Unique Critiques

Archive for the tag “Business book review”


Business Book Review

Rework is one of those books that is very easy to cast aside as an anti-establishment rant.  Do so at your peril.  Fried and Heinemeier Hansson have some strong, experienced based wisdom to impart.  You may not agree with all of it and they freely acknowledge that that is OK.  The book is heavily opinionated based on what has worked for them.  Opinionated in this case is good because those opinions are laden with passion.  These guys live their philosophy and they are unapologetic about doing so.  That alone makes Rework a refreshing read.

The book is short but packed with impact.  The authors are very concise and don’t waste your time with flowery prose.  They exemplify the ‘never use 10 words when 1 will do’ rule.  Their delivery is much more fortune cookie than Dickens which makes using the book for reference a lot easier.

The authors of Rework started 37Signals who are the creators of Basecamp.  For those not familiar, Basecamp is SaaS based project management software.  They were one of the early companies to come out with this style of collaborative software project management.  I like their blog a lot more than I like their software.  I’ve used Basecamp in the past and it never really did it for me.  To be fair, I haven’t used the software in years and my experience is in creating products for the market and not for managing projects for specific customers.  Their software seems to be more tailored for the latter approach (or at least it was when I used it.)

So let’s dive into the wisdom they have to impart.  They start by trying to dispel common misconceptions about business.  They started off with one that actually pissed me off a little: ‘Learning from mistakes is overrated.’  Their point was that you learn a lot more from success and that failure is not a prerequisite for success.  However, by saying something like that they are not attributing any of their own success to luck of being in the right place at the right time.  There’s a reason that only 5% of startups survive even if you do follow these principles.  And luck plays a big part in that reason.  It’s almost like blaming a cancer patient for getting cancer.  In my opinion, you should learn from everything, both your successes and your failures.  I did agree with most of their other points though.  The next being that planning is guessing.  Their comment was that ‘writing a plan makes you feel in control of things you can’t actually control.’  This has a lot of merit when coupled with their idea that it is ‘ok to wing it.’  I think there can be benefits to a plan when it makes you think through all possibilities before investing a ton of money in something.  But you can definitely wing it with smaller decisions especially if you are getting feedback from the market early and often.

I really did like their piece on workaholism.  I don’t know when workaholics became heroes in our society.  I agree with our authors that say, “Not only is this workaholism unnecessary, it’s stupid. Working more doesn’t mean you care more or get more done.  It just means you work more….Workaholics miss the point, too.  They try to fix problems by throwing sheer hours at them.  They try to make up for intellectual laziness with brute force.  This results in inelegant solutions.  They even create crises.  They don’t look for ways to be more efficient because they actually like working overtime.  They enjoy feeling like heroes.  They create problems just so they can get off on working more.”  Couldn’t have said it better myself.  When a company needs heroics, you’re doing it wrong.  “Workaholics aren’t heroes.  They don’t save the day, they just use it up.  The real hero is already home because she figured out a faster way to get things done.”

I’ve already touched on this but the authors strongly advocate for strong opinions.  It’s ok to piss people off.  “If no one’s upset by what you’re saying, you’re probably not pushing hard enough.”  With strong opinions come passion.  With passion comes movement.  They also debunk the idea of starting a company with an exit strategy in mind.  “You need a commitment strategy, not an exit strategy.  You should be thinking about how to make your project grow and succeed not how you’re going to jump ship.  If your whole strategy is based on leaving, chances are you won’t get far in the first place.”

I really liked their thoughts on cutting stuff to it’s core.  This is the philosophy of the MVP.  In their words, “So sacrifice some of your darling for the greater good.  Cut your ambition in half.  You’re better off with a kick-ass half than a half-assed whole.”  Cutting down to that level is tough.  They have some advice here too, “The stuff you have to do is where you should begin.  Start at the epicenter.  The way to find the epicenter is to ask yourself this question” ‘If I took this away, would what I’m selling still exist?” A hot dog stand isn’t a hot dog stand without the hot dogs.”

Another important part about being an entrepreneur is making decisions and keeping those decisions and your projects short and sweet.  “When you get in that flow of making decisions after decision, you build momentum and boost morale.  Decisions are progress.”  And, “long projects zap morale.  The longer it takes to develop, the less likely it is to launch.  Make the call, make progress, and get something out now”

They take a programmer’s approach to estimates and solving problems.  I really like this quote because it is something I have found to be true again and again.  “Your estimates suck.  We’re all terrible estimators.  We think we can guess how long something will take, when we really have no idea.  We see everything going according to a best-case scenario, without the delays that inevitably pop up.  Reality never sticks to best-case scenarios.”  This is also a truth I have found to be universal, “Whenever you can, divide problems into smaller and smaller pieces until you’re able to deal with them completely and quickly.  Simply rearranging your tasks this way can have an amazing impact on your productivity and motivation.”

They caution not to fear competition.  In my experience, having competition is far better than not having any.  When you don’t have a competitor you have to define your space which is incredibly difficult.  “Having an enemy gives you a great story to tell customers, too.  Taking a stand always stands out.  People get stoked by conflict.  They take sides.  Passions are ignited.  And that’s a good way to get people to take notice.”

They also dive into the power of No.  “Start getting into the habit of saying no-even to many of your best ideas.  Use the power of no to get your priorities straight.  You rarely regret saying no.  But you often wind up regretting saying yes.”  It’s hard to give up on good ideas but, “The enthusiasm you have for a new idea is not an accurate indicator of its true worth.  What seems like a sure-fire hit right now often gets downgraded to just a ‘nice to have’ by morning.  And ‘nice to have’ isn’t worth putting everything else on hold.”

They have some really good ideas on promotion.  They go deep into building an audience so that, “when you need to get the word out, the right people are already listening.”  Educating that audience is also a good way to get out there, “Instead of trying to outspend, outsell, or outsponsor competitors, try to out-teach them.  Teaching probably isn’t something your competitors are even thinking about.  Most businesses focus on selling or servicing, but teaching never even occurs to them.”  They are also big proponents of transparency.  Share your experiences with your customers.  “Letting people behind the curtain changes your relationship with them.  They’ll feel a bond with you and see you as a human beings instead of a faceless company.”

Their thoughts on hiring are very entrepreneurial and I don’t know if I agree with all of them.  They claim to “never hire anyone to do a job until you’ve tried to do it yourself first.  That way, you’ll understand the nature of the work.  You’ll know what a job well done looks like.”  My caveat to this would be, don’t do those jobs for long especially if you don’t like them and aren’t very good at them.  I know I’m not a great marketer because it pains me to do it and I know a lot of really good marketers that can do the job better than me.  But their point is valid because I didn’t know that until I tried it first.  I also liked their comments on how to narrow it down between several finalists.  “If you are trying to decide among a few people to fill a position, hire the best writer.  It doesn’t matter if that person is a marketer, salesperson, designer, programmer, or whatever, their writing skills will pay off.  That’s because being a good writer is about more than writing.  Clear writing is a sing of clear thinking.  Great writers know how to communicate.”

