Episode 245 – Sorting the spaghetti with Dave Coplin

When you’re trying to create something, when you’re trying to change something, when you’re trying to think differently about something, writing for me is the way that you unravel the spaghetti… you end up with some really clear, precise thinking that… moves the thing forward.

Dave CoplinAs Chief Envisioning Officer at Microsoft (yes, really) and now as a consultant Dave Coplin sees his role as a ‘pragmatic optimist’, helping companies reimagine themselves with the help of technology. The Covid pandemic has accelerated this process, and one of its legacies may be a willingness to break from outdated processes and embrace new possibilities.

He’s also pragmatic when it comes to writing, recognising that it’s a low-tech but incredibly powerful thinking tool in the digital age. And that, as he says, when you put words together in the right way – on the stage or on the page – they make things possible.

Honest, insightful and very, very funny.


The Rise of the Humans on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCZ2NWO62-Jzbq_iSaUlKlsg

Dave on Twitter:  https://twitter.com/dcoplin

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

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

10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge January 2021: https://pi-q.learnworlds.com/course?courseid=proposal-challenge-jan-21

The Extraordinary Business Book Club bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/extraordinarybusinessbooks

My K-day countdown for the National Literacy Trust: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/alison-jones1000

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Dave Coplin. For over 25 years he’s worked with or for the world’s largest technology companies, most recently as Microsoft’s Chief Envisioning Officer, providing organizations and governments around the world with strategic advice and guidance that enables them to deliver lasting growth and market relevance through the adoption of transformational technology.

Dave is an established author on topics surrounding the future of work and our relationship with technology. His first book, Business Re-imagined, provided a view of a new working environment based on collaborative and flexible working – huh, that suddenly got very timely. And his second book, The Rise of the Humans, provides a further call to action for both individuals and organizations to harness not hate the digital deluge, to rise up and take back control of the potential that technology offers our society.

Some very rousing stuff. Welcome to the show, Dave.

Dave Coplin: Thanks. Alison. Thanks for having me.

Alison Jones: The first thing I want to ask you about is that brilliant job title, Chief Envisioning Officer. Come on. Where did that come from?

Dave Coplin: I know, check me out. Well, it came from a very special place, which was at the time I was working for Microsoft and we were very frustrated because this would be,  where would we be, about sort of 2010? And in the eyes of the media in the UK, Microsoft were kind of like your Dad’s IT company. They weren’t cool, like Apple or Facebook or Google or Amazon.

And typically they didn’t want to talk to Microsoft at all. So I got together with a good colleague of mine and we invented this comedy position, which would be the Chief Envisioning Officer. And it was specifically to take the mickey, right. Because we knew that the media would go  ‘Seriously,  are you joking?’

And we’d be like, yeah, well actually we are a bit but there’s sort of a more serious point behind it. I was growing increasingly frustrated  with an industry,  not just Microsoft, but all of us. And we were so inwardly looking, we would only really be interested in our own products and features.

And instead we weren’t looking to the future and we weren’t looking at what those products and features actually enabled people to achieve. And it’s always been the reason I became interested in technology, as I was much more interested in the outcome it created than necessarily the technology itself.

And so I just thought if we could create this future-looking perspective, that is there to have an opinion on stuff and not to say, this is the answer, this is the only way it’s going to be, but to establish us with a position where we could have the debate, to have the discussion, that would be the way to do it.

I also kind of liked it cause I told my mum, I said, ‘Mum, one day, I’m going to be the CEO at Microsoft’. And quite frankly, Alison, this was the only way I was going to pull it off.

Alison Jones: Do you know, I did notice that and I thought, CEO,  it’s very smart, I like the way he did that. I love it.

Dave Coplin: Actually, it was wonderful. I was doing some stuff on the World Service.  There was a four hour window, when Steve Ballmer stood down and before Satya Nadella, took up the role as CEO of Microsoft. And in that four hour window, when there was no other CEO at Microsoft, I happened to be on the World Service.

