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!

 

Collaboration

Wikipedia gives a long winded definition of collaboration, Google’s dictionary comes up with something simple; the action of working with someone to produce something. Its use has grown in our lifetime.

That upward blip in the use of the word at the end of the 1940s is due to the second meaning of the word; traitorous cooperation with an enemy. Some of the recent growth is due to the rise of social media and the experiments in new ways of working.

What is the benefit of collaborating in a team?

Better solutions.

In the theory of the wisdom of the crowds, the more people contributing to an answer the more likely you are to get the right answer. In effective collaboration a team of diverse experts bring their perspectives to decision-making.

In every major project I’ve worked in the contributions of experts from different fields has been critical to the solution’s success. I will never know as much as the collective knowledge across the company; here are a few examples.

  • Implementing an enterprise social media platform; its use as a service channel by a business investment team became the best use case collaboration to provide a service. I was looking for use cases, but didn’t even know the team existed.
  • Developing social media guidelines; we had legal and risk experts in the room, they had the deep expertise we needed to get it right, but it was a new hire from a non-digital team who pushed us to simplify the guidelines and the language.
  • Social Media Publication Platform; we had experts from IT, business, legal, and digital involved in evaluating possible tools. It sounds a bit like that old trope of six blind men describing an elephant, but in fact we had good discussions and agreed on the solution to be chosen, while understanding the limits and compromises we were making.
  • Translation; we translated some internal messaging via the enterprise social network, with contributors all using their native language and delivering the translated versions back within 3 days.

Collaboration can also provide additional capacity, if you work collaboratively you can share resources and even provide coverage in the absence of a colleague. Non-profits have been finding ways to collaborate under cost cutting pressure for years, but it can work within organisations as well.

How can you make collaboration effective?

Collaboration isn’t easy, and there is a lot in current workplaces that goes against collaboration. A HBR study reports that when teams get above 20 members, have high levels of expertise, are highly diverse, virtual, or are addressing complex tasks, the chances of effective collaboration drop. Collaboration requires trust across a team and a willingness to share knowledge, it’s easy to see that virtual teams might struggle, but the high expertise seems counter-intuitive.

Here are some factors to consider when building a collaborative team.

  1. Executives model collaborative behaviour
    When executives a visible and demonstrating a particular behaviour they will be copied.
  2. Relationship focus in the company’s culture
    Company cultures often emphasise a task focus, but in companies that emphasise a relationship focus teams find it easier to collaborate along the lines created in the company’s human network.
  3. Clearly defined roles
    Collaborative teams work better with defined roles and responsibilities, usually the roles can be derived from the person’s expertise, but it pays to specify the responsibilities. You can use a form of a RACI to document responsibilities.
  4. Team results rewarded and celebrated
    When teams have a strong joint purpose and are rewarded for the results of the team’s work their motivation to collaborate rises, yet most companies focus on individual performance and results. If you can’t re-organise your company’s formal reward system look for other ways to reward and celebrate teams that have genuinely collaborated.
  5. Skills to collaborate
    We’re used to working as individuals, we need to learn new ways of working for the collaborative era. Two techniques that are worth checking are Work Out Loud (WOL) and appreciative enquiry.
  6. Tools to collaborate
    Whether you use a company enterprise social network, a project tool such as basecamp, or a SharePoint team site, you will need some way for a collaborating team to share their work. If the team is dispersed across locations the tools become vital.

I’ve discussed the benefits of collaboration to the company, there are also benefits for individual contributors. For many people working collaboratively is more engaging and more rewarding. It’s also an appealing way of working for tech-savvy employees and millennials. Two groups your company should be trying to attract and retain. It’s a win for everyone.

Image: Together |  geralt via pixaay |   CC0 1.0 

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

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

Who is a Thought Leader?

The concept of thought leadership has been around for a few years, long enough to attract its own stand-up comedy character.

Thought leaders can have important role in positioning your company or organisation, in a series of three posts I’m going to provide;

  1. a definition of thought leadership, with examples
  2. the benefits of thought leaders and how to identify them in your organisation or industry
  3. guide on positioning thought leaders in your company or organisation

So what does “Thought Leader” mean? Wiki gives the definition;

A thought leader can refer to an individual or firm that is recognised as an authority in a specialised field and whose expertise is sought and often rewarded.

A true thought leader will have a solid base of expertise, skills in communicating with the relevant audience, ideas about the future, and be driving that future.

It’s a tough position to fill, so who qualifies as a thought leader? Some examples will help.

Humanitarian; Malala Yousafzai

The youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the girl who famously took a bullet in order to go to school. Malala now lives in the UK and continues to campaign for education and other rights for girls and women.

Innovation; Elon Musk

Founder of Pay-Pal, Tesla Cars, and responsible for landing big ideas.  I saw him interviewed at the Dublin Web Summit and was immediately impressed by the scale of his vision

Business; Sheryl Sandberg

The COO of Facebook and the first women to join their board, her book Lean In has inspired a movement of Lean In circles supporting women’s growth in business.

