Book Reviews

Book Review: #GIRLBOSS

Every once in a while a book comes along that speaks to me on all levels: business, personal, and — dare I say it? — spiritual. Kelly Cutrone’s If You Have to Cry, Go Outside was one such book. Nasty Gal’s Sophia Amoruso’s #GIRLBOSS is another.

In some ways, Cutrone’s and Amoruso’s books are similar.

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Both women were fashion outsiders turned insiders: one is a fashion publicist who runs her own firm and the other runs the online retail business she created. Both women use the “I’m in charge”, hands-on-hip stance on their book covers and they both seem to favour the rocker-chic look. Neither woman has a typical business background and became successful through intelligence, crazy hard work, good instincts and moxy. Cutrone was born in 1965. Amoruso was born in 1984. I’m a 70s baby, wedged neatly between the two. I read Cutrone as a wiser, older sister, letting you in on the secrets of life. Amoruso – pre-kids, pre-wrinkles – is the wild-child baby cousin who is absolutely fearless. Her book reads like a giant kick in the rear, which we all need from time to time.

I still read physical books and I dog-ear the pages I like. This is what the book looked like when I finished reading it and, yes, it was that good.

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Here were some of the standout quotes for me.

There are secret opportunities hidden inside every failure.

How true is this? I’m not a big fan of the fail fast movement because, except in areas like industrial design where you need to throw a lot of things against the wall to see what sticks, failure should not be too easily embraced. But I do believe that failures can often be salvaged and always present learning opportunities. The key thing is to learn from one’s failures and not repeat them.

Money looks better in the bank than on your feet.

Now isn’t this a surprising statement from an online retail queen? But it’s true, in business and in life. Having money gives you choices. By building up a war chest of cash in the bank and taking on no debt in Nasty Gal’s early days, Amoruso had a lot of flexibility. She was able to choose her investors, choose the timing of investments, and grow the company as she wished. So many companies (and people!) are eager to find investors, take out loans, or go public based on the lure of Other People’s Money. As a former banker, I can tell you that Other People’s Money comes along with other people’s terms and conditions and you do not want a less-than-ideal covenant structure or demands from shareholders limiting what you can do. When you own the bus, you get to drive the bus.

Each time you make a good decision or do something nice or take care of yourself; each time you show up to work and work hard and do your best at everything you can do, you’re planting seeds for a life that you can only hope grows beyond your wildest dreams.

Amoruso believes in magical thinking. No, she does not think that by putting a picture of a car on your wall, the car will manifest itself, but she does think that with a vision, a positive attitude and — here’s the key — lots of hard work, you can make magic happen in your own life and business. I tend to agree.

In business, a disproportionate amount of importance is placed on the ability to network.

Yes! Like Amoruso, and about 50% of the population, I am an introvert. (The common notion is that only 30% of the population are introverts as this statistic seems truer than the reality, based on our more quiet nature!) Extroverts have shinier skills such as the ability to build a large network and create a pipeline of potential clients. Also, they tend to talk about their accomplishments. But, as Amoruso points out, introverts have valuable skills as well and a successful organization makes sure they are not overlooked. Introverts are often great at deepening client relationships and building loyalty. As Amoruso discusses in the book, both types of people are needed for an organization to succeed.

You can be entrepreneurial without being an entrepreneur.

Absolutely. If you treat the company for which you work as your own company and are willing to work hard, safeguard the assets, and take calculated risks, you’ll do better and have more fun on the job.

What no one seems to talk about is that business is creative.

Amoruso argues that any job can be creative. You can use creativity to arrive at a new algorithm for a software program. You can use creativity to choose the auditing company that will best support your business’s stage of growth. You can be creative in choosing how to finance your company. Don’t let the designers and marketing people have all the fun.

If you are looking for a fresh voice giving out some good advice for business and life, Sophia Amoruso’s #GIRLBOSS is well worth your time.

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Leaders Eat Last

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I adore the movie The Little Foxes with Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall. It’s based on one of those lovely 1930s morality plays about the dangers of unbridled greed. Its title comes from the Bible’s Song of Solomon:

Catch for us the foxes,
the little foxes
that ruin the vineyards,
our vineyards that are in bloom.

