Episode 74 – Reader-centric writing with Matt Watkinson

The Grid by Matt Watkinson‘If you want to be a good designer, you don’t really bring an ego to the work, you listen to what people say and you try and design the most customer-centric thing that you can and I’ve tried my best to bring that mentality to writing. A book ultimately is a product.’

Matt Watkinson’s first book, The Ten Principles Behind Great Customer Experiences, won the CMI Management Book of the Year award, so it’s clear this approach is working well for him.

In this interview he explains how he set about writing his new book The Grid: The Decision‑Making Tool for Every Business (Including Yours). When he was asked at a conference what his second book would be, Matt answered “Oh it’s a single model that’s going to explain all the factors that make a business succeed or fail and it’ll fit on a single page.” The entire audience burst into hysterical laughter, but he was quite serious.

This is a superb example of how a distinctive model can underpin a book, and also a generous, entertaining interview.

You’ll also hear the suppressed squeal in my voice as I announce some big news of my own…



LINKS:

Matt Watkinson’s page: http://www.matt-watkinson.com/

The Grid on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Grid-Decision-Making-Every-Business-Including/dp/1847947948

Alison Jones:                        Hello and welcome to The Extraordinary Business Book Club, and today I’m here with Matt Watkinson, who is a customer experience guru. He’s worked with some of the world’s biggest brands, and his first book, The Ten Principles Behind Great Customer Experiences, which was commissioned by the FT, the Financial Times, was the CMI’s Management Book of the Year in 2014. So, quite a high bar to start with. His new book is called The Grid: The Decision-Making Tool for Every Business (Including Yours). Welcome to the show, Matt.

Matt Watkinson:               Thank you very much for having me, Alison.

Alison Jones:                        It’s great to have you here. Now let’s start. Just tell us a little bit about yourself and about your business, and how you came to write The Grid.

Matt Watkinson:               Well, it’s a bit of a long and winding story. After the first book came out and did what it did, it was pretty successful, as you’ve mentioned, I was kind of promoted out of harm’s way from my job at the time as I was writing the book, and in the 10 years prior to that, I was a doer more than a thinker. I was actually in the trenches designing the kinds of experiences that I advocate in that book, using the principles from that book to help organisations to become more customer centric and improve the experience that they provide. But after the book came out, the interest from the kind of clients and organisations that I was working with was they wanted more guidance on the strategic side of things, rather than actually paying me to actually do the work which I would’ve done before. So that exposed me much more to how large organisations go about making these kind of strategic decisions, how they go about identifying the root causes of problems, and that kind of thing.

So that’s how I ended up moving or segueing away from customer experience into more strategic matters, especially the strategic aspects of marketing, and that’s what set the ground, if you like, for me then writing the second book on The Grid, because what I found was that … And it’s a fairly well understood problem, of course, but a business is a system where everything is interconnected, so you can’t really change one aspect of it without it having a knock on effect toward the others.

You can’t, it’s quite a common phenomenon, for example, that an organisation will cut costs, and in cutting costs, they compromise the quality of their product, the customers swap to a different brand, and they lose revenue, so actually, they’re less profitable, not more. And there are all sorts of similar scenarios where you have these second order effects, but there weren’t really any tools or models that allowed people from different departments to come together and think about the broader consequences of their decision making, and that was really the genesis of the second book.

Alison Jones:                        I love that story you tell about the sort of aha moment when a physio is working on you, just tell us that story, because I think it’s so interesting the way, also, that everything that’s going on around you feeds your mind when you’re in that space of curiosity in writing a book.

Matt Watkinson:               Oh, sure. Well, yeah, what happened was I had arthroscopic surgery on both of my knees at the same time, actually, which was an interesting experience, because I had this pain in both my knees after I’d been working out quite a bit, and it turned out that even six months, a year down the line, that hadn’t fixed the problem, and eventually, I ended up in the hands of a sports rehab therapist who took photos of me from different angles and pointed out, basically, that the problem was being caused by muscle imbalances in my hips, shoulders, and back, and that my knees were just feeling the repercussions of that; they weren’t actually the problem area, which left quite a profound impression of me. Having obviously gone through the pain of surgery, I was not best pleased about that.

But it did really reinforce this message, which was what I was experiencing at work, that you can’t look at things in isolation, whether it’s a human body or a corporation. Now the word corporation derives from of one body, the Latin. So you can’t look at these things in isolation, so my route into understanding a business as a system actually came through asking my rehab therapist for books that she would recommend on how they go about solving these complex problems. So I kind of segued from customer experience into human anatomy, and into strategy.

