fbpx

May 11, 2022

Abhijit Bhaduri on divergence and convergence, the power of sketchnotes, multidisciplinary sensemaking, and skill portfolios (Ep20)

“You could spend all your life just drinking from that firehose and not making sense of it, or you can say, Okay, enough, let me try and structure this. That’s really the magic.”

– Abhijit Bhaduri

Tim O'Reilly
About Abhijit Bhaduri

Abhijit is an author, blogger, podcaster, keynote speaker, and influencer focusing on the future of work. His 5 books include most recently Dreamers and Unicorns and The Digital Tsunami, as well as 2 novels. Before starting his solo career he was CLO at Indian tech giant Wipro.

What you will learn

  • What mentality is needed to thrive on overload (01:51)
  • How to structure your engagement with information (03:31)
  • How to convert the divergent into a convergence (05:01)
  • Using sketchnotes for sensemaking (07:20)
  • How to pull and distil the essence of complex ideas (11:10)
  • How to organise information visually (14:11)
  • Developing a thriving community by being accessible (16:10)
  • How organisations can help their employees to deal with information overload (21:26)
  • What is the way to teach learning to learn in a world of fast change (27:45)
  • Why conversation is a powerful tool to thrive on overload (30:54)

Episode resources

Transcript

Ross Dawson: Abhijit, it’s an honor and a delight to have you on the show.

Abhijit Bhaduri: Thank you. Likewise, it’s so lovely to be here with you.

Ross: What I want to dig into is not only how you thrive on overload, but also many others whom you have helped through your career to thrive in a very fast-paced environment. We will try to unpack these but what’s the starting point? What’s the mentality that we should be approaching in making sense of unlimited information?

Abhijit: I think one of the things that have changed is the number of sources of information that we’ve had. There was a phase where you had the standard newspapers. In India, we went from one official government-run television channel to two, and then suddenly, as private television happened, satellite TV happened, now we have 700 channels to choose from; and besides, of course, all the others that keep showing up on the internet. Everybody with a camera, and a microphone is now a content creator, so that has just exploded. I think it’s moved exponentially from one or two to 700 to now literally billions. That’s really what is causing this amazing thing plus so many platforms where you’re consuming it. I read stuff in the newspapers, on the internet, there are communities, you talk to people, and there are various places, it’s just incredible. You could spend all your life just drinking from that firehose and not making sense of it or you can sort of say is, Okay, enough, let me try and structure this. That’s really the magic of how do you balance these two or three things.

Ross: Structure, that’s a wonderful word. How do you structure your engagement with information?

Abhijit: I would say that there are three distinct phases. One is the phase that is divergent, where you’re looking for things that are of interest to you but your sources are multiple. There are some people sources, for example, I always find that talking to creators is very insightful, talking to people who are at the fringes, a lot of the futurists, people who write about that, some of the clubhouse rooms which talk about that. One of my favorites is one called trends and weak signals, which happens most Saturdays, India Time at 7:30 pm. It has got seven, eight people who are polymaths, who have very different interests, and what they interpret is sort of a seemingly innocuous weak signal. You suddenly begin to see it popping up in so many places, so that’s quite fascinating. Conferences, podcasts, YouTube, and of course, there’s social media, the usual books, magazines, movies, it’s just so many things; there is a people site, and then there is your curated content, which is available, so you just dip into both.

Ross: You’re starting with the divergent as in going out and getting everything from all sides of a few carefully selected sources, what comes after the divergent phase?

Abhijit: At that point in time it’s a sense-making phase where it is convergent, and you do it as part of your natural routine. When I consult with organizations, I get a chance to talk to the C suite but I also get a chance to talk to the employees; it gives me a view of what do the people at the top think? What is it that they are missing? Then you talk to industry experts, you read some of these reports. One of the ways to make sense in that convergent model is actually the way you structure your information.
In my case, I use some of the apps which are there; I use Google Keep, I use Apple for some of the stuff, sometimes I email stuff and then build on the same topic, I use alerts, so that’s one way in which you are curating content on a particular theme. But in the sensemaking phase, you’re really looking for patterns. What is repeating? What is showing up in unconnected areas? For me, that’s the more fascinating piece. Let’s say the decentralization movement, I was attending the Adobe conference, and Malcolm Gladwell talked about from a hierarchical structure to networks, so that was one piece. Then you read about the Defi movement, then you look at the autonomous organization, crypto, then you say are these related? Is this a part of a broader trend? And which is what you then distill and say, how will this change a certain aspect? What problems will it solve? What problems will it create? That’s really the place where you use a multidisciplinary approach to make sense of things. That’s really your second phase.