The general interpretation of this passage is that anyone who does not allow others to flourish will be stopped. In the film, Bette Davis’s character, Regina, and her brothers plan to build a cotton mill that threatens the well-being of their town but will make the family very rich. Regina conspires against her husband and brothers and even her own daughter in order to seize a leadership position within the family. One of the most powerful scenes is when Marshall’s character, Horace, tells his ruthless wife what he thinks about her and her brothers’ relentless attempts to make money at any cost:

I’m sick of your brothers and their dirty tricks to make a dime. There must be better ways of getting rich than building sweatshops and pounding the bones of the town to make dividends for you to spend. You’ll wreck this town, you and your brothers. You’ll wreck this country, you and your kind, if they let you.

His speech reminded me of Simon Sinek’s terrific book, Leaders Eat Last.  After hearing Sinek speak at Leadercast in May, I bought the audiobook and listened to it twice in the car. I then bought a print copy of the book in order to digest the detail. So, yes, I liked it a lot.

Leaders Eat Last takes its title from the US military, where the highest ranking officers traditionally eat last as a way to show their people that a good leader puts the needs of his or her people first. The idea seems refreshing at a time when stories of corporate greed and CEOs stopping at nothing to preserve their own bonus pools abound. Certainly, today’s culture of relentless shareholder value creation has led to a sense that business is “building sweatshops and pounding the bones of the town to make dividends.” The news is filled with stories of dead peasant policies and regular layoffs and elaborate tax avoidance strategies and other examples of corporate leaders putting neither their people nor their broader stakeholders first. When Burger King and Tim Horton’s recently announced their partnership, the media focused on the deal as an aggressive tax play rather than as a strategic alliance (I like to call the tax angle the Double Double Irish with a Dutchie sandwich. Har har.) Perhaps the thought of marrying two companies for reasons other than a short-term goosing of the stock seems unfathomable even though there are potentially a lot of other reasons why the partnership might make sense.

Sinek blames this climate of cynicism on the fact that the social contract between leaders and their followers has been broken. Leaders are supposed to protect their followers and the need for such people is wired into our very physiology as part of our instinct to survive:

We … are not like crocodiles. Though we may share the primitive, reptilian portion of our brain with them, our brain continued to grow beyond its reptile roots. We are anything but loners. The addition of the mammalian layer of our brain helped us to become highly functioning social animals. And for good reason. If we weren’t adapted to live in tribes and cooperate, we would have died off long ago. We don’t have thick scaly skin to make us less vulnerable to attack. We don’t have rows of sharp teeth like a great white shark, able to keep chomping even after we lose a few. We’re just not strong enough to survive alone, let alone thrive.

In order to figure out how to best distribute food, we evolved into hierarchical animals and elected the strongest members of the group to act as leaders who could allocate the resources in a way that best ensured the survival of the group:

Those who work hardest to help others succeed will be seen by the group as the leader or the “alpha” of the group. And being the alpha – the strong, supportive one of the group, the one willing to sacrifice time and energy so that others may gain – is a prerequisite for leadership.

Based on his understanding of anthropology, Sinek has crafted this definition of leadership:

Leaders are the ones who run headfirst into the unknown. They rush towards the danger. They put their own interests aside to protect us or to pull us into the future. Leaders would sooner sacrifice what is theirs to save what is ours. And they would never sacrifice what is ours to save what is theirs. This is what it means to be a leader. It means they choose to go first into danger, headfirst towards the unknown. And when we feel sure they will keep us safe, we will march behind them and work tirelessly to see their visions come to life and proudly call ourselves their followers.

There are not many leaders in the current corporate world who fit this description and, thus, it’s not terribly surprising that employees do not feel particularly motivated. As Sinek points out in the book, “According to the Deloitte Shift Index, 80 percent of people are dissatisfied with their jobs.” Although their dissatisfaction won’t necessarily drive them to quit, they certainly won’t be bringing their best selves to the job. According to the G20 Innovation Report, the US is down 7% in domestic innovation from 2003 to 2012: people who are dissatisfied do not bring their energy or ideas to work.

