notes from JK

Email newsletters I like

Email newsletters are enjoying something of a renaissance, which I think is wonderful. Here some of my favourites which I recommend:

James Clear’s 3-2-1 Newsletter (weekly)
Every Thursday James sends this short dose of wisdom, inspiration, quotes from others usually finished with a link to something funny. James wrote the excellent Atomic Habits (my review is here) and this newsletter is motivating and a bit of an insight into his continued thinking. Love it.

Dense Discovery by Kai Brach (weekly)
I wish I could remember who recommended Dense Discovery to me, so that I could thank them profusely. Every week brings a thoughtful combination of links and images on the topics of technology, design, ethics and sustainability. It’s beautiful, and so good.

Benedicts’ Newsletter by Benedict Evans (weekly)
For a savvy, hype-free view on the tech industry you can’t get better than this weekly dose of insight from Ben Evans: A British analyst who just recently finished 6 years in Silicon Valley working for top venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.

Jukesie’s Public Service Internet Jobs (weekly)
On a Sunday this drops into my inbox. A labour of love by the wonderful Matt Jukes, this is mainly his curated list of interesting ‘digital’ jobs being advertised, with the occasional bonus thought or comment. Why do I like this? Because it’s one of the best ways to see what’s going on in the sector and where thinking on ‘digital’ has got to.

The Quartz Daily Brief (daily Monday to Saturday)
I’ve been a fan of Quartz’s different take on news reporting since they were first spun up by Atlantic Media. I’ve tried quite a few of the news summary emails out there but I keep coming back to this one as the best for me. I find their daily news summary the best combination of what I want to see with a sufficiently global perspective.

The Book of Life by The School of Life (roughly weekly)
The School of Life is a superb organisation co-founded by the philosopher Alain de Botton. It aims to bring a calm, compassionate understanding to life’s challenges and helps people find saner ways through life. The Book of Life is their ever evolving collection of essays on the challenges of living. This lovely email gives you snippets and insights from their work. I think it’s wonderful.

notes from JK

Booklog: Bumper 2019 roundup

To Sell is Human – Daniel Pink

In a wonderful, gentle way Pink shows that there’s nothing wrong with selling and that we all do it, probably more than ever. 

Ultimately he concludes that by being humble, humane and seeking to find mutual benefit in any ‘sale’ we are all able to be a better version of ourselves. One could argue the book is simply a digestion of many well known studies and truisms. But that’s to undervalue the power of the work Pink has done in organising these ideas into a clear and helpful narrative structure which certainly gave me the opportunity to rethink how I approach some interactions. 

Black Box Thinking – Matthew Syed

Much of it feels familiar – perhaps because the examples are now well trodden business lore, which they probably weren’t when this first came out. But it still feels powerful and relevant. Syed’s essential argument is how we treat and react to failure is fundamental to whether we can learn and improve. Contrasting aviation and medical professions is compelling. It’s very easy to agree with the book’s core prescription, very much harder to follow-through, especially in complex organisations. 

The Secret Barrister

Learn about English legal system and huge strain it is under. How successive reforms which seemed sensible to outsiders actually harmed a system we hope we’ll never need, but assume will be sound should we need it. This isn’t just about austerity, it’s a broad and deep critique on how we have failed to care for the justice s system. This book does a superb job of accessibly exposing the issues.

Don’t Hold My Head Down – Lucy-Anne Holmes

Wow, what a frank, open and funny tale of a woman exploring her sexuality. When that woman happens to have been the founder of the ‘No More Page 3’ campaign you realise this is going to be very special, and it is.

The People vs Tech – Jamie Bartlett

Excellent, highly readable defence of politics and democracy over Silicon Valley tech utopia.  Really effectively and concisely brings together many of the key concerns around how big tech can put the wester democratic ideal at risk. Lots of good policy suggestions too… Other than the oxymoron of “secure online voting” !

Bad Pharma – Ben Goldacre

I’ve long followed Ben’s work, he has a brilliantly personal writing style. But I felt remiss in not reading any of his books, so here we go. I should disclose our orbits have slightly touched through work we’ve both done with the Open Knowledge Foundation and Open Rights Group. In fact, the word ‘open’ is the lodestone.