Ross: I’d like to dig more into that in how you do that but I know that you use sketch notes as part of your sense-making, and perhaps you can share with our listeners, what sketch notes are and how you use them?

Abhijit: When I’m reading something, usually what I do is I try and distribute the stuff between the different senses given the fact that the amount of texts that we consume on any given day is phenomenal. Podcasts is one method, but I also use sketch notes liberally, which is, I illustrate that. If I read something, I try and summarize it. Let’s say if somebody who has not read that book or the article, or listened to that podcast, whatever I’m summarizing visually, what is it that would make sense to that person? What are some of the key takeaways? It’s not like a detailed note-taking of all 100 pages of whatever the person has spoken, but think about it, like, the chapter headings of a book, and you sort of do that, sometimes there’s a data piece that makes all of it come to life, and it tells people why it is so important. You do that, and I try and illustrate it.
Sometimes I use visual symbols, sometimes I just draw a cartoon, sometimes I use an illustration of some of those vectors that you see. I use a combination of various things to really create a visual that people can keep in their minds. It gives you a recap of everything around that idea. I found that very useful. My readers love It. That’s something that I find very useful. It’s the way that I’ve traditionally taken notes. The only difference is now when I put it out for other people, I’ll show off a little bit; I use a little bit of color and do all that but it’s effectively the same notes, which are there. I just use a little bit of crayon or something to jazz it up but otherwise, it’s not very different.

Ross: In the show notes we’ll have links to some of your wonderful sketch notes. How do you lay that out? People will think about mind maps, a lot of people have been trained on mind maps where you get a central idea and branches, and you sometimes bring in drawings. Is there any particular logical structural way that you put the ideas on the page?

Abhijit: For most people, when they read a book, it’s the easiest. Books have chapters, which tell you how the thought is organized. Usually, I try and limit the sketch note to two or three of the most important ideas, sometimes you combine them, and you think of two or three or four blocks. Because more than that, it becomes really cluttered, then you’re just adding to the confusion. You just want to make it actionable. In my case, what I do is sometimes put the stuff in a LinkedIn post, which is my first starting point. When you begin to see a couple of posts which are there, that typically show up in my LinkedIn newsletter, or it will be an article that I write for a magazine or some such thing because then I’m trying out the idea for different audiences. You get the feedback from that which is precious, and then multiple articles combined together, create a book or a keynote, multiple articles can be curated into a keynote. A post becomes a newsletter, a newsletter becomes a keynote, keynote becomes a book. That’s typically the way most of the times it flows.

Ross: It’s difficult to look inside your own mind but obviously, you are a master at distilling the ideas. How do you say okay, there are 10 concepts in this book, I’m going to pull them down into four or whatever is a logical thing? Is there any process that you can share about how it is that you pull back, distill, or take the essence of what are more complex ideas?

Abhijit: Most of the time when you look at information, for me, sense-making is typically a multi-disciplinary process. As part of my conversations and things like that, I talk to people from different disciplines. What happens is you begin to see the world from two perspectives, that I use. One, what is it that I noticed which is going to impact multiple disciplines? Let’s see, is there a political implication? Is there an economic implication? Is there a social implication? Is there a tech implication? And then you try and see whose problems can be solved with this particular insight? Is it going to be something that is going to impact the learning and development community? So It’s something that I will put together for that. Is it going to be something for an individual when they’re making choices about their career? So I’ll write about that. Is it going to impact the CEO who’s going to think about how do we make a call about getting people back to work or not? Does it mean you change the rulebook? Does it mean you change the talent pool that you’re working with? Does it mean you change the processes that you’re working with? Do you combine all of it? Those are some of the things that I use to distill stuff.
What you write about effectively comes back because you get feedback from people, people will say, that was really useful. You get all your likes and all the analytics, and you understand where the people have put more comments, what are the things people have shared a lot of. That’s something people find useful. Then that’s a feedback mechanism to you. Then you build a community of readers who are always giving you feedback saying, I found this useful, but I didn’t like what you said about ABC. You build that one-to-one connection with a number of people.

