Archives for category: Business

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.

 

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.

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.

sick
When Letty Cottin Pogrebin was diagnosed with breast cancer it was a scary and uncertain time. But what did not help, or helped dramatically, was the response of her friends. Some of her friends knew exactly what to do and what to say. Other friends seemed to have no idea, or said or did completely the wrong things but felt they were being helpful. But worst of all, some friends disengaged completely, as if they could not deal with her illness on any level. “How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick,” is the result of Ms. Cottin Pogrebin speaking to many of the people she met while undergoing surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments.

This is a book about sickness and death, but is also a book about friendship and casseroles. About gifts, and conversations. About children and the elderly. And it is about what is useful to most people who find themselves dealing with illness, and what is unhelpful.

Over the years of running a business with a significant number of employees, I have found myself in the position of having to interact with people who are sick, or have sick relatives, but without being able to fall back on deep personal friendships with the people concerned because they are employees. The feeling of wanting to help is tempered by not wanting to intrude, and not always knowing what to say, or what to offer to help. Or indeed how to say anything and not wanting to make things worse, or have one’s motives misunderstood.

“How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick,” is a book that helps navigate not just the feelings of those who are sick and their immediate relatives, but also of those who are acquaintances. Understanding how people can help if they want to, and how to not help if the wrong kind of help is actually harmful.

Almost like an etiquette book of old, “How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick” is a book about dealing with taboo subjects. There are few right or wrong answers, but it does talk about the need for communication and for an understanding of how to listen to the answers that are given. An easy book to dip in and out of, and surprisingly funny in places, Ms. Cottin Pogrebin’s book is the kind of work that should be required reading for almost everyone, but particularly managers. Managers are often are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to illness, particularly serious illness, in a member of their team.

As Ms. Cottin Pogrebin states;

“Empathy plus action equals kindness.”

“How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick,” may be an odd choice for a business book blog, however, I would argue that it is books such as this that allow managers to show leadership. Management should always be about human connections. Knowing how to navigate some of the toughest interpersonal challenges any manager may face, and understanding the emotions of all involved, should earn “How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick,” a place on every manager’s shelf.

It certainly has a place on mine.

conspiracy

 

Conspiracy is a book that the reader picks up believing it to be one thing, changes into something else while reading, and then turns into something unexpectedly different at its conclusion.
Subtitled; Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue, Conspiracy tells the story of the gossip and snark site Gawker’s outing of Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel as gay. This sets in motion a conspiracy with Theil using his vast resources to try and find a way take Gawker down. Or at least clip the site’s wings.

The vehicle that the conspirators ultimately settle on is Gawker’s publication of parts of a sex tape of wrestling star Hulk Hogan that was made without Hogan’s consent. With Thiel footing the bill, Hogan can undertake a long and protracted campaign, encompassing multiple lawsuits in multiple jurisdictions.

Thiel’s motivations are at the heart of the book. Is he out for revenge? Does he feel that a site such as Gawker should be allowed to get away with pushing freedom of speech deep into the territory of invasion of privacy? The book explores these issues in depth, and the nature of conspiracies. This is not, however, a thesis on conspiracy theories. It is rather an exploration of what it takes to construct, and maintain, a conspiracy. It is also a behind the scenes look at how the rich and powerful (all the characters in this tale are rich and powerful by conventional standards) go to war with each other.

Where Conspiracy sets itself apart is its examination of the aftermath of the Hogan vs. Gawker lawsuit and its effect on both the conspirators and the media. Mr. Holiday also uses the case, and Thiel’s motivations, to explore the culture wars and society’s relationship with the media.

Conspiracy is an entertaining and intelligent book. The constant focus on the nature of conspiracy can get tiresome, but this a tale that is rarely told and it reveals a lot about us as a society and the use, and the potential use, of power in the business world. It is a tale that has implications far beyond its Silicon Valley and Hollywood roots.

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.

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