Archives for category: Books

moments

Any book by Chip and Dan Heath is worth reading and their latest, The Power of Moments, is no exception. For those who do not know the work of the brothers Heath you can check out my review of their first book “Made to Stick” here, and what I consider one of the best business books ever: “Switch” here.

Interestingly, The Power of Moments is very similar, and treads a lot of the same ground, as Scott Strattan does in his books Unmarketing and Unselling; they even use some of the same examples. What makes the Power of Moments seem new and fresh is that level to which it delves to understand moments, why they work, and how they work; as opposed to just focusing on how to create new moments of your own.

An early example of the Power of Moments is to focus on the lack of attention that companies pay to an employee’s first day. What the Heath Brothers point out is companies have a golden opportunity to create a truly memorable first day for new employees; but that more often than not new employees are treated as an impediment to the day’s business. They rightly point out what would a first date be like if we treated it the same way we treat an employee’s first day? Suffice to say we probably would not get a second.

Creating memorable moments is not about delivering the best of anything, or better value than your competitors. Moments are about when clients have expectations and we do something to exceed them. To create moments, we need to give employees license to break the script. To do something for our clients that is unexpected and that creates a memory for them.

The power of moments, however, is not just about business to clients. Moments also have value when motivating ourselves and our own internal dialogs and bargains when it comes to setting goals. What the Heath Brothers suggest is that rather than using the traditional SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely), or worse no real goal at all, that we borrow from the gaming world. In computer games, players advance from level to level, and in good games those levels are moments. For example, take the vague goal of wanting to learn play the violin. Even a SMART goal may just be to attend a lesson every week. However, with a level system, things look a little different:

Level 1: commit to one lesson a week
Level 2: Learn to read sheet music.
Level 3: Learn to play a particular song.
… Level 7 / Boss level: Play in a pub in Ireland.

By having an outsized end game, and then having manageable steps to achieving those level with rewards built in creates a sense of purpose. Purpose isn’t discovered, it is cultivated, and purpose trumps passion.

The Power of Moments is not a book about good businesses becoming great, but how to make any business extraordinary. Much like the book.

badblood

Ever get the feeling that the Silicon Valley Startup culture is more con than the pinnacle of new business development? If the answer is yes, or if you are afraid the answer may be yes, then Bad Blood is a book you should read.

Written by the reporter who blew the lid on the Theranos scandal in the Wall Street Journal, when they were still considered the darlings of the healthcare startup world, it is a remarkable story. If it was fiction, the story would have been laughed out of the editor’s office or thrown in the trash. It is a story of just how far networking and connections can get a company when they have a product that has really never worked. Of how the best, and the brightest, can be so intent on finding the next great thing, and of not missing out, that they will overlook almost anything.

But at its heart, Bad Blood is a story about rules and ethics. About how some people break rules and other refuse to. How some discover their own ethical lines, and how others see those same lines and cross them anyway without a second thought.
For those who do not know, Theranos claimed to have developed a spectacular new blood testing technology that only required a tiny finger prick of blood to be able to run hundreds of lab tests. They raised millions in investments but we never really able to get their technology to work properly; if at all. It is claimed that Theranos repeated lied to investors, business partners, and employees. They are, and continue to be, at the center of a number of private lawsuits and criminal prosecutions.

As with any book about a still emerging scandal, it does suffer from being a little out of date. Since the book’s publication, the two central characters; Founder and CEO of Theranos Elizabeth Homles, and President Sunny Balwani were both prosecuted by the SEC. The charges were resolved by a complicated agreement with regards to company ownership and a fine; however, in June of 2018 they were both indicted on wire fraud and conspiracy charges by the Northern District of California.