Bad Pharma is a great piece of activism, mandate for change and a searing analysis of how so many people in industry, medicine, professional bodies, regulators, publishers and more allow appalling behaviour to persist which result in death and harm to patients. It’s as simple as that. People knowingly let vast swathes of medical trial data be hidden, abused and mis-reported. Regulations are regularly skipped, skirted around or ignored with little or no consequence. Nearly every doctor in the world gets their ongoing professional education sponsored and curated by the pharma industry, with huge negative consequences on the cost and efficacy of prescribing. And most of this could be avoided with sunlight – openness and rigour at every step of the drug development and approval cycle.

At moments the book is utterly depressing but it comes through with a positive message and clear actions we can all take to challenge this situation. And Ben is working hard on brilliant work to improve things to, such as and more…

One more thing…

I don’t tend to mention my fiction reading here, but two epics I recently hugely enjoyed were Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore and Henning Mankell’s A Treacherous Paradise.

notes from JK

What’s wrong with business cases

@daverog: Business cases are corporate sci-fi

Dave Rogers’ tweet was spot on, and found a better way of saying what I’ve felt for a long time: business cases are not a good way to make decisions. They give us false certainty and almost invariably mislead some or all of an organisation’s leadership.

Business cases are lies. Not wilful lies usually, but they end up with the same results: misleading, misinforming and hiding reality.

Why would I feel so strongly about what is a pretty standard part of modern organisational life? Because I think it’s symptomatic of the challenge we face in moving to Internet-age public services. It’s easy for folk to nod along with the importance of ‘being digital and agile’ but then insisting on a ‘layer of programme management and finance oversight’ you know, “just to make sure it delivers”. This kills the good stuff and pulls us back to the wrong, lumpy ways of doing things.

Take a business case for a software implementation project. Probably what will have happened was requirements were collected, some market engagement done with potential suppliers and then estimation on what the work requires in terms of time and people. A return on investment will have been calculated to justify the costs involved. If everything looks reasonable, leaders will read through it, perhaps asking for some contingency funds or reassurance from managers. Then the document gets approved and people run off to do stuff. Almost certainly work doesn’t proceed as expected: Requirements change, a supplier experiences delays, costs rise.

If costs are within the total envelope no leaders are bothered with this. Programme managers juggle the finances internally. If spend goes above the envelope, then a scary moment as permission is sought to spend more. But usually we experience a few questions and the green light to carry on from our leaders. How so? Because the hole has already been dug, we need to finish it, the costs have been sunk. Let’s press on.

The ability to observe, orient, decide and act continuously is not the norm when business cases live among us. Let’s unpack our example:

  1. The Requirements – The idea that we can capture all our requirements and then share them with suppliers to get answers is fantastical, and wrong. Usually the requirements are widely varying in detail and realism, furthermore they utterly fail to recognise that customising commercial software is poison. For years big vendors thought charging for customisations was a profitable wheeze for clients stupid enough to request this. But even they realised this was money they didn’t like as the cost of maintaining all these forked and patched version of their products was just too painful to bear. Customising commercial software almost never ever makes sense. Even more importantly the requirements tend to be a deeply imperfect snapshot at a moment in time. By the time any code is likely to be in use the world will have moved on.
  2. The Cost – Software should not be a capital expenditure. It is a continuously changing, living thing that needs constant care and maintenance. The idea that a fixed price can “get us there” is fundamentally wrong. It takes us away from the power of funding teams, not projects. Business case methods massively favour capital expenditure, one-off type thinking. Yet for the complexity public servants are normally grappling with this is rarely the right approach. We need long term, patient funding for the wicked issues we seek to tackle. And also of course cost estimates for such business cases then to be wildly wrong.
  3. The Time – Building a bridge or a school? Then a fixed timeline (with padding for slippage) makes sense. Trying to change complex systems issues like integrating health and social care? Then a fixed time business case is the wrong tool for the job.

I understand that the ‘certainty’ and ‘process’ surrounding business cases can be comforting for colleagues. But we’re fooling ourselves, we need to be courageous and hold the uncertainty as we explore the problems we face in open, collaborative ways.