But I’m always reading, trying to see what I can learn from outside the discipline. I’ve learned some really interesting things just by being curious and looking at other fields. I think if your thinking is kind of limited to the business canon, you’re only going to come up with solutions that other people have had, and it can be, it can just open the opportunity to innovate and do things differently if you start to borrow ideas from different professions. In the first book, I borrowed a lot of ideas, actually, from the Stanislavsky system, which is a way that, it’s a system of method acting which teaches people how to get into character, and I was able to borrow some of those techniques to help people in business understand their customers better by applying exactly those same techniques. So yeah, I’m very fond of looking at things from that I can borrow or steal from different disciplines, basically.

Alison Jones:                        I think that’s so interesting. I love it, because I think it’s part of creativity as well, creativity is bringing two unlike things and creating something new. But it does help you to write, you just see things through a different lens, and that can be the shift that you need. It’s fascinating. And it strikes me as well that in academia, we’ve gone through that phase where people get so deep into their niche, into their specialism that they’re almost lost touch with everything else and I think this is of increasing cross-disciplinary, interdisciplinary movement now to actually get things done. So true. I think one of the things that struck me moving out of specialised functions in big corporates into being an entrepreneur is that suddenly you just have this sense of the whole business and how one lever affected another in a completely new way.

Matt Watkinson:               Yeah, that’s definitely true and I think that in an large organisation it’s not so much how good you are at your job that is the challenge, it’s how all of these separate things come together to form a cohesive and coherent whole. You even see it in sports, 11 great players don’t necessarily result in a great team. One analogy that a friend of mine used to describe the model in the book was he said, it’s just not true that you can solve a Sudoku puzzle by giving each of the nine squares to a different person. It’s not going to work. And the same is equally true in business decision making.

We’ve seen some really, really high profile case studies where this reductionist thinking of not thinking about the broader consequences of decisions, whether it’s the Volkswagen scandal or whether it’s Wells Fargo or BA and their recent tech headaches. These are all examples of where people are fixated on optimising one particular aspect of the business whether it’s sales volume or whether it’s cost control and the rest of the organisation is compromised severely by just optimising that one variable. I think as businesses get larger and as people’s individual skills become more specialised what people really need to start focusing on is bringing their general knowledge up to the standard of their specialism. The book is really going to help people with that.

Alison Jones:                        And it is, it’s a lovely model, it’s very easy to get your head around but it allows you to zoom into different parts and understand them all. ‘Cause something that really struck me in the book which I had never before, there’s a quote by mathematician George Box, “All models are wrong but some are useful.” Which I thought was brilliant. But what are the pros and cons for you of working with a model like that. In a sense you have to simplify things to make people understand it but how does that impact on your own thinking as a strategist and a writer?

Matt Watkinson:               Well I think that everybody is far easier to make decisions if you’re working from some kind of theory. You wouldn’t for example, expect that an engineer at Boeing just uses a wind tunnel to make, to design an aeroplane. You’d hope that they know the basic laws of physics, you’d hope that they’ve got a way of structuring their thinking which makes that decision making and that design process much more efficient and effective.

My personal take on The Grid, the model that I’ve created, is that it’s really mental scaffolding to help you get to a better decision. It’s not a set of rules. It’s not a prescriptive method for doing business or making business decisions. It’s really there to just help you have more structured ways of thinking and to collaborate more effectively with other people in your organisation by allowing people to see the perspective of different disciplines. It’s almost like if you can agree that the grid itself is right, then you can start to see other people’s perspectives much more easily. Finance can see the marketing view of the world. Design can see the accounting view of the world and my hope is that starts to build more cohesive teams. That people will find some of these discussions become much easier. That it will take the heat of them because people have a more systematic or structured way of thinking about things.

As you know having read the book, one of the striking themes of the book is that you only really need to miss one or maybe two of these elements that are in the grid and it can cause you a lot of problems if not outright failure in some cases. I’m hoping that it will just allow people to see their organisation, their decisions from all the perspectives that matter and make better decisions as a result.

Alison Jones:                        I think the scaffolding metaphor’s a good one. And one thing I did really like about this model is that as you say, it doesn’t force people too much, it gives you the framework and then you have to go and do the work of what that means in your organisation. So you don’t have that, I think sometimes when I see models and I know working with some clients, they fall in love with their own model and it limits their thinking somehow. But I like your model because it is quite broad. It is just a sort of series, almost like a checklist in the different areas. And that forces you to do the work, to populate each box in the grid yourself.

Matt Watkinson:               I think that’s true. And semantically it’s just a next step on from the first book. The first book was to try and give people a way of really understanding what makes a customer experience good or bad by really digging as deep as I could into the strata or bedrock of that topic and getting right down to fundamentals that anybody could get their head around and are very easy to apply in practise. Are we making things more effortless for the customer? Are we eliminating stress? Have we thought about the expectation side of things?