They also have some interesting thoughts on damage control and culture but I don’t think there was anything new there.  Overall, it is worth the read.  It’s quick and it hits a cord.

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions

Business Book Review

Business Book Review

If you haven’t read this one already, read it now.  This is as insightful a look at why humans do the dumb shit that we do as anything Kahneman has put out there and I loved his book: Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Ariely takes us through, step by step, all of the major irrationalities that we buy into every day.  The beauty of this book is that we know that we are irrational but this book will show that this irrationality is actually predictable.  Or as Ariely puts it, “our irrationality happens the same way, again and again.”

All of the theories in the book are backed up by empirical experimentation.  While sample size always needs to be considered, having real numbers trumps gut feel every day of the week.  The way he runs each experiment is telling.  He always sets out to answer a question that bothers him then comes up with a data driven answer.  Curiosity coupled with experiment makes for great reading.

There are so many lessons to pull from this book that it would be a shame not to list them all here for a Cliff Notes review at the very least.  That is the purpose of a lot of these business book reviews, to make sure that the lessons are extracted for future reference.  They also help me distill what I took as the most important nuggets from a particular author’s teaching.  So without further ado, let’s dive in.

The first lesson is about the cycle of relativity.  This starts with our author’s fundamental observation: “most people don’t know what they want unless they see it in context.”  You didn’t know that you wanted that Tesla until you saw it next to your crappy 1994 Toyota Carola.  This makes sense, right?  The discovery that the author puts in front of us is that every marketer in the world knows this and uses it to their advantage.  My favorite example of this, “…people generally won’t buy the most expensive dish on the menu, they will order the second most expensive dish.  Thus, by creating an expensive dish, a restaurateur can lure customers in to ordering the second most expensive choice.”  He calls this the decoy effect.  The opposite of offering the most expensive item is by offering a clearly inferior option, either at the same price or at a negligibly cheaper price, to make the more expensive option look far more appealing.  This decoy effect “is the secret agent in more decisions than we could imagine.”

He next dives into the fallacies of supply and demand and how easily these forces can be manipulated.  There were two big lessons I pulled from this, price anchoring and creating demand.  Price anchoring comes about by something called arbitrary coherence.  “Initial prices are largely ‘arbitrary’ and can be influenced by responses to random questions; but once those prices are established in our minds, they shape not only what we are willing to pay for an item, but also how much we are willing to pay for related products (this makes them coherent).”  The message here is be very careful with your pricing strategies, especially if you are defining a market.  The other side of this is that if prices in your model are already anchored, then you have to change the experience to change the pricing.  This is what Starbucks did with coffee.  They turned buying coffee into a new, exotic experience then were able to charge a lot more for it.  In creation of demand he quotes Mark Twain, “Tom had discovered a great law of human action, namely, that in order to make a man covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”  This can be seen everywhere but I believe my brother describes it best when he says that ‘people love to wait in line.’  The reason for this is what Ariely calls behavior herding.  “It happens when we assume that something is good (or bad) on the basis of other people’s previous behavior, and our own actions follow suit.”

His next experiment dives into why we find “FREE!” so exciting.  His theory is that something free gives us such a charge because, “…humans are intrinsically afraid of loss.  The real allure of FREE! is tied to this fear.  There’s no visible possibility of loss when we choose a FREE! Item (it’s free). But suppose we choose the item that’s not free.  Uh-oh, now there’s a risk of having made a poor decision – the possibility of loss.  And so, given the choice, we go for what is free.”  Removing this risk of a ‘poor decision’ drives us to make all sorts of poor decisions like buying two for one deals of items that you never would have bought one of in the first place.  I have an uncle that is famous for this, he once bought a case of Italian salad dressing, even though he doesn’t like Italian salad dressing, just because it was ‘such a good deal’.

He then dives into the dichotomy of social norms vs. market norms.  “The social norms include the friendly requests that people make of one another.  Could you help me move this couch? … Social norms are wrapped up in our social nature and our need for community.  They are usually warm and fuzzy.  Instant paybacks are not required.  …market norms, is very different.  There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about it.  The exchanges are sharp-edged: wages, prices, rents, interest, and costs-and-benefits.”  He uses two great examples here, imagine offering to pay grandma for the cost of the Thanksgiving dinner she put out for everyone or explaining to a date the amount you are shelling out for the last three dates you took her out on.  Both of these cases, even if well meant, are a serious violation of the social contract!  Sadly, “when a social norm collides with a market norm, the social norm goes away for a long time.  In other words, social relationships are not easy to reestablish.”

He also goes in to how valuable social norms can be in the business world.  Take open source software for example.  Who would have ever thought Linux or Wikipedia would have been so popular?  He gives another example of a group of lawyers that were approached to help out a retirement community.  The community asked if they could help and offered to pay them well below their normal fee.  The firm said absolutely not.  They asked again but this time if they would consider doing it for free.  The firm readily agreed.  They had gone from a market norm to a social norm.  He also examines the social contract in modern day business.  Businesses used to take care of their employees with pensions and, at the very least, solid benefits.  Nowadays, these things have been cut and businesses bemoan that they can’t find loyal employees anywhere anymore.  You can’t have it both ways.  Loyalty comes from social norms not market norms.

One more example worth mentioning is why, when you are dining out, taking the last hors d’oeuvre is such a big deal.  The answer, “the communal plate transforms the food into a shared resource, and once something is port of the social good, it leads us into the realm of social norms, and with that the rules for sharing with others.”

He devotes a whole chapter to the fact that we are incredibly stupid when we are sexually aroused.  Well duh.

He dives into procrastination and self-control.  The best example here was with how we are all addicted to our devices especially e-mail.  “I think e-mail addiction has something to do with what the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner called ‘schedules of reinforcement’. … “On the face of it, one might expect that the fixed schedules of reinforcement would be more motivating and rewarding because the rat can learn to predict the outcome of his work.  Instead, Skinner found that the variable schedules were actually more motivating.  The most telling result was that when the rewards ceased, the rats ho were under the fixed schedules stopped working almost immediately, but those under the variable schedules kept working for a very long time.”  This is why gambling is so popular.  “If you think about it, e-mail is very much like gambling.  Most of it is junk and equivalent to pulling the lever of a slot machine and losing, but every so often we receive a message that we really want.”

I loved his study on the high price of ownership and the “Ikea effect.”  He has a great line in there, “In fact, I can with a fair amount of certainty say that pride of ownership is inversely proportional to the ease with which ones assembles the furniture.”  You spend time on something, you add a value of ownership to it.  This ownership effect is another cause for irrationality.   This can be summed up in the maxim, “‘One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. ‘ Well when you’re the owner, you’re at the ceiling; and when you’re the buyer, you’re at the floor.”  According to Ariely, this irrationality is propelled by three quirks: 1) we fall in love with what we already have 2) we focus on what we may lose, rather than what we may gain and 3) we assume other people will see the transaction from the same perspective as we do.

It’s stunning to see his experiments around the effect of expectations.  The general idea here is that if we expect that something is going to be good or bad, that expectation greatly impacts the experience.  He has a great quote on this, “As it turns out, positive expectations allow us to enjoy things more and improve our perception of the world around us.  The danger of expecting nothing is that, in the end, it might be all we’ll get.”

