Episode 24 – Communicating Complex Ideas with Tony Crabbe

Tony CrabbeAs a psychologist, Tony Crabbe was fascinated by our habitual response to the question, ‘How are you?’ ‘Busy.‘ Every conversation and every observation of human behaviour seemed to point to a constant sense of overwhelm, and he saw it in his own life too.

‘I had this growing gnawing sense that I was failing to be the dad I wanted to be, failing to have the impact in the career I wanted because of this busy-ness. As a good psychologist, I went to do research and I thought “What can I learn from great psychology that will help me on this?”‘

Busy coverWhat’s particularly interesting from an Extraordinary Business Book Club perspective about this book is the way it mixes research evidence, human stories and practical application so effectively.

‘I wanted to write a book that took research from really great studies but applied it to something, a user problem that people were really grappling with. I made it practical… academically robust, but at the same time deeply simple and practical.’

If you like me are interested in that tricky balance between academic research, engaging stories and drawing out the ‘so what’ in your book, this interview is pure gold.

Alison Jones:  Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. I’m here today with Tony Crabbe, who’s a business psychologist who works with companies such as Microsoft, Disney, and Salesforce, helping them do things differently. He wrote Busy because he was convinced that there must be a better answer to the question ‘How are you?’ Now Tony is currently on a boat in Norfolk, there may be some technical issues, there may be some background boat noise. Bear with it, close your eyes, pretend you’re there with him.

Tony Crabbe: How are you doing Alison?

Alison Jones:  I’m great, really good to have you on the show.

Tony Crabbe: Well thanks for inviting me.

Alison Jones:  Now, can I start off … Tell me a little bit about the story behind the writing of Busy. Why was it important for you to write a book at all, and why this book?

Tony Crabbe: Well I always wanted to write a book I think. I actually remember and my wife tells this story that on our second date she turns to me and says “By the way, if you stick with me I’m moving to Spain.” I wanted something better to say, turned around and said “Well if you stick with me I’m going to write a book.” It took quite a long time to get around to doing it, but there was always a desire. I never really had something compelling to say, I don’t think. Then I got to a point when through my work, almost every conversation … I had to do a lot of work with teams and good leaders, I found no matter what the topic I was supposed to be working on, almost every conversation seemed to zero in on this thing. This thing of overwhelm, of busy-ness. I started to see it outside of my work as well. I fly a lot, and you see the race that happens for people to turn on their phones again. I said “Well that’s curious, what’s that all about?”

Then at the same time in my personal life, I just had this growing gnawing sense that I was failing to be the dad I wanted to be, failing to have the impact in the career I wanted because of this busy-ness. As a good psychologist, I went to do research and I thought “What can I learn from great psychology that will help me on this?” I guess through that process I also realized that there wasn’t anything out there in the form of a book that actually addressed the topic in the way I thought it should be addressed, so that was really how it came about.

Alison Jones:  Tell me a little bit more about that and the way it should be addressed. What’s your particular approach here?

Tony Crabbe: To oversimplify, I think… The simple thing was I didn’t find any books about busy that really hit the mark for me. More specifically, I think there are two broad types of books than are in this area. There’s one type which are the well-researched book written by eminent psychologists that are really full of great studies, great evidence and they’re written really around an area of their academic interest. Then there’s another kind of book, which are the how-to books shall we say, which are practical, really around the user problems, that people who would be reading the book would really be struggling with and provide a lot of tips. It’s often fairly light and full of opinion as opposed to evidence. I wanted to write something … I’m much more influenced personally when I can see the data, when I can see the evidence if you like as a scientist. I wanted to write a book that simultaneously took research from really great studies but applied it to something, a user problem that people were really grappling with. I made it practical, so some kind of crossover between something that is academically robust, but at the same time deeply simple and practical.

Alison Jones:  I love that. This is something that is really close to my heart and you make it sound really obvious and straightforward, but actually this is a really really difficult trick to pull off. I speak as somebody who has worked with academics and professionals a lot. Writing about complex ideas in simple language. Is that something that you found came naturally to you, was it instinctive, or was it something you had to train yourself to do?