Shifting away from business case culture takes time and effort – it’s a big cultural shift, as well as one that will take away a prized method some will have spent their careers on mastering. But shift this we must, otherwise we will look back in 2030 and see more wreckage of failed programmes led astray by false certainty and sunk hole mentalities. We can do this.

notes from JK

Listenlog:Missing Cryptoqueen, Alone: A Love Story & many more!

Recently I’ve been doing quite a bit of commuting so hey… more podcast listening time. Here’s a bumper crop of recommendations for your listening pleasure.

The Missing Cryptoqueen

Georgia Catt, Jamie Bartlett and team at the BBC have made a stunning journalistic podcast. It’s made even better thanks to the wonderful sound design by Phil Channel, who also worked on the masterful ‘Death in Ice Valley‘.

They masterfully investigate OneCoin, a multi-level marketing scam which purports to be a cryptocurrency ‘Bitcoin killer’. Yet the currency can’t be traded and can only be purchased through ‘educational packages’. The founder disappears (the Cryptoqueen they are searching for) and the story gets weird and weirder as more people come forward through the series – a OneCoin beauty pageant, a OneCoin OneLife church in Uganda and so on. That OneCoin was able to reach globally, from Amsterdam to a farming village in Uganda, is remarkable. But also how the hype around technology, getting rich quick and regulatory failures all played their part in letting a few get enormously rich at the expense of so many people who couldn’t afford to lose a penny. Go listen, it’s absolutely superb.

Alone: A Love Story

This is a heartfelt memoir written and narrated by Michelle Parise covering her marriage, its collapse and her life after divorce as a part-time mother trying to find love in Toronto. Ethnically Italian it’s also about identity as a second generation immigrant, about what relationships can and should be in the age of app-based dating and so much more. It’s beautiful, moving and searingly honest. Don’t miss the accompanying website which has lots of lovely extra details.

Over My Dead Body: Joe Exotic

This is a fun journalistic romp through a bizarre US story of a feud between a petting zoo owner specialising in big cats and an animal rights activist which escalates to hitmen being hired, fires being set and more.

Intrigue: Tunnel 29

BBC Radio 4 continue their Intrigue series with this fairly short series into the story of how a small team of students dug tunnels to help people escape from East Berlin. The series is filled with powerful personal testimony from participants, who suffered tunnel floods, Stasi spies and all sorts of other challenges. It is well paced, with lots of interesting detail. Well worth a listen.

Patient Zero

This podcast, from the excellent New Hampshire Public Radio team who produced Bear Brook, is all about disease. Specifically it’s about Lyme Disease: The story of how it was discovered in… yes Lyme, New Hampshire… and the challenges early sufferers had in being listened to by medical professionals. The series patiently explains epidemiology, how ticks were found to be key to transmission, unpacking why vaccines have been hard to develop for the disease, through to various attempts to control the disease. It stops off on the way to why and how lots of dubious treatments persist at great cost to patients, and why doctors don’t agree on how to treat some patients. So yes, this is about Lyme disease, but it’s also about the modern medical model and how we don’t know as much as we think we do, which leaves us vulnerable in times of illness to quacks. A very well produced and thought provoking series.

Sex Power Money with Sara Pascoe

Sara Pascoe has a book to promote, also called ‘Sex Power Money’. So rather brilliantly she decided to produce a podcast interviewing people on the topics her book explores. And through word of mouth I heard it was rather good. One of the topics I explored in my aborted PhD on government policy consultations was a Home Office one on sex work. The literature review I did on this took me into a world I had previously known absolutely nothing on, but it soon became stark that the evidence on what works to reduce harm (decriminalisation etc) was rather different to the policy options being debated in the political space (Nordic model, criminalisation etc). Sara Pascoe proves to be an excellent interlocutor talking to sex workers and campaigners to open up the many complex issues we as a society face when trying to explore how we handle the intersection of sex, power and money. I felt much better informed through listening to this short series. Give it a go.

notes from JK

Listenlog: The Shrink Next door, Don’t Tell Me the Score & The Great Hack

The Shrink Next Door

No matter how many qualifications and professional registrations a health professional has, there is ultimately a degree of faith and trust you need to place in them. Thankfully most times that works out ok. But sometimes that trust is abused.