He’s fascinated by the study of the placebo effect and rightfully so.  The placebo effect is an amazing way that our mind controls our body.  What was most fascinating about his study though was how big of an impact price has on the placebo effect.  When study participants were given placebo drugs, they did far better in their treatment when they found out that the placebo drug was very expensive.

This leads into a nice segue on the cycle of distrust.  When marketers abuse things like the placebo effect or any other of irrationalities we believe them, but only for a time.  He presents two morals, “The first is that people are willing to forgive a bit of lying.  But the second, more important moral-one that we are just beginning to understand-is that trust, once eroded, is very hard to restore.”

He then dives into all of the experiments he ran on cheating.  This stuff was fascinating.  “when given the opportunity, many honest people will cheat.  In fact, rather than finding that a few bad apples weighted the averages, we discovered that the majority of people cheated, and that they cheated just a little.  The second, and more counter-intuitive, result was even more impressive: once tempted to cheat, the participants didn’t seem to be as influenced by the risk of being caught as one might think…This means that even when we have no chance of getting caught, we still don’t become wildly dishonest.”  He then primed the pump in his experiments by having folks recall the Ten Commandments before the experiment and, “the students who had been asked to recall the Ten Commandments had not cheated at all.”  So there is definitely something to these honor code things.

Finally, what he found out is that “cheating is a lot easier when it’s a step removed from money.”  Any time they ran their experiments on tokens that were worth a certain amount of money, cheating went up dramatically.  This means cheating on things like airline miles is far easier to do because it’s not linked directly to money.  He cautions banks not to get to far away from real money because of this effect.

As a closer, he offers a plan of action.  “although irrationally is commonplace, it does not necessarily mean that we are helpless.  Once we understand when and where we may make erroneous decisions, we can try to be more vigilant, force ourselves to think differently about these decisions, or use technology to overcome our inherent shortcomings.”  Very cool stuff and a ton of lessons to take away from this book.

The subtle art of not giving a f*ck: a counter intuitive approach to living a good life

Business book review

This book is a fun blend between self help and philosophy.  The good news is that the philosophy elements are well thought out and meaningful.  This is not a business guide with a plan to follow but neither is it all flowery fluff.  The concepts are worth your time with a fair amount of fun stories from the author’s life to keep you interested.  I wouldn’t call it a masterpiece but it’s worth the read.

Manson starts the book with a call out to Bukowski, the poet beloved by drunks and misfits.  He calls him out in an appropriate way though by referencing Bukowski’s authenticity.  “…his success stemmed not from some determination to be a winner, but from the fact that he knew he was a loser, accepted it, and then wrote honestly about it.  He never tried to be anything other than what he was.”  Authenticity is always a good quality but finding it is incredibly difficult.  Manson seems to suggest that one of the ways to finding authenticity and the good life is, “…not giving a fuck about more; it’s giving a fuck about less, giving a fuck about only what is true and immediate and important.”

So how do we get there?  Manson’s philosophy is that we are all doing everything we can to avoid negative experiences and filling them with false positive experiences.  His statement that, “the desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience.  And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience,” rings really true.  Most of this comes down to acceptance of who you are rather than trying to do everything you can to become something else.  That is not a bad definition of authenticity. Another quote that really resonated was, “Being open with your insecurities paradoxically makes you more confident and charismatic around others.  The pain of honest confrontation is what generates the greatest trust and respect in your relationships.  Suffering through your fears and anxieties is what allows you to build courage and perseverance.”  And, “Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience.”  In other words, embrace the pain, don’t be shamed by it.  I have personally found this to be very true.  The more vulnerable you are with others, the more powerful the relationships you build.

He takes this a step further to define happiness as solving problems. “True happiness occurs only when you find the problems you enjoy having and enjoy solving.”  This is tightly linked to accomplishment which has always been one of my primary measures for happiness.  When I’m getting stuff done, I’m happy.  I like Manson’s definition better because rather than just accomplishment he is linking happiness to solving, not just finishing.  He mentions the two big things that get in the way and hits this nail right on the head.  “Denial.  Some people deny that their problems exist in the first place….Victim Mentality.  Some choose to believe that there is nothing they can do the solve their problems, even when they in fact could.”  I think denial is very common with the older generation, those that like to sweep stuff under the rug.  The victim mentality is much more common in the younger generation, especially with the entitled.  Victim mentality and entitlement are closely linked.

Manson doesn’t let entitlement off the hook.  He describes it in one of two ways, “1. I’m awesome and the rest of you all suck, so I deserve special treatment. 2. I suck and rest of you are all awesome, so I deserve special treatment.”  Both of these approaches get you nowhere, except maybe with enabling parents.  Manson believe that we need to accept that we are not special and deal with it.  “Often, it’s this realization – that you and your problems are actually not privileged in their severity or pain – that is the first and most important step toward solving them.”

He then takes on values and how values define well lived life if those values are based on the right things.  In his definition, “Good values are 1) reality-based, 2) socially constructive, and 3) immediate and controllable.  Bad values are 1) superstitious, 2) socially destructive , and 3) not immediate and controllable.”  Understanding this requires responsibility of your own well-being.  Responsibility is the biggest part of growing up and becoming authentic.  As Manson puts it, “This is the realization that we, individually, are responsible for everything in our lives, no matter the external circumstances.”  You made your choices and they got you here.  Time to accept that and be an adult.  And in those cases of, “We don’t always control what happens to us.  But we always control how we interpret what happens to us, as well as how we respond.”  You’re still making choices, so stop playing the victim.

Manson takes us through a cool exercise of questioning ourselves or trying to be a little less certain about who we think we are.  He gives us three questions to ponder.  #1: What if I’m wrong?  #2: What would it mean if I’m wrong?  #3: Would being wrong create a better or a worse problem than my current problem, for both myself and others?  This is a good litmus test for any sentient being.  Introspection is a good thing.  Challenge yourself on a regular basis.

Manson also spends some time on relationships.  He goes deep into building trust and how that is the keystone for something real.  The part I liked the most about this was his concept that commitment spawns freedom.  This concept is very counter intuitive.  “Commitment gives you freedom because you’re no longer distracted by the unimportant and frivolous.  Commitment gives you freedom because it hones your attention and focus, directing them toward what is most efficient at making you healthy and happy.”  I like this way of looking at commitment.  You’re not settling, you’re focusing.

He finishing up the book with a call to action that balances on something light: death.  “Confronting the reality of our own mortality is important because it obliterates all the crappy, fragile, superficial values in life.  While most people whittle their days chasing another buck, or a little bit more fame and attention, or a little bit more assurance that they’re right or loved, death confronts all of us with a far more painful and important question: what is your legacy?  How will the world be different and better when you’re gone?  What mark will you have made?”

Get out there and get it done by only giving a fuck about the stuff that matters.