Tony Crabbe: I don’t think I’ve trained myself to do it as a writer, but I think my work has probably trained me to do that. The essence of my job is looking at starting with … I actually have worked very hard to have no products in my business on the whole. Rather than going and offering X or Y, I actually go in … People call me and say “We’ve got a problem with this, come and help us to think through it and find a way to improve”. My starting point is the user problem, but what I do then is go straight to the research and say “Okay, what do we know about this”, and then it comes from that, I have to ask myself: So what? What does the research then … How did that make sense to somebody? How do I illustrate those studies with great stories that make it really personal or how do I bring it alive in a way? I might be deeply interested that 764 students in Florida did a study once on the methodology of voles, but the reality is for a busy manager or leader they’re not going to be interested in that.

They want to know “How does this help me with the problem I’ve got right now?” I guess I would consider myself less of an academic and more of a translator of great research to everyday people problems. I think probably the fluency of that being something I work on all the time probably translated into the way I wrote. I will say I got a bit of great coaching from my publishers. Some of the earlier versions of the book, the publishers when I presented some of my ideas they said “Well, you are writing more about an area of academic interest rather than the user problem”. Again, so they helped me really bring that problem to front and center stage in my thinking when I was putting the book together.

Alison Jones:  Brilliant, and you had that experience to fall back on of actually “Yes, I understand what it means to be working with people who don’t care at all about the implications of the research other than how it affects them”.

Tony Crabbe: Exactly, so while for most people in business psychology is kind of interesting, it’s not a core passion of theirs. The thing that matters to them is “Can I learn things that are going to make a difference in the way I do work?” I think where psychology comes in really helpful is they shed a fresh light on some of the problems that they’re grappling with. When there is evidence behind some of these stories or some of these suggestions that I might provide, it gives people a reason to believe that it’s worth investing time into doing things slightly differently. It makes it more likely that they’re going to change and provides a fresh way of thinking about the problems that they’re facing, but the topic itself and the psychology itself is not deeply interesting to most people I’m working with, so therefore I make it simple and relevant and put it in language that they relate to.

Alison Jones:  As you say, there’s two magic words – So what?

Tony Crabbe: Exactly, exactly. What’s the implication here, why would I be bothered by this?

Alison Jones:  Yeah. I like the way that you talk about those two strands. It’s very obvious in your book actually, there’s the research strand, kind of the evidence if you like, and there’s the story strand as well. I thought that was a really notable feature of the book is that it contains a lot of stories. There’s stories from you, from people you know informally and professionally, and there’s also stories that you’ve read about or from history. I think telling stories is such a crucial skill for capturing attention. Can you just tell us about the mechanics of that if you like, how you went about collecting and using those stories?

Tony Crabbe: I’m a huge believer in stories as a way of conveying complex ideas as you were saying earlier. I’m a squirrel for stories, so I have a number of ways to do that. Most simply I’ve just got a filing system on my computer where I tend to read electronically because I travel a lot so I don’t really store things in paper version, only electronically. I’ve got various folders, and I set up this file folder ages ago called personal learnings and under that I’ve got tons and tons of different headings for different topics. When I find a great academic article or an interesting blog post or whatever, I’ll just save it into those so they become a more and more useful resource for me to draw on. I also typically in research areas that are interesting, particularly when I’m working on a book or on a project, I normally keep word documents which are just a collection of … Either an interesting program on TV or anything that feels relevant. It’s just ideas, thoughts, reflections on stories get dumped into those.

For Busy, that Word document got to about 400 pages. It wasn’t … They were just ‘see page 76 this book’, or ‘check out this TED talk’. It was just links or you know … Then it becomes a processive part of the search phase of the book for me, going through those and organizing them into something that was meaningful. Also now I just have an article dump. There’s 2 new book ideas that I’m working on for the future. As I’m reading stuff, anything I come across that seems relevant, because I’m not necessarily going to sort out in detail at this stage but I think it might be useful, I’ve got a folder called article dump, I just dump them in there and that gets bigger and bigger and bigger. The process later on of sorting through those is again quite a good sorting process for me intellectually as well. It helps me cluster things and make sense of … I think for me figuring out how the different ideas fit together at a point now … I’m not going to start writing the book for a year, it doesn’t make sense.