This podcast is an incredible story of how a celebrity-obsessed New York therapist manipulated some of his patients to gain control over their money, their businesses, their properties… their whole lives. It’s wonderfully put together to make a compelling narrative whilst also exploring the limitations of professional associations in managing such behaviours by their members. Joe Nocera takes us through the story with great personal insight as the story came to him through the key characters being his neighbours in the Hamptons. Do listen.

Don’t Tell Me The Score

A sports podcast?! I know, not my usual fare but this is really more a podcast about achievement, careers and the science on performance. Some recent episodes have been utterly fascinating: Boris Becker on the price of celebrity, David Epstein on why in most cases early specialisation is not beneficial and Christie Aschwanden on recovery. Simon Mundie does an excellent job interviewing his guests, well worth a listen.

The Great Hack

OK so it’s a documentary movie, not a podcast, still go watch it. It’s on Netflix and is an excellent summation of everything we know so far on Facebook and Cambridge Analytica worked to manipulate elections and other types of campaigns. It’s very well made, but does feel like it will need a sequel as we are still in the midst of understanding what is really being done with our data.

If the issues it raises concern you then go join the Open Rights Group and support Carole Cadwalladr in her legal fight with over the reporting featured in the film.

notes from JK technology

Using agriculture and the ooda loop to help stakeholders understand Internet-era public services

Last week I was very privileged to deliver a keynote to the annual SOCITM President’s conference. The last time I did so was in 2013, I’m hopefully a bit wiser since then. Also I was delighted to see the conference’s attendance grow both in numbers and diversity since my last visit.

This blog isn’t the presentation I gave last week, nor a transcript of it. It’s the distillation and iteration of those ideas.

How can we bring stakeholders with us into the Internet era for public services?

People in an old office sitting at mechanical calculator machines
Computing in days gone past. The ‘computers’ were the people.

I’ve been a council leader, I’ve run a digital agency and I’ve been a senior council officer. In all cases I’ve seen the huge difficulties good people and important work can face when struggling with stakeholders who “just don’t get it”.

For those of us impatient for change, it’s something we have often wrestled with. In many ways it’s an age old issue that goes to the heart of organisational renewal. But, and I know this is (justifiable) exceptionalism, I do think the Internet era we are now in brings a new flavour to this challenge. The conversations we need to have aren’t “out with the old, in with the new” and it would be wrong if they were. What I think we often experience is a fundamental disconnect over what the Internet era means and why it changes things.

An important public service announcement:

We break for a reminder that this isn’t a breathless Wired article where “just add tech” techno-utopias will be entertained. Sadly I think that too often when there is fear or misunderstanding of the Internet era people can revert to simplistic “just be more like Amazon” talk, sprinkling tech as they go. That’s one of the reasons I try to avoid using the term digital without being sure I’m with people who all agree we mean something like Tom Loosemore’s definition of digital. Too often ‘digital’ becomes a hand waving phrase to avoid precision about what we are actually talking about.

Let’s also be clear that “not getting it” doesn’t mean people are bad, it means we’ve got work to do. Now some will be stubborn, lacking curiosity and hard to budge. But in my experience most aren’t. We don’t need 100% understanding from all stakeholders. We just need enough to swing the pendulum.

The end of the heroic leadership paradigm

Superheroes flying with a big red cross over them
No heroic leaders please (superhero movies are fine though)

I didn’t know what it was called until I saw Barbara Kellerman speak at Harvard, but now I can proudly declare that I’m a passionate student of collaborative leadership. That is to say that the heroic model of a super-CEO type leader is not one I subscribe to and I don’t think is sustainable in our modern world.

In public services I think that means breaking down the Victorian, militaristic hierarchies in our organisations. It also means helping our leaders to recognise that a mechanistic mental model of how to bring about change is deeply flawed. There may be some levers to pull on, but they aren’t connected to anything at the other end, so won’t achieve the desired outcomes. Quite simply, just because someone has a position high up a hierarchy, Prime Minister even, doesn’t mean the outcomes they desire will happen on their say-so.

