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

Leading a (Virtual) Team

Leading a team has been the most challenging, and the most fun, part of my job. At times I’ve had team members not actually in the same room as me – or even the same country, that makes it more challenging but the principles of managing a team remain the same. Here’s my take on it.

There’s a lot of discussion about working remotely particularly as Yahoo and IBM removed that option for their employees, however there’s research out there indicating that remote teams can be as productive or even more productive than co-located workers.

I’ve had remote workers in three different set-ups;

  •  remote, working from another location including one in another country (with a different time zone)
  • regular, working from home 1-2 days per week
  • occasional, working from a different location for an occasional short period, for one colleague it allowed him to be in Spain for the bachelor party and the wedding of his closest friend.

In all three cases there were good business reasons for the person’s choice of work pattern, and I always had a team who were mostly in the office together. In the case of the person working at home 1-2 days per week it saved a rather long commute.

In leading my teams I’ve always tried to provide; a clear purpose, clear work assignments, regular progress evaluations, a good relationship with me as the manager and a connection to the rest of the team.

Team in the Room Remote Team
A Clear Purpose -annual/quarterly conversation for whole team to discuss team purpose -annual/quarterly conversation for whole team to discuss team purpose
Clear Work Assignments -annual performance review sets high level deliverables
-project design sets short term deliverables
-annual performance review sets high level deliverables
-project design sets short term deliverables
-rolling email tally of tasks and progress
Evaluate Progress -1 on 1 meetings each week (or two weeks)
-publish project progress
-1 on 1 calls each week (or two weeks)
-publish project progress
Relationship with a Manager -1 on 1 meetings each week (or two weeks)  -1 on 1 call
-daily chat on messenger
Connection to Team -Bad music Friday
-Friday team lunch
-Team events
-virtual “watercooler”
-project with team
-bring remote worker into team events

As you can see it’s not much different to manage a remote worker, but as a manager, I needed to document things in more detail because I wasn’t seeing them each day, and I had to make a specific effort to have a chat for a social purpose, the chat could go into work territory but typically began with a mention of coffee.

HBR did some research into how to make virtual teams work that backs up my empirical conclusions, particularly the idea of having regular contact across the team and between team the manager and the remote colleague. Unsurprisingly communication is the key to making it work.

Personally, I like having the option of working remotely, it allows me to really focus on an assignment. It can also be convenient if I have a mid-day appointment. I know that the flexibility is appreciated by team members. I haven’t seen any change in the productivity of any individual.  As a manager I wouldn’t want to manage a team where everyone worked remotely all of the time. At some point it would be hard to maintain the connection with each team member and across the team. But with a team of motivated professionals the option to work remotely is positive for the team members and the team.

Image:  Teamwork  |  ThoroughlyReviewed  |   CC BY 2.0

Facebook Dilemma

CM2017_03_facebook.png

Scenario

Imagine you run a retail company. You find a Facebook account that is incredibly derogatory to your company. I think every company has unhappy customers but when you try to find out what caused the person to hate your company so much it turns out that the Facebook account holder is an employee. You have a policy in place to guide employees on using social media, which does state that employees should be respectful.

Options

What would you do?

Outcome

Well, this is based on a real event, at a real company. The manager of the webcare team who found this choose to contact the employee’s manager and ask them to have a discussion with their team member. The reasoning was that although the account was damaging to the company there was a bigger potential problem; a very unhappy employee.

It turned out that although the Facebook account used the person’s identity and a photo of them, they had never created the account and did not know it existed.  The webcare team then helped them contact Facebook and get the account removed.

In companies there is a temptation to look for a rule to solve anything negative. Managers often ask “what is our legal position?” or “what’s at risk?”, which leads to blame and punishment. By stepping back, thinking about what might be really happening and asking what would be lowest level of response to resolve the issue the company should a great deal of trust in their employee.

The course chosen to address the issue tried to use the “Most Respectful Interpretation” of the employees actions. The team thought that it could be a case of identity theft or that something terrible has happened at work and the employee is lashing out. The course of action chosen would lead to a swift resolution in the case of identity theft, or to the first step on resolving a serious issue if it had been the later case.

What would you have done?

Image;  Red pill/blue pill   |   tom_bullock   |   CC BY 2.0

Building Diversity

CM2017_02_diversity.pngThis video came up on the Facebook page of Clementine Ford, an Australian Feminist. It’s about “unconscious bias” the biases we all carry that affect decisions we make, including hiring decisions. It cites the orchestra that auditioned musicians from behind a curtain so that the judges could not determine their gender. Now an Australian film festival is doing something similar after noticing that only 5% of finalists were women, following blind judging that number rose to 50%.

Sexism is not the only bias judges and employers hold, there are reports from the US, Canada, the UK and the Netherlands that associations of race and nationality are made based on a person’s name, often to the disadvantage of non-white candidates. And we all remember the Academy awards a few years ago releasing #OscarsSoWhite.

We know that diversity is good for business, but we’re bad at it.  So how could we make our hiring or judging processes better for diversity?

Use Data

You need to make the unconscious bias visible. In the Tropfest case the organisation looked at their finalists and found that only 5% were female. I’d bet good money that was a lower percentage than anyone realised before doing the research.

Do some research in your own organisation; how many women and minorities are hired? How many are making it through to the highest decision-maker level? If you’re organising a conference do you have a diverse range of speakers? (if you have to try harder it’s your network at fault) If you’re an award giving organisation how many of your nominees are people of colour, LGBT+ or women? And how many of your judges… you get the idea.

Be aware of stereotypes associated with roles, I had a somewhat technical role in a communications department. The head of department congratulated me on helping the department’s diversity figures by hiring a man into a comms team. In reality I’d hired a guy into a slightly technical team – hardly striking a blow for equality. (For the record the gender split in my team was 40:60 women to men, while across the department the split was around 70:30)

Address the Gap

Make sure your company policies and practices encourage diversity – write new policies for your organisation if they don’t. Hint; do this with a diverse group for best results.

I wrote about other steps you can take in an earlier post called Diversity Works. This won’t get better just on good intentions, you will need to take action.

  • make your hiring process more open; from neutral job ads to diversity on the interview panel, can you remove gender and ethnicity signifiers from the CVs for the first round of assessment?
  • look for role models across the company from diverse groups, help them gain visibility across the company and outside the company. Think of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, their slogan is “if she can see it, she can be it”.
  • support groups set up to help minorities in your organisation
  • state your diversity practices on your website and in your job advertisements (Shell has a statement about women in leadership that it puts on every job vacancy)
  • make sure senior people in your company are able to speak about diversity, and do so comfortably – nothing will sink your diversity efforts more quickly than an insincere executive.
  • educate your leaders, your managers, your teams
  • build diversity into your personal network

Diversify Your Network

We all gravitate towards people who look like us, sound like us, share our values. Start building your network to be more inclusive; follow people on twitter who are not like you, read different perspectives, listen to speakers from radically different backgrounds. LISTEN to what they have to say. Resist the temptation to disagree, to put your point of view, to defend yourselves (this is the misstep made by all those well meaning #notallmen posters).

One of the best posts around on this is from Tin Geber, he’s talking about male privilege in relation to inviting women to speak at conferences, but the principles still apply. As he concludes;

It’s on me — and each person reading this — to actively strive to rebalance the playing field.

Measure Progress

The Australian Film Festival went to 5% women finalists to 50% women finalists. They measured their progress and then they talked about it. It must have given aspiring women film directors a boost.

Measure your progress, and talk about it only once you have seen specific improvements.

A lack of diversity won’t change without specific, sustained action. Starting with people of privilege listening and making room.

Image: Diversity  |  Nabeelah Is  |  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Diversity Works

CM2017_02_diversityworks.png

Diversity works. I know this from personal experience, I’ve always sought to hire people from a range of backgrounds. I know I don’t have all the skills needed in my team so there’s no point hiring more of me. To be specific I’m not great at fine detail; I can go through massive ugly spreadsheets but it’s not my strength. I hire people into my team who have those skills and I value them – partly because I admire the skills and partly because I’m so grateful. In addition for me it’s more fun to hear about Romanian culture, Spanish idioms and Turkish cuisine over lunch than all Dutch stories.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. McKinsey’s research reports a “diversity dividend” of 15% for companies that are gender diverse, and a rocking 35% for companies with ethnic diversity. Correlation does not equate to causation; it may be that high performing companies choose diverse workforces and executive teams rather than diverse teams causing improved performance.

Harvard Business Review unpacks behaviours around diversity a little further and reports on some behaviours that point to diverse teams being smarter. Apparently diverse teams focus more on facts, which contributes to better decision making. Diversity also contributes to innovation.

The studies mentioned so far focus on gender and cultural diversity, but we should look at other personal characteristics such as national origin, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, and ability/disability. I’ve also heard one argument that the NASA team responsible for the first moon landing was more diverse than today’s team; back then there weren’t specialised astronautical studies programmes so the team was the best they could find from a range of fields. Which suggests we should be open to different training and work experience backgrounds (when the role allows it; don’t hire a plumber to a medical team!)

Global PillageFor a very light-hearted look at diversity, in fact an experiment in diversity, listen to the Global Pillage podcast. Each episode takes on a theme and opens with contestants identifying the ways they are diverse – gay, transgender, brown, immigrant, multi-lingual, vegan, left-handed all get a mention. The format is then a quiz between two teams of two people, with the audience able to give their answer. Spoiler alert; the audience (a bigger and presumably more diverse group) usually wins.

To get a more diverse team you have to change how you hire and how you work. Here are some ideas to get you started.

  1. Writing the vacancy notice
    Use gender neutral words, define the role in human language, state your diversity policy (don’t have one? write one). More tips here.
  2. Place the vacancy where it will be visible to diverse groups
    Look for publications, online communities and organisations associated with a range of groups. Reach out to Women in Tech groups for example.
  3. Interviewing across cultures
    Take some time to understand what cultural differences might exist between you and your interviewees. Habits of eye-contact may differ, some cultures show more deference which may seem like a weakness through an anglo-saxon filter.
  4. Flexible working environment
    Are you ready to accommodate someone with disability needs? What about someone who observes Ramadan? Or who celebrates Easter a week later than your company does? Are you able to allow people flexible hours and working from home options? The more you can answer “yes” to these hypotheticals the easier it will be to hire a diverse team.
  5. Culture of inclusion
    It’s not enough to just hire a cast of diverse colleagues, you need a workplace culture that is inclusive – where, as a colleague put it, “everyone can be their best selves”. The more widespread this is, the better. But you can have it in place in your own team, after all, you’ve got to start somewhere.

I’ve lived in several different countries, I’ve learnt several languages, my influences are from different sources. For me diversity is an important part of the work environment and yet from the outside I appear to be of the majority. Maybe diversity practices are good for us all.

Image: WOCinTech Chat  |  WOCinTech  | CC BY 2.0