Rocket Fuel: The One Essential Combination That Will Get You More of What You Want from Your Business

Business Book Review

Business Book Review

Rocket Fuel is a Wickman follow up to Get a Grip, albeit with a different co-author (or perhaps integrator).  Where Get a Grip was broad and inclusive to the entrepreneurial organization as a whole, Rocket Fuel is narrow and focused on one thing, the relationship between the Visionary and the Integrator.  We will spend more time defining those two terms in a moment but these are basically the top two spots at a company and when these top spots are in sync, you get magic.  When they’re not, you get garbage.  This book teaches how to get these two players playing the same game.

Our authors start by defining the players.  The first is our Visionary.  The Visionary is typically, but not always, the founder of the company but they play the role of idea guy.  They have twenty ideas a day if not more.  Most of these ideas stink but one or two are brilliant.  They have the passion and the drive.  Or as our authors put it, they are most commonly the, “Entrepreneurial spark plug, Inspirer, Passion Provider, Developer of new/big ideas/breakthroughs, Big problem solver, Engager and maintainer of big external relationships, Closer of big deals, Learner, researcher and discoverer, Company vision creator and champion.”  These are fun people to be around because they pick you up when you’re feeling down and make you see things their way.  What they are typically NOT so good at are the details.  They don’t pride themselves on the day to day nor do they do a great job of following up.  They are not finishers, they are starters.

One of the primary reasons the book was written is that the dynamos known as Visionaries quickly become disillusioned and frustrated once their business starts becoming successful because they run into what our authors call the “Five Frustrations: 1. Lack of Control.  You started this business so you could have more control over your time, money and freedom-your future.  Once you reach a certain point of growth, however, you realize that somehow you actually have less control over these things than you’ve ever had before…2. Lack of Profit.  Quite simply you don’t have enough…3. Nobody (employees, partners, vendors) seems to understand you or do things your way.  You’re just not on the same page.  4. Hitting the Ceiling.  Growth has stopped.  The business is more complex, and you can’t figure out exactly why it isn’t working.  5. Nothing is working.  You’ve tried several remedies, consulted books, and instituted quick fixes….you have no traction.”  At some point of growth this seems to be the fate of almost every Visionary.

Enter the Integrator, stage right.  The Integrator is the yin to the Visionary’s yang.  The Integrator “harmoniously integrates the major functions of the business, runs the organization, and manages the day-to-day issues that arise.  The Integrator is the glue that holds the people, processes, systems, priorities, and strategy of the company together.”  One obvious trait of the Integrator is communication but more importantly they play the role of filter to the “Visionary’s ideas, which helps to eliminate hurdles, stumbling blocks, and barriers for the leadership team.”  This is not the easiest pill to swallow because it also means that the Integrator has to challenge these ideas and put the grit of reality into the purity of the Visionary’s dream.  This means having to say no. A lot.  To your boss.  This means a ton of work with very little of the glory.  It means being the man behind the Man (or woman in either case).  So, who the hell would sign up for that job?  Turns out, you don’t have much of a choice.  You’re either wired this way or you’re not.  If you are, you loooove to see stuff done right.  And you’re the one making sure it’s happening.  Glory means less than success to the Integrator.  Discipline and accountability trump all.

How you get these two very different people together and working effectively is the content of the rest of the book.  It all starts with the accountability chart.  If you read Get a Grip, this is a bit of a review but still a salient point because of how important it is to get the accountability breakdown correct.  An accountability chart is an org chart on steroids.  It is done on a role based methodology, where you diagram all of the roles that a team needs to succeed and only then put your people in those roles.  In most cases people play multiple roles but even then it becomes clear for what each person is held accountable.  Most organizations do this backwards where they will build the org chart around the people they have instead of the roles and create a broken, convoluted reporting structure.  They reemphasize the point that more than one person can’t be accountable for something because then nobody is accountable.  I love that maxim. The focus in this book is more on the accountability trade off between our top two and how important it is to define who is going to handle what.  They also make the point that the rest of the leadership team reports to the Integrator but that the Integrator reports to the Visionary.  This has the caveat though that if the visionary is wearing multiple hats, like VP of sales and marketing, when playing that role, they do in fact report to the Integrator.

Accountability brings us to the five rules that Wickman and Winters lay out for this relationship: “1. Stay on the same page 2. No End Runs 3. The Integrator is the Tie Breaker 4. You Are an Employee When Working “in” the Business 5. Maintain Mutual Respect.”  These are great rules of thumb because it starts to assist the Visionary in giving up some of the control and hassles of the business.  This is an underlying theme throughout the book that all of this will fail unless the Visionary is truly ready to give up some of the responsibilities of running the business.  According to our authors this is one of the main reasons the relationship fails, Visionary readiness.

One of the last interesting stats they throw at us before closing the book is that about 22% of people out there have the capacity to become a Visionary where only about 5% are wired to be an Integrator.  This creates a 4:1 gap making strong Integrators very much in demand.  If the Visionary can find a good one and put these elements in place, add a dash of productive tension, that’s when you go from gasoline to rocket fuel.  Only then is the business ready for lift off.




The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work

Business Book Review

Business Book Review

I first heard about Achor’s work through his brilliant Ted Talk.  The thing that struck me about the Ted Talk was how funny  it was and how obviously delighted the speaker was about the work he was doing.  He clearly practices what he preached because Shawn Achor looks and sounds like a very happy man.  This, more than anything, sold me on the book.  Just like choosing a personal trainer who looks fit him or herself over some overweight alternative, you want your happiness expert to be a happy guy.  Not only is Achor happy, as a Harvard researcher he also has the credentials.  In this book he is presenting a fair amount of his own research as opposed to just taking you through one man’s personal experience.  The book is written with a fun, anecdotal and playful tone but backed by some hard data, as Mark Watney would say, ‘he scienced the shit out of this thing.”

Achor’s primary thesis is that due to the data gathered from the cutting edge science of positive psychology, “we now know that happiness is the precursor to success, not merely the result.  And that happiness and optimism actually fuel performance and achievement – giving us the competitive edge that I call the Happiness Advantage.”  He starts by getting into the sad reality that most of us are very unhappy with our jobs and the work we do.  In fact, “A Conference Board survey release in January of 2010 found that only 45% of workers surveyed were happy with their jobs, the lowest in 22 years of polling.  Depression rates today are ten times higher than they were in 1960.”  This is an unhappiness epidemic.  The good news is that we can do something about it.  As he and other researchers have discovered, “Once our brains were discovered to have such built-in plasticity, our potential for intellectual and personal growth suddenly became equally malleable. … studies have found numerous ways we can rewire our brains to be more positive, creative, resilient, and productive – to see more possibility where we look.”

Before he takes us into the detail of how we get closer to happiness, he does us the favor of defining it first: “Happiness implies a positive mood in the present and a positive outlook for the future.  Martin Seligman, pioneer in positive psychology, has broken it down to three, measurable components: pleasure, engagement, and meaning.”  After that definition he pounds home the point again that, “based on the wealth of data they compiled, they found that happiness causes success and achievement, not the opposite.”  In short, if you want to be successful work on being happy first.