Moustachioed man at old fashioned exercise machine with a big lever
“Minister, you may think this lever reforms public services, but it isn’t connected to anything”

Rather I think an agricultural model of thinking and leading is more appropriate. We can’t make a seed germinate. We can’t know what’s going on inside a seed without destroying it. But we know the conditions it needs to give it the best chance of successfully germinating and growing: Fertile soil, water, warmth, sunshine and so on. Creating the conditions for success, in the knowledge that we can’t control for everything is vital to the mind shift we need to achieve. This means nurturing teams, valuing staff happiness and engagement are all even more vital.

Gardener planing a new seedling

How does this help me with stakeholders?

It does. Because there are lots of excellent people, associations, companies and agencies supporting leaders on such journeys to collaboration and systems thinking without explicitly talking about technology. I think that can be an incredibly helpful trojan horse to shifting the thinking.

Secondly, this mindset really can be shifted by a small group of people. It needs resilience and some supporters at or near the top, but this journey  doesn’t require your whole organisation to agree or understand before the tide will start to turn with positive outcomes. The Margaret Mead quote hits the spot on this:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.
“Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead

So what?

I took the time to set out some of my underlying assumptions about styles of leadership and thinking because they’re important. Launching into why the Internet era is different without first being clear on the necessary common ground is, in my experience, risking a high chance of early failure.

We urgently need stakeholders to think about, decide on and support work in different ways. We need them to fund teams, not projects. We need patient supportive leaders to allow the hard work of discovery, user research and service design to actually bear fruit. We need to bin business cases: They give false comfort with lies about how much will be saved or earned in 4 years if we spend X now. As public servants we need to focus on the wicked problems which, by their very nature, can never offer certainty on costs nor returns in a fixed timescale.

Cover of the book "Boyd: The fighter pilot who changed the art of war" by Robert Coram

So I turn to US Air Force Colonel John Boyd, a fighter pilot in the Korean War and considered one of the top strategists in modern US military history, who still has academic conferences held in his honour. In the 1950s Boyd developed the concept of the OODA loop. This describes a loop beginning with Observe, then Orient, then Decide, then Act before returning to Observe and so on.

Diagram of the OODA loop: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act

He originated this thinking with reference to aerial dogfights. He suggested that the winner in a dogfight was the pilot who could get ‘inside’ the enemy’s OODA loop – in other words do each of the steps faster than their opponent. The simplicity of the idea, and it’s easy application to much in modern life, has given it a life well beyond aerial combat tactics.

Public sector bodies have their own OODA loops as expressed through their formal and informal decision-making. Too often they are top-down, deterministic and slow. How often have we heard the tragic “I know what the problem is, just find me solutions” guaranteeing that the speaker has no idea of what the problem really is.

In my view we desperately need to change the public sector to have rapid OODA loops which are driven by a focus on outcomes, using analytics and rapid iteration.

And this is exactly what the Internet-era enables. It makes the OODA loops much smaller. Thanks to the low costs and connectivity of modern tools we can build and iterate products and services more quickly than ever before. Whereas a trial service might once have taken 2 years to get the first meaningful feedback to know if it was worth pursuing, we can now achieve the same in weeks.

Diagram showing large OODA lop with four small OODA loops inside it.

Not only does this offer us more speed and flexibility, it also reduces our costs and risks. How so?

Usually business cases are built for multi-year programmes of work. The inflexibility of the governance and the resources means it’s only worth mobilising such decisions for big programmes. Yet too often it’s impossible to know if they will really work as intended, so the costs get baked in. So we end up with big price tags, or bigger than absolutely necessary, because of governance and lag. Little and often minimal viable services are a much cheaper and faster way of figuring out what works.

Graph with one line showing 5% a year gains on £100 for 5 years and the other showing a single 25% growth for the final year of 5.

With an agile, iterative approach which funds a team and not a project we can stop or course correct at any time. There’s no shame in it and so we can avoid years of spend if something isn’t working out, we just move onto something else. But if it is working, by going out with the minimal viable service we can gain benefits much earlier. I liken it to the compounding of interest. Would you rather get 5% a year for 5 years or 25% once at the end of 5 years? The right answer is 5% a year as not only is that spreading your risk – you get some return now regardless of what happens in the future – but also you get more overall as you earn interest on the interest.

