A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world

As I sit here in the pub, enjoying a cold pint and a packet of crisps, seeing and hearing everything going on around me, the rich tapestry of life, it got me thinking about the famous John le Carre quote that is the title of this blog article. Over the years, lots of people have quoted it; usually people whose field is either research, or whom use research in their role. Like Planners.

It is however, an easy thing to forget when you’re in the daily grind. Even if you do remember it, it’s easy to ignore, because, getting away from your desk takes preparation, time and sometimes, even permission.

I’ve always been a huge advocate of not working from the same desk, or even place, day-in, day–out. Even when I’ve worked in agencies where I’ve had a brilliant view from my desk, like the 12th floor of Sea Containers, overlooking the Thames whilst at GTB, it’s rare you’ll find me sat at it.

I believe that in the context of work, in planning especially, familiarity breeds complacency and often, laziness. You see the same stuff and the same people every day and it’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing the world one–dimensionally.

I think that a pre-requisite to any planning role is that you don’t have a desk, and instead, each day have to decide on the best place to work that best suits the context of whatever planning you’re doing at that time. Ideally, at least half of that shouldn’t be in the office.

As any good planner will know, a big part of the art of planning comes from observing the world and relating those observations back to the work you do. Often, the observations you make at the time won’t be relevant to the specific piece of work you’re doing, but they might be one day. So go work from a coffee shop and observe parents meeting up in the morning. Go work from the pub in the day (drinking soft drinks, obviously) and observe business people and pensioners enjoying a pint and a chat over lunch. Go work from a shared workspace and observe other business people. And if you get really brave, strike up a conversation with them. The value you’ll sometimes get far outweighs many statistics you see quoted every day on Twitter, masqueraded as ‘insight’.

Since starting Cord, I’ve had the privilege to work on a few projects that have recognised the value of going beyond simply using desk and online quantitative methods to inform strategies and ideas, and have instead placed a great importance on the value derived from observing and speaking to people. Seeing what can not be seen in a spreadsheet or a dashboard, or a beautifully written and curated report you and every one of your competitors can pay for online.

Just to be clear; I’m not dismissing any form of research you can buy (as long as it’s actually good), but you’ll only ever get part of the picture from it. If you’re simply researching by reading websites and reports, you’ll still have to fill in the gaps. Make assumptions. Form conclusions without a true understanding of the reality of seeing or speaking to the people you’re reading about.

I don’t need to write about the importance of doing this, because so many have written about it before.

What I do need to remind you of, is, in the age of unprecedented volumes of data, intelligent algorithms, digital tools, dashboards and quantum computing, sometimes the thing you really need to do is head to a pub, and have a chat over a pint and some crisps.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

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