It is obvious from the writing that there is no love lost between Mr. Carreyrou and his subjects; Ms. Holmes and Mr. Balwani. But this is a minor quibble and, to be honest, quite understandable given the levels to which they pushed back against his reporting.
It is an extraordinary tale for any one in business that raises an interesting question. How does a competitor prepare for, and compete, with a disruptive new technology that does not actually exist? The real victims of the Theranos scandal may not be the investors and employees, but competitors who undoubtedly spent millions, and hundreds of R&D hours, chasing a technology that so far has not worked. Not to mention the consumers waiting for better blood tests while the industry chased its tail searching for Theranos’ secret.

Of course, Bad Blood is also a cautionary tale about the cult of personality that surrounds many entrepreneurs today. It is a book filled with larger than life personalities, chasing larger than life dreams, that leads to larger than life crimes.

Here is a Silicon Valley worthy investment tip: the movie rights should be worth millions.


Any book about Elon Musk stands the chance of being wildly out of date before it hits book store shelves. 

This biography of Musk, by Ashlee Vance, originally published in 2015, already feels a little dated, but it does give a good profile of the man, his companies, and his roots. It is unfortunate then, that while acknowledging Musk’s propensity to be difficult, if not impossible, to work for it does nothing to mitigate the awe that the writer obviously feels for his subject. 

There is good reason for this. 

Musk is a larger than life character who if at a press conference announced; “l’m Ironman,” nobody would bat an eye lid. In fact it is hard to know whether the movie version of Tony Stark is based on Elon Musk or if it is the other way round. 
There is a lack of focus in this book on how appallingly Musk can treat other people. For example, he has been married 3 times, twice to the same woman, and he famously fired his long time assistant, and gate keeper, because she asked to be paid like an executive.  

What shines through, however, is vision. And that leads to an interesting question for Musk and for businesses in general: Can a dramatic and outsized vision, if you are good enough at selling it, make up for short comings in other areas such as management of people, sound business planning, and realistic expectations? 

For the moment, Musk seems to be on a roll; however, there are plenty that feel he has built a house of cards and from the stories told of the early days of Tesla are anything to go by, and the economists and manufacturers in Detroit are correct, it certainly could all come tumbling down any day. 

I also wonder how sustainable a company is when it relies on these most grandiose of goals? What happens when the company cannot achieve these goals? 

Elon Musk is undoubtably a unique individual, who has remarkable ambitions and achievements; but companies are built on a scalabile culture – not just vision. Mr. Vance’s book does a good job of profiling the vision, but not so much on the foundations and structures for sustainable businesses.   

creativity inc

 

When I review books, I do so because they interest me, or occasionally I review books because I am following a theme.

I’ve had an interest, the way one has an interest in a train crash, with Disney for many years. This was solidified by reading James B. Steward’s excellent “Disney War” which details the infighting and board room drama of the Michael Eisner years at Disney. With Pixar’s Co-founder John Lasseter recent taking of a six-month sabbatical, from Pixar and Disney Animation, for unspecified “missteps,” reading about Pixar’s culture and management with the benefits of hindsight sounded extremely interesting.

What I did not expect was a candid and practical guide to managing creative people, and the creative process, from an obviously highly talented manager and successful business man. This is also one of the best general management books I have read in years.

Mr. Catmull, with the help of Amy Wallace, have written an extraordinary management book that is honest, practical, and one that does not gloss over mistakes while still celebrating their company’s culture. What could have been just a retelling of Pixar’s, undoubtedly interesting, and dramatic, history instead is a retelling of that history with a guide to the lessons learned and the mistakes made.

Books about the history of companies are often written by, or in conjunction with, the visionary leaders who have fantastic ideas and make great leaps of intuition. “Creativity Inc., however, is written by a working manager: Mr. Catmull. While visionary in his conception of wanting to make the first 3D computer animated movie, his role at Pixar, and later Disney Animation, has been one of the manager who makes things happen, assembles the people, and allows his people to be as creative as possible. He is not afraid to place caveats on things such as employee engagement and feedback, while at the same time obviously taking these subjects extremely seriously.

