept taking less home, taking less out of the business, if I can leave a legacy in five, ten years of sustainable success.
Alison Jones: And staying with the Joe Wicks metaphor there, because you use that, that sense of almost a company like an athlete, and those three: agility, awareness and action. I thought that was really helpful. Very simple, but very powerful model. So just talk us through that.
Tom Cheesewright: It’s this idea that actually really future-proof businesses, future ready businesses share a lot of the same characteristics as great athletes. You know, I’ve been trying to do Joe Wicks every day, and that’s told everybody in my family that I’m definitely not an athlete. But the really great athletes stand out because they have these three characteristics.
As you say, the first thing they have is this ability to sense what’s going on. They can sense what’s going on immediately around them and read, you know, the driver off their tail if they’re in F1 or, you know, just know that that runner’s coming up on their outside, if they’re athletics, but they also have this sense of the game, the ability to read the game, what pundits call football brain, you know, they know that the winger is going to be making that run down the left channel, I can pop that pass on his right boot, with barely looking up. And I think we need that in business. We need to have that ability to look forward and actually it just comes through training. It comes through practice, just like great athletes. We’ve got to build it into our day to day processes, the training, the experience, the practice of looking to the future. And it’s something that organizations are generally really bad at. And of course, it’s
Alison Jones: Well, we absolutely build that sort of instinctive, you know, high performance, but we do it in with an assumption that things will stay static. So what we don’t practise is, as you say, the future gazing.
Tom Cheesewright: Yes, absolutely. And know, I find this particularly if they’ve been in their industry a long time. Yes. They’re so convinced that the way things are is the way things will always be until they find, you know, belatedly quite often, they get that realization actually, the world’s moved on and they didn’t move with it.
And it’s only by taking time out – I recommend 1% of your time, which is roughly one every six months – to break out of the day to day, to follow a simple process to force you to open your mind to what’s happening. See what’s out there, the macro trends, the pressure points you’re facing right now, and look for, what’s going to change over the next two to five years and then act on it.
And that’s the second really important part. The second thing these athletes have is they take decisions really quickly. If they see something, they process that information and they act fast. And again, organizations small and large are really bad at that. Generally, we’ve got to accelerate our decision making and it makes it much easier to do that.
And then this third part, which is you train your body for the sport you’re in. And, you know, I give this example of football, as you know, if you are, if you’re a great footballer or one of the best in the first division in the 1970s, and you’re suddenly transported through time and your DeLorean through to the premier league…. now we’re not there because they’re not playing. But when the premier league is back again, you would struggle so badly, however talented you are, because the game has moved on. The level of physique that is required is completely different and the same is true of business. You might have a perfectly optimized business for the 1990s or even the 2000s, but businesses have moved on and you’ve got to change the structure and shape of your business to suit the environment that you’re in.
Alison Jones: And in terms of the writing, Tom obviously you’d done High-Frequency Change. What was different for you as you? Cause I’m guessing that you walk the talk, that you apply what you learned and you move… what changed for you in the writing of those two books?
Tom Cheesewright: So this was in many ways, a really different book. I mean, the similarity between the two was that they were drawing on eight years of practice as a futurist and eight years of thinking and eight years of development of ideas and methodology. But this one was really, as I say, it was trying to condense something that I only ever delivered face to face into something that people could, you know, self help with, people could pick up and read and use, and it had to be so digestible and so applicable without any sort of additional help. And that was a really big challenge. It requires a lot of time spent getting into the mind of your audience. I would say it requires, you know, some really valuable and powerful feedback from my editor as well about, you know, what’s going to grab people, what works for people, what’s comprehensible and what’s not, because particularly when you’ve been dealing with ideas for years in some cases and talking about them over and over again, it’s very, very hard to take that step out into the audience’s mind and see it from their perspective.
Alison Jones: Yes. And it’s, it’s, it’s the absolute obligation of the business book author. Isn’t it? You have to know what, you know, in a sense and start where the reader is.
Tom Cheesewright: Yeah, I know. Yeah. I think again, third parties, external perspectives are so valuable in that I think, yes, there is a mental discipline you can do, you know, you can force yourself to take step back. I found just coming to, almost random parts cold and reading them slightly out of context without the preamble I might put in and just seeing if it made sense, me seeing if I could buy it, was quite valuable and that sort of happened naturally as part of the editing process. I, you know, I think I said on the last podcast, I really struggle with long tracts of texts. I couldn’t hold. 40,000 words in my head, it has to be broken down into small chunks.
So I’m going through the editing process. I’m sort of actually just picking up small chunks at a time and dealing with them, and then coming back and in the end it’s actually building a coherent narrative for the whole thing. That was probably harder rather than actually trying to sort out those individual parts.
Alison Jones: And that’s really interesting when you say about building it in a complex, granular way, because you can only keep your mind on one thing at a time, but you still have to make it all kind of work coherently together, which is where structure and table of contents and all that kind of good stuff comes in.