And the guy who was interviewing me was Rory Keflin Jones, had twigged that. And he’s like, I’d like to introduce you to Microsoft’s only CEO. And I’m like, you know, that’s it, I’m done. My career is never going to get any better than this.

Alison Jones: I hope you got a temporary pay rise at that point,

Dave Coplin: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Alison Jones: Love that. And you’re all about helping companies reinvent themselves with technology. Do you know, actually, just before we came on air, you and I were talking a little bit about being a kind of blessed generation, weren’t we? So it just seems worth reprising that because it’s such an interesting observation, is that both of us remember when there was no such thing as the internet, which my kids just can’t comprehend at all.

And I think because we’d been through that transition and we’ve seen just how fundamentally everything can change, we perhaps have a perspective on the possibilities for the future that people who are swimming in it like water now and don’t see it, maybe don’t have… I don’t know what you think about that?

Dave Coplin: Yeah, no, I couldn’t agree more. And I think that the blessing is that you can see it from both sides. And so I remember an analog world. I remember a world of, you know, paper office memos stuck into dark departmental envelopes, you know, before email. All of these things, and it’s not to say that those things are better and technology is worse or vice versa, but it just gives you an understanding of what the technology can actually deliver.

And I guess my hallmark has always, I’ve always wanted to be the pragmatic optimist, you know, in a world where we’re so negative towards the value of technology and we’re fearful of it and we resist it, I wanted to point out that there are some great things that we could do if we could use it well.

And I think you can only have that perspective when you’ve experienced what it used to be like before it was here, if you know what I mean? And I think that will continue. I think our kids, as they emerge into their world and the technology will change again, they’ll remember what it was like, you know, when we only had fibre broadband. You know, cor, wasn’t that terrible.

Alison Jones:  Yes. And the reinvention piece is really interesting, isn’t it? Because that, does that speak to  business models? I mean, what do you mean by a company reinventing itself through technology?

Dave Coplin: I have a sort of a fundamental thesis that permeates business, but also education, which is we use structures for our organizations and we use processes for our organizations and the same too in education. But we’re all, for me, forged in the fires of the industrial revolution 200 years ago, they made great sense 200 years ago.

And what we’ve done from then until now is to fixate on these processes, the process of work, and we’re not helped by economics, which talks about productivity and productivity as this sort of boring, cold equation input divided by output, which again, causes you to focus on the process rather than the outcome.

And what we’re doing with technology today in the 21st century is we’re taking these Victorian processes and we’re making them a bit quicker and a bit cheaper by applying technology to them. We’re not once saying, well, actually, you know, we don’t need to do this anymore. We live in an entirely different world. We behave in an entirely different way. Many of the processes that we have are irrelevant.

And so what I’m trying to do with organizations, and in places like education, is to try and… let’s look at the things that are redundant in our modern digital society, the processes that we have, the way that we think about, you know, whether it’s exams for students or whether it’s the way we think about invoicing for our customers, all these sorts of things and say, well, actually there’s elements of this that we should just no longer do because nobody works like that. And those are the really difficult conversations.

It’s funny because you know, I come back to the pandemic against the most terrible context. The pandemic has done more for that argument than any… you know, for decades I’ve been trying to get organizations to do this and there’s always the inertia or we couldn’t possibly do that. Well, do you know, what everybody’s probably done so much of that because of the pandemic.

Here’s a classic example, you know, before the pandemic, if I’d have said to an organization, would you hire somebody without ever having seen them? I guarantee you the majority would answer, there’s no way I would do that, I would absolutely have to see them. I guarantee you every single organization has hired somebody without seeing them as a result of the pandemic.

And, you know, it’s been so important for us to force us into that world and we may go back a little bit, but we won’t go back the entire way. And so this principle of breaking out of these Victorian ways of working is crucial for us becoming what I would call fit for purpose for the 21st century.