Ross: That’s really interesting, a number of particularly interesting things there. One is, this immediately going to implications. If there is anything, then I’ll say, what does that mean? What does that imply? What does that lead to? Which is again very much futurist style thinking. Another is, you mentioned a number of themes there, as in learning and development or the future of work or other things, have you created different themes around specifically what is of interest to you? And when you capture information, do you use tags, folders, or other ways to be able to organize that information?

Abhijit: For me, I find that creating the sketch notes is the most powerful way of finally distilling something that I’m going to weave together either for an article or something. Even when I write, in the process of writing if I get stuck, which is very often, I would then switch to drawing it out because that gives me clarity and saying, okay, what am I trying to say? What’s the problem I’m trying to solve here? When you do that visually, it forces you because you’re spending time explaining something, and then when you draw it, you realize that okay, with the drawing I’m giving the impression it’s something that impacts only women, because there are only women characters, that’s not true. Should I change it? Is it different? Is it something that is going to impact India more? Then I would create characters who are wearing an Indian dress or some such thing. Depending on who I’m writing it for, sometimes the visual actually gets me a lot more clarity about the language. Then from language to the visual, the visual to the language, it’s an iterative process.

Ross: Another thing that is really interesting is the feedback from your community, and you’ve obviously got a wonderful community. This is a type of collective intelligence, which is one of the most important themes we have. I’d love to just hear your reflections on how your community which you engage with participates as it were in your thinking process.

Abhijit: Most of the time the first most visible piece is the comments, the re-shares, and all that. That gives you a perspective. Most of the times people will give you a nuanced view of a problem and they’ll say you’ve written about this, it’d be useful if you wrote about this problem that I noticed in many organizations. That can really throw light on a blind spot of mine, because then you say that, okay, I never thought about that but that’s a useful piece. Then I’ll go digging into that, to respond to that.
The other could be that as you’re consulting, you begin to see things that you may have written about, but very clearly, when you see it happening on the ground, you get a far deeper sense of what are people really talking about? I do a number of conversations with groups of employees, which is very useful for me because it gives me a chance to vicariously participate in some of these conversations. When they say that what you wrote about in this, our CEO would never do this. Then you say, why would they not do it? And then they would have their own hypothesis. If you get a chance to talk to the CEO, you begin to see both sides. In that sense, you are able to then say, Okay, here’s where I need to create content, should it be visual? Could it be a keynote? Should I do it as part of a workshop that I’m doing for these people? So you put all of it together.
When I create keynotes, I use a lot of these sketches, because people are used to seeing a lot of content. People use stock photos; you see the same photo 15 times in a keynote. But when you do a sketch, which is usually unique, and nobody else has it, it’s also a great way that people can focus on listening to you rather than taking notes. At the end of it, I combine all the ideas into a sketch note and share it out, which they can keep. Then it becomes a great visual summary. It’s easy to recall. Then I put my email or something out there, so people will write back with more ideas and all that. As you make yourself more accessible, people will come back and give you more ideas and suggestions. Also, a lot of people help me with all the typos that show up in my writing. They will say, by the way, you’ve got a typo and then fix it, they are kind enough to do it discreetly, they’ll DM me. I have a very powerful set of people who look out for me, which is I’m grateful for.

Ross: I think the essence of that is that you are asking, interested, and responsive. The reason why people say how about this is they know that you are going to listen, and you’re going to respond to that. I think there are many others who have very engaged social communities where they don’t expect any response. Whereas I think because you are actively listening to and responding to those requests is that’s when you start to tease out those interesting perspectives that you might not have had otherwise.

Abhijit: If you ask people for suggestions and don’t act on them, after the second time, they stop giving you suggestions. It’s like employee surveys. You say, tell me what you don’t like about the company, and they’ll generously flood you with ideas. Then if you don’t do anything about it and ask again, tell me what you don’t like about the company, they’re not going to take you seriously. So yes, that’s very true.

Ross: As you may know, I also create what I call visual frameworks, concept frameworks, and they’re a lot more complex than your sketch notes. They’re probably too complicated sometimes. But for the times for keynotes, what I’ve done is actually just take a single page and use a Prezi to move around and look at different parts of the visual to tell one story.

Abhijit: Yes, maybe we should do a combination sometime. One of your ideas, turn it into a sketch note, use that and see, I’d be happy to do that for you.