Sinek provides a powerful explanation of why we feel demotivated when we do not have leaders who care for us. He explores the role of  human physiology in connecting us to the leaders of our current tribes: namely our families, communities and the workplace.

Almost all the the systems in our bodies have evolved to help us find food, stay alive and advance the species. However, for a lot of the world, and certainly throughout the developed world, finding food and avoiding danger no longer preoccupy our days. We no longer hunt and gather, at least not in the caveman sense. In our modern world, advancing our careers and trying to find happiness and fulfillment are the definition of success. But the systems inside us that guide our behaviour and decisions still function as they did tens of thousands of years ago. Our primitive minds still perceive the world around us in terms of threats to our well-being or opportunities to find safety. If we understand how these systems work, we are better equipped to reach our goals. At the same time, the groups in which we work are better able to succeed and thrive as well.

When we do not feel protected by our leaders, we are hardwired to feel anxious and distrustful. Every time a corporation announces a round of layoffs to increase their quarterly numbers, it quite literally makes us feel sick. Sinek briefly discusses what we have learned about human behaviour from the fields of neuroscience and anthropology (also described in books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and Andrew O’Keeffe’s Hardwired Humans). He then spends considerable time describing the powerful effect of hormones such as oxytocin, serotonin, endorphins, cortisol and dopamine:

Mother Nature figured out a lot earlier than our bosses…to use an incentive system to condition us to do certain things to achieve desired results. In the case of our biology, our bodies employ a system of positive and negative feelings – happiness, pride, joy or anxiety, for example – to promote behaviours that will enhance our ability to get things done and to cooperate. Whereas our bosses might reward us with an end-of-year bonus, our bodies reward us  for working to keep ourselves and those around us alive and looked after with chemicals that make us feel good.

Good leaders understands how people tick and know that when employees feels secure and valued, they are much more effective than when they feel threatened. A good leader provides opportunities for employees to release feel-good chemicals by giving out praise, making people feel part of a team, building a sense of pride in one’s work, and helping people complete assigned tasks. A good leader also understands how to  minimize the release of negative hormones that flood the nervous system when people feel unsafe. This can be accomplished through having open communications, providing a sense of job security, and helping people navigate change.

Sinek believes that building a culture where employees feel safe and valued is critical to a company’s long-term success. Unfortunately, this can be hard to do when a CEO feels pressured by shareholders to continually trim costs by firing staff, decreasing levels of customer service, and making people do more with less in order to increase profits. And when executive compensation plans reward executives for putting the people they are meant to protect in harm’s way, the leader is no longer fulfilling his anthropological purpose:

When cultural standards shift from character,values or beliefs to performance, numbers and other impersonal dopamine-driven measurements, our behaviour-driving chemicals fall out of balance and our will to trust and cooperate dilutes…. We lose our sense of history, of responsibility to the past and shared tradition. We care less about belonging. In this kind of weak culture, we veer away from doing “the right thing” in favor of doing “the thing that’s right for me.

Sinek is an excellent storyteller and whether he is telling the story of military hero Johnny Bravo or Bob Chapman of Barry Wehmiller or the culture at 3M, he shows us clearly what good leadership looks like. More importantly, he shows us how effective it is at achieving long-term results. Sinek’s belief is that “capitalism actually does better when when we work as we were designed – when we have a chance to fulfill our very human obligations.” Sinek knows that the key to strong leadership lies not in understanding management theory – Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Ghandi, and Martin Luther King Jr. all lacked an MBA –  but rather in understanding human behaviour. Great leaders have a deep understanding of the social code between leaders and the led. They understand what followers expect of them and uphold their end of the bargain.

At the end of The Little Foxes (mild spoiler ahead), Bette Davis’s character gets her way. She bests her husband and her brothers and will likely become a very wealthy women. But she is left all alone, the punishment for the alpha who has been blessed with many gifts but does not protect those who rely on her. She is expelled from the tribe and ends up the leader of nobody: according to Sinek, an anthropologically fitting end.

 

 

 

Book Review: Think Like a Freak.