While the concepts in the book are legion, and makes the book well worth a second reading, Mr. Catmull’s belief that failure is not only to be tolerated but actively encouraged stands out. While many in management circles treat failure as a necessary evil, Mr. Catmull makes a convincing case that failure is not evil at all but an important and necessary part of the creative process. Coupled with this belief in failure, is that while “honesty” has many moral connotations, an insistence on “candor” when giving feedback, from any source, is central to preserving a creative culture.

Getting people to work together, being honest about the short comings of the processes, and considering culture as a constant and evolving thing makes “Creativity, Inc.” a different type of management book. The fact that almost everyone knows about Pixar, and hold the movies they make in high regard, makes this a very accessible book. It also manages to avoid the saccharine quality of a lot of management books that intersect with the world of Disney (Lee Cockerell’s “Creating Magic” in particular comes to mind.)

For those who have become a bit jaded by management books, “Creativity, Inc.” is for you. This is an honest, dare I say candid, tale that teaches us that all businesses should be creative and that unleashing the creative power of our employees, or at least to stop stifling it, is probably one of the best things we can do as managers for our business and our employees.

unbranding

 

I have a really bad habit when reading non-fiction books.

When I come across something I find particularly interesting I fold the edge of the page over so that when I am looking for it at some point in the future, or if I just want to remind myself of what I found particularly fascinating, I can go directly to the information. I used to actually read with a stack of post-it notes and a pen, but that becomes tiresome very quickly- and the books don’t stack well on the bookshelf any more with post-it notes sticking out of them.

I tell you all of this to give some background to my experience of reading “UnBranding, 100 Branding Lessons for the age of Disruption,” by Scott Stratten and Alison Stratten. It is no secret that I have been a fan of Scott’s for a while now and that has inevitably caused me to become a fan of Alison’s too. However, I had an issue with “UnBranding,” and it can be summed up by this picture:

unbranding corners.jpg

For reference the book is face up.

Can you guess my problem was?

For some reason, I could not connect with the concept of the book, and therefore the ideas did not resonate with me, until page 99. And while what’s on page 99 is important and worth looking up, what was really brought home to me by the story you will find is that the book is actually 100 branding lessons, and 100 examples that give them context.

Why I did not learn this from the title might say a lot about business books in general, but probably more about myself.

Most marketing and business books, and therefore by definition most marketing and business writers (including myself), use their writing to explain concepts and ideas and then throw in a couple of examples to prove themselves right. The Stratten’s turn this on its head. They fill their work with examples of the good, the bad, and the downright ugly of customer service, marketing, and business in general, and then tie these examples together with workable concepts and ideas.

Unbranding, is exactly what it says on the cover. Some of the examples are personal to Scott and Alison. Some of the examples are national media stories that feature the world’s biggest brands. But each one contains a lesson for how to market and conduct better business (or how to adjust your expectations).

In the past, Scott has been accused of retreading over the same territory again and again particularly when it comes to his books. I think this is unfair and to misunderstand the various works and what makes them unique; however, I did have this feeling when I started UnBranding – until page 99 of course.

Having now gone back and reread pages 1 – 98, I can confirm that it really was my issue. There are great things on those earlier pages and the book did exactly explain what to expect and what I should be learning, but for some reason they washed over me. It may have been because of their previous book: UnSelling, which I feel is a bit if a Rockstar – you can read my review here.

While not the Rockstar that UnSelling was, UnBranding is still a great business book with important lessons. Some of these lessons you will have heard before, particularly if have read the previous books: UnMarketing, The Book of Business Awesome / The Book of Business UnAwesome, QR Codes Kill Kittens, and Unselling, or listen to Scott and Alison’s excellent UnPodcast; however, there are still plenty that you will not have heard. Also, having this many great concepts on 21st century branding in one place is useful all on its own.