Ross: You are Chief Talent Officer at Wipro, your learning and development is core to your work; of course, I’m interested in how you thrive on overload but how it is that you do, or you could, or we can help the so many people? I think tech services is one great example where it’s moving pretty fast, how can organizations help their employees to be able to deal with massive degree of change in information and knowledge, and prosper in that world?

Abhijit: Let me first step back and talk to you about how the thing happened when I was at Wipro as the chief learning officer. The first thing that confronted me was the scale of the organization. At that point in time, it was 150,000 employees. By the time I left, it was 175,000. Now it has about 200,000 employees. Obviously, the scale is phenomenal. It’s across different countries, more than 50-70 countries, so very diverse groups. My first thought was, if I do the traditional route of in-person classrooms and all that stuff, then that’s going to be a long time. That was one of the things that the company heavily invested in, which is great, so it gave me a chance to do a lot of that.
I defined my role in three chunks. One was to say that, you need to be a person who could look around the corners and say, How’s business going to change in the next 18 months, and for that, you combine internal feedback mechanisms and external factors. Let’s say if you see a lot of consolidation happening in the banking sector, and if our internal stuff is not up to snuff on that, then you will see that banking is going to take a dip next year. If you are able to create credibility by doing some kind of a prediction for the near term, people begin to take your longer time horizons a little more seriously. You say this is what’s going to happen tomorrow and if it does, then it’s much easier for you to build credibility, to talk about what’s going to happen next month, and so on and so forth.
To look at the corners, in the next 18 to 24 months, and then translate it down to the skills that will become very important, so what’s the portfolio of skills? The framework that I used to use is that I think there are three kinds of skills, what is commodified, which is you may have the skill but nobody pays you to have that, for example, if you say, I know how to use Word or PowerPoint, nobody’s going to get impressed and say, Oh my God, that’s so amazing that you know how to do that because it’s become a commodity, everybody has it.
Then there is a middle layer of that pyramid, which is the marketable skills, which is things which people get certified in, which get you employed, things which you get typically learned from an educational institution, and now more and more outside of educational institutions as well. Those are the things which you can learn in the community. Things that you will pick up in a Github kind of community, which is the second chunk, it’s marketable, because you get paid for it, and you get hired for it, and you get promotions for it.
The third one is the most difficult thing, which is the niche. The niche skills are the ones that people gather by talking to individuals. You can’t learn it in a structured way because it’s so much out there, it’s in the fringes so that actually comes from the kind of people that you engage with. It can happen through social media, it’s powerful, I get to talk to smart people like you, that happens only through social media. You build your connections, you are part of communities. The interesting thing is you can never enter any of these networks, communities or talk to these individuals if your first thought is what can I get out of it. The principle is given take. You always give first before you take. If you’ve earned enough credibility by saying, yes, you contribute as generously as you swipe your goodwill card, then people are kind enough to help you out when you’re looking at that. They’ll connect you to the people in their network and then say, actually, I don’t know enough, the person you should talk to is this guy. Those are probably some of your gems. They are the people that are the hardest to reach. The only way they’ll take your call is because it comes from that person. That is very difficult to learn how to do. You only do it over a span of time. You pick up and build your own network, and then that network gets you to other networks.
There’s a people process that works and then there’s a technology process which is through, as you said, algorithms, and social media, and all that stuff, so both are important. Technology is more powerful for the convergent pieces but for the divergent pieces, those experts will say, this is rubbish, nothing of this is going to happen, I’ve looked at these five industries, and here is how it is going to pan out, that’s a very great way to cut out the noise. Also, they will tell you that, okay, nobody’s talking about that but this is going to be a big problem tomorrow. I think it’s this combination.

Ross: I talk a lot about peer learning as in you learn from your peers, and particularly, as you say, on the edge, when you’re creating new knowledge, the books haven’t been written yet, so you’re on the edge with other people who are learning and that requires the communities. But this is about this learning to learn, and the learning to learn is also about learning to learn in communities and networks, and to build those, and as you say, this is difficult to teach in a way you’re trying to find it. If we can distill it down, what are any key points? What’s at the heart of being able to teach these potentially exceptional people that learning to learn in a world of fast change?