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I loved this book. No, scratch that. I LOVED this book. Authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner explore how the iconoclastic approach to data revealed in Freakonomics can improve the way we think. As they write, “This book steps out of the shadows and tries to offer some advice that may occasionally be useful, whether you are interested in minor lifehacks or major global reforms.” I have to admit that I became biased in favour of this book when I saw the early reference to Philip Tetlock, who I have loved ever since his piece, Why Foxes Are Better Forecasters Than Hedgehogs (with apologies to the Publisher of this fine newspaper, of course…) But I will try to write an open-minded review.

Before researching this book, the authors naturally saw the world through the rational lenses of economics and statistics and were curious to find out why so many decisions seem illogical. The books starts by reviewing the thinking process of a soccer player who is about to make a critical penalty kick in the championship game of the World Cup. The authors turn to the data about penalty kicks to see where the player should direct the ball to maximize his chance of success. They then look at where he is most likely to aim the ball. “While a penalty kick aimed at the centre of the goal is significantly more likely to succeed, only 17% of kicks are aimed there. Why so few?”

The authors realize that the decision cannot be made based on statistics alone as the rational side of the brain is forced to contend with the emotional side. This is not, of course, new information. Back in about 370 BC, Plato was writing about the tug between the intellect and the heart. More recently, Jonathan Haidt wrote about the struggle between the rider (the rational brain) and the elephant (the emotional brain) in The Happiness Hypothesis. What makes Think Like a Freak so good is that the authors breathe life into this oft-explored slice of neuroscience through the art of storytelling, like the example about the soccer game. True, kicking a ball dead centre towards the goalie is statistically more likely to result in a goal. But if the goalie does manage to stop the ball kicked right to him, the kicker looks like a bit of an idiot (“Why’d you kick it righ’ to ‘im?” the hooligans in the stands will shout.) As the authors write, “Aiming towards the centre has a better chance of success, but aiming towards the corner is less risky to his own reputation.” And, as they go on to describe, humans (and, in our experience, animals) are rather more interested in “protecting our own reputation rather than promoting the collective good” in spite of claiming otherwise.  Therefore, most goalies take the riskier corner kick that is less likely to be successful but has the tried-my-very-best optics for the crowd.

In order to think like a Freak, the authors say that we need to be aware of, and overcome, some of the general biases that mess with our ability to think well. None of these ideas are original (I discuss a number of these issues in my soon-to-be-released book, Engage the Fox) but the authors’ gift resides in their ability to tell a memorable story. Instead of boring the reader silly with talk of confirmation biases and herd mentality and the gap between revealed and declared preferences, they walk us through memorable examples such as how the Smile Train charity raises funds by not asking for money, why Zappos offers new employees $2000 to quit, and why rocker David Lee Roth insists on a candy bowl containing no brown M&Ms.

This book will appeal to the business reader (our favourite line is “just because you are at the office is no reason to stop thinking”) and any reader interested in improving the way they think. Levitt and Dubner are not afraid to make bold suggestions such as why one should regularly say “I don’t know” and the benefits of being a quitter. They describe why it’s good to act like a kid as “there is no correlation between appearing to be serious  and actually being good at what you do. In fact, an argument can be made that the opposite is true.” Phew! That observation alone is worth the price of the book. The authors find wisdom in the most interesting places, such as studying why kids are better at seeing through magic tricks than adults: “by seeing things  from a literally new angle, you can sometimes gain an edge in solving a problem.”

One of the most powerful sections in the book covers the art of persuading someone to change his or her mind. The authors are not optimistic: “As hard as it is to think creatively about problems and come up with solutions…it is even harder to persuade people who do not wish to be persuaded.” They dissect a $1 billion anti-drug campaign that not only did not turn people off drugs, but possibly made drug use appear more appealing. They then outline the most useful strategies for getting others to change their opinions (hint: don’t start campaigning with the so-called smartest guys in the room, but not for the reason you think.) In keeping with their Freak perspective, they show how pointing out the flaws in your own arguments is one of the most effective ways to convince people you are right.