But I’m also fascinated by that distinction you make between the setting out the argument, the why, if you like, which is relatively easy to do, isn’t it, when you’ve got strong opinions on something and you’ve got a sort of theory of action so on, and then that excruciating hard work of trying to basically coach somebody who’s not in front of you, so you’re doing the really practical stuff, but they’re not in the room – that is so hard.
Tom Cheesewright: It is, it’s a real challenge. And I think, you know, I’m quite looking forward to getting back to a theory book again, because…
Alison Jones: so much easier.
Tom Cheesewright: Yes, absolutely. It is. I mean, in many ways it’s… What makes me very proud of this book is that we did get through that process. We did manage to package it all in a way, I think, that actually is going to be really valuable to people, but it was really interesting.
The feedback from the editor… I mean, one of the most dramatic things is, I gave you those three traits of athletes and the way I’ve always given them, you know, sense, decide and act. But actually the bit that really grabbed the editor and the bit she thought we should lead with was about that training, was about that discipline, about that structure and shape of businesses.
So we literally turned , the whole book on its head to lead with something I thought was quite hard to get your head around and we probably ought to leave till last because she thought it had really nice analogies behind it. and people could really latch on to it, and that was quite hard for me.
You know, I’ve been selling this idea to people in presentations and things and training courses for years and in that order and that structure, and then to actually take that feedback and turn it on his head was, was quite challenging, but I think really works.
Alison Jones: Editors, eh?
Tom Cheesewright: Yeah, they are wonderful. Very thankful.
Alison Jones: And when you’re writing Tom, what does that look like? I mean, writing is, it’s like, I’m the Inuit word for snow? Isn’t it? There’s lots of different kinds of writing. Which bits do you enjoy most? And have you got any hacks for how to get through the stuff you don’t enjoy as much?
Tom Cheesewright: The bit I struggle with much more is the editing process, you know, and particularly, and two parts of it, you know, one is, I’m very attached to my work. And so, you know, that criticism is always hard and however, nicely it’s couched, it’s difficult to actually realize that you’ve done something that actually not that good or not that comprehensible, um, really interesting debates about what are common phrases and what are not, and what are references that need breaking out and what are not. One of the ones in this book was about Sisyphus. So I referenced something as a Sisyphean task, and we got different opinions from three different editors about whether or not that needed breaking out and explaining.
Alison Jones: It’s so hard isn’t it – we used to have a kind of common cultural core of knowledge, everybody kind of knew their Greek myths, but not so much now – you know, the Bible, Shakespeare, all these things are no longer..
Tom Cheesewright: Absolutely, and particularly, I’ve just been reading the Percy Jackson books with my eldest daughter. So, I’m very well up on Greek myths at the moment. but, without an education that included the classics. So you know, that I find really hard and I mean, the actual writing itself, the initial bursts of, you know, churning out 1000, 2000 words, that bit. I find relatively easy. I’ve been writing professionally, if not for myself, for other people beforehand for, you know, my entire career. So, you know, a quiet period, 6.30 in the morning, you know, two hour blast straight through, you know, sketch out ideas quite often lying in bed before I actually jump out of bed, wake up, structure the ideas in my head, sort them out a little bit in the shower, sorry for the mental image. And then sit down at my desk and just burn out 1000, 2000 words and get them down there. But the editing process I find much harder and the only way to get through it is to really do it in chunks.
I think it’s a bit like all my working days, if I try and just,you know, bang my head against the wall and just keep trying to do something and failing, it’s just miserable. But if I can just get up and go and have a cup of tea, play some Nintendo, read the kids a story, do something completely different for a little bit, and then come back to it fresh, I find it much, much easier.
Alison Jones: It’s like those little micro boundaries and tiny habits, isn’t it. Bec Evans, I know she’s a friend of yours as well, isn’t she, she introduced me to those, so, so powerful.
Tom Cheesewright: Oh, it’s huge. It makes such a massive difference. Anyhow, one of… I’ve been doing a lot of radio around the whole lockdown and future of work, et cetera. And you know, one of the things I keep telling people is don’t try and replicate the office at home. Use this as an opportunity to work to your natural rhythms, whether it’s your sleep rhythm, whether it’s you’re working in bursts, if you can do of 20 minutes and then off do 20 minutes off and do something completely different, because you’ll be a lot happier, a lot healthier, and you’ll get an awful lot more done.
Alison Jones: Well, see, I was about to ask you for your best tip for a first time business book author. Have you just answered that question or is there more…?
Tom Cheesewright: Well, do you know, my other one was, and this I’d say really helped while I was trying to write a practical book, was carry on reading, but read things that are utterly impractical. I can’t read other people’s business books while I’m writing one. It just, sidetracks my brain in all the wrong ways, and it uses the same bits of my brain I’m trying to use to write. But I found myself devouring fiction while I was writing this book, particularly audio books. I think there’s something about reading fiction while writing nonfiction and about the sort of the structure and the poetry and the language and the vocabulary that you draw from that fiction that somehow helps you make your factual books much more pleasant and polished, and a nice to read. You’re really sort of drawing on other people’s inspiration.
