Episode 219 – Jigsaw writing with Patrick Dunne

Patrick Dunne‘I decided not to do research, then write, then polish, but to have a big jigsaw approach, and do each day what I felt like doing. So if I felt like doing a bit of research, I would, if I felt actually I’ve got some stuff in my mind. I want to get down then I’d write and if I just fancied sort of finishing, polishing, I’d do a bit of that.’

Patrick Dunne fell into writing books by accident. The main reason he agreed to write one in the first place back in 1997 was because he knew his Mum would be so proud. Little did he guess just how proud she’d be over 20 years when he won the Business Book Award in HR & Management with his latest book, Boards.

His refreshingly original approach to writing and publishing together with a complete absence of ego make this a real joy of a conversation, full of practical ideas for people who like to do things a little differently.


LINKS:

Patrick on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/patrickdunne2/ 

Boards on the Governance site: https://www.governance.co.uk/boards/?v=79cba1185463

Patrick on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Boardsbook

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

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

PI Virtual Writing Retreat, starts 25 May 2020: https://alisonjones.lpages.co/virtual-writing-retreat/

PI-Q webinar: Customer Success – A matter of business life or death, 10 June 2020: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/pi-q-webinar-customer-success-a-matter-of-business-life-or-death-tickets-105026001598

See all PI-Q webinars and replay links: https://practicalinspiration.com/pi-q

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge Sep 2020: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/

Alison Jones

I’m here today with Patrick Dunne, who has extensive experience of working with boards around the world in the business, public body education and social sectors. He chairs board consultancy Boardelta, and the charities, EY Foundation and ESA education. Sub Saharan Africa is a trustee of the Chartered Management Institute, visiting professor at Cranfield and the founder of Warwick in Africa. And he’s also the author of several books, most recently Boards, which won the HR and Management Business Book Award 2020 So welcome to the show, Patrick.

Patrick Dunne

Thank you. It’s good to be here.

Alison Jones

It’s a wonderfully punchy title, isn’t it? It hasn’t even got a subtitle. It’s just ‘Boards’. And it does what it says on the tin.

Patrick Dunne

Yes. And it doesn’t even have my name on the cover either. It’s a wonderful design from a young Swedish lady, Zia Lindstrom.

Alison Jones

It’s very minimalist, which is lovely, actually, when we’re in a world of all those very long subtitle, this is very striking. So, obviously, your background, it’s in boards, clearly, but it’s not the most obvious title for a book or topic for a book. Just tell us a little bit about where you are coming from and why you thought this book was essential.

Patrick Dunne

Well, I suppose I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, well, what’s the point of boards? How can you make them better both, you know, as an investor, when I was in private equity, but also in building social enterprise, I wanted to have the best board I could and have it working in the best way and I found it actually quite difficult to find readable, accessible practical things about what really happens in boards, what things you really have to do. And I just thought,  if you went to Google and you put in, want a book on boards, and then I thought, actually, I wonder if anyone’s got the title Boards, and no one did. So I thought, well, that’s it. That that’s quite a good title.

Alison Jones

That was easy.

Patrick Dunne

That does what it says, yes. And that seems to be the feedback. We’ve had terrific feedback from people about the simplicity of it. And I wanted to carry that through the book as well and make it really accessible and practical. There’s a balance of having proper frameworks to do things but also some real nitty gritty case studies that that I think represent what often happens in boards, I think gives it that combination.

Alison Jones

And you’re absolutely right about that, it really struck me as a linear sort of three part structure there because It is it’s an odd mix of really quite technical governance stuff, and then really, you know, messy people stuff.

Patrick Dunne

Yes. And I suppose I’m I’m a mathematician by background, and I like to have a model of structure, but I also know that life’s a bit more chaotic than that. So I like to have.. so for all the ideas I sort of put forward, I like to see there’s some basic evidence, there’s some sort of proof point that that does actually work. It’s really enjoyable finding proper evidence for things that I just believed in, if you like, and thought would work. So I really find that bit of writing the book enjoyable, the research.