What I loved about the book is that he didn’t stop there.  He then takes us into some real life, helpful tips about how to get us to our happy place.  Here are the biggies:

  • Meditate.  Meditation takes practice, but it’s one of the most powerful happiness interventions.  I highly recommend Buddhify if you haven’t tried it.
  • Find something to look forward to.  One study found that people who just thought about watching their favorite movie actually raised their endorphin levels by 27%.
  • Commit conscious acts of kindness.  The important note here is that they need to be conscious, you need to make the intention to commit these acts.
  • Infuse positivity into your surroundings.  Look at the desks of your co-workers that have tons of pictures and memes, those folks are normally the happiest of the group.
  • Exercise.  If you’re not doing this already, it’s time to start.  Not only does exercise pump up the endorphins, it also boosts mood and enhances work performance in many other ways.
  • Spend money (but not on stuff).  “Contrary to the popular saying, money can buy happiness, but only if used to do things as opposed to simply have things.”
  • Exercise a signature strength.  Do the things you are good at every once in a while to boost positivity.

This is a wonderful  DIY road map to getting on the happy train.  I’ve done some of these in the past but have since added several more of these arrows into my quiver and it is definitely making an impact.

He also covers the concept of the fulcrum and the lever and why that physical principle has an impact on our brains.  Archimedes once said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”  Achor takes this into psychology, “What I realized is that our brains work in precisely the same way.  Our power to minimize our potential is based on two important things: (1) the length of our lever – how much potential power and possibility we believe we have, and (2) the position of our fulcrum – the mindset with which we generate the power to change.”  This is another way of saying that if you look at every task you do with the mindset that you can pull something positive from it, you probably will.  One of the things I liked the most about this approach was when he brought it to our jobs.  “We view our work as a Job, a Career, or a Calling.”  Guess which one will make you the happiest?  In his consulting work, he encourages employees to “rewrite their ‘job descriptions’ into what Tal Ben-Shahar calls a ‘calling description’.”  This highlights the meaning of the work that we do.  I started with myself and I have asked my employees to do the same.  It is incredibly illuminating about what people find important.  The other side of the coin of happiness is bringing it to others.  He dives into the “Pygmalion Effect: when our belief in another person’s potential brings that potential to life.” Another way of saying, pass it on.  He challenges all managers to ask these three questions: “Do I believe that the intelligence and skills of my employees are not fixed, but can be improved by effort?  Do I believe they want to make that effort, just as they want to find meaning and fulfillment in their jobs?  How am I conveying these beliefs in my daily words and actions?”  The world is not fixed, it is relative and we can have a serious impact upon it.

He then dives into what he calls the Tetris effect.  The Tetris effect comes about when people spend tons of time playing the game to the point that everything looks like a block to be arranged somewhere.  Most of us fall into the negative Tetris effect where all we see are problems.  If everything looks like a problem it is very difficult to find happiness.  However Achor encourages us to rewire this into the “Positive Tetris Effect: Instead of creating a cognitive pattern that looks for negatives and blocks success, it trains our brains to scan the world for opportunities and ideas that allow our success rate to grow.”  If you are constantly scanning and focusing on the positive, you end up with a lot more happiness, gratitude and optimism.”  The road map here is: “start making a daily list of the good things in your job, your career and your life.”  At the very least, start by covering the three good things that happened today.

His next section was about Falling Up instead of Falling Down.  “Study after study shows that if we are able to conceive of failure as an opportunity for growth, we are all the more likely to experience that growth…the people who can most successfully get themselves up off the mat are those who define themselves not by what happened to them, but by what they can make out of what has happened.”  I have found this personally true after getting hit with cancer and thankfully beating it.  I have found that many years after the event, I am grateful for the disease because it helped mold me into who I am today.

The next principle he covers is what he calls the Zorro Circle or as Covey has called it your circle of influence.  “Feeling that we are in control, that we are masters of our fate at work and at home, is one of the strongest drivers of both well-being and performance. …these kinds of gains in productivity, happiness, and health have less to do with how much control we actually have and more with how much control we think we have.”  Back to the lever and the fulcrum, we have a lot of power by using our mindset of how we look at control in our own lives.  The only way to find this control is to start small.  Recognize the little things that you have absolute control over, own it, then start to expand upon it.  Don’t play the victim, take responsibility.  One way to do this is to make two lists, the first of the things that you do that are within your control, the second is those things that you don’t control.  It is always surprising how many things fall in the first list.

Principle #6 is the 20 second rule.  In countless studies we have found that we have a finite bucket of willpower and that “our willpower weakens the more we use it.”  I loved this quote, “Inactivity is simply the easiest option.  Unfortunately, we don’t enjoy it nearly as much as we think we do.  In general, Americans actually find free time more difficult to enjoy than work.  If that sounds ridiculous, consider this: for the most part, our jobs require us to use our skills, engage our minds, and pursue our goals – all things that have been shown to contribute to happiness.”  He also goes on to show that we are drawn to what is easy even when we know that active leisure is much more enjoyable than sitting on your ass.  The problem is that it takes action to be active, where sitting on the couch doesn’t.  His advice is, “Lower the activation energy for the habits you want to adopt and raise it for habits you want to avoid.”  His example is that he pulled the batteries out of his remote and instead put books in his living room.  When he did this, it became much easier to read a book then getting up, grabbing the batteries to the remote and turning on the TV.

The final principle he covers is social investment.  He starts off with a very powerful piece of data, “researchers have found that social support has as much effect on life expectancy as smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, and regular physical activity.”  These relationship, especially at work, are your lifeline to being happy or not.  “When over a thousand highly successful professional men and women interviewed as they approached retirement and asked what had motivated them the most, overwhelmingly they placed work friendships above both financial gain and individual status.”  One of the most important relationships at work is the boss to employee relationship and it is critical to get this right.  One of the ways to get this right is to share positive news and react with authentic positivity to those that share positive news with you.  If you are a boss, get this right because it seriously impacts the happiness of your employees.  Finally, gratitude and sharing that gratitude with your employees is also critical to their success.  Do it often and do it publicly.

This is a great book that provides an atlas to find your happiness.  Read it.  Now.

David and Goliath

Business Book Review

Business Book Review

Gladwell is masterful at taking a concept and making his point by wrapping it in a series of compelling stories that makes that point very sticky.  I wouldn’t call David and Goliath his best but it is still a wonderful read and has plenty to teach.  The central concept is that you should never take on the Goliath where he is strongest.  If you take the battle to the giant, don’t let the giant dictate the terms and certainly don’t try to beat the giant at their own game.  Instead, change the game and turn their greatest strength into a weakness.  Yes, very Sun Tzu.  What is most fascinating about Gladwell’s approach is he spends time showing you how the underdog beats the super power and it’s very rarely for the reasons that you may think.

Gladwell kicks us off by diving into war.  He asks the question: “What happens in wars between the strong and the weak when the weak side does as David did and refuses to fight the way the bigger side wants to fight, using unconventional or guerrilla tactics?  The answer: in those cases, the weaker party’s winning percentage climbs from 28.5% to 63.6%.”  This makes it very obvious that the underdog can have the advantage as long as they are willing to change the rules.  Most of the time, they don’t change those rules.  Why?  Gladwell goes on to state that: “to play by David’s rules, you have to be desperate.”  And if you are desperate enough you might be willing to put in the hard work to change the rules.  The fact is, desperate, underdog strategies that have any chance of success come from a hell of a lot of hard work.  Underdogs rarely win because of luck.