Alison Jones: And I love that while you are focusing on envisioning the future, and you’re focusing on technology, you’re also individually in your, sort of personally and professionally, using such an old technology, you are writing.  You had a great phrase for that, but just tell me what writing does for you and how you do it and why you do it.

Dave Coplin: Writing is one of the most important aspects I think of… certainly when you’re trying to create something, when you’re trying to change something, when you’re trying to think differently about something, writing for me is the way that you unravel the spaghetti. You know, like many people who spend their time thinking about ideas or trying to innovate things or trying just to progress the thinking that they’ve got, you end up inevitably with just a series of random things and they’re firing through your brain.

I mean, my brain is chaos at the best of times, and it’s only when I get to, you know, typically after a great, long dog walk or a good night’s sleep, that’s the moment where if I can I’ll sit down and I’ll write. And I’ll write for hours. And what happens in that writing, the process of that writing, is you calm that noise down and you unravel the spaghetti and you end up with some really clear, precise thinking that is actionable, that you can take forward, that moves the thing forward.

And I think writing is this process. And to me, writing doesn’t have to necessarily be pen and paper. My medium is keyboard and a screen. But it’s that process of just trying to get it right and just trying to finesse the argument and get everything down on paper or on to a screen, that is such a crucial part of progressing anybody’s thinking.

And I think it’s, I’m not going to say it’s a lost art, but it’s something that we increasingly struggle to find time for in our modern, busy working lives.

Alison Jones: I think that’s really interesting because most businesses, the only writing that gets done is writing for other people’s consumption. You know, it’s persuasive writing or it’s putting a report together or something. But the writing that you’re talking about is really primarily for you, isn’t it?

Yes, absolutely.

Dave Coplin: Absolutely. I mean, I’m not stupid though, Alison, I always think there might be an audience for this, so, you know, if I’ve got it right. I’m always looking for that. But it is, I think it’s really important that communication is probably one of the most important skills that we all have to have in order to progress our careers, to progress our relationships, to live our lives.

And it’s funny, I’m having this classic sort of teenage conversation with my teenage son, which is like, what’s the point of English, Dad? And, of course, he’s been brought up in a world of science and, whilst there might be a little bit of me that’s quite proud that he’s asking that question, the other side of me is, well look, everything you do involves language and every conversation you have, every email you write, every tweet you write, you know, the better you can be at how you write and the words that you choose and the way that you frame that, the better your communication will be, the better you’ll be understood, the more you’ll be able to do.

And, he’s not completely there yet, but we’re sort of working on that because that is what has been true for me. My superpower, if I have one, is simply that I love words. And I love that when you put them together in the right way I love what they make possible. And whether that’s me standing on stage delivering a speech, or whether it’s me writing a love letter to myself about some project I’ve been working on for weeks, it’s the same difference. And I don’t think we value it enough in our organizations. I don’t think we value it enough in education either.

I think we’ve got to do so much more because, the machines will do so much more for us as we go through our lives, but communication is the one sort of fundamentally human part that we need to retain. And, only we can bring words together in a way that really engages the people that we’re trying to get to.

Alison Jones: I love that, it’s like a love poem to business writing. It’s beautiful.

Tell me about the books. How does writing a book, putting a book together and that discipline, evolve from or differ from that kind of sorting the spaghetti writing.

Dave Coplin: It’s the same. It’s just, there’s a lot more spaghetti.

Alison Jones: It’s just about quantity. Yeah.

Dave Coplin: Well, it’s about quantity and I think, complexity, and this is the problem that I have practically with writing in a normal, busy life. Just like every single one of you has today, you know, when you’re writing a book, for me, and I was trying to think of the right analogy and I haven’t really found it, but it’s kind of like, you’ve got one of those Russian dolls.

And, for me, I have to unpack every single one of them. And there aren’t seven of them, there are like 74. And they all have to be unpacked and laid out on the table, sort of cognitively, so I can see all of the moving parts, and I understand the relationship between them.

And only when I’ve got those 74 pieces on the table, can I begin to start to write. The problem is,  if my email pings or the dog barks, or my son asks me a question, instantly those 74 things go back into their case and then I have to start the whole process again. And it’s just like, Oh my God.

And, that’s the challenge for me with writing a book is, you know, it’s fine when you’re writing a blog post or a memo, because it’s a single issue. With a book you’re trying to stitch together all of these different parts and have them make sense. And I think, it’s a really important thing to do. I think also I’m going to stress the importance of working with great editors. And what typically happens to me with my manuscripts is, you know, I’ll get the book together and there’ll still be quite a lot of spaghetti in there if I’m honest, and a great editor, and I’ve been blessed with great editors with both of the books that I’ve worked on, will help me basically find the golden threads and then normalize the volume if you like of that golden thread throughout the entire narrative.  That, I think for me is the process. It’s a process that I’ve been trying to do for the last five years.

That tricky third studio album is my tricky third book.

And for five years, I’ve failed to both unpack all of those 74 pieces, but equally just to carve out the time to sit down and to start.  It’s all there, right, but it’s really having the rigour, having the space, cognitively more than anything, to start to work on it and make it happen.

Alison Jones: And I love the riot of metaphors there. Someday someone’s going to go back and analyze this and pick up on the Russian dolls and spaghetti, you know, brilliant. But yes, I totally get that. And when you are unpacking your Russian dolls and sort of putting them all there, what tricks have you learned? I mean, clearly, it’s a work in progress, and aren’t we all, but what have you learned about holding a complex structure and pulling it together into a book?

Dave Coplin: I think the most important thing I’ve learned is there’s two sides to this, Alison.  The first is you have to feed your brain, you have to feed it. And that means reading, that means keeping your eyes open. You know, everything that you see, everything you consume and it doesn’t have to be news. It doesn’t only have to be factual, but everything, is a lens through which you can see. And actually, how does that apply to what I’m trying to work? Is there an angle here? Is there a lesson I could learn from this, that might apply or infer something to what I’m trying to do? And it’s only when you feed your brain in that way are you able then to go to the next phase, which is really about allowing your brain the space to do what it does well, which is to make sense of all of that random stuff, and to identify the connections that you weren’t even aware that were there.

 I’m a bit of a word nerd, and one of my favorite words is serendipity. And what I love about serendipity is it’s a word that we’ve kind of forgotten the meaning of. You know, we talk about serendipity today, like it’s the happy accident: I bumped into Alison, wasn’t that serendipitous? Well, no, that was just a happy accident. Serendipity is what happens when you take a happy accident and then you combine it with the sagacity, the wisdom, if you like, to know what to do with it.

And serendipity is the time when you wake up in the morning and you think, Oh, bloody hell I get it now, I get where those connections are. I get that actually there’s a 75th doll inside that one that I’d missed. And I know, so I’ll bring it out and you have to basically, you can’t force serendipity, but you can create an environment where it’s more likely to happen.

The other side of this, my dad taught me this amazing trick, which is when you’re dealing with complex things like this, is to have confidence in the power of your own mind. And I know this is sort of a well-known thing as well, is to ask yourself the question before you go to sleep, ask yourself the question that you’re trying to solve and then go to sleep and let your brain do it.

And I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve done that and then woken up in the morning and had the answer, it’s astounding. But again, you can only do it if you fed your brain enough, if it’s got enough material to work with,

Alison Jones: So it’s like batch processing overnight, isn’t it?

Dave Coplin: Yeah, no, it is. And it is, I mean almost spooky in the way that it works and the point about, you know, serendipity in particular and, you know, I used to work for Microsoft’s search engine. So we used to talk about serendipity quite a lot. Is… serendipity is the random stuff that you would never connect in a million years because it doesn’t make sense why you would connect it, but it’s where you take a concept and you twist it through 90 degrees or you turn it inside out, and then from there comes the connection that you would never have seen.

So it is about being open-minded for that. And it is about, you know, again, having that sort of raw material that lets the brain do what it does best  in making all of those connections.

