hitmakers

Why do some ideas become wildly popular while others languish in obscurity?

Derek Thompson’s riveting, and impeccably researched, book; “Hit Makers,” postulates that there is a formula to making ideas popular. It argues that knowing how manipulate ideas to create successful products has major implications, but that it is also just as important is to understand when successful products are the result of manipulation.

At its core, Hit Makers asked two questions:

  1. What is the secret to making products that people like, whether they are music, movies, TV shows, or Apps in the vast cultural landscape of today?
  2. Why do some products fail, while similar ideas catch on and become massive hits?

Mr. Thompson tells us that people are both neophiliac, a love of the new, while also being neophobic, a fear of the new. People who are hit makers marry old and new ideas. They create familiar surprises. People tend to gravitate to the familiar – the most popular movies in recent times have all be sequels or reimagining of existing properties. People want new things, but they want those new things to seem familiar.

The most popular theory of modern content creation is that if you make great content, it will be recognized, shared, and go viral. However, Mr. Thompson states; “Content might be king, but distribution is the kingdom.” Catchy tunes that do not get air play on the radio will remain unknown. New tunes get on the radio by being new, but being familiar enough to listeners that they do not turn off.

Repetition, repeated exposure which creates familiarity, can actually be used to engineer popularity in groups of people. Politicians have known this for years. Consider this speech by Barack Obama:

“For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we’ve been told we’re not ready or that we shouldn’t try or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.
It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation: Yes, we can.
It was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail towards freedom through the darkest of nights: Yes, we can.
It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness: Yes, we can.
It was the call of workers who organized, women who reached for the ballot, a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a king who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the promised land: Yes, we can, to justice and equality.
Yes, we can, to opportunity and prosperity. Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can repair this world. Yes, we can.”

Or this speech by Winston Churchill;

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Mr. Thompson makes a convincing case, although not guaranteed, that popularity can, and has been for centuries, been manufactured and manipulated, but that it can also occur spontaneously by specific sets of circumstances.

Hit Makers is a starting point for understanding how and why things become popular and how we can get our ideas to find their audience, and what we can do to create that audience in the first place. It postulates that we misunderstand terms such as “viral” and “influencer” therefore ideas are not spread in the ways that we hope.

Hit Makers is a phenomenal book for anyone who sees to understand ideas and popularity. It draws from history and the present day. It should, for better or worse, change the way you share ideas and see how ideas change the world.

new econmics
The New Economics was first published in 1993; the year of its author, W. Edwards Deming’s, passing. Now on its third edition; however, it is arguably more relevant now than it has ever been. Deming has never received the acclaim in the United States that he undoubtedly deserves. He seems to be one of those authors that people cite, but rarely read.

The New Economics does not feel like an almost 30-year-old business book. Its ideas seem fresh and its voice is refreshingly new. If it was written today, and there are several books that focus on several of his core ideas such as the excellent Measures of Success, it would be hailed as a master piece of business literature.

Deming is an advocate for the process. This is often interpreted reducing the people is those processes as mere cogs in the machine. This, however, is unfair to Deming who is a believer if people driving the process. He is also a believer in management managing by taking responsibly for its failures. “The operator is not responsible for quality.” Says Deming. “That is the responsibility of management in conjunction with the customer.” He then proceeds to prove it with his famous red bead experiment (see below.)

Deming was an advocate for a sensible use of numbers, but Deming also believed that “We manage by theory prediction, not by numbers.” The use of numbers can help inform the theory, but really it is the manager’s responsibility to make that intuitive leap. “He who innovates, and is lucky, will take the market” says Deming. As an example of this Deming uses training. We never use numbers to justify training, but everyone does it – why?

I find Deming, and The New Economics, particularly interesting when it comes to goal setting and the importance of having a system which is often overlooked, even with our obsession with S.M.A.R.T. goals. “Companies have aims. With goals you must have by what method. Numerical goals need processes. A numerical goal without a process is meaningless.”

This is a heavy and involved book that is probably not for everybody. But it focuses on the way that management is performed. Not in how we motivate out employees to do their tasks better, but in how we design those tasks so they are naturally performed better. A the red bead experiment points out we often grade and evaluate employees based on the results of a system that they have little to no control over. We so rarely focus on process in business, we leave bad processes in place and then pour money and energy into managing employees who by their very actions are telling us that the problem is the process.

It is not too late to learn the lessons that Deming was trying to teach us 30 years ago.

