June 15, 2022

Julie Rasmussen on her 7 S’s system, using Slack for note-taking, identifying systemic issues, and finding white spaces (Ep25)

“I find synergising to be the most rewarding part of the whole process. When that happens, you really are thriving on the information overload.

– Julie Rasmussen

Tim O'Reilly

About Julie Rasmussen

Julie is a highly experienced corporate executive and entrepreneur, taking senior leadership and board roles in a range of industries and several countries for major organizations including Mary Kay, CVSL and EnXray. She is now the founder and CEO of She Banks, a fintech startup whose mission is to increase financial security for women.

LinkedIn: Julie Rasmussen

Twitter: Julie Rasmussen

What you will learn

  • Information processing via the seven S’s (03:07)
  • How to sort efficiently using Slack (05:15)
  • Why the sort structure for information is crucial (08:35)
  • Why a pen and yellow legal pad can be the best mind mapping system (10:52)
  • Why information synthesis is very active work (11:51)
  • Why synergising is the creative process that adds value (14:39)
  • What is the importance of scheduled downtime (18:06)
  • Should mental mind maps be styled classically or otherwise (21:04)
  • What is the advantage of getting further education even if you are already highly successful (27:51)
  • How to avoid confirmation bias and loss aversion for thriving on overload (30:57)

Episode resources


Ross Dawson: Wonderful to have you on the show, Julie.

Julie Rasmussen: Hey, Ross. It’s great to be here.

Ross: Since I reached out to you to interview you on how you thrive on overload, I gather you’ve thought a little bit more about the subject.

Julie: I have indeed. It’s quite fascinating because until you sent me your list of questions, about thriving on information overload, my opinion about it really was more like barely surviving on information overload. I think sometimes it’s more like drowning in information overload, it’s like trying to drink from a firehose, or in the immortal words of the Texas punk rock bands, The Butthole Surfers, it’s like drinking from a fountain that is pouring like an avalanche coming down the mountain.

Ross: They do know all about it.

Julie: Exactly. Then I started looking at your list of questions and listening to some of your other interviews. In particular, one of your most recent ones, with Leslie Shannon, from Nokia, who was one of my very good friends, and one of the most brilliant and interesting people you’ll ever hope to have a chance to meet, she mentions her five F’s, she has Find, Filter, File, Familiarize, and Formulate. I started thinking more consciously about the fact that, in fact, I do thrive on information overload, because this is where I get the ideas to start up new businesses or fix businesses that I’m working on.

Ross: Tell us what it is.

Julie: Ross, this is not that different from her process. Again, I will repeat one thing that Leslie says, it’s very important to find what works for you as an individual, and what works for one person might not work for another. What I discovered is that my process if we want to name it as a system is the seven S’s. It consists of Search, Scan, Sort, Structure, Save, Synthesize, and then Synergize.
My information processing starts in the morning, I get a strong espresso, and I check out four or five different TV channels, then go to the office where I’ll spend between one and three hours looking at the various newsletters and publications that push info to me. These are news aggregators and publications that I subscribe to.

Ross: So this is starting with the Search. Is this in chronological order as in, you start with the Search?

Julie: I just start by scanning my inbox, what has been pushed to me, and scanning the headlines in the news aggregators, to see what the topics of the day are. Then I will delve more deeply into the topics of particular interest that I happen to be researching at that particular time. One time I was working with a cannabis company so I would focus on issues facing the cannabis industry. Or if I’m working with a security and transportation company, I’ll be scanning and searching for information relevant to that. My newest startup that I’m working on right now is a Fintech Ecosystem for women so I’m looking at everything having to do with Fintech, financial products and services, and women’s use of financial products and services. Then it just goes deeper and deeper from there.
I start with my Search, and then if I see particular things as I’m scanning, a particular author, speaker, or article, I’ll quickly jump onto Amazon, I’ll order that author’s book and have it sent to me. Or if a link leads me to another publication, I’ll click, and I’ll follow the trail of information. Now, as I’m doing that, and I’m scanning, obviously, I don’t have time to read all of this while I’m doing that, so I use speed reading and headlines to scan the info, and then a various system of sorting it.
This sorting is very important. I’ll use flags and emails of different colors. I’ll download things into files. I will insert names into a database, into an Excel spreadsheet so if there’s a significant person that I’d like to develop a relationship with or reach out to for their expertise, I’ll put them in my database and I’ll make notes where I ran across them, and what their area of expertise is so that later I can search for them on LinkedIn or the internet, get their publications, whatever it is that’s going to help me develop information from that person.
Then I have a very interesting use of Slack. I set up Slack workspaces for whatever topic that I happen to be researching at the time. Because I do almost everything online, and even if I’m reading a book, you can get a synopsis of the book online, you can go to Amazon and click the link to the book, I’ll just set up a channel in Slack.

