Reviewing the Book Reviews


Over the last 10 years I’ve reviewed thirty books for this blog, all the reviews have been positive, because if I don’t find a book interesting or valuable I don’t finish it, let alone review it.

Here’s my review of the reviews. Very meta.

The first book I reviewed was The Cult of the Amateur, by Andrew Keen. I characterised it then as “an anti Web 2.0 rant.” Oh boy. At the time I was more optimistic about what we now call social media, but now I think I should have paid more attention to Mr. Keen. He was more right than I realised and the issues he identified still aren’t resolved.

The two books I recommend most often are Don’t Me Think, by Steve Krug which I didn’t review, and The Art of Possibility, by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander which I did.  The first is a speed guide to the principles of building good digital properties – it started out as an internet guide but the principles can be used for more than that. I think I’ve given away at least a dozen copies over the years, I’m not even sure whether I currently own a copy!

The second, the Art of Possibility,  is my favourite leadership book of all time, it’s a book leading to reflection on your own personal leadership style and how you can lead in a way that is honest and encouraging. It’s a delight to read, and almost 10 years after I first read the book I dip into it for inspiration.

Two books that made me think about how we work are A Year Without Pants, by Scott Berkun, and Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution, by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson. Both examine how we work today and it’s evolution from industrial era principles. In my current job I am the only person from my team, or even my department in the office I usually work in, so the ideas in this book about work, results, and communication are once again useful.

A final favourite, and not just for the great title Weird Ideas that Work, by Robert I. Sutton, the weird ideas are for building innovative and creative teams, which is relevant for part of my work. I had accidentally figured out some of his ideas before I read the book but use them even more now. It also helped me look at conflict – when it’s about the work – in a more constructive way instead of wanting to calm it (natural peace-maker reaction). An added reason to like this book, when I reviewed it Mr. Sutton was kind enough to thank me via twitter.

 

Reading books is one of my favourite things to do, here’s to another 10 years of reading, learning and thinking!

 

Book of the Month: Weird Ideas That Work

Weird Ideas That Work: How To Build a Creative Company

By Robert I. Sutton

Book cover; weird ideas that workThis book is packed full of ideas and examples, Sutton often gives the chapters or the ideas thought-provoking titles – chapter 10 is “Decide to Do Something That Will Probably Fail, Then Convince Yourself and Everyone Else That Success is Certain” for example, this chapter could be summarised without persistence great ideas fail; persistence requires belief. It’s worth reading on. I thought back to a project I managed about 5 years ago, one of the team came to me telling me we’d hit a “showstopper”, my only question was a mild “which one is it today?” and he later told me that gave him hope – the fact that I clearly saw it as another setback and not stopping us.

Most of the ideas sound counter-intuitive, but Sutton provides evidence and examples to show that they work. He also makes a clear distinction between the needs of an organisation (or department) that needs to do what it does consistently and repeatedly and one that needs to innovate, the practices in this book are for the latter.

For a long time I’ve held the belief that people who are new to your organisation are a valuable source of critical information, they haven’t bought into the company’s branding and processes and have fresh ideas on how to improve things. I value their input, and have coached new arrivals to contribute. Sutton codifies this as “Hire People Who Are Slow Learners (of the Organizational Code)”. Such slow learners retain their ability to think critically and independently, as an example of this Sutton uses Richard Feynman’s role in the Challenger investigation.

This idea is taken one step further and labelled as “Weird Idea #1½”, and contrary to the fashion for hiring for cultural fit the advice is to hire people who make you feel uncomfortable, even those you dislike. We know that as hiring managers have a bias towards hiring people just like us, so this really goes against our instincts. But a company full of creatives misses the business needs and a company full of engineers misses creative opportunities.

Of course there’s more to this idea, once you’ve bought the person into your company you need to find ways to make any resulting tension into something productive; one suggestion from the book is deceptively simple; you need to listen to their ideas and and insist others do so as well.

Perhaps my favourite weird idea is #5

I was brought up to avoid conflict and confrontation, but it can be productive. When people fight about ideas it shows they care about their work, the project and the company. If people fight respecting the perspectives of the others the results can be a better process or product. It’s the opposite of group think.  The word “happy” is key to the idea working; this limits the risk of discussions falling into destructive personal attacks, they’re more likely to use humour to diffuse any situation that becomes heated and the conflict stays productive.

This isn’t a new book – I have had it on my bookshelf for years, I guess I picked it up after reading “The No Asshole Rule” by the same author but published later. Some of the ideas I have come across in other places, but it’s still interesting to see them backed up by evidence and examples.  Throughout the book I had moments of recognition, sometimes happy that I had stumbled on the right approach to foster innovation, and sometimes rueful as it cast previous events in a different light. It’s a quick read, and the examples help and point to further reading.

I think this is a good book for any manager looking to make their team more creative and more energised about innovation. I’ll be keeping it on my shelf for future reference. (And I’ll keep an eye out for his next book coming out in September).

Great Summer Reading List 2017

Hurrah for summer! You’ll pack up your swimsuit, sunblock and sunglasses but what will you take to read? Here are my picks.

Leadership

(1) Weird Ideas that Work, I love the title, and I’m enjoying the combination of counter-intuitive ideas that turn out to be practical.  One chapter is devoted to “find some happy people and get them to fight”, which sounds like a recipe for disaster but it’s about building creative conflict – which is positive and useful. (This is not a new book, and the edition I have has been sitting on my bookshelf for years. )

Sustainability

(2) The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert, is a frightening look at the real changes happening in our environment, from a fungus that is killing off frogs, to a decline in bat numbers, and our warming oceans. You can whet your appetite with an article in the New Yorker from the writer.

Business

(3) Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, explores just how well Google knows us, and is written by an ex-GooglerSeth Stephens-Davidowitz. While we might post a lot to social media we post the good news, the real story of our lives is revealed in our searches.

(4) Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, looks at why one artist (Monet) becomes famous, and another (Caillebotte) didn’t. Apparently luck has something to do with it.

(5) The Content Trap: A Strategist’s Guide to Digital Change, Bharat Anand examines the different strategic approaches taken by publishers in the digital world. 

Biography

(6) Not exactly a biography, but certainly a hero’s tale The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts , by Joshua Hammer, tells the story of smuggling ancient books and texts out of Timbuktu after the Al Qaeda took control.  I haven’t read it yet but the National Geographic article about it makes me hope someone’s bought the movie rights and plans to star Mahershala Ali.

(7) Part memoir, part self-help guide; I am looking forward to Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes: How to Dance it Out, Stand in the Sun, and Be Your Own Person. She is someone to admire, who has managed to not only be her own person but to put roles on screen that reflect ourselves.

(8) One of my favourite reads in the last year was Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble which tells the harrowing story of Dan Lyons’ year in a startup in an amusing way while explaining what might be wrong with the startup and VC ecosystem.  

Personal Effectiveness

(9) Insight by Tasha Eurich, a psychologist, who looks at whether we’re self-aware or deluding ourselves, and what we can do about it. Sounds interesting in a slightly scary way.

Fiction

Summer should be all about the serious things so here’s a fiction option to consider;

(10) I am so happy that Arundhati Roy has returned to writing with the The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and I can’t wait to read it.

Don’t like my recommendations? Try Bill Gates’s.

Image: Summer Read  |  LWYang  |  CC BY 2.0

How to Fly a Horse

How to Fly a Horse; The Secret History of Creation and Discovery

Kevin Ashton

Who discovered how to cultivate vanilla?  How did the American Airforce develop jet engines in a matter of months?  Why does Woody Allen (almost always) avoid the Oscars despite almost two dozen nominations?

This book is a collection of lessons about creativity with a myriad of examples – some of which will be familiar and some of which you won’t have heard of.  It begins by attacking the myth of creativity, the very pervasive idea that creativity is the province of a certain type of person, that creativity is a gift, an amazing flash of inspiration.  Instead he posits, with significant evidence, that creative thinking is in everyone’s reach, in fact it’s just thinking. We only get to call it creative when we see the results.

creative thinking

While we’re all possible of thinking, and of generating creative results the outcome, or rather the impact may vary. New ideas aren’t believed, our own cognitive biases make us favour the status quo. It takes the remarkable persistence of someone like Judah Folkman, whose work on blood supply to tumours is now considered a breakthrough. But for more than ten years he pursued what his colleagues considered a “dead end”.

In order to move our opinion away from the status quo we need extraordinary, convincing evidence.

evidence for new ideas

The challenges to creativity and inventiveness grows as organisations grow and compliance becomes more important. But the history of the development of jet engine at Lockheed Martin offers an example of how creative results can be supported within an organisation; it took leadership, a dedicated team in their own environment, a clear goal, freedom to challenge the status quo. They benefitted from an existing culture of “show me”, so an inventor can convince their colleagues by showing their idea works rather than endless discussion. (In another chapter Ashton laments time wasted in meetings with discussion)

The book is worth reading for the histories of inventors and creativity alone, but it goes beyond that in encouraging everyone to practise their creativity, setting out the work needed, and showing the challenges you’ll face. passion fuels creativity

How to Fly a Horse was awarded a “best business book” award earlier this year, however to me the specific applications for business seem less than those for individuals. I would recommend this book for anyone who feels “stuck” in their creativity.

image: books via pixabay

Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time

Leadership BS: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time
Jeffrey Pfeffer

Yes, the “BS” in the title does stand for “Bullshit”.

More money is spent on leadership training of various sorts every year, and yet stuff goes wrong and leadership failures occur in every industry; from banking to car manufacture. In Leadership BS, the author Jeffrey Pfeffer, takes a shot at the “leadership industry” examining the commonly held beliefs delivered in leadership training and comparing them against the reality.I’ve been through leadership training and felt pretty strongly that I’d benefitted from it. So I opened the book with curiosity, but also with a personal bias. It’s a revealing read.