Alison Jones

So tell me a little bit more about that research process. I mean, obviously, you had a huge background experience of your own to draw on and lots of stories which you have beautifully anonymized. But how else did you go about finding filling the gaps and finding the stories that you didn’t know?

Patrick Dunne

Yes, well, I, I think there’s three bits to writing a book as I saw it. There’s the research, there’s the writing, and then there’s the polishing and editing.

Alison Jones

The rewriting.

Patrick Dunne

Yes. And I really love big jigsaws, so I took a jigsaw approach to it. I travel a lot, so probably spend – well, not now but I probably spent about a week a month  in Africa, and so a lot of time on planes and airports and hanging about. And so what I decided to do is to give myself six months to write it, and I decided not to do research, then write, then polish, but to have like a big jigsaw approach, and do each day what I felt like doing. So if I felt like doing a bit of research, I would, if I felt actually I’ve got some stuff in my mind. I want to get down then I’d write and if I just fancied sort of finishing, polishing, I’d do a bit of that. And actually, the book was not written in sequential order. It was written in a patchwork-y, jigsaw-y type of way. And I found as I wrote, I thought, well, that’s what I think. How do I know that’s true? What do other people think? So I found that sort of iterative process, really, really useful. You know, the way of thinking something, talking to people, seeing what proper hard research there was on that, then finessing it. So it was quite an interesting, maybe not the best way to write a book, but it was the best way for me. I found that a really helpful thing and it was six months from elapsed time from start to finish and alongside sharing a few things and, and all that it wasn’t a hugely lengthy process.

Alison Jones

I love the jigsaw metaphor, it sounds like quite an intuitive thing as well, as you say, just going with what you. It’s like trusting your body to eat the right thing, isn’t it? ‘I need this right now.’ But I’m imagining that there would be… for me, I would never want to do the rewriting, because that’s not my favourite bit. Are you quite a disciplined person? Did you find you have to temper your intuitive approach with a little bit of structure, if you know what needs doing? I’m really fascinated by that approach.

Patrick Dunne

Yes, so I’m also mildly dyslexic. So I miss words and sentences when I read or write sometimes. And so I also needed someone to check the grammar. So I wrote every word of the book, but I also needed someone to check grammar, spelling and things like that, which I found really helpful. And I only wanted them to have to do that once, so that gave me that kind of incentive and discipline to try and get it right first time. Having been a Comms Director in a FTSE100, where you’re, you’re bashing out press releases, you’re doing quarterly results statements, Stock Exchange announcements, all these sorts of things, there’s no room for error. You know, it has to be right. So I suppose the discipline that was just ingrained through through doing that probably probably helped quite a bit and carve out sort of my innate sloppiness if you like.

Alison Jones

And this this is not the first book you’ve written. Is this the first book you’ve written in this way? And how did it compare with how you’ve worked before?

Patrick Dunne

It’s exactly how I wrote the others. You’ve got your method you stick to it. I wrote my first book in 1997. I was quite young, and I had been encouraged to write a book because of the stuff I was doing around training directors within companies and I didn’t think that I could write a book I because of my mild dyslexia. So I wrote a pamphlet, a six-page pamphlet with some cartoons in it, and we printed these and we put them in the lobbies of our offices and, and within a few months about 13,000 of the things had gone. So people, the things I was saying, it was called Running Board Meetings, seem to strike a chord and then a publisher, Kogan Page, said,  well, why don’t you turn this into a book? Ooh, don’t know, and I hesitated a bit, but then I thought, I thought my mum would be really proud.

Alison Jones

Well, what more do you need?