Ross: Is this for your use only?

Julie: Yes, my own use only.

Ross: Nice and novel.

Julie: I can’t get anyone to use my Slack channels, because I’ll have 150 channels, let’s say on Fintech, with everything I’ve ever read on Fintech that I thought was interesting, I’ll just make a channel, or I’ll add it to a channel in Slack.

Ross: Fabulous

Julie: Over time, I might have a Slack workspace that has 1000 or 1500 links to various topics. There are many, many tools you can use, like Endnote, and different internet searching tools, but I just found Slack was so easy to use; create a channel, post the link, and then I can make notes, right in the Slack channel under the article, or you can cut and paste certain paragraphs in the article and paste them to the channel and then you can pin the channel. I’m also a member of many collaborative Slack workspaces. That’s how I have organized my research with articles and online content into Slack.

Ross: I never heard anyone doing that, but it makes a lot of sense, not least because you’re already in Slack all the time and you’ve got an instant tag by sticking it in there.

Julie: Exactly. That’s just something that I just discovered, I just stumbled across as I was researching and thinking, what am I going to do with all these…

Ross: Innovation?

Julie: Yes, and all these different links to all these different articles, I got to store them somewhere. When I’m writing articles or emails, I will just click open my Slack workspace, quickly find the channel, copy the link and send it to somebody, or click on the article or see the parts that I’ve excerpted. It’s a fantastic archive tool I have found for storing this information. That’s my main sorting procedure, is to make an Excel spreadsheet, make a slide, but mostly store things in Slack.
To properly store all this information, my fourth step is structure. Now structure here has more than one meaning. I’m talking both about the structure of the information that I’m sorting. What kind of information is it? Is it medic information? Is it statistics? Is it databases? Is it an opinion? Is it a point of view? And what is the key premise or systemic significance of the information that I’m seeking to understand and deciding where to place it and where to sort it?
If I don’t really understand what kind of information it is, I’m going to put it in the wrong place. It’s not going to be very helpful to me. Or I might use the wrong information to make the wrong point. Because certainly in writing an article, or devising a business concept, I don’t want to use opinion or hearsay, to maybe create a strategy, I need to kick the tires and make sure I’m using information from an incredibly reputable source, and I need to make sure that I’m backing up with data and statistics.

Ross: What tools do you use to put structure on it or to capture the structure which is apparent in your mind?

Julie: Leslie uses this analogy of the Christmas tree. Areas that she has more information about, I think she used the example of Brazil, she knows a lot about that, so she hangs the information on this mental map of a Christmas tree that represents Brazil, and it glows very brightly in her mind map because it’s so rich with information. For me, it’s more like I’m looking at that green code that flows down the screens in the movie “The Matrix”, and I’m looking for the patterns and I’m looking for the underlying connections in this information, which again, I’m looking for the meta structure, and then I will use mental maps or some systems’ analysis tools, flowcharts like Coggle, or Kumu.
I find one of the best technologies ever invented that will be forever is just a pen, and a yellow legal pad, or a pencil and a yellow legal pad, or sticky notes, and just drawing diagrams, jotting notes, questions, and things like that. Then I’ll keep a folder of all these paper notes. Then later at some other time, I’ll go through and I’ll think about them and think about where they go, I’ll research them, and I will figure out how they fit into my mental mind map. But I think that systems thinking and mental mind maps are really critical for organizing this information in your head.

Ross: I’d love to just dig a little bit deeper into that. For example, on the legal pad, when you sketch things out, are there any particular types of relationships that you’re trying to capture in terms of dependence, causality, priority, or anything else?

