Episode 65 – Sensemaking with Christian Madsbjerg

Christian Madsbjerg‘I wanted to write a book about how magical people are, as opposed to machines. How enormously efficient we are at understanding things, particularly each other, in a way that no machine will ever come close to doing.’

Through his work with ReD Associates, Christian Madsbjerg helps companies make better decisions by better understanding what is meaningful to their customers. In a world of Big Data and machine intelligence, he argues, it’s vital to remember the extraordinary power of human intelligence: the humanities, he argues, are the best starting point for business thinking.

He also offers a refreshing take on writing a book, as something which can and should create controversy, provoke a reaction, and acknowledges just how hard it is:

‘I find writing delightful sometimes, but most of the times I just find it quite tough.’

A thought-provoking and insightful discussion that reminded me, at least, of what really matters in life and in business.


ReD Associates: http://www.redassociates.com/

Sensemaking on Hachette’s site: https://www.hachettebookgroup.com/titles/christian-madsbjerg/sensemaking/9780316393249/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

Alison Jones:                        Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. And today I am delighted to be here with Christian Madsbjerg, who is the co-founder of ReD Associates, a pioneering strategy agency which focuses on the human perspective. He’s the author of The Moment of Clarity, with Mikkel Rasmussen, and his latest book is called Sensemaking: What Makes Human Intelligence Essential in the Age of the Algorithm. Welcome to the club, Christian.

Christian Madsbjerg:   Thank you.

Alison Jones:                        It’s really good to have you here. And let’s start with that wonderful, resonant word, ‘sensemaking’. How do you define that? Why does it matter?

Christian Madsbjerg:     Right. So it’s a word that’s been used a lot in the past hundred years and nobody really owns it yet, and I think I used it to just have a simple word for a very complex idea. So the complex idea is the ability to synthesise a lot of different kinds of data in order to make sense of a situation or a culture or a world. So a world would be the art world or the business world or the world of automobiles. So the ability to understand that through the synthesis of different kinds of data, not just one kind of data.

Alison Jones:                        And that’s the important bit, isn’t it? Because as soon as you say, “synthesising data,” people immediately think, “Oh, computers are really good at that.” But that’s kind of your whole point, isn’t it? That there is a level of data that goes beyond that.

Christian Madsbjerg:     Yeah. The book idea came through many interactions with different corporations, and seeing the mess of decisions made purely on one type of data. So in the past, I guess 10 years or so, there’s been the idea that “big data,” so a lot of data coming out of tracking devices and centres and sales data and so on, was sort of the ultimate holy grail of figuring it out. Figuring out how to make things, sell things, go to market in different parts of the world. And because of the sheer amount of data, people felt comfortable in making decisions based on that. And I’ve just seen it not working at all and the reason is obvious, because it doesn’t have any context, it doesn’t understand the human situation, and it doesn’t have any analysis or interpretation involved. It’s a myth and I just wanted to write about why it’s a myth, and how, unfortunately, understanding things are much harder than that.

So you can’t calculate, you can’t add things up in a spreadsheet and then, boom, you have the answer to everything. It is a synthesis of many types of data, and the people that are good at this have ethical data, so what’s right to do. They have cultural data, so what is appropriate in this culture to do. They have market data, of course, like how much, where’s the money, those kinds of things. And they have aesthetic things. So what would be the beautiful solution?

So many, many types of data, they somehow figure out how to synthesise into something that you can do something about. And I wanted to write that that’s a skill that exists in all of society. It’s not just in the business world, it’s not just in the academic world. Teachers have it. Conflict negotiators have it. Architects have it. And the people that are very best at their area, always excel in this particular thing.

So I wanted to write a book about how magical people are, as opposed to machines. How enormously efficient we are at understanding things, particularly each other, in a way that no machine will ever come close at doing.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah.

I really got the sense reading the book, that you’re actively trying to rebalance the scales. That we have been so much in the thrall of big data, and valuing what we call practical stuff. And one thing that really struck me, as a humanities graduate myself, was that you are very passionate and very articulate about the value of the humanities in the modern world, particularly in the business world. And the book is full of references that would be completely alien to many modern CEOs. You know, you’ve got Heidegger in there, T.S. Elliot, Rousseau and more. I was really interested in the way that you interspersed really practical business case studies, that people would be familiar from any kind of reference book, with these really highfalutin, philosophical, literary concepts. And of course, in a sense that balance reflects actually what you’re talking about in the book. But how did you go about making sure that that mix would work for the people that you wanted to read it?