Alison Jones: That’s such a fascinating idea. I don’t think anybody’s ever expressed that in a tip before, but I can totally see what you mean because you, in a sense when you’re writing a business book you’re trying to be as transparent as possible with your language. You don’t want anything to get in the way, but actually, you still have to be really conscious about how you’re using language and you’re still using imagery and metaphor and story and narrative and all that stuff. So having that good stuff going in almost just keeps your brain tuned to that aspect of it.
Tom Cheesewright: Exactly, that is it. It’s a distraction as well, which is great. It pulls you away from, from just churning everything’s endlessly in your mind. And sometimes you get all the best ideas when you’re distracted from something, it’s like you’re listening to classical music or something in the background.
There’s just something about that rhythm and structure and vocabulary that I found really helpful.
Alison Jones: Oh, I love that. So apparently Mozart’s really good to listen to. Is there any fiction, any classic literature that we should be reading in our downtime?
Tom Cheesewright: I’m a big fan of the Percy Jackson books.
Alison Jones: We’re doing Skullduggery Pleasant at the moment, which is also brilliant by the way, my son’s into those at the moment.
Tom Cheesewright: Uh, well, what we do, if my absolute favorite, uh, kid children’s series has been the Phillip Reeve books, the mortal engines books are just spectacular.
Alison Jones: So, I’m sorry if you’ve tuned into this expecting business book recommendations, we’re diversifying… But of the grown-up stuff. Is there anybody that you think has got a particularly good way with words that we can learn from as business book authors?
Tom Cheesewright: Oh, I mean, you know, I’ve always been a fan as someone used to do writing from a PR perspective 20 years ago, I always enjoyed tthe Fleming books. His pro style is just so direct and descriptive and because he was a journalist, you know, they’re very, very snappy, short sentences.
There’s not a lot wasted in them. I found those really good, whereas actually I was listening to Ann Leckie who’s I think American or Canadian science fiction author, throughout all of this listening to a lot of her stories, which are very different to the, if I’m honest, male science fiction authors I quite often find myself reading and listening to, but I totally fell in love with it.
It took me about half a book to really get into it, but totally different style to mine and a totally different style to what I’m used to. And that, that was really pleasurable.
Alison Jones: I don’t know Anne Leckie. Oh no. So many books, not enough time. If we’re going to keep it to business books though. Tom, would you, I mean, obviously apart from your own, would you recommend a business book that you think everybody listening should read or introduce them to something that will expand their mind?
Tom Cheesewright: Well, it’s a brand new one. It’s the one I’m reading at the moment which is Gemma Milne’s Smoke and Mirrors: How hype obscures the future and how to see past it. And what I’m really liking about it is it gives you a broad introduction to lots of big science and technology trends that are going to be absolutely transformative over the next few years, but completely strips them of the hype around them and underlines all of the big challenges around them as well.
It’s funny because it’s slightly my own territory. So lots of it is familiar to me, but if you don’t know anything about what’s happening in agriculture, what’s happening in batteries and electric vehicles, it’s a really, really valuable introduction to those in a way to see through the hype you find in the news.
Alison Jones: Oh, that’s really exciting. Do you know, I’ve been chatting a bit to Gemma Milne on Twitter and kind of following her on that. I hadn’t realized that it was out, she’s she seems to have been writing it forever. So I’m not going to go get that book. Brilliant.
Tom Cheesewright: It arrived about a week ago and I quarantined it for three days and then started it, I think on Friday.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. Right. Well, I’ll just get the digital thing, you know, no issues there. Another great advantage of digital books in the Corona era and Tom, if people want to find out more about you more about both of your books, particularly Future-Proof, where should they go?
Tom Cheesewright: It’s all on tomcheesewright.com I’ve. I used to have lots of different websites spread around the world, but I’ve brought it all together in one place. So tomcheesewright.com.
Alison Jones: And you have the wonderful advantage of a distinctive name. I’m very, very envious.
Tom Cheesewright: There are 348 Cheesewrighs in the world. I found that out the other day.
Alison Jones: You’re probably related to them all.
Tom Cheesewright: We are, we are pretty much, my dad did an incredibly large family tree. We found relations in Australia and America, and somehow we are distantly related to every single one,
Alison Jones: Brilliant. Jones, not so much.
Tom Cheesewright: Much more challenging.
Alison Jones: Tom it was such a pleasure to talk to you today. Congratulations on the new book and lovely that you have two bites of the publishing cherry – the ebook and the print book. So thank you. It was really, really great to talk to you.
Tom Cheesewright: Thanks, Alison. Great pleasure as always.