Julie: Yes. After we have searched, scanned, sorted the information according to what kind of structure and type of information it is, then saved it in the appropriate place, then it’s really critical to try to synthesize some of this information. Are there clashing elements? Are there contradictory statements? Are there statements that ring true? Or are there statements that cause doubt? And I’m looking for gaps, both in the information and then gaps in the real world. If there’s a root cause or a systemic element, where’s the blockage in the system? Or where does the system ignore information that if inserted into the system could cause it to change? Synthesizing is like you’ve got all these pieces like Legos or building blocks, so you’re trying to see how they fit together, and what parts don’t fit and what parts do fit, and are patterns revealed that illustrate systemic problems. Then you think about what ways could those problems be addressed.

Ross: Is this something where you sit back and get into this certain state of mind to synthesize where you are pulling back to be able to ask these questions to yourselves?

Julie: Yes, synthesis is a process of very active work, where I’m really consciously reading this information, trying to process it, trying to understand it, and trying to group it together in my mind, in this structured mind map that I’m building, so I think synthesis is really the hardest part because there’s so much information. When it tends to start to repeat itself, then you can say, Okay, well 70% of the data on this is all congruent so let me just now make up an object, which has certain premises, which I believe to be more or less true, that’s been now synthesized, all that information.
For example, women don’t use financial products as much as men because they’re not culturized to do it. Maybe that’s false. But I’ve come across 70% of information that tends to agree that’s a fact so I’ll tentatively say, okay, that’s a truism, or that seems true.

Ross: I’d later come back to that, perhaps, after finishing off your seven S’s.

Julie: Yes. The last step is after that information is synthesized, and I’ve got this mind map, and I’ve got this underlying code in The Matrix where I think I know how certain systems and forces are working, the next thing is really Synergize. Now, this is where the real value add comes and two plus two is not four, two plus two starts to be five. This is the one that I don’t think you can really force, and I find that it’s obsessive deep thinking, a rumination process that runs in an infinite loop in the background while I’m brushing my teeth, taking a shower, making scrambled eggs, whatever, it’s like, you got a little bit of small piece of food stuck between your teeth and it’s there, you want to get rid of it, you don’t know what you’re going to do with it, it’s quite annoying until you can get rid of this. Going for a bike ride, just letting your mind wander through all the information, picking up things, looking at them, turning around, putting them back down, until suddenly, if the process is working, and I’m doing this right, I’ll get some kind of sudden insight or epiphany, that will bring me to a new level of understanding of both the problem, the systemic issues, and then possible solutions.
I think of this as a typical creative process. This also reminds me of Leslie’s formulation step. I was very struck by something she said, that every solution has the seeds of the next problem. This reminds me of the Hegelian Dialectical Process that every new synthesis of ideas will lead to the next antithesis, and this is really a never-ending process. It also reminds me of the Austrian economist Schumpeter’s process of creative destruction. I do think that processing information and thriving on information overload is a process of creative destruction. You’re looking for what’s the value of all this information? What insights does it give us for innovation, societal change, or step-change functions and processes?
I find that to be the most rewarding part of the whole process. I think, when that happens, you really then are thriving on the information overload.

Ross: Absolutely. Ultimately, of course, the purpose of this is to create something wonderful, which wasn’t there before, either to solve problems or to create new opportunities. That’s where it all comes. But as you say, once you resolve the tension, the other tensions emerge from that.

Julie: Exactly. I do think that it’s very important to schedule downtime but it really goes against our culture, this work-addicted, workaholic, high-pressure culture. But I find that I have to schedule and I will try to schedule two days a week, sounds like a lot, but where I just do nothing, but nothing being thinking, where you’re just going away, and you may be writing, you’re writing down your thoughts, or riding a bike, or doing something, shopping, it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing, lying in bed watching TV, I don’t know, but that’s when the real creative impulses come and your subconscious takes over, and we’ll make these connections that result in epiphanies, innovation, and synergies.

Ross: Fortunately, two days a week corresponds with the weekend, so you’re lying with the rest of the society.