Patrick Dunne

Yes, so I did it and that one did very well. And then I did Directors Dilemmas, the next book was 25 case studies, and that did well. And that was in 2000. And then I did another one, a Non-Exec Handbook, and then I got into this sort of ritual of the new editions where, you know, you have to do new editions if they  prove to to work. And I got really bored with doing new editions because you have to change 15% for it to be a new edition and I just was fiddling around for fiddling around’s sake and so I decided I’d have a break. But that break turned out to be about 16 years, which is a long break.  I was doing lots of other things, as you can see from my bio, but I got pushed by the FT to do the latest one and Lesley Stephenson at Governance in particular who run the FT’s board director programs, because they wanted a book for the participants in their development programs, which was a mix of, what you have to do the regulations or that sort of thing, but also the practicalities. And they needed some case studies. So that’s how that’s how the latest thing came out. And I really was glad I got back to it. And I might do some more now. I’m sort of encouraged by the response, as long as I don’t have to do loads of editions.

Alison Jones

That’s 16 years and I’m back in the swing now. Love that and let’s just talk about the theory-practice, blend, because I think that that is so core to this book, I love the way as well, you have to cannibalize, that sounds a terribly cruel word, I don’t mean that, but you you’ve dug into the Directors Dilemmas that you did back in 2000. Because actually, they were perfect for this book. So just tell us about that process. What was it like to revisit that stuff and how did you reshape it for the new book?

Patrick Dunne

Well, I thought some of them have turned out to be classics. I mean, one of the things I know your audience, other writers, one things I hadn’t realized was that was the wonderful world of photocopying royalties. When I did my first book I got, you know, invited to join ALCS and send them a cheque. And then they would collect photocopy royalties. And I thought this was a bit of a scam. And so, you know, why would I do that? And I sent off the cheque for a relatively modest amount, and I think £1000 came back, just like that, because business schools were copying the case studies, and I thought, well, that’s pretty interesting. So my commercial side thought, actually, that’s kind of good thing to do. But I didn’t want to just issue again, the case studies I’d already done. Some of them needed a little bit of refreshing but actually not much. But what I wanted to do is to do some new ones because I’d had a whole load of different experiences this time working with boards and I wanted to have more on the social sector in there as well, which I’ve done, and the one that seems to be really popular is the ‘too many cooks’ case which is about a big social sector organization and you know, it’s just chaotic in terms of the governance and it’s all about how you move from that to a better place.

Alison Jones

So fantastic that the case studies you could you see that what people were copying… Did you get a sense of what cases were landing?

Patrick Dunne

I couldn’t from the statement I had, but I could from the various emails and messages I got. And also the it’s been quite entertaining because I’ve had one person already ring me up and say, ‘Who told you about this particular dilemma in the book?’ and I said, ‘What?’ He said ‘Well, you’ve written all about me and my company.” And I said, “Well, I don’t recognize your voice – who are you?” And he said, “I’m not telling you.” “So how do I know whether I can tell you it was you or not? But I don’t recognize your voice.” So eventually we played this game of ‘I’ll show me yours and you show mine’ type of thing. And then he eventually cracked and said, “Oh, my name’s…”, you know, whatever. And I said, “It’s not you mate.”

Alison Jones

“But how funny that you completely recognize yourself.”

Patrick Dunne

Yes, “But this is interesting, you know, do you need some help, or…” that was that was quite funny. So I’ve had, you know, interesting experiences like that. There’s something in the book about removing directors, not this one, in a previous book as well. And I had someone ring me up and say, from Australia and say, “Good morning, I’m just about to fire someone. And I thought I’d just run through a few of the final things before I do.” And, so I think, you know, when you put yourself out there a bit by doing a book, you kind of have to expect, you know, the good and the crazy that goes with it.

Alison Jones

That’s hilarious. And was there anything about writing this time? Because it’s a very different world, isn’t it? I mean, obviously, the stuff has changed, I imagine probably not as much has changed in Board Governance has changed in other sectors, you know, disruption has, has been kinder to other sectors than others, and that the sort of Central processes of governance and how people operate together, you know, that’s the same as it’s always been. But in terms of the writing and the publishing, it’s a very different world when you were first writing back in 1997. What did you notice about that?