I think it’s an evolving process of sorting and resorting. Just dumping them somewhere is a useful discipline for me, but I think also going back to the research … For every piece of work I do, I normally think What’s the evidence for this, and what’s the story that makes it compelling? Whatever the project is I’m doing for any client I go looking for stories. Some of them I already have and some of them I won’t have. Again, another source of stories is when I think of a particular idea and try to convey, I think of other pieces of work I’ve done in the past and come up with a story for that. There’s a number of different places, but coming back to the central point, I think it helps people connect with the evidence of the argument that you’re making. The other thing though that I was very keen to do, is there are quite a few books that are only stories almost. There’s a lot of writers who do loads of interviews or tell loads of stories of Client X, Client Y that they worked with. I’ve always been a bit uninspired by those books, because it feels like they overplay the merits … Almost in the absence of evidence, they fill it with more and more stories. I wanted to try and find a balance between idea, story, and evidence.

Alison Jones:  This is triangulation isn’t it? You’re making a point, then you’re evidencing, then telling a story. It’s the 3 almost equally important.

Tony Crabbe: Yeah. I guess probably the 4th piece is the so what? Therefore what are the tools, what the specific go-do’s to go and experiment with.

Alison Jones:  Nice. Yeah, that’s brilliant. I like the idea of you approaching the world in that way as well, with this sort of endless nonstop low-level curiosity and kind of openness to capturing things and squirreling them away and letting them percolate.

Tony Crabbe: Was it Keats that talks about …. What did he say? He talked about the ability to stay in doubt and he had a great term for it that I’ve completely forgotten at the moment. I’ve always thought that when doing something like any of my projects at work, the book, the longer you can stay in doubt about what your view is, the better the end view is. I try to stay unsure about what I’m … The next book I’m working on, Moment, I actually still don’t have my central story because I think that I don’t want to … I think some people work out what they want to say right at the start and then find out that it’s supported, where I tend to work the other way. A sense of what the problem is, and a broad sense of where I might be going … From the mentally, the process of going to research is a process of discovery as much as reinforcing my view.

Alison Jones:  I love that. Not prematurely closing things down. Brilliant. How do you find the book works alongside your business now?

Tony Crabbe: You know, that’s been a disaster. One of the things that always put me off writing the book is I saw a number of colleagues who did really interesting work, wrote a book, and then suddenly ended up on the keynote circuit. I’d rather shoot myself than spend … The only thing I do is tell the same story over and over again. That almost put me off. Of course, there became a point where I was determined to write a book and I got particularly passionate about the subject. Suddenly now I’ve worked with a lot of people around business, now actually doing keynotes around it I thoroughly enjoy, but it’s in the context of other work. Effectively the consulting work that I do has continued and actually funnily enough when the book came out, especially when it came out in multiple countries, suddenly the phone stopped ringing. I though that’s a bizarre thing, people know about this book published around the world and my clients aren’t calling me anymore. I actually started contacting them and they said “Oh, we didn’t think this international author would do the work anymore”. Which was kind of … I had to go around telling people that I was still available for weddings and barmitzvahs.

For a while, nothing changed really. I carried on doing my consulting work because Busy wasn’t my day job as it were. The work I was doing was working on organizational problems rather than specifically on things like time management or productivity. They did come into the mix. There didn’t seem too much of an overlap. Over time, as the book, more and more people came across it, then more things like consulting services around Busy, keynotes and workshops started happening. The thing is, my personal skillset, interest isn’t in product, it’s in relationships and problem solving. I work really well in a situation where I have very close, trusted relationships with people in these large organizations and they come to me with a variety of problems. That model for business works really well. When it comes to running a business that’s more product based around Busy, that’s a slightly different business. It’s working with more companies, it’s working with … A little bit more about negotiating, etc.