Julie: Yes, but I try to take at least one day during the week, a Wednesday or a Friday or a Sunday. I actually rent a small studio apartment near my office. I won’t even go to the office because I have to have just no distractions, nothing on my agenda, nothing on my schedule, just force me to have that downtime. A good example for me was I used to take this 13-hour flight from London to Hong Kong back in the days before there was any Wi-Fi on the planes. I was really lucky because I was a CEO of a large organization so I used to fly business class or first class with a flatbed seat. It was such a relief and such a haven to go into this confined space where you didn’t get up really for 13 hours, they would bring you your food, bring you your water, there were no distractions, no one could call you, no one’s talking to you and all of my most productive, creative business insights almost without exception would come to me during this flight. After a few hours, I get out a pencil and a notebook, and the words, and the thoughts, everything would just flow, just flows out of your brain onto the paper without thinking about it. It’s just percolating up from the deep recesses of your brain. If you’ve done the first six steps, then it just percolates up.

Ross: My experience used to always be that I’d literally get the 30,000-foot perspective of my life.

Julie: That’s a great analogy.

Ross: I just want to dig back into a couple of those S’s. I want to hear a little bit more. In the structure piece, you use the term mental mind maps. Are those classic mind maps with a concept in the middle and then branching forks of the hierarchical structures?

Julie: Not really, I think it’s very important that your mind map is very free-flowing. I might just take one thought, or one problem, or one question, or one fact, just write it down and draw a circle on it. Then I just let my mind wander wherever it wants to go, like, what’s connected to that, or what’s not connected to that. It’s a very free-flowing thing. You just spew everything out onto the paper, then later, I will go back, and I’ll maybe impose more order on it or more structure on it or make it more formal, more like maybe a classic mind map. But I think it’s really important not to have any preconceived ideas, like, okay, it has to be organized in a certain way, no.

Ross: When you jot down some concepts, what kind of relationships between them are you trying to elucidate?

Julie: For example, I started researching for this latest startup. My father has a Ph.D. in economics. I’ve always been very strong in personal finance and economics, because of what he taught me. I’ve worked with tens of thousands of women entrepreneurs, and then I started to realize that women lack confidence in investing, they have lower levels of financial literacy so I draw a big circle over here that represents the finance industry, finance, financial concepts, then over here, I draw another circle, and this is women, women entrepreneurs, women’s challenges, what’s going on with women. I realized these are almost two separate universes. Then I started thinking about, well, maybe this is the problem, this disconnect. This is why women are not using financial products and services. What are the root causes of this? I’ll start to put things in the middle, like how can we bring these two circles closer together? Are there any overlapping circles like in a Venn diagram? I’ll just start drawing Venn diagrams and circles and putting things into them and then just seeing if there are connections. Then when I’m done with this map, I’ll see where there are connections, where I think there should be connections, and where there are no connections. It’s the blank spaces, often that are more important, or as important as the circles that are filled in with data. Where these big white areas are where there is no connection? That’s the opportunity.

Ross: Yes, absolutely.

Julie: Like in this particular example, it’s a huge opportunity. I had no idea when I started researching this. Oliver Wyman did a study that says, the difference in the use of financial products and services by men and women is a $700 billion global opportunity. That’s mind-boggling to me. That’s a huge white circle that really bears thinking about and figuring out how do you fill in the circle with basically encouraging women to use financial products and services so that they start investing more, and start to have better economic outcomes. But without drawing that mind map, I’m not able to really visualize how to do that.

Ross: That’s interesting. On a related note a dozen years ago, in Harvard Business Review, there was a strategy map, where they did a semantic analysis of all of the content that companies created, including all of their filings and so on, and then looked at the relationships, created network analysis of these companies, which ones are adjacent. From that, there were white spaces, where there are basically industry sectors that barely exist at the moment, where opportunities lie rather than where there are massive clusters of everybody using exactly the same language to say what they’re doing.

Julie: Exactly. I’m looking for these whitespaces. The world of finance is dominated by men. This is not a criticism. It’s just a fact. If you think about creators creating things in their own image, it’s no wonder that the financial services industry speaks the language that the creators of it understand and feel comfortable with. It’s not the same language that the universe of women who control three-fourths of domestic household spending and then on average have 13 different roles they feel at home versus three or four for men, it’s no surprise that that universe of women is speaking a different language. Neither one is good or bad, or better or worse, they’re just different. How can we translate from one of these worlds to the other in a way that they understand each other better, and when they do, then the first circle here of the financial and services industry, will then start to communicate with and include and involve this world of women who are not participating in or who may be underserved by the existing financial industry.
To me, that epiphany is very exciting because it’s a huge open playground, with massive, massive amounts of room to play, and create value. People are trying to, it’s not that any of that was done on purpose, people want to bring these two worlds together. But it’s like if you speak English, and the other person speaks French, if you don’t speak each other’s language, it’s very hard to communicate, you can do it, but it’s hard. It’s a lot easier if you have a common language, and you can understand each other.