Patrick Dunne

Yes, it is very different. So I think I remember there was someone I met and he knew that I was writing this book and he said, “Well, how long is it?” And I said, “I don’t know yet, you know, probably about 400 pages” and he said, “Oh, well that won’t sell.” So I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, basically, there’s two sorts of books. There’s an idea for a tenner and there’s a kind of, you know, deeper, bigger book, that’s a very, very narrow market. And you’ve just got to decide what you’re in.” So I said, “Really? That binary?” So I did it this time without in a slightly unconventional way. So instead of getting a publisher and they publish, I did a partnership with Governance magazine, Lesley Stephenson that runs it is brilliant. And she also runs all the FT’s own exec programs, as I mentioned, so she has a very broad network in the board space. And I thought if if I could just write it, and Lesley can then do the marketing and I would do some through social media and by the way, LinkedIn I think has been particularly effective for us, that will be a simpler process and then we used Gazelle for the distribution and Amazon fulfillment because I think neither I nor Lesley fancy stuffing envelopes, and that so far seems to work. I mean, it’s sort of launched at a very wacky time. Because I think although books have held up strongly to COVID from what I hear, it’s the sort of fantasy and escapist stuff and I hardly think a book on board is in the fantasy and escapist market, so, we’ll sit we’ll see how we do but it’s not time critical and, I’m viewing this as a book that’s going to be available without needing to be updated for a few years.

Alison Jones

So you’re not planning on a new edition anytime soon.

Patrick Dunne

No, that’s not my favourite bit of the process, as I mentioned.

Alison Jones

And yes, you’re right, this will backlist very well, and that’s a really important point, isn’t it? There are books… And it’s interesting that your friend had that binary approach to books, you know that there are, it’s a funny, fragmented ecosystem now. It’s really interesting hearing how you took that approach to publishing because those are options you just wouldn’t really have had even 10 years ago. In terms of getting it out there.

Patrick Dunne

Yes, that’s right. And,  there’s a spectrum now isn’t there, you can just give your idea to a publisher, write it, and they manage pretty well, all the process. So you can pretty well try and do everything yourself. And I’ve gone towards the sort of far right of the spectrum, but not all the way.

Alison Jones

Yes, fascinating. And I always ask people for their best tips so and that the jigsaw approach, I think that’s, that’s terrific. But it is if you were talking to somebody who’s listening in to perhaps struggling in their first book, what one tip would you give them to help them?

Patrick Dunne

I think, like I say in the book about the importance of self awareness, I think, be aware of how you work best and do that. So the way this I did it worked for me, but I’m sure that wouldn’t work for lots of people. So if you’re someone who likes to have a plan,  you know what you’re doing each day for the period that you’re writing, you know, that’s probably going to work best for you in this, if you’re alternatively someone like me who is more polychronic and likes to do a lot of different things each day generally, and I know that overall, I’ve got a plan and overall I’m sort of meeting it, but I don’t need to think, oh god I’ve got behind I haven’t done this section or that section. I think as well, writing linearly, probably works for novels and other things. But I think in the business book space, I think it is possible to write non linearly that is, do the section in that section all in sequence. So, I think maybe be open minded about how you might do it, but really think hard about what’s your best way of working.

Alison Jones

It’s interesting actually, I wonder how much of that is related to your dyslexia as well. I’ve spoken to quite a few dyslexics on the show. And I remember one in particular and I can’t remember who it was now talking about the way that they think in a nonlinear way and how they learned to trust that in the writing and it actually became a superpower.

Patrick Dunne

It is I mean, interestingly there’s an analogy with doing public speaking. So when I first started work for 3i and I had to do my first sort of stand-up presentation and I prepared and prepared and prepared and had all these cards and notes and things and it was a mess because I couldn’t read the notes.  I couldn’t speak and read the notes at the same time. And my boss, at the end of it I said to my boss, “I’m so sorry, you know, I screwed this up, perhaps I’d better not do this bit of the job and he said “Don’t be silly,” he said, “but who were the notes for?” I said, “Well, they’re for me to remember what it says.” “But you’ve got a good memory. Why don’t you just talk to people? And no one knows what’s in the notes, so no one’s going to know what you’ve missed.” So just, you know, it’s a bit like the Dumbo feather, you know, go off, you can fly. And I did and I developed a sort of conversational speaking style that was very different to a PowerPoint, he bam, bam, bam, type, style and, and that worked for me. But again, it might not work for others.