And semantically as a blueprint The Grid takes the same approach which is, to really dig as deep as I could into the underlying fundamentals of what makes a business succeed or fail and then present those in as a clearer as reader centric way as possible to allow people to actually action those insights as quickly and easily as possible. The whole thing is written with a very sincere desire to help people make better decisions by giving them the knowledge that they need to do that. And a structured way to think through the decisions that they need to make whether they’re the CEO of a Fortune 100 company or whether they’re thinking of starting a village florist. Ultimately a business is a particular kind of system. And when you understand how that system works, you can start to make better decisions and that’s what The Grid is all about.

Alison Jones:                        This is interesting, I really noted the fact your first book was specifically on customer experience. That’s your background. And that the second book broadens out the discussion. It’s more universal than that first book which I think I’ve seen in many writers. Was that a conscious strategy to establish yourself first in your specialist area and then write more broadly? Or did it just evolve like that?

Matt Watkinson:               I think if I said yes I would be lying, I’m not that organised.

Alison Jones:                        Would have been a great strategy.

Matt Watkinson:               It would have been a great strategy to just start in my niche and then expand outwards. In reality what was happening was that I was just trying to solve the problems that were present in my environment and see these challenges that people often moan about. We’re all in silos. The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand’s doing. That kind of thing. See them as opportunities and as ways to help people and things to explore and that was it really. The customer experience book was written because I’d been doing that job for a number of years and could see that people just didn’t have a way of looking at these things objectively.

The Grid is exactly the same thematically, it’s just on a different topic. My strength as a writer is really in being able to explain things simply and clearly rather necessarily than coming up with these amazing totally new kind of paradigms. Some people think that The Grid is a new way of thinking about business but really it’s in the explanation and it’s distillation down of these things into simple usable and pragmatic tools and ways of thinking that have results in the real world. It’s not written for me, it’s written for the readership. And it’s certainly my hope that it will have a real impact on how people go about making decisions.

Alison Jones:                        And I have to say your background and we talked about customer experience, actually your background for the back is in user experience, isn’t it? Web design.

Matt Watkinson:               Yeah, very early on although as I said, I’ve been promoted out of harm’s way. I haven’t actually designed anything for quite a while.

Alison Jones:                        I do think that shows through though, there’s something about the user focus of the book. And just for example the executive summaries. You do some deep dives into each area and there’s this executive summary section and it’s genius. Just tell us a little bit about how that came about.

Matt Watkinson:               I consider it a tremendous advantage going into writing having been a designer first and foremost because design is really a problem solving mentality that takes the user not only into consideration but puts them centre stage in your problem solving approach. It’s really although it may sound a bit weird, I kind of design the book and then I write the words if that makes sense.

Alison Jones:                        That makes complete sense.

Matt Watkinson:               In my job as a designer it would be pretty common that you’d sit in a room and you’d look through one of those smoke mirrors or you’d be watching it on a camera and you’d see people using the thing that you designed. And they would say, “I like this.” Or, “I don’t get this.” Or, “This is confusing.” And you could see maybe with some early prototypes that people would struggle with things. As a designer if you want to be a good designer, you don’t really bring an ego to the work, you listen to what people say and you try and design the most customer-centric thing that you can and I’ve tried my best to bring that mentality to writing.

A book ultimately is a product. It’s written for a target user or reader or customer or whatever label you want to put on that. And the whole structuring of the book to have this fast-track section at the beginning, to have an executive summary that you could whip through really in no time. To have this further reading, to have a structure that takes you progressively from a very high level and then down another level and then down a third level into those individual chapters. Even right down to how the book was edited and consolidated. We went to really quite extraordinary lengths to cut any kind of fat off it, to use language that people are going to understand, to use real world examples but maybe a little quirky ones that people won’t be so familiar with. All of this was done to try and create as pleasurable and efficient reading experience as possible.

So it’s very much been an active decision to do those things. I hear from business leaders and colleagues all the time, “Oh I’m just too busy. I don’t have time to read.” So what are you going to do? Are you going to try and push water uphill and get them to read a much bigger book or are you going to make it as accessible and reader centric as possible and allow them to follow their nose and go to the topics that they really care about, that are going to give them the most value? Of course you are. We’ve really tried to make it a very reader-centric product and I’m really pleased to hear from you that that’s, we’ve succeeded in that’s come across in the text.

Alison Jones:                        And I think for somebody like me who’s always very aware of structure it makes sense because The Grid itself is structured but the book reflects that. It’s a very tidy mind that you have there Matt. It works really well.