Ross: You mentioned building systems diagrams using tools like Coggle and Kumu. Have you had any education in systems mapping and diagrams? Or is this something that has come to you intuitively?

Julie: I always was a systems thinker. My Myers Briggs profile is an INTP, which is a researcher and a gatherer of information. However, the answer to your question is yes. I just recently went back to school and completed an MBA, which I finished in June of 2020. I’m already a very experienced, very successful business person. My friends are like why on earth are you doing that? Why are you wasting your time doing that? And I said because I’ve done many, many startups, I’ve done many turnarounds, I’ve sat on many boards but I want to know if maybe I have one last big startup in me. If I’m going to do another startup, it has to be big because startups are hard, it has to be something that is potentially massively scalable, or it’s just a lifestyle business and you can do that as a hobby in your spare time.
I went back to Oxford, and this is where I started researching all of this information and finding out about all this information about just how big the gap is in women’s use of financial products and services. In fact, at Oxford, they do have a class on systems thinking, that’s how I learned about Kumu. That there’s a word for these mental diagrams that I draw in my head. Mind Maps, I never knew, I just thought it was something that you do because otherwise, it’s hard to make sense of the world around you with all this different information. My answer to my friends’ questions was, all that information may be in your brain, and it comes from your experiences but in many ways, it’s inchoate, it’s chaotic, it’s just all mushed in there until you start to really systematize it.
What going to get an MBA did was give me frameworks like the Christmas tree, like the coding in The Matrix. I’m an excellent strategist, it comes to me intuitively, but now I find out there are all these strategic frameworks that you can use to hang your strategies on. Then you can use shortcuts like, this is a blue ocean strategy, or this is a red snake strategy, whatever, I don’t want to get too enthusiastic about all these crazy frameworks and their names but these tools, these frameworks really can be helpful tools in helping you think about the information you have. Now that when I see a huge open whitespace, I know what the business school term for it is. I forget what it is, I think it’s a blue ocean. That’s fine, but I know that it’s not just me, I know that someone’s thought of this before and I’m not crazy. In fact, I can go research about this if I just Google blue ocean.

Ross: Yes, absolutely. You definitely need to trademark your seven S’s though. A few decades ago, McKinsey, put out their Seven S’s of strategy so you might have a bit of a tussle on your hands.

Julie: Okay, I’ll have to look that one up. Maybe they beat me to the punch.

Ross: No, it’s a different seven S’s. I think yours is wonderful. That’s a great insight, really valuable. Perhaps, you can write a book. In conclusion, any last recommendations for listeners on how they too can thrive on overload as you do using your seven S’s?

Julie: Yes, I think one thing to do is to research frameworks because those frameworks can be very helpful, and they’re good shortcuts and good tools that people have already thought of, that you don’t have to reinvent, that you can use as your Christmas tree structure or your mind map structure or whatever. Then we also read a book for the MBA program called “Thinking Fast and Slow” by behavioral economist, Daniel Kahneman. It’s a very dense book, and there’s much repetitiveness in it. But if you will scan the chapters or read a synopsis of this book, there are some very important principles in there. I think it’s really important to be aware of confirmation bias and loss aversion.
When you research, you tend to latch on to information that supports your thesis so it’s very important to force yourself to go get information that would undermine your thesis. That’s why I watch both Fox and CNN. Then you can come up with your own synthesis and decide if your thesis is correct or not, or if you’re just suffering from confirmation bias. Everything I see now looks blue because I’m thinking about the color blue or whatever it is that I’m doing. Then loss aversion, if you’ve really invested a lot of emotional thought into a certain premise or thesis, it’s very hard to let go of that thesis if you do find information that would tend to contradict it. That’s called loss aversion. You don’t want to let go because you have so much invested in it. Those are two pitfalls I would really strongly advise people to be aware of and try to avoid if they can.

Ross: That’s fabulous. Thank you so much for your time and your insights today, Julie.

Julie: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.

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