Christian Madsbjerg:     So the interesting thing is, the higher you go, in big corporations, the more you will meet humanities graduates. It’s counter-intuitive, but there is sort of a glass ceiling in most big banks, in most big corporations, that above a certain level, being good at calculating things are not enough. You have to have a broad, well-read, sophisticated view at the world. So when I deal with C-level executives in big corporations, they always have an undergraduate degree in art history, or French literature, or something like that. If you look at the CEOs of the big banks, they’re historians and philosophers.

Alison Jones:                        That’s fascinating, isn’t it?

Christian Madsbjerg:     Yeah. So the people that bet only on, you could say science and technology studies, they end up not being as successful as you think they are. And in the beginning of the book, you can see that in the numbers. If you take the top 5% earners in America, they over-index vastly on humanities. Now that’s a surprise to people, but to me it’s not, because in order to deal with a very complex culture of a big corporation, many markets, and so on, the ability to understand others, to put yourself in the shoes of others, is key. When you see the really good executives … I work a lot with the chief executive of the Ford Motor Company. And he’s a well-read, rounded personality that is as literate in complex philosophy as he is in spreadsheets.

The thing is that if you want to advise your children to have a really successful career, they ought to read some books that are three, four hundred years old. And understand that understanding those books is a hard skill that you can use in your everyday activity of making product or going to market and things like that. And if you don’t do that, you will hit a glass ceiling where you’re just not sophisticated enough. You’re not broadly read enough to be promoted.

Alison Jones:                        That is absolutely fascinating and hugely encouraging, as I say, as a humanities graduate, to hear. It also really puts into sharp focus the current crisis in humanities funding, doesn’t it? It’s quite interesting that it’s a very beleaguered academic area.

Christian Madsbjerg:     Right. It is on the floor of the House in America right now, to de-fund the National Endowment of the Arts and the Humanities Research Fund. It already happened in Japan. They shut down the humanities departments in the public universities. And to me, that is not only sad, and miserable, for a country to not have any investments in that area, it’s also a very big problem for their competitiveness in the future. Because if they don’t have people with the ability to understand other cultures, other people, why people in China buy things for different reasons than they do in Michigan, they will have a hard time understand what’s going on.

And so I think it is a big competitive business mistake to cut down on humanities funding, and we should have an electorate and a government supporting people to get broad university degrees with classic abilities to understand hard books. Books from other cultures, books from other times, films from other times, and artworks from other times. And without it, we’re pretty much in the dark when we want to make cell phones for people in Indonesia, or cars from people in southern part of Brazil, because there’s no data on it, and the data you have doesn’t add up.

So you have to understand it. Humanities is not the only training ground for that. There are many people without humanities training ground that excel at this. But it’s the best training ground. It’s the most challenging and hardest training ground to understand others. It’s exactly the humanities. And if you look at the successful people in the book, they are all readers, they are all into art, they’re all into culture, even if they are investors or lawyers or other things that have very little to do with Flaubert or Martin Heidegger, but they all have this general sensitivity to the cultural output of the places that they deal with, whether that is a market or a product area or whatever they’re working in.

Alison Jones:                        So coming back to your writing approach, did you almost in a sense use that unapologetically, and say, “No, I’m going to put these references in, because the kind of people that I want to be reading this book are exactly the kind of people with whom these will resonate?” Or did you consciously struggle with that balance between the practical and then also the esoteric?

Christian Madsbjerg:     I didn’t struggle at all. For me, writing a book is primarily for yourself. It is so painful, and so horrible to write a book, that unless you’re really into writing… I mean, I find writing delightful sometimes, but most of the times I just find it quite tough. Especially the 28th edit of a chapter.

Alison Jones:                        It’s like having kids a bit this, isn’t it? This is sounding very familiar to me…

Christian Madsbjerg:     Right, yeah.

So for me, I wrote a book for myself. I wrote the book I wanted to write. And I then hoped that other people would like it and I think they will, because I’m immersed in their world all the time. It’s this idea that you have to make things dumb for things to be broad. I don’t believe that’s true at all. I think you can write things well, and try to make complicated arguments simple without making them dumb.

So I didn’t struggle at all. I want to talk up to people rather than down to people. And it also turns out when people read it, they find it delightful, that there are things in there that they didn’t think was connected. Many people have told me, how did you connect T.S. Eliot and living in the 1920s and 30s in London with Mr Ford, who changed the way we manufacture things and how we drive around in the world? And how did you connect those two things? Well they’re quite obviously connected once you start looking at it and it’s in the book. People like those thought experiments that turn out to be illuminating in a way that they didn’t think about before.

So I would advise people that want to write a book to write a book for themselves first and foremost, and not listen too much to the marketers. I find the marketers in the book publishing world hopeless and dated and completely just winging it, compared to what I’ve seen in other parts of the world. They’re just coming up with stuff when it comes to titles and front pages and so on. So they’re not advanced either, so just do whatever you think is right and I think you will be fine.

Alison Jones:                        And I think the great advantage of that of course is if you’re being true to yourself and you’re speaking the way you are, then it makes it so much easier, because the people who read your book and love it are the people with whom you’re going to want to work.

Christian Madsbjerg:     Exactly. And the people that don’t like it will tell me, and I don’t mind that they don’t like something I write as long as it’s something I find honest and clear and helpful.

Alison Jones:                        Yes. And I think that’s a really important point because it can be tempting to write to be liked, almost, or to write to appeal, as you say, to be broad. There’s a lot to be said for being Marmite.

Christian Madsbjerg:     Yes.

Alison Jones:                        I don’t know if the Marmite reference resonates with you, it’s a very British thing, sorry. But the principle of Marmite is you either love it or hate it.

Christian Madsbjerg:     Right. I particularly hate that, but I get the point.

Alison Jones:                        Okay maybe that was a bad example. I’m sorry.

Let’s talk about how the book, you’ve told me a little bit about how it was for you to write that book and why you wrote it as you did. Now that it’s out there, how does it function within your personal and professional life? And has it achieved what you set out for it to achieve when you sat down to write it?

Christian Madsbjerg:     So it’s not out yet, properly. In America, where I live.

Alison Jones:                        It will be by the time they hear this, Christian. Don’t worry.

Christian Madsbjerg:     Oh, OK, so I don’t know the precise thing about … but I don’t have any expectations. I hope it will sell well. I hope it will reach people that I didn’t reach the last time, because the last book I wrote, The Moment of Clarity, was very much a top management book. This one is a broader, more cultural book, and less of a business book, really. It is more a cultural point about the role of humans and why we’re wrong about humans right now. How particularly Silicon Valley and the tech sector simply have a very bad description of what human beings are and what we are capable of.

So I hope it stirs up some controversy. There are quite controversial parts in the book, and I already get reactions from people that are either very angry or very happy about it, and that’s exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want to write something that didn’t stir up emotions, and I think this is a topic at the heart of what we’re discussing right now with automation and AI and driverless cars and all kinds of things that we think will happen, but we’re not really sure if they will. And a lot of the bets that are made, billion dollar bets in Silicon Valley, on some of these topics are simply based on a fundamentally wrong understanding of what’s going on with humans and I just wanted to be part of that conversation.

I also want to be part of the conversation about the humanities. I think when you, on the campaign trail in America, have serious people that want to be president of America say that if you study psychology or literature, you’ll end up working in a fast food restaurant. I think that’s wrong and very problematic for a society to feel that way. So I wanted to be part of that and say, “If you have a daughter or a son that wants to study French, by all means, let them study French. They’ll find a way to use that, rather than cramming everybody into engineering courses that nobody really wants to be in.”

Alison Jones:                        I’m sure we’ll get lots of complaints from the engineers on that one, but yes, no I take your point.