Fortunately, my wife comes from a product based background, so what we’ve done is we’ve effectively split the business. She runs the ‘Busy’ side and any queries about that go straight to her and then she hires me in as a consultant to do that work, as and when it’s required and I carry on with my consulting work. It’s kind of … Rather than it becoming one thing, we’ve kept it almost as 2 strands of the business.

Alison Jones:  That’s so interesting. It’s funny, I’ve heard a couple of people … Normally when you talk to clients and you talk to business authors their fears are all around the book failing, but a couple of people I’ve spoken to had real concerns about the book being a success and changing their life in ways they don’t want it to change. What you’ve just described there, it’s what I always say to them as well. You get to decide. It’s your book and your business. Actually you don’t have to go down the route everybody else is doing, you can craft something that suits you and that works for your business.

Tony Crabbe: It took me probably 18 months to figure that one through. I hadn’t figured it at the time the book came out, but it took us about that long before … All of a sudden now it works wonderfully. You’re absolutely right, it can if you’re not careful … I was very clear, I didn’t want to be ‘Mr Busy’. Which is why I intended to write a book the next book about a completely different topic albeit related to psychology. As it turned out through the Busy work, I remain hooked by it and in a funny way see that the problem is getting worse rather than better in most of the organizations. Also, more organizations are wanting to talk about it now whereas in 2014 when the book came out, I think it was still a little early for most organizations to engage with the topic too much. Actually the next book will be an evolution of thinking, not on the same topic, but not in a totally dissimilar area. Yeah, it has been important to me to recognize the difference between a product based business which is more transactional, and a consulting business which is more relational.

Alison Jones:  How interesting. From that, but also from the experience of the writing itself, what one bit of advice would you give to a first time business book author who’s still in the throes of it all?

Tony Crabbe: Do you mind if I give two?

Alison Jones:  Go on then.

Tony Crabbe: There’s the person who talks about prioritizing and making tough choices all the time, inauthentic to want two pieces. There are two and they’re quite different insights. The first I’d say, is fairly obvious is practice. Now I spent years telling people I was going to write a book and quite frankly got embarrassing because people would then start saying after they’ve known me for five years, “How’s the book getting on,” and I’d have to say “I’m not doing anything.” I developed this nice story which is I’m terribly busy and I do a hundred flights a year and I’ve got three children, so anytime spent writing a book is time away from my children. Now, the point is that was a great story to get me off the hook with them, but it also got me off the hook. When I actually finally took my own medicine and sat down and thought “So why, if you say writing this book is important to you, why aren’t you writing?” I actually realized if I was really honest, the actual reason is that I was scared. I was scared I’d have nothing to say, I was scared I’d be rubbish and therefore I’d lose part of my identity which was this kind of bright bloke that can write a book one day.

Alison Jones:  This is all sounding terribly close to home I have to tell you.

Tony Crabbe: Yeah … What I actually thought … What do you actually do with that insight? Then I realized what I had to do is practice, but not just write because that can be a bit self-indulgent. I had to write for other people so therefore I could be judged to address this fear. Then when I didn’t have anything to say or it wasn’t any good, then I just had to accept that was okay too. I started blogging and actually the blogging was fantastic. I found it really enjoyable, but also I figured out what my voice was. I think because there is a difference. Even though I said I’m a translator in my work and that’s helped, there is a difference between either writing for a company when you’re doing workbooks or materials or giving presentations to writing a book or writing blogs. Then actually through the process of writing blogs and being diligent about seeking feedback on them I gained my confidence. It made it an easier step into actually writing the book.