Alison Jones

And your audiences are probably very grateful as well. It is fascinating, isn’t it? Yes. I remember somebody, was it Greg Orme, recently saying that of course, nobody knows what you plan to say, they only know what you said, so you need to just give up on the on the whole planning it all beautifully and just speak.

Yes. Although for investor presentations, it’s quite important that you do cover off the basics. But I found over the years, you know, I did thousands of presentations in my time. So and now you just develop an approach to doing it.

Alison Jones

Yes, and what works for you.  Brilliant. And I always ask people as well to get a recommendation. So obviously Boards I’m sure it’s on everybody’s reading list now, probably already was, but what other business book would you recommend that anybody listening to the show should read, what’s really worked for you?

Patrick Dunne

Well, I think one that one that I know so many people have read and rave about is Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, one probably less well known is a business book that I really like is Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed, which is about, now how can you take the principle from aviation of just, eradicating failure as much as you possibly can by learning from live experiences and having that principle of transparency and openness and a culture of talking about things which didn’t go well as much as talking about things which did, and I’ve, I’ve taken that on board and you know, certainly all the things I chair that way of encouraging a spirit of, you know, if something goes wrong, that’s, you know, stuff does go wrong, learn from it, but actually make sure you can program that out if you possibly can, as a failure, and gradually over time, you just get better and better at doing that. I mean, if you look at the stats on aviation casualties, they are astonishing. And if only the same thing was applied in any other walks of life, I think, you know, that will be great. So, I think Black Box Thinking is just a really interesting way of thinking about business.

Alison Jones

Yes, brilliant: they’re two cracking recommendations. Thank you. That’s brilliant. And actually, before I let you go, I did need to ask you one more question, which is, what was the reaction at your house when you were announced as the winner of the Business Book Awards category?

Patrick Dunne

Well, it was quite something because my mother who’s 83 now, I’d booked this table for the dinner and it was all planned, I was going to collect her and bring her down and I had a table for you know friends and supporters and so on and my three boys and we were all watching on the web. And my mother was absolutely fantastic, she loved it, it was a real joyous evening for her, but she was convinced that I should win the overall title not just a category so there was this you know fantastic… you know, when the category and then she was then pulling apart all the books that were in for the shortlist. She was devastated I didn’t win the overall award. But she was so  very, very proud, very pleased and it was worth it just for that.

Alison Jones

And that takes right back doesn’t it: “Go on then, I’ll write a book, my mum will be really happy.” There you are, your son’s an award winning author. How cool is that?

Patrick Dunne

Yes. Personally though I’m don’t really have a big public profile and I’m a bit sort of… I find some aspects of that stuff a bit cringy for me. I mean, it’s interesting, I don’t even have my name on the cover of the book. So it’s a fairly private… but I do like encouraging other people to do things and I think there are people out there who are thinking, shall I shan’t I just have a go, you’ll really, really love the feeling of opening that first box of the books.

Alison Jones

Yes, there is nothing quite like it is there. That’s wonderful. And I normally ask people, where can people find out more about you? But you know, if you don’t want to tell us that’s fine.

Patrick Dunne

Well, I can tell you where people can find more about the book. LinkedIn, obviously you can find these days what you want about me, but if you go to the Governance website there’s a section on the on the book and the views of various people who’ve read it from different parts of society. My main purpose in writing was I hoped I’d provide something that was useful to people as opposed to worthy. And, you know, that’s what I really want, is people to use it as a companion through their board lines.

Alison Jones

Brilliant, thank you so much. And it was so fascinating finding out the story behind it and your approach to writing as well. So I’m sure that will be invaluable to people. Thank you so much for your time today.

Patrick Dunne

Absolutely. My pleasure.

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