Example: Monzo

Monzo promotional image showing app on an iPhone and their distinctive coral coloured debit card
The Monzo app and card

Interest rates are good link to an example I like to use at the moment: Monzo Bank. Other banks are available, but thanks to their culture of being really open about how they work, it’s easy to use Monzo as an example. As an online-only challenger bank lots of people think they’re a tech company, but they’re not. They say it repeatedly themselves: technology is an enabler – a means to an end – not their purpose.

They launched with a real minimum viable product, a pre-paid debit card issued by another financial institution which gave a current account-like experience with their beta app. It was a long way from a real bank account service. Still this helped them to build up a client base, and insight, which they used to start building a real current account and other features as they went on. They also genuinely co-produce their services through their community which should be the norm for public services. If a bank, a trendy new one I know, can do it then so can we.

Screenshot of the Monzo online community forum
The Monzo community, explore it in full at

Making it real

Maybe the agricultural metaphor and the OODA loop are useful for working with your stakeholders? Please let me know.

I’ve considered and tried many, many ways to attempt explaining why things are different in the Internet era, and why public service leaders need to do things differently as a result. Based on years of working in this sector this is my latest, best effort. Your feedback is very welcome as I know there’s so much more room for improvement.

In my experience there are some key values and capabilities needed to go on this journey, and make it last in public services. They are worthy of several blog posts more of discussion, but I’m just going to put them out there for now. They shouldn’t be outrageous, I hope!

Culture and values:

  • Curiosity
  • Openness
  • Trust
  • Empowerment
  • Collaboration
  • ‘Safe uncertainty’ aka risk appetite


  • Service Design
  • User Research
  • Technology
  • Data Science & Analytics
  • Citizen Engagement
  • Communications
  • Organisational Design

Finally it’s really worth remembering why we need to do this. It’s because we’re not making enough of a difference to the citizens who depend on us, those who have nowhere else to go. Yes there’s austerity, but we still have huge resources and our outcomes need to be much better. Just shunting transactions ‘online’ is a start, not the end goal. This is about resolving the wicked issues and making a difference for those who have nowhere else to turn.

Image credits

notes from JK

Listenlog: Dirty John, 13 Minutes and Stories from the Eastern West

Dirty John & Over My Dead Body

Both these podcasts are written and presented by jobbing journalists, but produced by the podcast firm Wondery. I don’t really like the excessively smooth American production values Wondery use. Somehow their work sounds too polished when compared with the visceral honesty of something like Serial or CBC’s Someone Knows Something. Still… now that I’ve got that off my chest, these are two fascinating stories worth a listen. ‘Dirty John’ is the better of the two, recounting how a serial fraudster John Meehan targeted women and controlled them to the point of terror for his pleasure and enrichment. It’s an incredible true crime story with stunning honesty and openness from his victims and their families. I was surprised that his 110% narcissism isn’t called out in the series, they struggle to know what to call his ‘issues’, but that’s a minor quibble.

‘Over My Dead Body’ is the tale of a dream couple’s nasty divorce ending in one of them being killed in an apparent paid assassination. It’s bit slow to build but stick with it, as the FBI wiretaps of some of the alleged conspirators in the murder makes for compelling listening as the case progresses. Also the follow-up episodes on the New York Rabbi who kidnaps Jewish husbands and tortures them until they grant divorces (there is a connection to the main story, I kid you not) is seriously weird.

13 Minutes to the Moon

The BBC World service have excellent form, and superb production values, on their podcasts (see Death in Ice Valley and The Hurricane Tapes) and this is no exception. With a huge soundtrack, superb access to archive materials as well as new interviews with the big names, this is a must-listen on the history of the Apollo moon landings. I love the detail they put into understanding the technology, maths and people behind the programme. Great stuff.