Not surprisingly, the authors find that the most effective way to change someone’s mind is to tell them a compelling story. And this is, of course, the heart of the book’s success. All three of the books in the Freakonomics series sing because memorable stories illustrate potent theories. At the end of this book, the authors, firmly embracing the idea that it’s OK to quit, threaten that this is their last book in this series. I hope that this is not, in fact, the case. The authors succeed in bringing thinking to life which, as a fox-like thinker, is something I take quite seriously. Hopefully the early success of this book will convince the authors to do more work in the field.

 

 

 

 

 

Lessons from The Lego Movie

The LEGO Movie is a delight for kids but it is equally delightful for adults (unless you like a lot of screaming in the background; try to see it in one of those 18+ mini-theatres where they show opera simulcasts and serve beer at your seat.) For all of the post-modernists in the room, it’s delightfully meta and highly ironic (an anti-business movie produced by a US$4 billion toy company – snort.) The script is tight, the voice acting is great, and there are lots of pop culture references spanning the last three decades. It’s good fun.

The movie also offers a number of lessons for business leaders about leadership, teamwork, and the important balance between vision and execution. ** Mild spoilers ahead if you are serious about watching the film for plot. **

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The movie’s protagonist is Emmett, the prototypical Everyhuman. Emmett is driven by rules and routine, literally following his manual, Instructions to Fit In, Have Everybody Like You, and Always be Happy. He is indistinguishable from anyone else: he goes to work (he is, of course, a builder), watches the water cooler favourite “Where are My Pants?” on TV, and sings along to the number one song, Everything is Awesome. I haven’t seen that much cheerful uniformity since I interviewed for a job with a packaged goods company after completing my business degree.

One day at work, he accidently finds the Piece of Resistance that, according to a prophesy, marks him as The Special: “the most talented, most interesting, most special person in the universe.” He is the one who is to lead a group of Master Builders to overthrow Lord Business, who has threatened to destroy the world. The Master Builders are charged with coming up with creative solutions to life’s problems. The problem is, Emmett’s life has been so prescribed that he not use to thinking. Note this exchange with Master Builder Vetruvius and Lucy.

Vitruvius: We are entering your mind.

Emmet: What?

Lucy: I don’t think he’s ever had an original thought.

Emmet: That’s not true. Introducing, the double decker couch so everyone could watch TV together and be buddies.

Lucy: That’s literally the dumbest thing I ever heard.

Vitruvius: Let me handle this. That idea is just the worst.

The Master Builders “including but not limited to Superman, Wonder Woman, The Mermaid, Green Ninja, 1980s Something Space Guy, Michelangelo [the painter], Michelangelo [the teenage mutant ninja turtle], and the 2002 NBA All-Stars” are life’s visionaries. They are creative, natural leaders to whom people look in times of rapid change. I fully expected that Emmett would rise to the role and become some sort of LEGO-building Steve Jobs. But that’s where the movie surprises and is closer to business reality. While the Master Builders are smart and creative, they are not able to outwit Lord Business who seems one step ahead of them in anticipating their weapons. The group is in despair as they think that Emmett lacks the building savvy to save them. Emmett, however, is not to be underestimated.

Emmett: What does he [Lord Business] never expect Master Builders to do? … Follow instructions. You are so creative…but you don’t work together.

How often in business does a visionary swoop in to save the day, overlooking the work of long-term employees who have been living and breathing the company’s issues for years. So sure are visionaries in their own abilities, that sometimes they will not partner with other senior members of the team. Good leaders and managers bring about results through people. And a leader needs other people to execute her ideas, no matter how brilliant she might be. Unless people are engaged and committed to the plan (it helps if they are part of the planning process) they will not be excited about bringing any ideas to fruition. While cool ideas might get the media excited, a more effective business strategy might be to have highly engaged workers focus on something a little more tried and true. (1980s spaceship anyone?)

Book Review: Daniel Pink’s Drive

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I read Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,  after hearing author Daniel Pink speak. He’s a terrific speaker; if you get a chance to hear him, do. In his book, Pink looks at how companies motivate their people and how people are best motivated. Pink helpfully boils his book’s content down to a tweetable precis: “Carrots and sticks are so last century. Drive says for 21st century work, we need to upgrade to autonomy, mastery & purpose.”