What makes this book special is not the branding lessons themselves, but the context to understand why they are important. Simple, readable, and relatable, UnBranding is a more mature than some of their other work, but is worth your time now and very much worthy of pulling off the bookshelf in the future reviewing when you think you may have forgotten its lessons.

homo deus

“Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” is the follow up to the internationally acclaimed bestseller “Sapiens.” Both books are remarkable and well worth reading if you want to have a better understanding of our species: where it came from and, perhaps, where it is going.

However, it is Homo Deus, which I think is particularly useful from a management and leadership perspective for its insights into how people made decisions and why. It is also interesting to have a book focus on why small groups of people (under 150 is the magic number) behave so differently from larger groups – even when it is against their own interest. The section that covers the Ultimatum Game, and how this changed the world of behavioral economics is particularly illuminating.

Where the book really comes into its own is when it comes to discussing the myths and fictions that define out world. The stories we tell each other in other words.
“As long as all Sapiens living in a particular locality believe in the same stories, they all follow the same rules, making it easy to predict the behavior of strangers and to organize mass-cooperation networks.”

The fictions we tell each other (laws, money, countries, economic theories, sports, companies, brands, etc.) allow our world of free thinking humans to work and communicate even when we have no personal relationship. We have a relationship with the company or brand because of the story we have been told and we believe. This also holds true for those who work inside the company.

“Fictions enable up to cooperate better. The price we pay is that these same fictions also determine the goals of our cooperation.” In other words, a company’s mission statement may be about how it’s first priorities are customers service and low prices, and it may have data to back that up, but is that really the yardstick it should be measured? What about the people who believe in the fiction?

By exposing the way humans work together, Harari builds a case for what is to come for Homo Sapiens. To us, now, it seems frightening and dystopian and as the author freely admits, will probably be nothing like he has described. But by giving us a glimpse into why our world of communication works the way it does, he gives us pointers to why might influence us in the future where the network becomes all important.

This is an extraordinary book about people. It is long, but it has a friendly conversational tone for a book that is essentially about scientific theory. While the book deals extensively with religions, and religious though, it might make difficult reading for those who are not used to looking at these matters from a scientific point of view. However, it does make a strong case for how religion and science need each other.

Homo Deus should, along with its predecessor “Sapiens,” be required reading for anyone who works with groups of people, but it should probably just be required reading for everyone.

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One of the things that is interesting about the veterinary profession is how wrong a lot of the “experts” can often be. The people who were bemoaning that there were ‘too many vet schools pushing out too many graduates for too few jobs’ a few years back are the same people who are now complaining of how hard it is to hire an associate veterinarian! Dr. Dave Nicol does not belong in this camp at all. Not only is he willing to talk the talk, but he is also willing to walk the walk, with a career that includes managing and owning large and small practices on multiple continents.

Dr. Nicol’s latest book, you can read my review of his first book “The Yellow Pages are Dead” here, is timely and astute. While the need, and competition, for new graduates has never been greater, it seems that as a profession we seem to be failing them in multiple ways. “So You’re A Vet…Now What?” aims to fill the gap that is not being filled by most employers and is certainly not being filled by the veterinary schools. Chapters range from how to not get sued to “your health and wellness,” handling the emotional toll of euthanasia, and how a new graduate should choose a first job.

As well as focusing on the major issues facing new graduates, “So You’re A Vet…Now What?” also tackles the more complicated subject of company culture and the new graduates place in fostering great leadership, in themselves and others. The book aims not only to foster great new graduates, but help turn them in to excellent veterinarians that clients will want to see, employers will want to employ, and staff will want to work with.

Dr. Nicol’s friendly, and conversational tone makes “So You’re A Vet…Now What?” an easy and short read, I finished the book in a single sitting that lasted a little over three hours; however, it is also a book that new graduates will want to refer back to. With some great stories, I want to know what happened to the vet through the glass – see chapter five, and real-world examples, this book is literally the new vet’s handbook.