He next takes us into the concept of the inverted-U curve.  “Inverted-U curves have three parts, and each part follows a different logic.  There’s the left side, where doing more or having more makes things better.  There’s the middle, where more doesn’t make much of a difference.  And there’s the right side, where doing more or having more makes things worse.”  This curve in many ways is the central tenant behind the book.  It can be applied to almost any discipline in life.  Gladwell discusses it in the context of parenting and class sizes but this is easily extended into all walks of life.  A quick search on the internet shows tons of examples but the central concept brings us back to a saying that many have used but few have explained so thoroughly than Gladwell and that is: in many cases, less is more.

The next topic he takes us into is desirable difficulties.  Gladwell uses dyslexia as an example of one of these desirable difficulties.  One of his interviewees makes the statement, “The one trait in a lot of dyslexic people I know is that by the time we get out of college, our ability to deal with failure was very highly developed.  And so we look at most situations and see much more of the upside than the downside.  Because we are so accustomed to the downside.”  Because of these desirable difficulties, it gives those folks that get put through the ringer the ability to be a little more disagreeable.  Being disagreeable is one of the pre-requisites to challenging the status quo and the first step in changing the rules.

He then dives into the trickster mythologies.  He uses some good fables to explain the relevance but ultimately, “The lesson of the trickster tales is the third desirable difficulty: the unexpected freedom that comes from having nothing to lose.  The trickster gets to break the rules.”

The concept of the inverted-U curve comes up again in his explanation of the principle of legitimacy in the context of power imposed on the people.  The principle of legitimacy is based on three things, “First of all, the people who are asked to obey authority have to feel like they have a voice – that if they speak up, they will be heard.  Second, the law has to be predictable.  There has to be a reasonable expectation that the rules tomorrow are going to be roughly the same as the rules today.  And third, the authority has to be fair.  It can’t treat one group differently from another.”  Some of our most turbulent periods in history were when the law is applied in the absence of legitimacy.  This doesn’t produce obedience, this produces backlash.  Gladwell nicely sums this up in the context of prison and Ireland’s times of trouble.

He summarizes with the Vietnam war.  One of his quotes here nicely ties the theory behind the book up with a bow, “It was not that the Viet Cong thought they were going to lose.  It was that they did not think in terms of winning and losing at all – which was a profoundly different proposition.  An enemy who is indifferent to the outcome of a battle is the most dangerous enemy of all.”  This is what underdogs do, they change the rules.  They disrupt.  And when they do, they often win.  Read it, it’s worth your while.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love

Business Book Review

Business Book Review

In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Newport takes one of the common American ideals that ‘following your passion’ will make you happy and completely blasts it out of the water.  The quote, ‘be so good that they can’t ignore you,’ was taken from Steve Martin who is truly one of the hardest working comedians in the business.  Martin’s point,  and Newport’s point throughout the book is that passion is actually a side effect of becoming really good at your job.  If you can develop a skill set that is rare and valuable, you are going to find that passion will become a side effect of being really good.  However, if you just follow a passion without developing any skills, you are in for a life of disappointment.  This is an excellent study into an American mythos that has caused so many people so much pain and discontent.  Newport asks and answers the questions of why is following my passion a bad idea?  If I shouldn’t follow my passion, what should I do?  How do you actually get so good they can’t ignore you?

The author takes a clinical, scientific approach to bringing his points across.  He starts with some stats that poke a serious hole in the follow your passion.  He cites a 2002 study that states that, “Less than 4% of the total identified passions had any relation to work or education, with the remaining 96% describing hobby-style interests such as sports and art.”  This bursts the passion bubble pretty quickly because if your passions are not relevant to making a living, the passion advice can rapidly become a one way ticket to destitution.  However, another survey showed that, “the strongest predictor of an assistant seeing her work as a calling was the number of years spent on the job.  In other words, the more experience and assistant had, the more likely she was to love her work.”  This was obviously just a subset of workers in the world, but this seems to touch on a universal truth, as Newport states, “Passion is a side effect of mastery”.

As he dives deeper into the issue he finds that, “the more I noticed that the passion hypothesis convinces people that somewhere there’s a magic ‘right’ job waiting for them, and that if they find it, they’ll immediately recognize that this is the work they were meant to do.  The problem, of course, is when they fail to find this certainty, bad things follow, such as chronic job-hopping and crippling self-doubt.”  He does a great job of articulating the ‘quick and easy magic pill’ zeitgeist that is rampant in our 21st century culture and goes on to show how it is slowly crushing our youth as they enter the workplace.  He argues that, “The passion hypothesis is not just wrong, it’s also dangerous.  Telling someone to ‘follow their passion’ is not just an act of innocent optimism, but potentially the foundation for a career riddled with confusion and angst.”

Up to this point, it sounds like a Shakespearean tragedy, right?  This is not true though, because there is plenty of passion to be found, it just takes hard work.  Throughout the book, Newport introduces us to a number of different successful people and asks the questions of, how did it work for you?  Universally, the answer is almost always the same, become really good at what you do, or in Martin’s quote, “Become so good they can’t ignore you,”.  Newport calls the hard work approach the craftsman mindset.  This is in strict contrast to the passion mindset.  The “craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world, the passion mindset focuses instead on what the world can offer you.”  One focuses on the value you bring, where the other is a sense of first world entitlement.  Or as Newport puts it, “No one owes you a great career…you need to earn it – and the process won’t be easy.”

So how do you earn it?  This is where Newport introduces the idea of career capital.  You build career capital by tons and tons of deliberate practice.  Deliberate practice goes back to the 10,000 hours magic number that Malcolm Gladwell made the focus of his book Outliers.  The problem is that deliberate practice is very different from just showing up and working hard, “if you just show up and work hard, you’ll soon hit a performance plateau beyond which you fail to get any better.”  Deliberate practice is not the fun stuff that you are comfortable with, it is getting outside of your comfort zone and stretching yourself to get better.  That’s why people hate to do it because it is not fun but it is also the key to becoming excellent.

Newport moves into other concepts in the book, like the importance of having a mission but I derived the most value out of the career capital idea.  This concept of deliberate practice is not new.  What I’ve always struggled with is how to actually put it into practice.  If you are learning an instrument or picking up a new sport, the blueprints of practice are somewhat obvious especially if you have a good teacher.  But what if you’re a VP of a software development firm, or a manager of a sales organization?  How do you deliberately practice those skills?

The author provides some tips here too by sharing his practice routines: “Once a week I require myself to summarize in my ‘research bible’ a paper I think might be relevant to my research.  This summary must include a description of the result, how it compares to previous work, and the main strategies used to obtain it.”  He also shares his Hour-Tally Routine. “Another deliberate-practice routine was the introduction of my hour tally – a sheet of paper I mounted behind my desk at MIT…The sheet has a row for each month on which I keep a tally of the total number of hours I’ve spent that month in a state of deliberate practice.”  He also spends a good amount of time brainstorming new theory results, “at the end of each of these brainstorming sessions I require myself to formally record the results, by hand, on a dated page.”

The conclusion I drew is that deliberate practice techniques can be found no matter what your discipline, but you do need to define them for yourself.  I plan on doing that very thing and seeing if I can bring more deliberate practice into my day to day work to continue to become ‘so good they can’t ignore me.’

Get a Grip: An Entrepreneurial Fable…Your Journey to Get Real, Get Simple, and Get Results

Business Book Review

Business Book Review

Wickman and Paton wrote a business book that reads like a novel.  In this business novel, they introduce what they call the entrepreneurial operating system via a fable about a struggling services company that is on the daily brink of implosion.  This company is talked into hiring a consultant that comes in and turns the ship around using this EOS system.  The story is just a medium for passing on a wealth of business knowledge, which you can also get from the companion book, Traction: Get a grip on your Business which, from what I understand comes sans story.  There is a lot of excellent advice within these pages but what I found most useful about the book is that it provides a complete system to running a business well.  This is a stark contrast from most books in the genre which typically focus on only one aspect of the business or in many cases one person’s opinion on one aspect of the business.  This book lays the framework that not only gives you the whole enchilada but teaches you how to cook it.

Our consultant arrives for the first meeting amid a fair amount of skepticism that he begins to dispel through a series of pointed question that gets to the heart of why this company is floundering.  The topics that he brings up are universal to most businesses which is what makes the fable approach relevant in the first place.  The first question he asks is: how effective are your internal meetings?  The second, how aligned is the entire organization around your plan?  The third: how would you rate the level of accountability that exists in your organization?  As you can imagine, the team in the fable does just as poorly as most businesses do on these three questions.  This set of questions opened the door to looking at the six key components of any business, VISION, PEOPLE, DATA, ISSUES, PROCESS AND TRACTION.  The authors then go into describing each of these in a bit more detail, but the one they spent the most time on was the people aspect.  They used a Jim Collins quote who emphasized, “that to succeed in business, you need to have the right people in the right seats.”  They then got into defining what this actually means, “Right people share your Core Values – they fit your culture.  Right seats mean everyone has the skills and experience to excel in a job that’s truly important to your organization.”  This led them into the accountability chart which is a really a “supercharged org chart because it absolutely crystallizes everyone’s roles and responsibilities.  It establishes clear ownership of and accountability for everything that’s important to your business and plainly illustrates who reports to whom.”

Another one of the underlying themes throughout this book is similar to what we saw in Creativity Inc., one of the keys to success is candor or as these authors describe it, open and honest.  In their words, “Open means both open with one another and open-minded.  When somebody else on the team has something to say, you don’t have to agree, but you do need to hear it, so we can consider everyone’s perspective,.  Honest means just say it.  We can’t deal with an issue unless we get it out of your heads and on the table.”  Along this same vein, this brought our fictional team into analyzing their own roles and accountabilities using what our authors call the GWC approach. “GWC stands for ‘gets it, wants it, and capacity to do it’.  When someone gets it their brain is innately hardwired in a way that matches the demands of the five roles in their seat.  When someone wants it, they genuinely spring out of bed every day – wanting to excel in their roles.  And when someone has the capacity to do it, they have acquired the intellectual and emotional maturity, education, training and on-the-job experience to consistently perform well in the seat.” This team then went through a very painful exercise of asking the entire team if they all GWCd their own seats.  They also make a great point about accountability, “You can’t have two people accountable for a single major function…because when two people are accountable, nobody is accountable.”

Our fictional team then started to get into the heart of getting stuff done.  They listed out all of their big ‘rocks’ or those things that were important to deal with in the team and their consultant led them through a stimulating session of ‘keep, kill and combine’ to prioritize the ones that had to be dealt with first.  He also throws a warning out there that all rocks that folks were signing up for had to be, “SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.”  This turned into a quarterly rock sheet that would be reported on in their level 10 meeting every week.  The concept of the level 10 meeting was another good one, these are very directed meetings focused on solving real problems following the EOS methodologies.  The level 10 comes from making sure each meeting is rated a 10 in the last 5 minutes at the end of each meeting.  He put forth a strong agenda for these meetings: Segue (good news – personal and biz), scorecard review, rock review, customer and employee headlines, to do list, IDS (Issues list), conclude (recap to dos, cascading messages, rating 1-10).  The key to most of these was that everything but the IDS is a 5 minute task, if something is off track you drop it down to the issues list and deal with it there.  IDS stand for identify, discuss and solve and this is the core of productive meetings, solving these issues for good rather than circling around them again and again and never coming to a conclusion.  To make these level 10 meetings as effective as possible, he also called out timeliness.  These things have to become a high priority and the leadership team needs to treat them that way.  Our authors even used a Lombardi quote stating that if your on time, you’re late.  Everyone needs to come to these meetings prepared, early and ready to work.

They got deeper into personnel issues next.  The challenge they gave themselves was discovering their own Core Values.  He asked them to start this process by first calling out the superstars in the organization, those people that really fit the culture and if you had more of them you could conquer the world.  He calls out the most important core values as the, “Permission to play Core Values are traits essential to this organization.  You will never hire someone without these traits, and you’ll ask people to leave the organization when you learn they don’t possess them.”  Our consultant segues from Core Values to Core Focus, “Core Values define who you are, Core Focus defines what you are…your 10-year Target is where you’re going.  It’s a long range, energizing goal that everyone will rally around.”  The tool that I liked the best that came out of this was the people analyzer.  The people analyzer asked the leadership team or just the manager to directly compare employees to their core values.  In our fictional team’s example this was five values and if the person is below the bar on any of those five values, they get their strike one meeting.  The employee gets a very candid review of where they are below the bar and what they need to do to change.  If they get to three strikes, they are let go.

They go on into more strategic elements next of the three year plan, the one year plan and the quarterly check ups.  What I enjoyed most about all of these tools is that they are well defined and not just abstract concepts.  The authors give you a set of blueprints that you need to fill in on your own taking you to a much stronger business.

Well worth the read.  I heard about the book from an advisory board that I sit on and several of the CEOs there swear by it.  These are big players and if it can help their business, it can probably help yours too.  My plan is to move on to the companion novel, Traction, next.

The 8 Qualities of Drama Free Teams

Business Book Review

Business Book Review

This was a complete waste of time.  There is a service out there, Blinkist, that creates the business version of cliff notes.  Blinkist would have nothing to do with this book because it is already cliff notes.  The book is nominally about creating teams that exist without the drama.  However, when reading the book you get the sense that Mcintee didn’t do any research. I’m sure that he is a great consultant, the references he makes in the book all talk about the folks he has helped, but when I pick up a business book, I’m looking for real insight into the topic of the book.  This was 53 pages of sloganeering.  If Fox News were to write a business book, it would look a lot like this.  Every three paragraphs or so, one of the tidbits of wisdom that our author puts forth is put in a nice little blue box, so everyone knows, this is important.  Writing mechanism like this are lazy, insulting and are typically used to cover up a complete lack of depth in the subject matter.