Stories from the Eastern West produces this series of little known stories from Central Europe, the ‘Eastern West’ as they like to call it. There’s a great variety of fascinating tales covered from the history of Esperanto to how Warsaw Zoo was used as a cover for rescuing Jews from the ghetto. The banter between the presenters can be a little forced sometimes but other than that it’s a brilliant series bringing a wonderful part of the world to greater prominence for Anglophones.

notes from JK

Booklog: Atomic Habits and The No-S DIET

Atomic Habits – James Clear

The author had dreams of a sporting career until a baseball bat came loose and landed in his face during a game, landing him in a coma. This isn’t a cheesy all-american kid come true motivational book though, thank goodness. It’s a genuinely engaging take on why we form habits and how to use greater understanding of how habits form to make positive changes for work, fitness or anything.

Essentially Clear argues that just showing up and doing something regularly, to build the habit, is enough to get you going and make a difference. So he argues that regularly doing one or two pushups every day at the same time (for example after walking the dog) is better than occasionally managing twenty. And through the cumulative impact of incremental improvement (like interest on a savings account) progress will mount and become noticeable.

Personally I love anything which unpacks and challenges the myth of ‘overnight success’. Just showing up every day, building a streak of doing the thing each time, breaks down even the toughest challenges to bite-size chunks. Some of my favourite examples in the book (of which there are many) relate to the comedians Steve Martin and Jerry Seinfeld each of whom are reported to have worked daily on their jokes in a relentless way their effortless delivery belies.

Clear’s book isn’t earth shattering, it doesn’t offer breakthrough new science. It’s a very well presented and thought through framework for understanding habits, how they form and when they can be a problem. That in itself is a valuable contribution.

I don’t think improving your habits will necessarily make you a better person, build your emotional intelligence or launch your music career. But they could make your life better by cracking a few things and just getting them done. And if you make your habit practicing guitar every day, then maybe that music career has a chance after all.

The No-S Diet – Reinhard Engels and Ben Kallen

I came across Reinhard Engels through Oliver Burkeman’s book Help. Engels, a librarian turned programmer based at Harvard, is a bit of an internet legend for coming up with a range of ‘Everyday Systems’ for dealing with the challenges he faced: getting enough exercise, quitting smoking and losing weight. All of his ideas he shares freely from his websites but popular demand led to this book being published on his most successful idea, the No-S Diet. I ordered it from one of those online discount used bookstores that ship from millions of miles away so it came weeks after I ordered, and forgotten about it. By strange coincidence it landed a few days after I’d started Atomic Habits, and it turns out they’re a perfect match.

No-S is essentially a specific habit building system for controlling eating. The system is to eat only three plates of food a day with no seconds, no snacks and no sweets. The exceptions when the rules don’t apply are ’S-days’ which are Saturday, Sunday and special days like birthdays. That’s it. And indeed the whole plan is on the cover of the book.

Still the book does have value as Engels explains more on how and why he came up with the plan, and why it works. The most compelling argument he makes, based on analysis of mainly US government data sets, is that an astonishing 90% of the growth in Americans’ calorie intake has been through snacks. In fact he claims the data shows that the average calorific value of American dinners has declined in the last few decades, whilst snacking has more than made up for it. He is scathing on the diet and fitness industry which hawks snacks and health bars at the same time as telling us to restrict our eating habits. Normalising snacking, in Engels’ view, is the slippery slope to losing control over what and when we eat.

Let me repeat that as it’s stunning… 90% of the extra calories eaten through the decades when those on Western diets have grown fatter than ever, come from snacks. Wow.

Let’s be cautious with our stats though, Engels only shows correlation and not causation. Still his case is a strong one when he brings in comparisons with other nations such as France and China who have low but growing snack intakes, matched by low but growing obesity.

I’ve become a bit of a snack watcher since reading the book – and I can report that my kids are obsessed with snacking. Is this the new normal? I hope not. Measures are being taken!

I can report that since I’ve been trying to No-S habits I have lost weight, my appetite feels more regulated and I can’t take as many sweet things as I could gobble before. One plate of food is plenty enough and I rarely feel tempted to snack now. Maybe he’s onto something? 

notes from JK

Listenlog: S-Town, Brexitcast, how to fail, polarised, the drop out

S-Town aka Shit Town

Wow. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. From the team behind Serial this podcast series is a portrait of a small town in the American deep south, a story of how family is complicated and most of all the tale of an extraordinary, eccentric, passionate man with mental health challenges.