According to Pink, there are two types of motivation: Type X, which is fueled by extrinsic rewards such as a bonus or stock options, and Type I, which is fueled by intrinsic desires: “the inherent satisfaction of the activity itself.”  While Pink feels that today’s business environment requires the type of engagement that can only be achieved through intrinsic motivation, he makes it clear that the findings in the book are by no means new. In 1949, behavioural psychologist Henry Harlow observed monkeys doing puzzles, not because they received a reward, but because the completion of the puzzle seemed to be inherently satisfying. Just as Victor Vroom, Lyman Porter, and Edward Lawler observed in their Expectancy Theory models,  people are motivated to behave in a certain way based on expected outcomes: intrinsic outcomes being particularly powerful.  As Napoleon observed, “There are two levers for moving men — interest and fear.” Stock options, extended vacation time, and company cars are not as effective as providing the means for genuinely satisfying work.

Where Pink (a former speechwriter for Al Gore, among other things) excels is in bringing some fairly dry managerial and behavioural theory to life. He frequently references the motivational practises of companies like Google, Zappos, and Netflix to make his point. He is a very entertaining writer as well, offering up such gems as: “We know that human beings are not merely smaller, slower, better-smelling donkeys trudging after that day’s carrot.” (Sorry to any donkey readers for the human prejudice!) His writing style is not unlike that of Malcolm Gladwell, which makes for an interesting read.

One of the key takeaways from the book is the importance of creating a purpose for your organization that is greater than simply increasing shareholder value. As it turns out, the goal of profit maximization gets very few people out of bed in the morning, even if there is a nice bonus to be had at the end of the year: “the richest experiences in our lives aren’t when we’re clamoring for validation from others, but when we’re listening to our own voice — doing something that matters, doing it well, and doing it in the service of a cause larger than ourselves.”

Pink discusses the rise of “for-benefit” organizations such as Mozilla (the creator of the Firefox browser) and talks about “purpose maximization” rather than a focus strictly on profit. Shared purpose can bring together a group of employees in a way that no forced off-site team-building exercise can. As Pink notes, “Real challenges are far more invigorating than controlled leisure.” Pink writes: “A considerable body of research shows that individuals are far more engaged when they’re pursuing goals they had a hand in creating. So bring employees into the process. They could surprise you: People often have higher aims than the ones you assign them.” Purpose-driven work has the positive side-effect of creating happy and engaged employees who naturally take care of the bottom line. 

Not all organizations will embrace automatically the idea of giving their employees autonomy, or focusing on anything other than the third-quarter earnings call. Pink writes that one has to be strategic — dare we say fox-like? — in order to introduce some of these concepts into the workplace. When dealing with an old-school organization, it pays to be “strategically subversive.”  Pink describes how most of the innovative practices described in the book began the same way:

One smart person couldn’t take it any longer and decided to bend the rules or play the game in a slightly different way. She didn’t make a big announcement about it. Nor did she ask permission. She just took that initial — usually subversive — step. If things failed, she didn’t say a word. If things worked out, she told others. That’s how organizational change often begins — through strategic subversion by people frustrated with the status quo.

He urges us to start small, making small shifts in how we work. He comes from the “better to beg forgiveness than ask permission” school of thought and urges us to “play with boundaries” rather than play within them. The fox most whole-heartedly approves.

In his book, Pink provides a solid foundation of motivational theory that he grounds by providing many examples of how great companies have implemented the theory with real-world success. For anyone involved in change efforts or growth initiatives, or anyone simply wanting to have more fun at work and in life, Drive is a compelling read.

Book Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox, Disruptive Agent

One of the more unlikely books about entrepreneurship and innovation is Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. In this children’s book (not that Dahl’s works should ever be considered strictly for children,) Dahl shows how the eponymous protagonist uses fox-like thinking to solve problems and motivate others through change. Obviously, it’s a favourite for me!

Dahl’s book begins with a trio of nasty farmers: Boggis, Bunce, and Bean. The personification of oligopolistic corporate incumbents, they have  a chokehold on the local food supply. If the tale were modernized, they’d clearly be cable companies or banks.