The second piece is find you garden shed. What I mean by that is I was on the boat when I started writing the book, and of course writing a book on a boat is a terrible place because there’s too many distractions, too many children, too much noise. The boat was quite near my brother in law who had a garden shed at the bottom of his garden. I started writing the book there, and I wrote the first 7 or 8 chapters in his garden shed. It ended up being a perfect place because there was no distraction, there was no internet, it was completely silent and it allowed me to do the kind of deep processing that I think is necessary when writing a book. Through that process I learned that almost everything I’ve written in different environments before that, in bits and pieces of attention are discarded. Months and months and months and months of work and writing that I ground out after a hard day’s work or whatever are discarded. What I’ve found is, in that silence of that garden shed, it took me almost 3 days of not washing, not speaking to anyone, just to kind of go hermit life and write a single chapter.

By writing a single chapter in one sitting I found it ended up being a coherent thought for each chapter. Whereas the bits and pieces I’ve written ended up being bits and pieces, they didn’t work together. Find your garden shed and just write.

Alison Jones:  Yeah, and I hear you there. I’ve got a lot of stuff that I’ve sort of piled in that’s been written in other places and I collected it. I’m loathe to lose it because it kind of works but it doesn’t hang together well so I’m sort of slightly struggling with that. There is a shed in our garden…

Tony Crabbe: That is a problem.

Alison Jones:  Yeah. Wonderful, that is such insightful advice, thank you very much. I’m sure that will be massively … I was going to say helpful, I do mean helpful but I also mean challenging to a lot of people tuning in.

Tony Crabbe: Yes.

Alison Jones:  Thanks, I think! I always ask guests on the show to recommend somebody else that they think has something interesting to say about business or business books. Who do you think I should invite on the show?

Tony Crabbe: I don’t know if you’ve already interviewed him, but Tom Chatfield. I worked with him recently, he’s a brilliant guy. He’s sort of in my space in that he’s a futurist as it were, or thinks about the future of technology. He’s got fascinating things to say from a content perspective. I think why he would be good to speak to is he seems to have crafted a life around writing. I think many of us who want to write a business book are in business in some form or another and are squeezing writing around other work. Many of us also would aspire to finding an opportunity or a lifestyle that allows us to spend a greater percentage of our time writing or thinking. He’s done things like … I think he’s written a number of books now and he writes for the Guardian as well. He’s currently writing an academic textbook because he fancied a different challenge, he might put it differently but that’s what it sounded like when he described it to me. He’s also on the faculty of Oxford University, again not as a fully fledged academic but as an associate professor I think you call it. He just seems to have crafted a very nice, a very fruitful lifestyle that allows him to write and to think and to research.

Alison Jones:  Brilliant, and that’s a really interesting point isn’t it? That balance between business and book and actually how once you started … You felt once you moved the writing and say the thinking. Thank you for that recommendation, I don’t know him, but I shall get in touch with him Now, if people want to find out more about you, Tony, and Busy and your business, where can they go?

Tony Crabbe: Well the website is TonyCrabbe.com. That’s going to be information about my work and about the book. The book Busy: How to Survive in a World of Too Much is available in English on most good book stores or on Amazon. It’s also in 11 other languages so if English isn’t your first language then that’s fine as well.

Alison Jones:  Read them all.

Tony Crabbe: Yeah, exactly.

Alison Jones:  It’s a terrific book actually, I should say I haven’t quite finished it but I’m really enjoying it and I do love the way you address the professional and the personal in the book, they’re of course completely integrated, I love that.

Tony Crabbe: Well you know what, it was one of those things isn’t it. To me it doesn’t make sense to segregate the work and the life, the two are so integrally entwined. Even though I wrote the book aimed at business people, it was as much personal as it was business because I think that’s the nature of the challenge that we face. I think Busy is every bit as much of a challenge in personal life as it is in work.

Alison Jones:  The boundaries have pretty much eroded, haven’t they in any case?

Tony Crabbe: Exactly, exactly.

Alison Jones:  Brilliant. Honestly I could talk all day to you Tony, that was so interesting, thank you so much but I have to stop it there. Thank you so much for coming on and those really really insightful comments, thoughts and ideas. Goodbye.

Tony Crabbe: It’s been an absolute pleasure.


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