I can’t recommend this highly enough. It is beautifully and sensitively produced as it touches some very delicate and personal matters which I won’t expand on to avoid spoilers.

There has been some debate around the morality and ethics of this podcast. I think such debates are important to have, but on listening to the whole series the producers have shown themselves to be considerate and careful. I won’t say more to avoid spoilers but after listening do have a read around the debate on the ethics of producing such series which involve vulnerable people.

BBC Brexitcast

Top BBC reporters like Laura Kuenssberg, Katya Adler, Adam Fleming and Chris Mason get together late at night to review another day of Brexit developments. They are tired, punch drunk from the relentless events of the day, and full of insider insight. Don’t expect a tightly edited listen of perfection, do expect laughs and hot off the press views. I’ve found it essential listening.

How to Fail with Elizabeth Day

One of the most interesting conference panels I ever participated in was at EuroCities in Nantes. A number of city Leaders and Mayors, including me, had been briefed to talk about youth participation. Naturally we all were ready to talk about our success stories. When we sat down the moderator asked us to talk about our greatest failures in boosting youth participation. It turned into a fascinating and insightful session, far better than if we had just trotted out our polished success stories.

So when I stumbled across a podcast series on learning from failure I had to give it a shot. There’s a huge archive of episodes. So far I can highly recommend the interviews with Alistair Campbell and Gina Miller. Elizabeth Day’s humility and openness makes for a powerful interview technique. Do give it a listen.

RSA Polarised

I’m a Fellow of the RSA and have collaborated with Matthew Taylor before, so perhaps I’m naturally inclined to like Polarised. Still it’s a skilfully produced series hosted by Matthew and Ian Leslie that tackles an issue of our time – the growing polarisation of our society and how to address it. A thoughtful dose of brain food.

ABC The Drop Out

The story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos has become infamous – how she portrayed herself as the next Steve Jobs, with a world-changing medical technology startup. The reality was one of bullying, fraud and patients being put at risk. This fascinating podcast goes right inside the story with fascinating interviews of those who were inside Theranos at key moments in the story.

notes from JK

Booklog: Creative Selection & It doesn’t have to be crazy at work

Creative Selection – Ken Kocienda

Kocienda summarises his book, and conclusions about the Apple culture as: “A small group of people built a work culture based on applying the seven essential elements through an ongoing process of creative selection.” If that sounds a bit vague to you then it summarises the book which veers from detailed anecdote to attempts at generalisable theory of Apple.

I’m not sure what to make of this book. It’s fascinating to be able to get a glimpse inside how Apple worked during the gestation of the iPhone. That’s what got this book published. Yet… it feels wrong for one person to be letting us behind the curtain when that’s just not what Apple does, and this was clearly a team endeavour. Even if Kocienda is the most benign and kindly teller of the iPhone story, it’s nigh on impossible for him to do justice to all of the teamwork involved.

There are undoubtedly interesting tales in the book, and some superb attempts to simplify complex technical issues for a non-technical audience. If I was compiling a list of must-read Apple-ology books this wouldn’t make it. But if you’ve read everything and want a bit more then Creative Selection is an interesting few hours of detail, particularly around the development of Safari and the iPhone keyboard.

It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work – Jason Fried & David Heinnmeier Hansson

I have long been a fan of Basecamp the product and company (which used to be known as 37Signals). I spent so much time using Basecamp when Head of Technology at Netmums that some nights I dreamt in Basecamp!

Fried and Heinmeier Hansson influenced my approach to development and I greatly respect their approach to business. This is their third book, and I enjoyed it immensely. I don’t think they’d be offended if I noted that all three books have been pretty similar in style and content. But Fried and Heinmeier Hansson have clearly iterated their thinking to improve and condense their key messages. This latest book is the most crisp and impactful of all.

It reads as a series of short, digestible chapters extolling a human(e) approach to business and software development. One of their key insights is to consider the company itself a product that needs to be continuously improved. There’s lots of good thinking packed in there such as “hire the work, not the resume”, “don’t meet, write” and “disagree and commit”.

A refreshing and uplifting read for anyone with an interest in how to improve work – highly recommended.