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Book Reviews

Here you'll find reviews on books I've recently read. If you have a suggestion for a book you'd like me to review, please contact me.

constantRepeatability: Build Enduring Businesses for a World of Constant Change by Chris Zook and James Allen. Harvard Business Review Press, 2012.

Zook and Allen argue persuasively that "Complexity has become the silent killer of growth strategies." This complexity creeps up on organizations, and is found in many forms: an unending flow of new initiatives, complex messages that serve to confuse rather than inform employees, and complex IT systems to track everything. Their antidote to this debilitating complexity is what they term 'the great repeatable model,' which is characterized by three principles: a strong differentiated core (strategy), a set of clear non-negotiables (core values used to make trade-offs in decision making), and systems for closed loop learning (feedback and continuous improvement). The book isn't perfect; at times I felt they were stretching their theories to fit current business narratives, but overall I found the advice practical and informative.

riskRisk: The Science and Politics of Fear by Dan Gardner. Virgin Books, 2008.

I love books that have a provocative premise, and this one doesn't disappoint. Very early on Gardner declares: "We are the healthiest, wealthiest, and longest-lived people in history. And we are increasingly afraid." He spends the next three hundred pages of this insightful and revealing book dissecting that statement. Along the way we discover that our brains often lead us to miscalculate risk, how anecdotes are too often substituted for hard data in the media, why our perception of crime rarely matches reality, and many other fascinating topics. This is not a business book per se, but given the ever-increasing significance of risk management in the organizational world, executives and managers would do well to study Gardner's findings to ensure they are accurately gauging the true risks they face.

porterUnderstanding Michael Porter: The Essential Guide to Competition and Strategy by Joan Magretta. Harvard Business School Press, 2012.

As a student of strategy I've read Porter's work and it can be a daunting task. He is a scholar of the highest order and his work, while ultimately rewarding, can be challenging for the practitioner. In this book, Magretta, who enjoyed unfettered access to Porter throughout the writing process, provides a concise yet thorough synthesis of the strategy guru's principal theories, and supplies the reader with numerous examples of his ideas in action. I found myself peppering the margins with notes and am certain any organization would benefit from applying the models presented to their own strategic planning process.

leapLeap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity by Mario Morino. Venture Philanthropy Partners in partnership with McKinsey & Company, 2011.

In this lively volume, supported by numerous case studies, Morino convincingly argues his case for why nonprofit organizations must invest in Performance Management and rigorously measure outcomes. His reasons are many, varied, and always compelling, but in the end he asserts outcome measurement is a must for any nonprofit because it ultimately improves the quality of services for clients. In a refreshing twist, Morino avoids the mechanics of number crunching and analytics, and instead focuses much attention on the vital culture change necessary within most nonprofits to make this important transition to outcome measurement. Another reason to love this book, the Kindle version is free at Amazon.

quietbookQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain Crown, 2012

I found this while strolling in a bookstore and was intrigued enough by the title to buy it. Am I glad I did - it proved to be one of the most enjoyable and insightful books I've read in a long time. Cain tackles the subjects of introversion and extroversion from a multitude of fascinating perspectives: neurological, psychological, and sociological to name a few. Whether you're an introvert or a gregarious extrovert, the book provides a roadmap for understanding why you are the way you are. Of interest to business readers, she also examines how introverts and extroverts navigate the world of commerce, providing insights on brainstorming, office design (I got the idea for this month's tip from her book), and leadership among a number of captivating topics.

linchipinLinchpin: Are You Indispensable? by Seth Godin Portfolio, 2010

Like many people, I've been a fan of Seth Godin's for years, and continue to find his work relevant and often inspiring. In this book, as with his many previous bestsellers (Tribes, Purple Cow...), he writes passionately throughout and never pulls his punches. At its core, this book is about a choice we all need to make: will we follow or will we lead; becoming 'linchpins,' and indispensable. If you want to lead, you should read this book. Godin shares many stories of those who have made this choice and how they overcame fear and resistance along the way.

thewarofartThe War of Art
war of artby Steven Pressfield
Rugged Land, 2002

This little book, just 165 pages, is one of the most powerful I've ever had the privilege to read. Steven Pressfield identifies, describes, and ultimately provides the tools for overcoming one of the most insidious forces known to mankind: Resistance. If you've ever set about to create something (a special project at work, a book, a painting, a sculpture, anything!) you've undoubtedly come up against the force of resistance. It's that little voice in your head that says you're not good enough, the procrastination that leads you to thinking that at this moment sorting your socks is more important than starting that novel you'd like to write, the fear of the great unknown. But recognizing resistance is the first step in conquering it, and Pressfield provides the tools for both recognizing and combating this powerful enemy. This is a book I've read and re-read several times and would recommend to anyone pursuing creative goals, and really isn't that every one of us?

blahblahBlah Blah Blah: What To Do When Words Don't Work
by Dan Roam
Portfolio, 2011

The three main components of my job are writing, speaking, and facilitating, all of which involve a lot of words. Fortunately for me, I love words, but as Dan Roam reminds us we can sometimes use words that unintentionally obscure our true meanings, and thereby impair our ability to communicate effectively. In this practical book he instructs readers to employ "Vivid Thinking," a method of combining both the verbal and visual elements of an idea. Basically, if you can draw it (and it could be anything!), you are in a better position to share your ideas and have your audience be receptive to your message. In addition to teaching us about the power of visualizing our ideas, Roam fills his pages with interesting historical anecdotes and informative lessons on the latest brain science.


bookdisexecThe 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals
by  Chris McChesney, Sean Covey,
and Jim Huling
Free Press, 2012

Early in this fast-paced and practical book the authors cite research very similar to what I laid out at the beginning of this month's tip: the vast majority of employees aren't aware of their organization's goals and aren't held accountable for success on those goals. They pin a good portion of the blame for this lamentable state on what they term 'the whirlwind,' that is, the energy necessary just to keep the operation going on a day-to-day basis. To overcome the vortex of the whirlwind and execute strategy, a four-step process is outlined: Develop a wildly important goal (WIG), create leading measures that will help you achieve the WIG, build a compelling Scoreboard, and create a cadence of accountability through regular meetings (WIG sessions). Much of their work is consistent with the Balanced Scorecard and while reading I found myself nodding in recognition as the authors detailed some of the challenges organizations face in implementing this seemingly simple program. If your team lacks the ability to focus on a vital goal, the methods described here may help you get un-stuck and back on the path to execution.

einstienEinstein: His Life and Universe
by Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster, 2007

If you stroll around your building for just a few minutes, peeking into the offices
and cubicles of co-workers, I'm willing to bet you'll find at least one (but probably more) references to Albert Einstein. Scientist, iconoclast, and cultural icon, Einstein's sage words and artfully disheveled image can be found everywhere from college campus walls to virtually any PowerPoint presentation. Given his widespread influence it's only appropriate we know more about the man behind the considerable legend. Isaacson, in this comprehensive and stirring volume, provides a rich portrait of Einstein in all facets of his life and work: scholarship, capitalism, and geopolitical relations to name just a few. You're sure to find many new quotes to sprinkle in your next presentation as well as discovering the essence of Einstein's humanity.

waitparnoyWait: The Art and Science of Delay
by Frank Partnoy
PublicAffairs, 2012

One of the Amazon reviews of this book called it "Gladwell-esque," and I would completely agree. If you enjoy the noetic excursions of Malcolm Gladwell, you're sure to appreciate the writing and many insights Partnoy offers in this entertaining volume. His principal insight, one that runs counter-intuitive to many of us, is that we often rush to judgment, and should instead delay making decisions by as long a period as possible. For professional tennis players that wait translates to milliseconds, while for business professionals it could be days or weeks. Basically if we have a minute to make a decision, wait 59 seconds. If we have an hour, wait 59 minutes. Partnoy, again like Gladwell and others, mines an impressive lode of studies, surveys and interviews to present his case for delaying our reactions.

crucialCrucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High
by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler
McGraw-Hill, 2011 (2nd Edition)

The authors define a 'crucial conversation' as: A discussion between two or more people where (1) stakes are high, (2) opinions vary, and (3) emotions run strong. As they point out, a conversation can become crucial very quickly, as any parent would know, and most of us are ill-equipped to deal with the conversation and its potential ramifications.  The book is packed with practical tips and suggestions for improving your communication skills, whether at home or at work. Among my favorites, and there were many to choose from, were four questions they suggest we ask ourselves when stepping up to a crucial conversation: What do I really want for myself? What do I really want for the other party? What do I really want for the relationship? And, How would I behave if I really wanted these results? Those simple questions have helped me immensely over the years in my communications with clients, colleagues, and my family.

goodGood Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters
by Richard Rumelt
Crown Business, 2011

I love an author who shares his basic premise with me at the outset of the book, so that I know what to expect in the coming pages, and can judge the text accordingly. Rumelt does not disappoint on that count.

Very early on he says, "A good strategy honestly acknowledges the challenges being faced and provides an approach to overcoming them...unfortunately good strategy is the exception, not the rule." A simple, yet provocative and intriguing statement that made me anxious to learn more. From there Rumelt goes on to enumerate what makes for a good strategy, a concept he labels "The Kernel" which is comprised of a diagnosis of key challenges facing the organization, a guiding policy to overcome the challenges, and coherent actions designed to carry out the guiding policy.

In a very entertaining, and in my experience accurate, section that follows he then outlines how to detect a "bad" strategy. The signs include "fluff," a form of gibberish masquerading as strategic concepts, mistaking goals for strategy (he has some powerful examples here, including U.S. national security), and poor strategic objectives.

The book deteriorates at this point, and unfortunately, does not regain its momentum. In the numerous chapters that follow Rumelt shares a great number of additional concepts but fails to link them in any kind of coherent framework, or demonstrate how they link to his core concept of the Kernel. An overarching example, or guiding framework would have aided his cause immensely.

brainatworkYour Brain at Work
by David Rock
Harper Collins, 2009

Over the past few years a number of books on the emerging brain science and its applications for daily living have been released. This is by far my favorite. Rock strikes the delicate balance of arcane theory and practical application beautifully by framing his key concepts in the form of a story. The book tracks an overly busy couple, Paul and Emily, and through vignettes we discover how brain functions influence their day-to-day decisions and interactions. Rock underpins the narrative with the latest research, but never in a dry and academic way. He uses anecdotes and metaphors liberally, so even the neuro neophyte (among whose ranks I count myself) can remain happily engaged in the text without becoming bogged down in scientific jargon. Since reading the book I've found myself returning to its core tenets frequently, and find it comforting to have a rational explanation for what I'm feeling and how I'm acting at any given moment.

switchSwitch: How to Change When Change is Hard
by Chip Heath & Dan Heath
Crown Business, 2010

Switch is a very compelling offering from the Heath brothers, who brought us another of my favorites "Made to Stick." In this volume the authors share a wide range of quirky and interesting stories to illustrate their core premise that in order to create meaningful and lasting change you must embrace both reason and emotion. To help us on that path, they use the analogy of an elephant and its rider. The rider represents our logical and rational selves, while the elephant represents our emotional side. With that distinction clearly outlined, they go on to share convincing case studies, amusing anecdotes, and research from sociology, neurology, and psychology that can help any person (yes, much of this applies to our personal lives) or organization create real change.