It is about time.

measures of success

When reading business books, the reader, hopefully, takes away some great new ideas. Or has a realization that they should double down on something they are already doing. Occasionally, one comes across a book that actually reframes what you do and how you do it.

Mark Graban’s last book, Lean Hospitals which I reviewed here, had that effect on me; it made me realize that as a manager, my strength is to focus on processes and work with my team to make processes work better. Now with his latest book, Measures of Success, Mark has done the same again; this time with how we look at data and measure results.

The main argument in Measures of Success is that as managers we often are given, and collect, huge amounts of data that but that we either overact to “noise” or miss the signals that the data is giving to us because we are looking at that data in the wrong way. What Measures of Success gives us is a tool, in the form of an X-Chart and an MR chart, which allows us to view the data in a process and see the signals that the data is giving to us. Armed with these “signals” managers can then try to find out what has happened to the process to cause the signal in the first place. Because we are not chasing our tails looking for signals that’s are just noise and therefore not indicative of anything we should have the time to react appropriately when we see a valid signal.

Mr. Graban not only explains how X-Charts and MR Charts work, and how they work together, he also gives the reader exact instructions on how to create them and also why they are superior to other charts and methods of looking at data. He is particularly dismissive of targets and trend lines and provides damming evidence for both. The whole section, in fact reminds me of the Economist Roland Coase’s famous quote; “If you torture data long enough it will confess to anything.”

His case is compelling.

There is a point early on in Measures of Success where I was having issues understanding exactly how MR Charts (which measure rate of change) related to X-Charts (which measure actual data). Thankfully, a very helpful appendix takes the reader step by step through creating both, including excel formulas and providing links to where templates can be downloaded. The take away here is: if you get stuck read the appendix.

“Measuring is Easy, Managing is Hard.”

Measures of success, at its heart, is a plea to manage from what the data actually says, not what a manager or senior executive thinks it says. It makes the case that; “We don’t manage the metric, we manage the system that leads to the results, and we lead the people who help us improve the system.” If we set a target, what does that mean, other than just being a vanity metric pulled out of thin air? If we are wanting different results that what we already have the focus should not be on the target but on changing the system that gives us those results.

Mr. Graban’s Measures of Success is actually quite a short book, but is filled with color illustrations, and examples with which to make his case. There is even a section on how to implement X-Charts and MR-Charts at your business.

For anyone who considers process important to their work, and those who look at data, Measures of Success is a must. This is a book that promotes a structural change in how managers react and adapt processes. Most business books talk about how we manage change, few focus on why we are changing in the first place or whether there is an actual need to change.

Simply put, this book will change how and why you manage.

 

The Culture Code

It is easy to dismiss “The Culture Code, The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups” by Daniel Coyle within the first few pages as I very nearly did.

This, however, would be a mistake.

There are two initial problems. The first is in the choice of companies, or organizations, that are used as case studies. In the time since the book was written, and even since its publication in January of 2018, two of these heavily featured companies have undergone significant cultural upheaval and it is hard not to see those case studies through the prism of hindsight. Pixar lost John Lasseter due to revelations in the wake of the #meetoo scandal. And Zappos, to add to the woes mentioned in the book regarding the Downtown Project, lost 18% of its workforce, including a significant proportion of management, due to its all or nothing adoption of Holacracy. To be fair to both companies, they both seem to have survived these events and continue to grow; but it does make the reader question the book from the start.

In addition, it is hard to shake the impression from the initial introduction and chapters, that The Culture Code and its talk of “belonging cues” is more about hacking interpersonal relationships and the manipulation of people through our actions and specific phraseology. Which just feels wrong.

This, however, is not the case.

What the Culture Code has unpicked is the remarkable reasons why teams of people work well together, and why they don’t work. We presume teams of skilled individuals will produce skilled results. And we are wrong as Mr. Coyle points out. Belonging cues, which can take the form of active listening, light touching, showing people where they fit into an organization, the closeness of employees’ desks, and the language we use, creates a continuous sense of safety. Even just simple “thank yous” from managers, and them picking up trash, can signal that “we are all in this together” and that they serve the group.

As with most culture research, The Culture Code repeatedly emphasizes that great cultures start at the top. One of the ways to create a safe space for the group is for leaders to be vulnerable. Being vulnerable is a significant belonging cue. Vulnerability sparks cooperation and trust, and asking for help as a manager, or leader, sends a clear signal that you have vulnerabilities. Interestingly, vulnerability can be contagious with the obvious benefits to the group. Difficult and painful interactions can actually help create a more bonded team through shared vulnerability.