Mr. Fox (who is, according to his lovely wife, Fantastic) has found a way to feed his family by high grading some chickens from Big Farming: he is literally eating their lunch. Bogus, Bunce and Bean are livid and spend night after night lying in wait for Mr. Fox, literally trying to destroy the competition.

In their screenplay (and fantastic film) based on the book, Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach play with the notion of Mr. Fox as a bred-in-the-bone entrepreneur. Their Mr. Fox has traded in chicken stealing for the relatively risk-free job as a newspaper columnist (ahem!), but he dearly misses the game: “I used to steal birds, but now I’m a newspaper man,” he mutters sadly to his friends. Of course, like many entrepreneurs who decide to take a corporate gig for a while, he cannot resist the allure of having a “chicken in his teeth” for long*.

Mr. Fox is clever and he eludes the farmers by making sure that they are up-wind whenever he goes out on his hunts (Big Farming rarely seems to bathe.) But the farmers decide to seek out his fox hole and hit him where he lives. They shoot off his tail and then start trying to dig him, and his family, out of the ground

Fox needs a plan and does a quick SWOT analysis to determine his options. He concludes: “Nobody in the world can dig as quick as a fox!” and so he and his family dig their way to safety, eluding even the excavators the farmers have bought. Nimbleness trumps firepower.

Furious, the farmers decide to cut off the foxes’ supply chain by ringfencing the area in an attempt to starve them out. The foxes are growing weak with hunger and thirst as the deep-pocketed incumbents bide their time.

Mr. Fox has an idea — a big idea — but he needs his children to help him with the execution. He creates a vision to help his children push through their exhaustion and dig some more: “This time, we must go in a very special direction,” he says, “the place I am hoping to get to is so marvellous that if I described it to you now you would go crazy with excitement. And then, if we failed to get there (which is very possible), you would die of disappointment.” He leads them smack dab into the middle of Boggis’s chicken house. Boggis, Bunce and Bean sit guarding the now-empty fox hole with their shotguns, unaware that their actions inadvertently drove the fox into the henhouse.

The foxes are not too greedy and do not take too much food: “Mustn’t overdo it…Mustn’t give the game away. Mustn’t let them know what we’ve been up to. We must be neat and tidy and just take a few of the choicest morsels,” Mr. Fox says, taking the long view of things despite his hunger.

As they work to expand their tunnels to allow access to the Bunce and Bean storehouses as well, they run into other animals — badgers, moles, rabbits, and weasles — who have been caught in the fox/farmer dispute. Mr. Fox recognizes that there is strength in numbers and collaborates with the others. He shares his food and puts them to work.

The screenplay (which expands the role of the other animals) has some wonderful dialogue as Mr. Fox project manages his expanded team:

FOX (forcefully) All right! Let’s start planning! Who knows shorthand?

Pause. Badger points to his otter secretary. She is Linda. Fox darts over to her and grips her by the arm.

FOX Linda! Lutra Lutra! You got some dry paper? Here we go!

Fox, highly energized, moves among the group, touching their shoulders and patting their backs.

FOX Mole! Talpa Europea! What do you got?

MOLE (hesitates) I can see in the dark?

FOX (exhilarated) That’s incredible! We can use that! Linda?

LINDA (taking shorthand) Got it.

FOX Rabbit! Oryctolagus Cuniculus!

RABBIT I’m fast.

FOX You bet your cuss you are! Linda?

LINDA (taking shorthand) Got it.

FOX Beaver! Castor Fiber!

BEAVER I can chew through wood.

FOX Amazing! Linda?

LINDA (taking shorthand) Got it.

FOX Badger! Meles Meles!

BADGER Demolitions expert!

FOX (confused) What? Since when?

After they work, they celebrate with a meal. Mr. Fox gives an emotionally-charged celebratory speech to unite the group: “We are all diggers, every one of us. We hate the outside. The outside is full of enemies. We only go out because we have to, to get food for our families. But now, my friends, we have an entirely new set-up. We have a safe tunnel leading to three of the finest stores in the world…I therefore invite you all…to stay with me here for ever.” He has gained commitment to his vision from the others.