For employers, there are some controversial topics, and I find a couple of the ‘lines in the sand’ a little too ridged. Additionally, since Dr. Nicol hails from the UK and currently practices there, it is little U.K. centric which American readers may find a little jarring; however, these are all very minor quibbles / observations on an excellent and important book not just for new graduates but for employers of new graduates and the larger profession beyond.

The book is available as a digital download from http://www.drdavenicol.com and a printed version is forthcoming.

power

The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Loose Influence, is a slim but insightful book on the relationship between power, the powerful, powerlessness and the powerless. “The seductions of power induce us to lose the very skills that enabled us to gain power in the first place”, which is from the introduction, nicely sums up the premise.

The author, who uses his own experimental data and a number of graphics, makes a solid case for the phenomenon that others have labeled, incorrectly, as power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Separating the Power Paradox into 20 ‘Power Principles, which are too extensive to list here, Dr. Keltner neatly lays out why leaders become leaders, and why they can go off the rails.
What is missing from the book, is historical perspective. It is filled with experimental data, but real world examples from business, or politics, would make for a more compelling case. One of the reasons that I appreciate the argument made in the book so much is due to the insights of Nassir Ghaemi in his excellent: A First Rate Madness which I reviewed here and is full (in retrospect) of historical examples of the Power Paradox in action.

From my own experience, I have seen the Power Paradox at work in supervisors and in myself. Terminology is, of course, a problem. I have always accepted that “power” means the control that your job, or position, grants you; whereas the ability to lead is granted through “authority.” Authority is given by a group. The Power Paradox lumps these both together, though it does make use of “empowered” but because of the larger framework of the “principles” this actually works. The definition of power and authority, may be too simple for such a complex subject, particularly when dealt with in such detail as here with “The Power Principle,”

The book becomes particularly interesting, and potentially controversial, when Dr. Keltner deals with gossip. Long considered a symptom of a potentially hostile work environment, Dr. Keltner makes the argument that gossip is how strong groups self-regulate and expose the “reputations of the selfish and the Machiavellian.” The author does recognize that gossip can be extremely harmful, particularly when it is abused by the powerful; however, the case for it not being the cardinal sin that we have long believed it to be – particularly if your goal is to have high functioning groups – is pretty solid.

Annoyingly for a book written by an academic, but probably a sop to writing a pop-science book, the footnotes are exiled to the end of the book, making following a path of enquiry more complex than it really needs to be, but this is a small criticism of a great leadership book. It is particularly useful for those who have been in leadership positions for a while. There are lots of books out there on how to become a leader, create functional teams, and even dealing with powerlessness; however, it is rare to find a book that addresses the dysfunction of leaders who get used to their positions, and why things can go awry.
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For leaders, you need the book before you really need it, otherwise you will not stay a leader for long.

make your bed

A slim volume, Make Your Bed – Little Things That Can Change Your Life …And Maybe The World, is and expanded version of a commencement address that the author gave to the graduating class at the University of Texas at Austin in 2014.

A retired Admiral, who had been a Navy Seal, and ultimately severed as the ninth commander of the United States Special Operations Command, Admiral McRaven is an interesting person who’s life story is one worthy of biography. Unfortunately, although this book does contain a number of anecdotes about his experiences in SEAL training and his life in general, it does not really meet the definition of a work of biography. It therefore needs to stand on the advice that it imparts and there is little here that is new or refreshing. In fact, there is a lot that is hokey or debunked.

The first lesson in the book is actually the one that works the best: to make your bed very morning. The idea being that it meant you started your day with a job well done, something you can could be proud of, whatever came next you will be better prepared for it. There is some merit to this idea, not necessarily making your bed, but starting your day with a task that can be completed successfully and that you can be proud of for the rest of the day. However, the author pushes the example too far, even noting when visiting Sadam Hussain in prison that his bed was not made and so therefore he must be a bad guy. Ignoring Sadam’s appalling crimes for a moment, I’m not sure that there are many leaders of countries, prisoners facing the death penalty, or politicians of any persuasion who make their beds.