There was also a slight religious undertone throughout the book that I find completely out of place and distracting.  Let’s keep the business books about business please.

All that being said, there are a couple of true tidbits of wisdom within these pages.  None of these are groundbreaking or original but they do bear repeating.  When he talks about teams, he goes into the power of empowerment, “Drama can occur in your team if they feel like they have no choice.  When you feel disempowerment it’s very easy to become a victim and blame others.  For many, victim behavior is their modus operandi.  They feel like they have no choice so they play the victim.  Empowering your team with choices helps take out the drama.”  This is very true when working with teams.  It goes back to that old maxim of, we like to hire smart people, so treat them like they are smart and give them enough autonomy to do what they choose will best help the company and the team.  Mcintee then goes into how ownership plays a role in this as well, “Ownership is the most powerful motivator in business.  It’s the organizations that create a culture of ownership that become the most successful.”

He covers leadership in his minimalist fashion as well.  One little tidbit that I really did like was his comment on building a team that is like the leader, “Some leaders work to build a team of people that are exactly like them.  Many times this produces a dysfunctional team.  Building a team this way is like marrying your cousin.  After a while, all your kids end up idiots.”  It’s not often that you get to see incest references in a business book, well done sir.  He makes one other comment about leadership that is worth mentioning, “One mistake that I see leaders continually make is to only give answers to their team, never asking them questions.  If all you ever have are answers for your people, they will always come to you with questions.”  I agree with this comment wholeheartedly.  Typically, your employees are the ones in the trenches that understand the details of what is actually going on.  Conversations with these employees should be mostly a leader asking questions of their staff.

Skip it, not worth your time or your money.

Creativity Inc. : Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way

Business Book Review

Business Book Review

I picked up Creativity Inc. because I’ve always been enamored with Pixar.  They were the first to build a computer generated feature film and they did it with style.  Images of Pixar, in my mind, always came with a floating head of Steve Jobs behind it as he took another failing genre and turtle necked it into yet another success.  That’s the outsider’s image of this company because of how much larger than life Jobs was.  As I read more about the company in other forums, like Wired, I started to pick up on the other players that actually made Pixar a reality, guys like John Lasseter and Pete Docter who were some of the creative minds behind the wonderful films that Pixar consistently cranks out.  Who I have never heard of though, was Ed Catmull, Pixar’s president.  After reading the book, this is no surprise.  He is an incredibly unassuming characters and clearly not one to boast about his own accomplishments, which are many (he invented texture mapping as just one example).  He gives all the credit of creativity to others as if he doesn’t have the tools to tell a great story of his own.  After reading the book though, this is clearly bullshit because he turns a business book about Pixar into a wonderfully crafted story that I simply could not put down.  The guy is a class act through and through.

He also has a lot to teach.  Ed states that the thesis of the book is ‘there are many blocks to creativity, but there are active steps we can take to protect the creative process’.  A big part of this is that ‘managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them.  They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear.  Moreover, successful leaders embrace the reality that their models may be wrong or incomplete.  Only when we admit what we don’t know can we ever hope to learn from it.’  This is a really powerful statement and one that most corporate folks have no interest in hearing.  One of the underlying themes to the book is that candor is critical to success.  Being truthful with others and yourself is the only way to learn, or as Catmull puts it: ‘Unhindered communication was key, no matter what your position.’

He goes deep into the interplay between teams and setting up an environment where candor can thrive.  One of his pieces about teams that I loved was ‘Always take a chance on better, even if it seems threatening.’  This is a critical mindset to have for anyone looking for truly excellent team members.  Put your own ego aside and get smarter by hiring smarter people.  Is there a chance that they might replace you?  Sure, but there is a far larger chance that they are going to make you better.  Once this environment is set up let these smart people be smart!  It seems obvious but this is probably the single biggest reason why teams fail, managers don’t trust their people to fix stuff on their own.  Catmull reinforced this with some quotes from Deming the most interesting of which was, ‘You don’t have to ask permission to take responsibility.’  He expands on Deming’s work by focusing even deeper on the people, ‘Find, develop, and support good people, and they in turn will find, develop, and own good ideas.’  These ideals can seem Utopian but Catmull goes on to show how they actually accomplished them at Pixar.

I really enjoyed the part of the book where he goes deeper into what he means by candor, ‘Candor is forthrightness or frankness – not so different from honesty, really.  And yet, in common usage, the word communicates not just truth-telling but a lack of reserve.’  This is part of the reason why the book is so enjoyable because this is also how he writes, he doesn’t pull any punches, he is just matter of fact about things that others might tie emotional angst to.  For example, ‘And yet, candor could not be more crucial to our creative process.  Why? Because early on, all of our movies suck…to go, as I say, from suck to not-suck.’ A big part of candor though is to focus on the problem and not the person.  He stresses this again and again, you need to support and help each other by being truthful.

He has great advice around failure.  He doesn’t look at failure as a necessary evil but as not evil at all.  In fact, it is necessary to the creative process.  He states that, ‘failure is a manifestation of learning and exploration.  If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it.  And, for leaders especially, this strategy – trying to avoid failure by out-thinking it – dooms you to fail.’  This is easy to state but how does one enact this in real practice.  Catmull states that, ‘Part of the answer is simple: If we as leaders can talk about our mistakes and our part in them, then we make it safe for others.’ Failure is tightly coupled to fear and we need to ‘uncouple fear and failure – to create an environment in which making mistakes doesn’t strike terror into your employee’s hearts.’  He goes on to state, ‘The antidote to fear is trust.’  To show that you trust your employees means that you level with them.  The default should not be to err on the side of secrecy but instead, treat them as if they are smart people worthy of trust.

One of the unavoidable results of candor is conflict.  Ed states that this is natural because, ‘The key is to view conflict as essential, because that’s how we know the best ideas will be tested and survive.  You know, it can’t only be sunlight.’  Once again though, this is much easier in theory than in practice.  ‘It is management’s job to figure out how to help others see conflict as healthy – as a route to balance, which benefits us all in the long run.’

He also covers some really good stuff when it comes to what hides in the shadows, the hidden, or as Rumsfeld so inelegantly put it, the unknown unknowns.  He talks about when other companies have failed in the past, ‘I believe the deeper issue is that the leaders of these companies were not attuned to the fact that there were problems they could not see.  And because they weren’t aware of these blind posts, they assumed that the problems didn’t exist.  Which brings us to one of my core management beliefs: if you don’t try to uncover what is unseen and understand it’s nature, you will be ill prepared to lead.’

The stories he tells about Pixar and the merger with Disney were very well written in an introspective way.  it also showed his ability to see if these ideals he talks about could transfer to another organization.  judging by the successes Disney has had since, it’s clear they did.

The final piece I’ll cover in this review is a cool way that Pixar attacked some of their big problems.  They went to their employees and asked, how would you solve these problems?  They did this through what they called Notes Day.  They asked a series of questions to their people and facilitated the process as their people solved them.  This generated a huge amount of buy in, creativity and candor that reinforced the philosophies he talks about through the entire book.

Read it.  It’s an excellent book.

Post Navigation