While creating a sense of safety and vulnerability in the group makes for a better team, Mr. Coyle turns to storytelling to give that team focus. Groups that have successful cultures repeatedly and consistently, often to the point of redundancy, tell their story. Simple beacons, such as slogans, phrases, or imagery, focus attention to the shared goal. “High purpose environments are filled with vivid signals” the Culture Code reveals referring to Pixar having images of Woody and Buzz Lightyear in their buildings or the Seals having a piece of the World Trade Center in their lobby.

“Build a language to build behavior.”

Do we really need to tell nurses and other staff that a particular surgery is better for the patent, and that they should speak up if they see a mistake, even by a doctor, being made? The answer the Culture Code gives us is a resounding yes.

“The value of signals is not in the information but that they orientate the team to the task and to one another. What seems like repetition is in fact navigation.”
The Culture is that most unique of books. A book arranged and filled with great ideas and real-world examples of those ideas in action. Impeccably researched, the march of time notwithstanding, and well written, The Culture Code is a leadership book about daily interactions and grand visions. It is a management book showing the pitfalls and routes to success.

I’m better for having read it, and I have no doubt that it will be a book I return to and recommend to other managers.

codelling
The best book I read last year, and I’ve read it three times now, was The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.

All two of my repeat visitors may be wondering as why they have not seen a review of this book. The simple answer is that the themes and messages were so fundamental and altering of one’s world view that I’m still trying to get it straight in my head and I worry that by writing a half-hearted review I will not do the book justice.

The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt is similarly dense; however, this is a book with a belief and a wrong that it feels needs to be righted. A mission if you will. The subject is a contentious one; that making academic spaces places of intellectual and emotional safety does a disservice to the purpose of a university, to the students themselves, and to society as a whole. However, this is not a rightwing attack on the “snowflakes” of the left and the colleges of the liberal elites. The Coddling of the American Mind is a well thought out analysis on what is going wrong in our academic institutions, and therefore with our students, and how both sides of the political spectrum need to understand their part in how we ended up here. The book is also a plea for why seats of learning must change. As perhaps the most vivid analogy in the book states:

“Students are treated like candles, which can be extinguished by a puff of wind. The goal of a Socratic education should be to turn them into fires, which thrive on the wind.”

This is a book written by liberal academics who care about the academic world and the students who undertake a college education. While the authors lay blame at a number of doors, including the left AND the right, it also offers up potential solutions and gives credit where credit is due to universities who are resisting slide towards “safety-ism.”
An area where the book really breaks new ground, in my opinion, is its definition of Generation Z or as it likes to call them iGen (short for Internet Generation). This is not the first generation to have internet access; however, it was the generation that always experienced having the internet in the palm of their hand, and always has had Facebook.

“This is not a book about Millennials; indeed, Millennials are getting a bad rap these days, as many people erroneously attribute recent campus trends to them. This is a book about the very different attitudes toward speech and safety that spread across universities as the Millennials were leaving.”

I’m not a fan of the handwringing that seems to take place over millennials these days, but the tangible differences in information flow, and how iGen is exposed to the world and therefore responds to it, makes a lot on sense and of course is a significant cause for concern. The book also uses the tools of cognitive behavioral therapy to show just how out of tune the thinking of some students has become.

The Coddling of the American Mind treads some of the same ground as Anti-Social Media by Siva Vaidhyanathan (which I reviewed here) however its argument goes much further than Facebook and Social Media alone. With Universities bending to the will of students and parents, because they consider them clients, what is getting lost is critical thinking.

This is an important book for society as whole, but particularly for anyone in the academic world or who deals with the students it produces.

Which is probably everyone.

joyful

Ingrid Fetell Lee is a great writer.

And that’s a good thing. Because in less capable hands; “Joyful: The surprising power of ordinary things to create extraordinary happiness,” could be a ridiculous book that could be dismissed as new age trash. However, Ms. Fetell Lee skillfully navigates these potentially treacherous waters to give us a surprisingly joyful book.

Part memoir, part travel guide, part scientific dissertation, and yes, part new age exploration of what brings joy into our lives and why; Joyful is all this and more. The book leaves the reader with and actual understanding of why some things in the world are more joyful than others and how to differentiate between them. This is not a book that is going to change your life; however, it may change how you approach certain aspects of your life and give you the skills to add joy into the most unlikely of places.