Don’t give up, take risks, don’t complain, etc. the lessons are pretty much what you would expect from a career military officer. As mentioned before, there is a story to be told here. Just not with the structure and marketing of a leadership / self-help book. Perhaps the most frustrating element of the book is that the examples can be interpreted in such a way that they can contradict each other. For example, the author tells the story of being injured during a parachute jump and how his boss pulled strings to allow him to stay in the SEALs, thereby preserving his career. The author uses this as an example of why you need to be able to rely on your team. However, later on the book talks about accepting misfortunes that happen to you and that life is not fair so get used to it.

 I’ll buy an auto-biography or biography of Admiral McRaven. He has led an interesting life filled with interesting people and experiences. I’m just not sure I’m ready to take distilled life lessons from him at this time.

shattered

What can we learn about leadership, and management, from an insiders account of the 2016 Presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton?

A surprising amount is the answer in the case of Jonathan Allen & Amie Parnes’ excellent “Shattered.”

Subtitled:”Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed campaign,” Shattered is a surprisingly partisan look at one of the most dramatic election campaigns in memory. As is mentioned in the book’s introduction, if you are a Hillary Clinton supporter this book can make for painful reading and a reopening of recently scabbed over wounds. It is also noted that if you are not a Hillary Clinton supporter it may reenforce your views, but may also engender some sympathy.

The story spans Clinton’s early decision-making process of whether to get into the 2016 presidential campaign all the way to the days and weeks after the election of Donald Trump. It is really the story of an organization; and the failures of leadership, management, data, and strategy.

What makes the story so compelling is that the people at the heart of the campaign to elect Hillary Clinton, and Clinton herself, are painfully aware of the mistakes of the 2008 campaign for the democratic nomination against Barack Obama. The 2008 campaign was characterized by internal power struggles, leaks, and was generally drama filled, and the candidate and her team are hell-bent on not making those same mistakes again. While for the most part they succeed, there are numerous new mistakes which once again create a dysfunctional organization.

Prizing loyalty over everything else, Clinton cannot help but create an organization of fiefdoms which allows them to get top down decisions implemented; however, is then tone-deaf to bottom up feedback. It also creates a system where staff need to get multiple people need to sign off on decisions. This in turn, creates the need for others to get involved to help fix the organizational problems, but unintentionally make things worse. As is noted mid way through the book, leaking was a symptom of the dysfunction of the 2008 campaign rather than the cause. This is a failure of leadership by getting management structure wrong.

As the book progresses, through the democratic primaries it becomes obvious that while some lessons of 2008 had been learned by the 2016 campaign, for example focusing on delegates rather than votes, it blinds them to the fact that some of their underlying assumptions are wrong. They do not realize that they are losing the votes of working class whites who had formed their base in 2008 and for whom Bill Clinton had been a champion.

Other than the organizational issues, there is also the role of big data. Every campaign decision is based on analytics and is constantly looking for the least costly route of victory. However, analytics are being used as a strategy, and a decider, rather than as a tool. The underlying assumption is that is cheaper to persuade supporters to go to the polls, and register to vote, rather than change the minds of undecided voters. This does not take account that there are voters who are actively voting against Hillary Clinton, and they were not doing anything to change the minds of those voters.

The campaign was misreading the electorate, the analytics were wrong, but it was the organization that allowed it to happen. Having said that, as the book correctly notes, no reputable pollster was predicting a Donald Trump win, so the Hillary team is hardly alone.

This is an interesting book because these are people obviously working at the top of their game, repeating the issues made famous by the World War I book “The Guns of August” by Barbara W. Tuchman. That book explores the idea that the generals of World War I were not fighting the current war but the previous one and not realizing that the world had changed and thereby dramatically adding to the misery of The Great War.

Like Weapons of Math Destruction which I reviewed here, Shattered is also a warning of the potential limits of big data and predictive models. They are a tool, and should just be one of many. There are lots to learn from Shattered; it is an excellent tool as well.

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