To start with Pfeffer makes the very valid point that we don’t measure leadership training, we don’t look at and measure outcomes.

BOTMLeadershipBSAugust2016Many years ago I worked in leadership training, and one of the challenges was measuring the effectiveness of the courses we offered. We had the usual ‘smiley’ sheets, which record how happy people are the day they finish the course, but don’t tell you much about whether the course changes how they will lead. It turns out evaluating the impact of leadership courses isn’t that easy to do in a large company, but perhaps before and after 360 degree assessments would be a good place to start.

Pfeffer works through the commonly accepted ideal traits of leadership; modesty, authenticity, trust, truthfulness, and that latecomer “leaders eat last”. In each chapter he describes the  basics of the trait, examines the reality and discusses why the opposite trait might be a better trait for leaders.

In the chapter on modesty there’s a long list of leaders who do not display any form of modesty, the list was written in early 2015 and includes Trump – the businessman Trump. Of course modesty can be seen as a positive trait for leaders, but it “may not be such a good thing for getting to the top or staying there” (pg69). Instead Pfeffer points to a healthy measure of narcissism in many successful leaders. I think we’ve all met colleagues that succeeded beyond their ability, thinking back on ones I have met I think they may have been rewarded for narcissistic traits. A number of the anti-modesty traits are more common in men than women – a potential contributor to the gender gap in leadership.

BookReviewLeadershipBS2It’s a sobering read. It focuses on the reality of the power games of leadership. It does contain a paradox, for the most part Pfeffer agrees that the leadership traits are desirable yet demonstrates that they’re not effective. He calls for individuals to adjust to the reality, and calls for the change in how we assess leaders, and how we measure the effectiveness of leadership training.

Postscript;
Came across this brilliant video addressing authenticity, particularly for women. Had to share – love the quote “we need competent leaders, but we follow confident leaders”.

 

Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble

Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble

Dan Lyons

Dan Lyons, a journalist with a respectable career covering technology accidentally started working at a start up. He finds a lack of transparency on decision making, a dysfunctional culture and some serious time-wasting; it’s depressing until he realises that it’s great source material and recasts himself as a cultural anthropologist. The result is this book.

Lyons has form for subversive writing, he was the writer behind the Fake Steve Jobs blog. In Disrupted he covers his own motivation for joining a startup; financial and curiosity – but mostly financial. He tried to pitch good ideas, and tried to understand what he was working with. Most of the book is his memoir of the year and he’s funny about his time at Hubspot, he takes shots at the company including the paradox of a company supposedly dedicated to automating sales having a high pressure telephone sales team. He explains the drive for growth and connects it back to the venture capital.
financial instrument

Disrupted covers the economic downside of the startup/digital industry with a personal perspective, fantastic wit and a healthy irreverence. He has the highly evolved bullshit meter of a journalist. I think reading this made it easier for me to digest and comprehend the more theoretical discussion in Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, which I read at roughly the same time.

It’s an entertaining book, with interesting commentary on the startup industry, and he adds his voice to the call for more diversity across the digital world. You can read an excerpt of the book on Fortune – it’ll give you a feeling for his year at Hubspot and a taste of the humour of the book. Reading the excerpt was enough for me to want to buy the book.

10 Books to Read on your Summer Break

It’s time to run away on your summer break, finally you’ll get time to read, what should you pick?

Leadership

(1) I will be reading Leadership BS, by Jeffrey Pfeffer. Which promises some ways of rethinking leadership.

(2) If you’re trying to re-think how you manage your team, then Why Work Sucks will take you through the concepts of a results only work environment – there are things there you can implement when you get back from summer.

(3) Your own leadership style comes out of your own attitudes The Art of Possibility is my favourite book to focus on personal leadership.

Innovation

(4) I’ll be reading How to Fly a Horse: The Secret of Creation, Invention and Discovery, a refreshing look at creativity.

Business

(5) I’ll be reading Industries of the Future, by Alec Ross. It seems to be a mashup of predicting trends and business applications.

(6) I want to read Phishing for Phools, reviews vary with some economists deriding it and some business people applauding it.

(7) The last business book I read (and reviewed) was Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, which challenges our current monetary system and looks at some alternative models for the future of business.

Biography

(8) I want to read the biography of Elon Musk, although I usually am wary of biographies of living people. Musk is such a fascinating entrepreneur for me, he seems driven to solve the world’s challenges as opposed to building a better widget.

Personal Effectiveness

(9) I want to read The Happiness Track, I’ve thought a lot about the way we work and the demands we put on ourselves. I’m hoping this book challenges the ideas behind our current cultural definition of success.

Fiction

(10) If you’re more into fiction – I’m halfway through The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes, one of my favourite writers. The BBC has a list of ten books to read that’s making me itch for a bookstore trip.

Happy reading and happy summer.

Image: Summer Read  |  LWYang  |  CC BY 2.0