Most the areas that Ms. Fetell Lee addresses are easy to dismiss: the differences in the shape of things, the color of things and the joy in abundance; however, she skillfully addresses her own doubts and takes the reader on a journey of discovery. Laugh out loud funny in places, Joyful is packed with real useable takeaways.

It is fair to say that Joyful was not what I was expecting. However, if a book well worth reading for anyone who works with people (that is probably all of us) or who has to make decisions about the layout and creation of spaces.

Joyful will make you question whether utility is really the goal we should be reaching for when joy is so easy to find, or to add, to the world we inhabit.

anti social cover

Warning: This book may alter your perceptions on how the world currently works and your part in democracy’s downfall.

Anti-Social Media is actually misnamed.

This book is an indictment of Facebook and to a lessor extent the other social media sites that seek to emulate its success. What initially seems to be the book’s raison d’être; an examination of the overreach, and dubious business practices, that led to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, is actually far more wide spread, nuanced, and ultimately damning. With possibly its most revealing allegation being that Cambridge Analytica were never anything more than Snake Oil Salesmen; while Facebook’s own employees worked directly for political campaigns in multiple countries with almost universal damage to democracy and the pollical process in the countries in which they worked.

Mr. Vaidhyanthan’s case is that Facebook is on its way to becoming, or indeed has already become, the operating system of our lives. While it has been beneficial in general terms for individuals; improving communication with friends and relatives, and even people who we would never have hoped to keep in touch with before its arrival, Facebook has done significant damage to society as a whole.

Facebook’s success, Mr. Vaidhyantha argues, is based on two elements. The first being that Facebook is deliberately engineered to be addictive; rewarding interactions likes, and shares, in similar ways to how casinos keep their guests playing. The second element of Facebook’s success being that it has become “one of the most effective advertising machines in history.” Facebook knows so much about us, and offers advertisers such levels of targeting that were never before dreamed of, that it is unparalleled as a sales tool.

If Facebook was just an engine for kitten & puppy pictures, along with family updates, and the odd attempt to sell us things, it could quite possibly be the force for good it sincerely believes that it is. However, Facebook has become a major factor in the political world. Facebook encourages weak ties between people, and is great for declaration and reaction. It undoubtedly helps political activists, activism, hyperbole, and alarm. Facebook; however, is useless for political discourse and deliberation. Posts which do not create strong reactions one way of the other fall foul of Facebook’s algorithm and are just not delivered in news feeds.

Although the tone of Anti-Social Media, is one of alarm, and it makes a strong case for the damage that Facebook and its ilk do to the world; the author does have some interesting suggestions as to possible ways to close the pandora’s box that Mark Zuckerberg has opened. If fact, Mr. Vaidhyanthan’s historical comparison of Facebook with the East India Company, and their “shared zeal for making the world a better place,” should give us all pause for thought. Facebook’s users are currently its product – Facebook sells highly targeted, and therefore highly effective advertising. Facebook could be forced to treat its users like clients; much like lawyers or financial consultants. If Facebook was to become an informational fiduciary, the argument goes, an only use data in ways that do not harm us, it may finally understand the difference between advertising that tries to sell us products, and political propaganda.

The Anti-Social Media is more than an inditement of the social medial filter bubble and Facebook creating more divides while its intentions are to bring us together. The book asks us to look at the changes in society, and in ourselves, as we have been using Facebook as an operating system. It asks us if the kitten and puppy pictures are worth it? Interestingly it does not ask us to give up on Facebook or Social Media; but to understand its societal dangers and the recognize our responsibilities in doing something about it.

This is the book that did not make me give up Facebook.

It did make me delete Facebook off my phone.

And renew a year’s subscription to a highly reputable news organization.

It’s that good.

The Personality Brokers Cover

I’ve never been a particular fan of Myers-Briggs personality testing, and their ilk, that still permeate business and management culture to this day.

And if a takedown of Myers-Briggs by exposing the complete lack of any scientific basis for personality testing in general is what you are looking for there are perhaps better books. Although, it has to be said, the author does a pretty good job of debunking Myer-Briggs while telling its history anyway.

The Personality Brokers is an examination of how Myers-Briggs became the cultural phenomena that it is today. Its highly humble origins in child rearing of highly dubious quality and obsession with Carl Jung – both his work and the man himself. Through what should have been its repudiation; training spies in World War II and personality typing Nazis – badly. All the way to it being a possible solution searching for a problem and the attempt to automate the hiring process.

