Copasetic Publishing: books we’re writing / not writing

We’ve recently started writing our first book, an examination of life and consumption in Emerging Markets. Suddenly our minds are filled with all kinds of distractions, in particular ideas for other books that we will never, ever write.  Here are extracts from two books we aren’t writing.

Fallen Forests: A Global Search For Sporting Mediocrity

You end up with memories of memories. I ‘remember’ my great-grandmother’s visit, learning to walk in Massachusetts, even our cat greeting my arrival by being sick on the stairs. These are memories that I’ve imported, boxed up as my own. My real early memories are fuzzy but definite, attached to places, colours and moments, held tightly in place by emotions.

One of my strongest is of staying up late with my father in the front room of number 33 to watch Nottingham Forest win the 1979 European Cup. I don’t think my dad had been to Nottingham more than five times in his life. But he liked football, and he loved Brian Clough.  I became a Forest fan.

My best friend Nathan Green made the same decision. He lived a few meters northwest of me, and hence only 120.99 miles from the City Ground. For most of the early 1980s, though, it was obvious why a small boy in rural Essex would choose this allegiance: we were the best team in the world. Ok that was Nacional of Uruguay, it turned out, but back then we hadn’t even head of Maradona.

As the decade progressed, more clarification was required. ‘Because my dad does’. ‘Oh is he from Nottingham?’ ‘No, but my uncle is’ – this refrain would usually do the trick, even though the uncle in question was my mother’s sister’s husband, and I had met him only a handful of times.

By the twenty-first century you didn’t need an explanation. If you identified yourself as a Forest fan then justification was superfluous – it wasn’t a club anyone wanted to join. Especially not Pierre Van Hoodjonk we found out.  Whether you were in a cramped lift in a Chinese hotel, or a lull in conversation with a new acquaintance, the reactions were consistent: surprise; half-recollection; slight pity; and nostalgic affection.  Like a company that once promised the future, or a programme that long ago jumped the shark, you are remembered kindly, but distantly. The world has moved on.

I have always sought out sport as I’ve travelled. It’s a quick way to feel at home – to make new friends, to make the paper mean something at breakfast, to find yourself in the places where local people like to go. I’ve watched the Cubs play St Louis at Wrigley Field on Independence Day, the Palmeiras-Sao Paulo derby from the wrong part of the stands, the Indian Premier League with half the Indian population of Durban.

And I’ve always returned home with a new lost cause. If you haven’t won the World Series in decades, if you’ve been bankrupted by the fall out from a faraway financial scandal, if you’ve been stuck in the Scottish third division with crowds of 200, then I make you this promise: I will find you.

Monomania: How The Book of One Idea Is Changing Everything We Know About Society, Business,  and The Future of the Human Race

Every ten minutes or so a boat potters along the Thames bearing a white emblem and the words ‘Cutting Through Complexity’.

Among the thousands of dog walkers, cyclists, tourists, river dwellers who see it, a small number, it is hoped will be senior executives, pondering which firm of consultants to employ or retain. And the message is as striking and curious as the medium. Some of the smartest workers in the economy are advertising to some of the smartest clients in the country with a promise not just to avoid, but to destroy complexity.

How we got to this point is not itself an especially complex story. For a good part of my lifetime we have been telling each other three stories: that we don’t have enough time; that life is getting faster; that there is too much information. All of these instinctively feel true, though none are provable.  Each, if we had time to stop and consider them, would reveal itself to be a qualitative, subjective judgement.

But facts they have become; and facts that underpin many of our everyday assumptions and demands.  The most elegant solution is the simplest. Decision makers need the answer in one line. The board need it in one chart. Does your party support this bill or referendum yes or no?

And yet as our faith in simplicity expands, so too does the complexity of the challenges that surround us.  Financial volatility, climate change, cybercrime, ‘real’ crime, social inequality, the rapid spread and mutation of disease: if we can find one thing that unites them it is that they are not simple. If we found a second it would be that their challenge comes from us not understanding their connectedness (or, if we are honest, ever fully being able to do so).  They are, in other words, the products of systems where we can’t predict the effect of one part of the system on another – where the connections are too many, too diverse and too rapidly evolving for us to anticipate, or even map them.

‘Complex problems sometimes require a simple solution’. This is a lesson writ large, sometimes literally so, in Dan and Chip Heath’s ‘Switch’. Switch is one of a growing number of Books Of One Idea: essays or polemics that have burst their moorings and sailed off exuberantly down the narrowest of inlets with a heavy cargo of anecdotes and data; a single, contrarian idea carried in their wake.

The Heaths are right that sometimes a small, clever intervention can have a huge effect, just as conversely a simple problem can sometimes require surprisingly extensive and complex work.   But this fairly straightforward idea – that problems and solutions have an asymmetrical relationship – is too gritty a grist for the mill at ‘Switch’.  Simple solutions are effective is the simple lesson it promotes.

This kind of magic thinking can seem attractive. It can also be very useful.  Large organisations can be prone to prevarication, and a leader who sets and pursues a simple goal can sometimes save us from ourselves. The Heath brothers argue convincingly that a company is less likely to succeed by giving equal weight to equally good arguments for innovation, cost-savings and international expansion than by pursuing one of these three goals at some cost to the others.  Certainly in my experience an organisation with a greater commitment to action will outperform an organisation with a greater ability to analyse and understand 10 times out of 10.

But we risk confusing two beasts.  What we value in action and advice– clarity and single-mindedness – is not necessarily what serves us best through the course of our analysis. If we are a captain of industry, gazing pensively down the Thames, we may crave a clear direction, but do we want to reach that decision without allowing for contradiction, nuance and unpredictability along the way?  If you see a picture of a CEO, they will probably be standing in front of a desk, or perhaps a bookshelf, with many leather-bound books. When it’s the latter, zoom in on the spines.  If the titles are Books Of One Idea, then the conclusion is simple: invest with care.