Matt Watkinson:               I’m not sure it’s that tidy. I’ve got about a third of the way through and I was dissatisfied with the structure and I actually started again. It’s not necessarily a natural thing, it’s more just about having the commitment to taking feedback from people. You’ve got to have as a writer a kind of bizarre combination of confidence and self belief on one hand and humility on the other hand. You’ve got to… if people are giving you well intentioned feedback you’ve really got to suck it up and take that on board and use that to improve the product but you’ve got to have absolute belief in your vision at the same time and try and reconcile those as you move forward.

Alison Jones:                        At what point do you take that out to the world and allow people to give you feedback? How far do you have to get along fleshing out your own model before it’s ready to get the earliest feedback? What’s your point at which you throw it over the wall?

Matt Watkinson:               It’s quite emergent, my approach to doing that. I ask for feedback all the time but generally from people where I know that they know better than me. I’ve got a kind of brain trust of people who are really very experienced and very smart in all sorts of different kinds of areas. I’ve also got some very unlucky friends who happen to be really good at being very concise and have no tolerance for flim flam or that kind of thing or jargon who very kindly went through the manuscript and were able to help me condense it even further and tighten it up.

It really depends on what kind of feedback I’m looking for. Whether I’m looking for feedback on the idea. Whether I’m looking for feedback on how the idea is being communicated. That kind of thing. It emerges as I go along. The first piece of feedback that I actually had on The Grid, somebody asked me at a conference, I’ll never forget this, in San Francisco, when we see the home of all of these bonkers entrepreneurs, what’s your second book about? And I said, “Oh it’s a single model that’s going to explain all the factors that make a business succeed or fail and it’ll fit on a single page.” And the entire audience burst into hysterical laughter. That was actually the first feedback I got. We’ve come a long way since then.

Alison Jones:                        And who’s laughing now?

Matt Watkinson:               Like I say, you’ve got to do the research. I’ve read, I gathered 280,000 words of notes to write that book. I’ve read way over 300 books on my fields and the things that I’ve written about in The Grid. I kind of felt like I was on solid ground. I wasn’t just making it up as I went along. I had faith in the idea but you’ve got to get people to help you with the execution if you really want to have a polished manuscript in my opinion.

Alison Jones:                        And when you say get people to help you, tell me a little bit more about what you mean by that.

Matt Watkinson:               Well I just think the concept of the lone genius striking out on their own, working in absolute isolation is a fantasy. If you want to create something that’s great, especially something as time consuming as writing a book, you can get lost in a book very, very easily when you’re writing. You can very easily get lost in your own ideas, you can lose the wood for the trees. That’s definitely true. You can drift, you can drift off topic and you can start writing for yourself or for your own gratification rather than for the reader. And you can start to include things that maybe you think are really fun and interesting and exciting that maybe the readership aren’t really going to care about.

A book is very much a team effort. I was very fortunate with the team at Random House who are just amazing at everything, at all parts of the editorial process. It’s really a team effort if you want it to be great. Some people said after the first book, “Well are you going to, do you think you’ll self publish the second one?” And I was like, oh my god there’s no way I would. It fills me with horror the thought of having to do all of it myself. When I realise just how important the contributions of other people are to making these things a success and people acting as a sounding board and helping you. You should think of a book as you would any other product. Nobody these days, if it’s a well run organisation would dream of launching a new product without testing it with people first to see whether they like it and doing their market research. And I really see that a book is no different.

Alison Jones:                        There’s a good reason why every book has a fulsome acknowledgment to its editor. The editor is a very underrated role I think.

Matt Watkinson:               Yeah, I think it’s a very, one of the things I’ve noticed myself as I’ve matured as a writer and as I’ve read a lot more is sometimes when I’m reading books I think, “Oh this could have been a five star book with a better editor.” I think that’s maybe something that readers don’t pick up on unless they’re also writers. It can be a very difficult job though to reign in a writer, especially if they get kind of precious about their words. Fortunately I’ve never really suffered from that problem. I just want it to be the best that it can be and I don’t care where the ideas come from or who gets the credit. I just want to get to the end and for everyone to feel really proud of what we’ve produced.

Alison Jones:                        You’re an editor’s dream.

Matt Watkinson:               I don’t know that Nigel would say that.

Alison Jones:                        I’ll ask Nigel, we’ll see what he says. What’s your one best tip Matt? If somebody’s listening to this going, nearly there, nearly there, I’m still in this slough of getting this thing pulled together: what one tip would you give them to help them get through and get that book finished?

Matt Watkinson:               One tip. I don’t know that I could give one. I think there tend to be a handful of things that come up time and time again. Because people do ask me quite frequently if I have advice for people who want to write a business book. I think the first thing is that you have to accept that setbacks are normal. You have to enjoy the process rather than just thinking about the destination with a book otherwise you’ll drive yourself insane. You’ve got to enjoy the process of writing it rather than just focusing on having written a book because otherwise you’ll lose patience with it.

And what you really have to do is when it starts going wrong or when you have setbacks or when you have bad days when the words aren’t flowing or you just can’t seem to get it right or the chapter just isn’t coming together, you should never beat yourself up about that because that’s as much a part of the process as anything else. That’s normal. That happens to… literally everybody has those problems. No one sits down and just types out 80,000 words as if they were processing data in an accounting office. It’s not like that. It’s as much a part of the process to have those setbacks as anything else.

In fact I would go as far to say if you’re not having those then what you’re writing probably isn’t going to be much good. Because you’re challenging yourself while you’re doing this. It should be a challenge, there should be a lot of personal and professional growth involved in the research and the writing of the text. A lot of people get disheartened because it’s hard. Well of course it’s hard, you’re writing a book. You’ve got to commit to the long haul and accept this is a multi-year project that’s going to be tremendously difficult but tremendously rewarding and that these setbacks are normal.

The other thing that I’m always, always saying to writers when they start out and they seem to want to ignore me but I’ll keep saying it is focus on getting the structure and the proposal right. It’s like painting a room or something. The hard bit is masking everything off and moving all the furniture out and putting down the dustsheets and all that stuff and then painting it is quite easy. Doing a jigsaw, you do the outside first and then filling in the middle is much easier. I think with a book a lot of people struggle because they start writing, because they think a book is all about writing, which it kind of is, and then they get to the critical point and they suddenly realise I’ve got to start again, the structure isn’t right, I haven’t really thought this through, I’ve written myself into a hole that I can’t get out of and they get disheartened.

I always say, go in slow and you’ll come out fast. Focus on getting a really, really brilliant, really clearly structured proposal and the book will almost write itself at that point. The proposal for The Grid took me over two years to get it to a point where I was happy and my agent was happy with it and then we were able to secure a wonderful deal with an excellent publisher. Many publishers were interested in the book and that’s because of taking the time at the beginning to try and really get the structure down. Really understand who the readership is and not just try to rush into the fun part of writing it. I really wish people would take that one piece of advice. It would save them a lot of heartache. There we go.

Alison Jones:                        That’s awesome advice. And you’re so right. It’s so dull getting that masking tape, you just want to start slapping paint on, but what a great metaphor.

Matt Watkinson:               There are so many books where, or so many people I know they have great ideas, they’re tremendous thinkers but they lose patience because they’ve rushed into it and they’ve found themselves in a position that there’s no way back from. Structure and proposal first and then the book kind of writes itself later.

Alison Jones:                        Brilliant. Thoroughly endorse that advice. Wonderful, thank you. Now I always ask guests on the show to recommend someone as a guest following them. Who would you recommend that I invite on? Somebody with something interesting to say about the business of business books?

Matt Watkinson:               Well I think, what with his name having come up already, you could do a lot worse than talking to Nigel my editor at Random House. Nigel Wilcockson, he’s an industry veteran, he’s the brains behind many of the best business books certainly that I’ve read and he has possibly a very unique perspective on the industry as an insider who’s dealt with many, many authors writing many, many different kinds of books. I think he would be a very interesting person to talk to about it.

Alison Jones:                        Brilliant.

Matt Watkinson:               You’d have to ask him yourself. He’s certainly done a tremendous job of shepherding this book through to completion and I owe him a debt of gratitude. It’s only right that I put him in the hot seat to pay him back I suppose. There we go.

Alison Jones:                        That’s wonderful. I love talking to editors and publishers as well as authors so that would be terrific. And I don’t know Nigel personally so that’d be great to meet him as well. Thank you, I shall get in touch.

Now if people want to find out more about you Matt and more about The Grid, where should they go?

Matt Watkinson:               Well The Grid will be on sale on Amazon from the 24th of August. If you just want to just get yourself a copy in the UK you can go to Amazon or of course the retailer of your choice. It’s in hardback, paperback and ebooks as well. If you want to get in touch with me or know more about the kind of work that I do you can visit our website which is just Matt-Watkinson.com.

Alison Jones:                        Wonderful. Thank you so much that was fascinating and so much really, really good advice and interesting insights into how you put the book together. Thank you so much for your time.

Matt Watkinson:               It’s my pleasure Alison. Thank you so much.

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