The Personality Brokers is a cautionary tale of how wanting something to be true because it would be so useful if it was, does not excuse ignoring the evidence. The fact the it is still a tool used by both business and government today is astounding given the history of the Myers-Briggs and, when pointed out, the obvious reasons why it cannot work as a tool in the workplace.

That it is tool that has cost people their jobs, and possibly their lives, over decades should be a scandal of the highest order. Myer-Briggs offers organizations a way of sorting the workforce without the sticky and inconvenient truth that people defy categorization. What Ms. Emre does in this illuminating volume is show that Myer-Briggs personality testing has always been a dangerous myth that people wanted to believe and therefore overlooked its flaws. That it is something that Jung would have found abhorrent, and perversion of his work.

One cannot help asking “why?” all the way through this book. Why did this idea go so far? Why has not been stopped? And why are business people so gullible when offered a solution that really is too good to be true. While there have undoubtedly been people who have found Myers-Briggs useful, both as managers and professionals, it holds little value over traditional goal setting or positive thinking.

This is a great book for arguing with your boss about.

rejection proof cover

How do you make yourself immune to rejection?

Can you make yourself immune to rejection?

Entrepreneur, Jia Jiang, decided to conduct a personal experiment after being turned down by an investor, and nearly giving up on his dreams. See how he would handle 100 days of rejection!

To hold himself accountable, he documented his rejection experiment on a blog and filmed many of his encounters. What happened next is the stuff of modern fairy tales. One of his early videos went viral (see below) and opportunity after opportunity opened up for Jia Jiang.

Rather than exploit these opportunities, Jia Jiang realized that he had tapped into something extraordinary by his exploration of rejection, and so decided to continue his experiment.

What Jia Jiang discovered was the psychology behind rejection. That a rejection says far more about the person rejecting, and their current circumstances, and what the best ways are to change a rejection into a positive or a compromise.

Perhaps the most insightful thing to come out of Jin’s entire experiment is that it is not rejections that hold most people back, it is the fear of rejection that stops people from even trying in the first place. Jin asks some for some crazy things, and embarrassingly he rarely gets rejected, even when deliberately trying for the purposes of the project.

Rejection proof is a highly entertaining and lighthearted look at one of our deepest fears. It gives good and practical advice about how to ask for even the most outlandish things; but more interestingly it also goes into how to reject something and how reject in a way that still allows for the other party to leave feeling like that got a positive response.
Asking for something does not have to be a zero-sum game, and arguably should never be.

Jin’s experiment led to him reexamining his life and the choices he had made based on rejection and the fear of rejection. It is a fascinating story with a slew of good advice for anyone who has ever felt rejection or feared rejection to the point of inaction. It ultimately says we should embrace rejection as a valuable learning tool about other people and ourselves.
Enjoy watching Jin ask for doughnuts in the shape of the Olympic rings.

feminist Fight club

Its not often that someone recommends a book for me to read and that they then warn me about the same book. Feminist Fight Club came with the warning: it is not for the “faint of heart” supporter of feminism.

Feminist Fight Club is not for everyone. In fact, I’m sure it will annoy a number of people. Not so much for its content, but for its tone. It sometimes feels like one is reading the Communist Manifesto. Make no mistake, this is a revolutionary guide for the repressed in both tone and content. As with my caveated recommendation; I agree that not everyone is going to agree with Feminist Flight Club’s view of the world.

I am not one of those people.

This is a handbook for women who find themselves sidelined, un-listened to, and the victims of idea theft, by oblivious and clueless male managers and colleagues. The book makes the assumption that the workplace has evolved beyond the blatant sexual harassment of the “Mad Men” era; but that there is still a long way to go. It is a book to dip in an out of rather than read in one sitting; which is where its tone may become wearing over an extended period of time.

However, there is some superb advice, and insight, dressed up as rhetoric in the book. While the section on meetings can be found from many other sources on meeting etiquette; the book has one of the best chapters I have ever read on holding salary negotiations with a manager – regardless of the sex of either party.

If there is a fundamental problem with the book; it is that in its zeal to evangelize one audience it risks alienating another. What is potentially lost due to this zeal is actually some excellent advice on office politics and the way interactions between colleagues should actually take place. That being said there are not a lot of books that are as “in your face” and confrontational as this one is and that makes it all the more interesting.

From this male view point, Feminist Fight Club did make me re-examine how I have interacted in particular circumstances, and made me more aware of subtle and institutional sexism on television, and one assumes in real life.

This is not a book to convert anyone, it is a book to hone one’s skills, to become a better feminist, a call to arms, or to just become a better person.

%d bloggers like this: