What Three Months of Reading Business Books Taught Me

Over the last few months I read a bunch of books, mostly business-related. Here’s the business-y ones:

So what did I learn? Three months of reading business books taught me that I love reading books by white men.

Wait, what?

I like to think I’m sensitive to issues of race and gender. I need to double check this.

Let’s run through my list. The authors are: white, white, white, white, white, white, white. Shit.

Let’s look at gender. They’re written by a man, edited by a woman, written by a man with a female co-author, written by men, men, men, and a man. Shit.

Well, I didn’t exclusively review business books. What about the other things? Two books and a podcast. Three male authors. Two white. The books I had noted to read in the future? Written by white dudes.

Shit.

I made an all male panel.

Maybe it’s “the system’s” fault. The publishing industry favors men and discriminates against women. The publishing industry is overwhelmingly white.

Sure, there are systemic issues, but it’s easy to ignore race and gender as a white man. I can peruse the bookstore, only pick up books by Adam, Ed, Don, Jake, Stephen, and Chris and pretend like this is normal.

Simply put, I did not value diversity when deciding what to read next. Sure I can rationalize it: “Oh, I didn’t put much thought into what I was reading” or “I just picked what looked interesting” But I didn’t pick these books at random. If it had been random, I would’ve had more non-white authors and read more books written by women.

If I had tried for one minute, I could have found books written by people other than white dudes just as easily:

What did three months of reading mostly business books teach me?

Race and gender are always there, whether I pay attention or not. If you don’t value diversity, you’ll never get any.

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

J.J. Abrams. Sir Richard Branson. Arianna Huffinton. Sheryl Sandberg. Peter Thiel. The blurbs on the back cover of Originals are impressive. The list of awards the book has won is impressive. Adam Grant’s research is impressive. But for a book on originality and creativity, Originals is shockingly formulaic and derivative. If you’re dying to get an overview of management psychology, read this book. Otherwise, the irony of the author constantly quoting other people’s work on how to be an original thinker will drive you crazy. The formulaic, academic structure compounds this bland writing style to create a book on originality that is lacking in creative inspiration.

The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists. (7)

The book covers a wide breadth of examples. Too wide. There’s something that didn’t quite sit well when Grant moved from Skype on one page to youth activists seeking to use nonviolence to overthrow a dictator on another. It’s jarring to jump from business case study to autobiography to psychological study to real world experience. And the way they’re all jumbled up makes it seem as Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement are just another case study you read about in business school.

I want to debunk the myth that originality requires extreme risk taking and persuade you that originals are actually far more ordinary than we realize. In every domain, from business and politics to science and art, the people who move the world forward with original ideas are rarely paragons of conviction and commitment. As they question traditions and challenge the status quoe, they may appear bold and self-assured on the surface. But when you peel back the layers, the truth is that they, too, grapple with fear, ambivalence, and self-doubt. (16)

I know I’m being harsh, perhaps even overly harsh. The book isn’t bad. But it could have been so much better. The idea is stellar. The execution is average. There is solid advice in the book. Go to a bookstore read the “actions for impact” section. It’s an appendix that summarizes the main points in list format and it’ll tell you everything you need to know from the book. I was left with a bunch of interesting tidbits, but to dive into the fascinating stories I’ll need to look up the original research that this book only samples.

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World


Next time: What Three Months of Reading Business Books Taught Me

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Part history, part memoir, part management guide, Creativity Inc. is an engrossing read filled with behind the scenes tours and sage advice. The authors (Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace) mix detailed examples of Ed Catmull’s management philosophy with background on Catmull’s path to Pixar, Pixar’s development, and their transition to working within Disney.

This book isn’t just for Pixar people, entertainment executives, or animators. It is for anyone who wants to work in an environment that fosters creativity and problem solving. My belief is that good leadership can help creative people stay on the path to excellence no matter what business they’re in. (xv)

So perhaps it’s unsurprising that the theme of art and technology’s beneficial relationship spoke to me. I work at a technology-focused nonprofit while my background is in history, the humanities, and the liberal arts. The authors frame this theme by talking about Catmull’s childhood admiration of Walt Disney and Albert Einstein. While his academic career followed a more Einstein-ian path (working on cutting-edge computer science work at the University of Utah), his childhood love of Disney ultimately led his pursuits back to film-making and storytelling. As much as Pixar created and worked with state-of-the-art technology, most of the book’s anecdotes center on storytelling and the difficulty of (and importance of) getting the story right.

This was my first encounter with a phenomenon I would notice again and again, throughout my career: For all the care you put into artistry, visual polish frequently doesn’t matter if you are getting the story right. (37)

The Authors give great detail behind the creative process of taking a film from idea to theater, highlighting the importance of revision and the prevalence of failure in creative ventures. His emphasis on rigorously testing ideas and giving candid criticism is certainly something I loved about working in an academic environment and his insistence that all films suck in their early stages was a familiar sentiment about creating something good. However, the amount of revision that went into writing a film was still astounding. They completely rewrote Up several times. Nearly the entire content of the film’s story had changed. Even then, the emotion underlying the story not only remained, but was articulated in a much truer fashion.

The film itself — not the filmmaker — is under the microscope. This principle eludes most people, but it is critical: You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged. To set up a healthy feedback system, you must remove power dynamics from the equation — you must enable yourself, in other words, to focus on the problem, not the person. (94)

Just as the importance of the story is central to Pixar’s success, the importance of organizational chemistry is behind Catmull’s success as a manager. It’s not just about assembling plenty of smart people, but having them work together in a way that is productive and supportive. After they were able to create the first computer animated feature film (Toy Story), Catmull made it his professional ambition (obsession?) to sustain Pixar’s creative culture. He quickly found that an organization’s need to communicate openly and candidly was vital to its success.