Christian Madsbjerg:     If your daughter really wants to study mechanical engineering, go ahead. I have no problem with that at all. I think that it would be great. If your son wants to study math, do that, by all means. But if they do want to study philosophy, you shouldn’t make sure that they don’t do that. You should encourage that and I think, at least in America, you have an educational system that is pointed away from the humanities at a time where we need it the most. Where you have a market situation where more companies compete in more markets than ever before, and then they need people that can understand those markets, and figure out what to make and how to talk to them and how to market to them and so on.

So we’ve never had a bigger need for humanities and liberal arts degrees, and people are coming out of humanities. We’re going in the other direction when it comes to recommending it on a micro level, in families, and on a macro level, in the political sphere.

Alison Jones:                        Yeah. And that point about the fact that when we’re at our most disrupted, we most need our most human creative faculties, that was a piece of the book that really struck me, that the chapter on creativity had so many stories and quotes about how people come up with their strongest, most creative ideas. You called it a “state of grace,” which I loved. And I was interested, what did you discover about your own creativity? What works best for you in writing and generally in work?

Christian Madsbjerg:     So I had this idea of writing a chapter called “Will and Grace,” because it’s a comedy show from the 90s. Also because it’s two different versions of creativity. So will, willing something, so manufacturing ideas, is one type, one version of creativity that is rampant today. It particularly is living in corporate innovation departments but also in design companies that think that if you just have the right process, you will come up with something. So it is a willed process where you manufacture ideas. And I find that process unlikely to produce anything helpful, and I think I have 20 years of experience in dealing with that, that the ideas that come out of those kinds of places are generally unhelpful and boring. Because you can’t will creativity.

So what I wanted to describe was how truly creative people, people that come up with things, buildings, products, poetry, whatever they make, how they see it. And this is not a surprise at all to people that are creative, but there are two components to creativity. One is hard work, that in order to receive or to make great mathematical breakthroughs, you probably need to do some math. And if you want to write great poems, it’s not going to just happen by itself. You have to write a lot, read a lot, struggle with it a lot. And that’s not a politically correct message in this part of the world where it seems like the design firms are trying to convince people that creativity is easy and democratic. It’s something that everybody can do as long as we have bean bags and post-it notes, we will come up with something very new and very refreshing.

So the first part is, it’s hard and it’s not democratic. It’s the people that are working hard at something that will probably come up with great ideas. And the second part is when they get great ideas, it is experienced as if they’re receiving it. You don’t say, “I took an idea,” you say, “I got an idea.” And so the language sort of tells us the truth here. That it is something when you’re in the shower or when you’re walking the street or when you’re on the bus, because you worked hard at a problem, suddenly you receive it. And that’s a state of grace. It is a state where you feel grateful for having received an understanding of something. So I wanted to describe how politicians, executives, architects, and so on, all experience getting good ideas.

It is the idea that if you work hard at a problem, you might end up receiving from somewhere, the idea that is helpful in the moment. It’s not going to happen without the hard work, and there is no necessity that if you work … there is no linearity in terms of, if you work hard, you will receive good ideas. Which is why people that receive good ideas, the really creative people, they feel so grateful when it happens. So they’ve been struggling with a text for awhile, and suddenly they break through and figure out how to organise it in a way so other people will understand it, and you get to say what you want to say.

So this idea of creativity as something you can product versus something that you have to be grateful for when it finally happens, is to me, it’s basically an active and a passive relationship to creativity. And I believe very much in the passive relationship. It’s not that it feels passive because you have to work hard on it, but you receive it from the outside, and that’s how it’s experienced. And when you talk to anybody that is truly creative, that’s the way they experience it, that’s the way they talk about it. And this cuts across any sector, in the business world, in the financial word… They all have the same relationships with that, and I wanted to describe that in the book.

It’s annoying that you can’t just produce ideas when you want to, but that’s just not how creativity works. And it’s sort of… I’m sorry, but it just isn’t. So it’s hard and there is no guarantee. And that’s a message that, in America, when I tell corporates this, when I tell people in the corporate sector, they say, “Well how do we invest in innovation then?” Well, there’s no linearity, I’m sorry. You can’t do that. What you can do is try to make some really good things, and try to work hard at the things you do, rather than hoping that it’s some sort of machine where you can crank out ideas.