Alison Jones: It’s also about space. Isn’t it? I mean sleep obviously, but you know, you mentioned dog walks before, right? I take ideas out on runs or questions out on runs and there is something about giving yourself. I mean, I know Agatha Christie used to plot while she was washing up. There’s something about freeing the brain from the busy-ness in front of you to think about important stuff that that’s very powerful.

Dave Coplin: Yeah, without a doubt. I mean, what I find, and this is what I talk to my son about is you need to be doing something that has a baseline cognitive load and it might be running or taking a shower or walking the dogs. Or for me, it used to be driving as well. So you’ve got this baseline cognitive load that’s there that sort of quietens the noise. – I’m making myself not sound particularly well here, but, you know what I mean – so it quietens the noise and then it frees the sort of the upper part of your brain to then start working this stuff through and to really start getting underneath it. And, and like I say, that’s when the Russian dolls come out and you start unpacking them and you start recognizing the relationships.

Being proactive and planning those moments into your day and I used to, in the second book in particular, it was one of the big recommendations that came from the book is if you’re a business leader and Christ, even if you’re not a business leader, but if you want to do well at work, your job is to make sure that every single day you’ve got a period of time where you can do that.

And it might be, you know, you build it into your schedule through running, for me, it’s the dog walks, whatever it is for you, you’ve got to do it and you’ve got to do it regularly. And if you do it regularly and you feed your brain, you’d be amazed at the kind of insight that you have. That’s the bit that I think is lost in the world of today, where everything’s got to be done in the next 10 minutes, or you’ve got an hour to write a 24-page memo.

Our brains don’t work like that. And if we want to get the kind of quality of thinking and the quality of writing, we’ve got to create space.

Alison Jones: Yeah, amen to that, absolutely. I always ask people their best tip for a first time business book author. I mean, we’ve had about 12 so far, but if I held a gun to your head and said, what would be the one thing that you’d tell somebody who’s doing this for the first time and needs help, what would you say to them?

Dave Coplin: I mean, the only thing I think I can offer there, and I bet you’ve had this before. Is put yourself in the mind of your reader and what’s the reaction that you want them to have? What’s the outcome that you want them to have as a result of having read your book? I always had this outcome and it’s a little bit dramatic, but you get it, right,  I wanted, I don’t know have you ever seen a brilliant, 1960s TV show, The Prisoner, fantastic opening, right. And Patrick McGoohan, he’s like really moody and he’s really pissed off cause he’s been fired and he’s been sent off and he’s walking through and he’s just like, he goes into the office of his boss and he slammed something down on the desk and then he storms off.

That was what I wanted my readers to have, having read this book and particularly business reimagined, which was really about fundamentally renegotiating the concept of work and so work being an activity, rather than a destination, I wanted employees to be storming into the office of their boss and slamming it on the desk: you need to read this. That was, stupidly dramatic…

Alison Jones: Energizing vision, isn’t it?

Dave Coplin: But, that was the test for us. Right. And, it, wasn’t the only test I’ll come back to the other test as well, which was quite funny. but that was the mindset. So I think that’s, my advice is, really be mindful of that.

My second bit of advice, because it’s just occurred to me is that, if I’m really honest with you, when we set out to write the books we had one goal in mind. Our sort of success criteria was it can’t be embarrassingly shit. Right? It can be a bit shit. Because it’s a business book and let’s be honest, Alison all business books are a bit shit and, inevitably, they’re going to be a bit shit, but it can’t be embarrassingly shit.

And because we set our goals so low, it opened up the opportunity for us to be more confident about what we wanted to do. And so again, I mean, I think that’s a nice way of me saying don’t kill yourself over this stuff. You’ve got a really important story inside your head inside those 74 Russian dolls. Tell it. You know, get it out there, push it out there and it doesn’t have to be perfect and it doesn’t have to be brilliant, but it will never happen.