That they liked so much of what they were doing allowed them to put up with the parts of the job they came to resent. This was a revelation to me: The good stuff was hiding the bad stuff. I realized that this was something I needed to look out for: When downsides coexist with upsides, as they often do, people are reluctant to explore what’s bugging them, for fear of being labeled complainer…Being on the lookout for problems, I realized, was not the same as seeing problems. (62)

The way the book connects so many important themes (art and technology, candid communication, the creative process – to name my favorites) while engrossing the reader in the world of Pixar and the life of Ed Catmull is a testament to the authors and their storytelling. A truly fascinating read, Creativity Inc. is difficult to summarize succinctly, but I can assure you, that it is well-worth your time to read it.

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Next time: How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking

Brian is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com

Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in just Five Days

I was excited to read Sprint. It promised “How to solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days.” It wasn’t a big problem, but we recently got a big slobbery dog who makes us change the water frequently. I wanted a better solution on how to save some of this water. It might not be a big problem but I thought I’d use this as a way to follow along.

My assumptions were wrong.

Really wrong.

However, the book still turned out to be good.

Really good.

The target isn’t a lone inventor (though anyone can learn from their principles). Jake Knapp and his co-authors run sprints for startups at Google Ventures and Sprint is their how-to manual, written after dozens and dozens of efforts to improve products and ideas. They work with companies to solve problems and test big-idea solutions with potential for big paydays, without devoting too much time or money. It’s never a flawless success, but partial successes and interesting failures move projects faster than general meetings and group brainstorms. The ideal sprint is run with a small group of people thinking how to make something better, rather than going from idea to invention.

The sprint is great for testing risky solutions that might have a huge payoff. (156)

Their experience shines through as they masterfully weave together real life examples (both good and bad), step-by-step instructions on how to run your own sprint, and explanations of the processes and theories behind why they do what they do. The writing and design is superb too. Handmade-looking graphics play into the fun atmosphere as well as provide clear insight into how the sprint process works. Similarly, they draw on popular culture to communicate key ideas (examples including Oceans 11, Lord of the Rings, and Apollo 13. Their playful tone mixes well with their expert advice.

In a sprint, time is precious, and we can’t afford distrations in the room. So we have a simple rule: No laptops, phones, or iPads allowed. No virtual-reality headsets. If you’re reading this book in the future, no holograms. If you’re reading it in the past, no Game Boys. (41)

Engaging writing aside, the book functions as a reference for anyone who is or may need to quickly decide the fate of a major project. They break the book down by each day you’re in the sprint (Monday-Friday) with tabs printed on the edge of each page according to the day. They also include facilitator notes (so that you can run your own sprint), supplies you’ll want to buy before running your own sprint, and checklists to keep you on track when you’re running a sprint.

The format of a sprint is deceptively simple:

    Monday: Map your process and target a problem
    Tuesday: Sketch ideas
    Wednesday: Decide on your solution
    Thursday: Build a realistic prototype
    Friday: Test the prototype with potential users

The five day format is part of a broader obsession on doing just enough to maximize return without devoting more time, money, or effort than necessary. Five days, not more or less. Five test users, not more or less. They discuss their “prototype mindset” when talking about how they build something real enough to keep the illusion of the product but no more (to prevent getting too attached to the product or wasting money/time/effort). But the “prototype mindset” underlies the entire sprint process—they need to test a solution in a way real enough to see if it’ll work, but fit it into a week so you don’t get bogged down in the process.

It’s what work should be about – not wasting time in endless meetings, then seeking camaraderie in a team-building event at a bowling alley – but working together to build something that matters to real people. This is the best use of your time. This is a sprint. (225)

Focused preparation, decisive decision-making, the best of individual and group work, fast feedback from people who represent your users (and not simply relying on your expertise). These are the ideas behind running a sprint and whether or not you’ll be running a sprint soon, their philosophies can certainly be adapted to your everyday situations.

Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days

Next time: Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World

Brian is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com

Fish!

We were in line at Half-Priced Books and I couldn’t find the generically titled “Fish” on my phone at the library. We’ll call it an impulse buy. Only two dollars and it was Wall Street Journal Business Bestseller. A one-day read, Fish! was a cheesy but interesting read – worth the two dollars for a corporate mixture of mindfulness and customer service.

The book is a “parable” that demonstrates the authors’ training philosophy based on the Pike Place Fish Market. The fictional story is cheesy, but the format made the book quite digestible. It recounts the four principles behind the success of the “world famous” Seattle fish market.

  1. Choose Your Attitude
  2. Play
  3. Make Their Day
  4. Be Present

Mindfulness is all about being present and choosing how you act when faced with life, not simply reacting is a core skill. The authors use similar language in applying the idea of Choosing Your Attitude:

There is always a choice about the way you do your work, even if there is not a choice about the work itself (37)

I hadn’t directly considered the importance of the “Play” and “Make Their Day” principles before, but I have a predisposition to Dad Jokes so I’ve inadvertently utilized these ideas at work. My favorite was asking kids checking out a BB-8 robot if they would use it to help the Resistance or the First Order. It occasionally went over the kids head, but would produce a sly smile if they got it.

They engage people and welcome them to join in the fun. Customers like being a part of the show, and memories are created here which will bring smiles and make good stories for a long time afterward. Involving others and working to “make their day” directs attention toward the customer (66).

Fish! was an easy read, and a good reminder of both mindfulness and customer service principles. Best of all, it gives me free reign to use more Dad Jokes at work.

Fish: A Proven Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results


Next time: Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days

Brian is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com