Investment; Warren Buffet

Buffet’s rules for investing well have become famous, some can be applied to business or even more generally to life. He’s one of the founders of the Giving Pledge, where very wealthy people pledge to give away at least half of their wealth.

Environment; Ellen MacArthur

MacArthur famous for sailing solo, non-stop around the world as the fulfilment of her childhood dream. She now campaigns for economic reform to sustain our environment, the Circular Economy.

Most of these are household names, but a thought leader may be less broadly known, but well-known, and sought after, in their field.

 

Next Week; Finding Your Thought Leaders

Image: The Thinker  |  Christopher Brown  |  CC BY-2.0

 

Web Summit Highlights: Day One

Phil Libin, CEO Evernote

I missed his presentation last year, but my colleague recommended him as a speaker and a visionary, so this year I was determined to be in the room.

His vision comes down to; make work less sucky.

Evernote are ahead of the curve on productivity tools. They see the free version as their main version, and focus on getting people to “stay rather than pay”. People use the free version for a long time before buying into the product. They’ve also seen that individual users are often their best leads for enterprise to use Evernote.

His advice to entrepreneurs and developers; make something useful, see if people will like it and stay on it. Their best test of whether will use a new feature or tool is whether their colleagues use it.

Lew Cirne

Lew Cirne is the founder and CEO of New Relic, a company founded on the principal of making data visual in a way that is useful.

He had the quote of the day

Life is too short for bad software

The Role of Technology in Filmmaking: John Underkoffler and Tim Webber

John Underkoffler from Oblong worked on Minority Report and went on to make a real version of some of the coolest tools shown in the movie. Tim Webber from Framestore won the Oscar for visual effects in the movie Gravity. What I loved about this discussion was the emphasis on telling a story. The story comes first and the technology is tool to tell that story.

In the future they see the possibility to integrate with reality tools, but that this has to work in parallel with the story rather than detracting from the story. It occurs to me that at some point movies with virtual reality tools will start to blur the line between movies and games.

The next technology challenge is CGI “humans” that are believable and sustainable for a whole movie.

One key to their success is a very interesting skill that has growing importance in all sorts of companies. Movies are now made across several teams located in different countries, so collaboration in virtual environments has become an essential skill.

Eva Longoria

Room starts to fill up – this might be the closest geeks ever get to genuine stars.

This is not the most original of interviews, some of the questions seem to have been cribbed from an old Cosmo magazine. But Eva Longoria is gracious and funny and she gets her points across.

  • in the cycle of poverty the best intervention is education
  • women start biz at 3x rate of men but have trouble getting access to expertise and capital (in US)
  • her foundation starts addressing these issues

By the end of the 20 minute interview there is a crowd at the front in a photo frenzy.

Gary Marcus

Artifical Intelligence has been disappointing, all the best stuff is always promised as something 20 years away – but we’ve been saying that for 50 years. As Peter Thiel once said “We wanted flying cars, we got 140 characters”

Privacy Discussion

Last year there was a panel discussion in a tiny hard-to-find room, that ended up over-crowded with people peering in through the door. This year it’s on the main stage. Privacy is a real issue, and a challenge for all companies working in digital. An ongoing challenge in my work in social media.

Legal rep for NSA vs CEO from Cloudflare on the basis of privacy in the digital world; neither of them deny the importance of privacy and the challenges faced. But the discussion is where does the responsibility lie?

Peoples’ expectations have changed, many users will sacrifice some privacy for free services. Facebook and Google have a business model that exploits this, selling aggregated data to advertisers. But this is not everyone’s business model; Apple, Cloudflare and Ello are showing that.

There seems to be an ongoing tension between security and privacy; is this inevitable?

Drew Housten

The CEO and founder of Dropbox, a tool I’ve loved and used for years.

He begins by talking about a tennis ball and the number 30,000

The tennis ball represents obsession – think of a dog at play, and 30,000 represents the number of days you have have in your life. Realising at the age of 24 he’d used up a third of them jolted him into starting out as an entrepreneur.

As Dropbox became successful he got a call; Apple were interested. He famously didn’t sell. When asked what number was on the table, he admits they never got as far as stating a number. Before the meeting someone told him that if he didn’t want to sell the company then don’t discuss selling the company.

When asked about competition he answers almost casually “We’ve always had competiton”, but manages to give the impression that being seen as a competitor to giants such as Google et al is a sign of success.

There was an announcement earlier – Dropbox and Microsoft have agreed to work together and produce deep integration between their two products. This leads to a question about equal pay – given the Microsoft CEO’s advice to women to rely on “karma” for salary equality. His answer is unequivocal “two people doing the same work should get the same money regardless of gender”.

And with a round of applause I wander off to find a Dublin shuttle bus. The driver roars “it’s two euro and tirty-five cents, all Dublin buses take coins only” and when we look surprised “this information is all on the web”.