Alison Jones:                        And how does that help… so I absolutely get what you’re saying and I think that it’s change favours the prepared mind, as well. You can’t guarantee that the sleet of inspiration, I think Terry Pratchett called it, will come, but you can put yourself in the way of it. And you need to do the groundwork so that you’re ready for it when it does come.

So one thing I always ask my guests to do is to give their best tip for a first time business book author. There is a lot of slog involved in writing a book. You know that, I know that. People listening to this know that. What can you give them by way of practical advice or hope to hang on to?

Christian Madsbjerg:     Yeah.

Well, I was thinking the best piece about writing I have ever read was a piece by George Orwell called Politics in the English Language. And in there, he writes about how… it’s a short essay. And he writes about how the language of politicians have been corrupted and that eventually ended up in 1984. But he writes about how to make sure that you don’t write in clichés by not putting things into words before you understand the feeling you want to convey. And I think everybody should read that. He has this mantra. I think it’s him, that has this mantra that every sentence should be on trial for its existence. And that’s a good way to start writing. It’s a tough way, but writing is tough.

I would read that piece, Politics in the English Language, and say, “Do I have something to say that is a feeling rather than cliché words that are already prepared?” Because if they’re cliché words that are already prepared, you probably don’t have anything original to say. So it’s a good test on if you have something to say. And if you do, it’s worth the struggle of writing.

Alison Jones:                        I love that. And I haven’t read that essay. It sounds like a very timely essay as well, actually.

Christian Madsbjerg:     It should be forced upon people.

Alison Jones:                        Now that’s a bit Orwellian, isn’t it, in itself?

Christian Madsbjerg:     Exactly. With, then, open the eyes of people so they’re forced to read it.

No, it’s a very kind, loving essay of the English language and learning how to say things that aren’t cliché. Which is a hard thing to do, because we’re so used to it. It’s a good challenge to take. Take the Orwell challenge-

Alison Jones:                        Take the Orwell Test..

Christian Madsbjerg:     Before you start … write anything.

Alison Jones:                        Brilliant. Thank you.

And another question that I always ask my guests is could they recommend someone that I should invite as a guest onto the show? So someone with something interesting to say about the business of business books or about business in general, actually, or writing in general.

Christian Madsbjerg:     Yeah. So I was thinking about one person. If you read magazines, the big essays in the Wired magazine, or Fast Company. The business magazines, or if you read most business books that aren’t original, that have nothing original to say, they all have a very easy time recommending what to do when you’re in the thick of change. So I would think it would be nice for your podcast to talk to somebody that is exactly in the middle of everything. So the Chief Technology Office at the Ford Motor Company is called Raj Nair, and he is the guy that is making the bets for a 150 billion dollar company, 10 years into the future, about what to make in order to save the company.

So he is literally in the middle of the transition from an automotive company that manufactures things, to a service company that is embedded in all kinds of technologies at the same time, and it’s a little easier to write a book or a front page essay in Wired magazine talking about what the future’s like than it is actually doing it.

So he’s the guy with the risk on his shoulders, and I think he should read a book, should write a book, sorry. He certainly reads books. But he should write a book about it one day, he just doesn’t have the time right now because he has reality to deal with. And I think he would be an amazing guest in your show.

Alison Jones:                        He would be absolutely fascinating and bring a very different perspective to most of the more reflective authors who, as you say, are not quite in the arena in the same way.

Fantastic. What a great tip. Thank you.

Now Christian, if people want to find out more about you, about your books, and about ReD associates, where should they go?

Christian Madsbjerg:     So ReD Associates is ReDAssociates.com, and there’s a lot of material about what we do and the way we work and how we use human science to understand business problems. So that’s probably a good reference, there’s a lot of little films, so you don’t have to read much, which is nice. And then there is my old book, called The Moment of Clarity, that was published by Harvard Business Press. And then I know Hachette, my publisher now, will have, if you search Hachette and my book Sensemaking, you would find sort of a micro-site with quotes and reviews and that sort of thing.

Alison Jones:                        Brilliant. Well I’ll put those links up in the show notes so everybody can go straight from there if they want to see them.

But thank you for an absolutely fascinating conversation today. I have really enjoyed that. Thank you.

Christian Madsbjerg:     Thank you so much Alison. Have a good day.

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