Abhijit: I’d say that conversations are usually indicative of weak signals and trends. When you look at newsletters and articles, that’s slightly more aged, so it is, Yes, it’s probably a reasonably large trend because otherwise, it wouldn’t appear in a newsletter, because not enough people would read it, so the newsletter is typically a sign that it’s in that marketable kind of a face. When it’s in the book, it’s the knowledge that you should have, and it’s potentially in the face of getting commoditized because you said, everybody knows that. I think conversations for me are always the most precious, and they are unstructured, they’re chaotic but I find that when you talk to people who are polymaths, they can actually make great connections, and creators make great connections in their own way.
Somebody will talk about a certain kind of thing happening, say, on Instagram, and have no clue what that is, and this person builds a community of people who are really fascinated by that entire thing that you are sharing, so you get a chance to see something like that. Then you see a little more structure in other places. Audio is easy because you’re getting into different conversations, which is in real-time, you’re sort of doing that. I take notes diligently when I am in the clubhouse, or in LinkedIn audio when I’m doing that. These conversations are very powerful because these can be 20-minute conversations, and that’s a gem. The trick is not to get fascinated by numbers and say, oh, I had 7000 people; no, you could have had a deep conversation with one person who’s a stranger and that’s probably precious because you’re getting to see the world from a person who you don’t even know. That is usually one way to break the algorithm that you are stuck into because you begin to see more people like yourself, that’s a bias you have to avoid.

Ross: Absolutely. Rounding out, is there anything we’ve missed or advice you would give to people who are seeking to thrive in a world of excessive information?

Abhijit: I think the kind of podcasts that you’re doing, you’re bringing together a lot of people who are creating their own frameworks. For example, a couple of people who I found of great value in the conversations that you had. What Harold Josh talks about, how do you find that knowledge, seek that knowledge? The process is roughly the same. There’s a divergent phase, there’s a convergent phase, and then there’s the action phase. Now that action phase can be creating the action that others can take which could be through sketch notes, articles, blog posts, etc. Books give you a chance to reflect on some of the stuff, the trends. Book reviews are great places that you look at. I just read a book review and say, oh, that’s interesting. But there are people; I always find it fascinating to talk to authors, because they are people who have looked at something in depth. I like to talk to journalists, because they’re people who scan the horizon, very often they are sniffing out the edges, and they are looking at things that have not yet taken shape. They don’t have names for it, but they know that there’s something brewing there. That’s what I find.

Ross: That’s fantastic. I think conversations are basically at the heart of it but as I was saying before, it is how you go about the conversations, where the magic really happens. We will obviously have links to all of your work in the show notes but where should people go if they want to find out more about your fascinating work, Abhijit?

Abhijit: You can follow me on linkedin.com/in/abhijitbhaduri. There’s my newsletter, where I curate a number of my ideas, and I have tons of sketch notes, or you can email me [email protected]

Ross: That’s fantastic. Your openness is part of what enables you to learn so much and so extensively. Thank you so much for your time. That’s been a fantastic conversation.

Abhijit: Thank you so much, Ross. It’s a privilege to be on your show. Thank you.

“A how-to for turning a surplus of information into expertise, insight, and better decisions.”

Nir Eyal

Bestselling author of Hooked and Indistractable

Thriving on Overload offers the five best ways to manage our information-drenched world. 

Fast Company

11 of the best technology books for summer 2022

“If you read only one business book this year, make it Thriving on Overload.”

Nick Abrahams

Global Co-leader, Digital Transformation Practice, Norton Rose Fulbright

“A must read for leaders of today and tomorrow.”

Mark Bonchek

Founder and Chief Epiphany Officer, Shift Thinking

“If you’ve ever wondered where to start to prioritize your life, you must buy this book!”

Joyce Gioia

CEO, The Herman Group of Companies and Author, Experience Rules

“A timely and important book for managers and executives looking to make sense of the ever-increasing information deluge.”

Sangeet Paul Choudary

Founder, Platformation Labs and Author, Platform Revolution

“This must-read book shares the pragmatic secrets of how to overcome being overwhelmed and how to turn information into an unfair advantage.”

R "Ray" Wang

CEO, Constellation Research and author, Everybody Wants to Rule the World

“An amazing compendium that can help even the most organised and fastidious person to improve their thinking and processes.”

Justin Baird

Chief Technology Office, APAC, Microsoft

Ross Dawson

Futurist, keynote speaker, author and host of Thriving on Overload.

Discover his blog, other books, frameworks, futurist resources and more.

rossdawson.com