I’ll leave you one final thing. I’m an ice hockey fan. And so Wayne Gretzky has this wonderful quote, which is, you miss a hundred percent of the shots you never take. And I think that’s true for all business authors, struggling business authors are struggling to get that first book and they’re procrastinating. ‘Well, I’m not sure. Maybe I should rewrite this. Maybe…’ Get it out, get it done. And then you can work on it and then you can work on the next one.

Alison Jones: Yeah, we should put that just on loop, I think. And sort of have it as the…

Dave Coplin: Yeah. Yeah. And, could you just make sure that I listen to that advice? Cause I could really use that right now.

Alison Jones: Yes. You must listen back to this. It’s amazing how wise you can be when you’re talking to other people.

Dave Coplin: Totally. Totally.

Alison Jones: And is there a less shit book that you would like to recommend? I always ask people to recommend a business book. It doesn’t have to be a business book. Actually. It can be any book at all that you think would be useful for people to read.

Dave Coplin: I’m going to give you two, actually, Alison and one is really important to me and ironically, it’s actually how we got connected and it’s Tony Crabbe and it’s, Tony’s, book on ‘busy’. And Tony’s book on busy completely reframed how I thought about productivity, completely changed how I approach my working day.

And it’s really powerful if you sit and engage with it, in the right way. And you really engage with what Tony’s talking about when he talks about the peril of being busy and how damaging being busy is to our productivity and to be honest to our mental health, it basically opened my mind and it unleashed more of my potential than I thought was possible. So that’s a great book and probably now more than ever in a world where we are struggling, with this new world of work, we’ve got a different kind of presenteeism happening now. It’s no longer bums on seats, it’s bums in front of cameras and, you know what I mean?

It’s detrimental for us getting work done. And I think there’s so many powerful messages in there, which I think is really, really important. The second book. And it’s just because I think we’re in dark days right now. And I think we need to recognize that the world is a better place than we may be appreciate, and it’s a book by Hans Rosling called Factfulness. And it’s a book that lays out a pragmatically optimistic view of the future. showing that we are making significant progress in a number of key areas, whether it’s about sustainability, whether it’s about infant mortality, whether it’s about the economy, all of these things that I think are really important because as a society, as a global society right now, I think it’s super important that we take a very long-term view of the kind of changes we need to make today to ensure that we have a sustainable and I mean, from an economic, as well as a sort of an environmental perspective, a sustainable way forward into the future that we deserve.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. And I thoroughly endorse both of those selections. Yes. Superb books, thank you. And Dave, if people want to find out more about you more about your amazing job title or about your books and what you do, where can they go?

Dave Coplin: I’m super easy to find which is a very shorthand way of me saying I’m an internet tart. So if you go to any search engine and type in Dave Coplin, you’ll find me the place. I’d love you to go actually more than anything else. is like everybody else in this new world of work, I’ve pivoted into doing a lot of online, so I’m doing a lot of stuff on YouTube right now. And if you go to YouTube and you do a search for The Rise of the Humans, which is the title of my second book, we do a weekly live stream on the future of work. And it’s a conversation I’d love all of you to be a part of. and that would be a great place to get a sense of the kind of stuff that we’re doing right now.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. I will put that YouTube channel link up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com as well. Although you are an internet tart with a distinctive name, which really helps. And I say that quite bitterly as a Jones.

Dave Coplin: Yeah. I know. I’m trying to explain that to my son as well. It’s like the gift that you’ve got apart from the fact that he’s got the same name as his granddad, so he’s going to get some really interesting results as he gets older, is an absolute gift. And so one of the blessings that came that… who knew how that was going to play out,

Alison Jones: Yes. Extraordinary, yes. Thanks. to my great-great-grandfather Jones, that’s not wildly helpful. Anyway Dave, it has been an absolute pleasure talking to you today and we’ve ranged so widely and there’s so much more we could have talked about, but some fantastic wisdom on writing there as well as some really interesting thoughts about the world, so thank you for that.

Dave Coplin: It’s absolutely my pleasure, Alison.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.