While the animals toast their plan to build a new empire underground, Boggis, Bunce and Bean sit outside in the rain with their guns in their laps. As they waste their time trying to destroy the competition, the world as they know it is changing beneath their feet.

*As animals, we no longer eat each other. This book was written by a human in 1970. My apologies to the sensitive reader.

Book Review: What Would Google Do?

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Jeff Jarvis’s has written a terrific book in his What Would Google Do? What started out as a blog battle with Dell Computer led blogger/journalist  Jarvis (Buzz Machine) to contemplate how business has changed in the internet age.

In the first part, Jarvis describes not Google, the company (which is sometimes criticized for being un-Google-like) but Google, the experience. He shows how the Google model creates a new world of openness, publicness, transparency, and collaboration. Essentially, he takes the Cluetrain Manifesto and blows it out to apply its principles to the broader business environment.

The most compelling part of the book was If Google Ruled the World where Jarvis applies Google-like thinking to various industry sectors including: media, entertainment, advertising, retail, insurance, transportation, utilities, manufacturing, services, banking, healthcare, and government. He contemplates what an airline might do to embrace the new world order, perhaps using its lounges to connect like-minded people travelling on the same flight. He wonders if insurance could run more as a true cooperative, where people could use peer pressure to encourage their fellow pool-mates to quit smoking or hit the treadmill.

It made me think a lot about my world and the traditional model of management consulting, which has traditionally been run by so-called industry or functional experts using proprietary methods. How will these firms stay relevant when they no longer have proprietary research (in the Google age, is anything truly proprietary? Even Google feels compelled to give people a peek behind the curtain now and then… ) When consultant profiles can be found on LinkedIn (or Snapchat!) will clients start to balk at the high hourly rates? And in the world of Skype and FaceTime, will everybody still be expected to climb on and off of planes? (True, some of the firms have people with deep expertise who need to be travelling, but the only rationale I could ever find for sending a 25-year-old Boston local to Topeka on an engagement is that one is more likely to generate those golden billable hours in a place away from family and friends.) Even if clients still want to hire these firms, will anyone want to work for them?

The Google model — the online model — is a disruptive force that will change the way business must think: ignore it at your peril. Jarvis’s book gave me plenty of food for thought as we come to terms with the world post 2.0.

 

Book Review: Artistry Unleashed

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The good people at University of Toronto Press tracked me down and asked me if I’d like to read a copy of Hilary Austen’s Artistry Unleashed, written under the Rotman imprint.

Being one of those rare birds who likes to mix the arts with commerce (as far as I’m concerned, Great Expectations and Glengarry Glen Ross were two of the best business books ever written) I always like to read about how the creative process can inform business thinking. And so I dove in.

As I was reading Roger Martin’s forward, indicating that this book is a necessary counterbalance to the current focus on quantitative thinking, I remembered an ad in Baseline magazine showing a photo of a “data computing appliance” with the headline “The Answer Machine.” The ad promises: “Data in. Decisions out.” In a world where business decisions are expected to be made with the simple application of an algorithm, Austen’s book seems quite relevant.

In the book, Austen makes a clear case for the importance of an artistic mindset in the business world. The design thinking movement shows that an open and creative culture can be a huge source of competitive advantage in an environment of ambiguity and change. Rather than simply advising business leaders to hire naturally creative types, she takes on the formidable task of showing us how we can all bring more artistry into our lives.

Trying to nail down how the artistic process works is not an easy task. As Austen points out in chapter 5, it’s like trying to tell someone who cannot wiggle their ears how to wiggle their ears. At times I grew lost in the theory and, like Churchill describing Russia, I dismissed artistry as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” I craved some practical exercises like you might find in Anne Lamott’s book about the writing process, Bird by Bird. But just as I was starting to get overwhelmed, Austen grounded her subject matter with some concrete examples.

The strongest part of the book is when she shadows photographer Steve Dzerigian and is able to map his creative process using her Knowledge System model. It’s an elegant way of capturing a rather unwieldy process and I got the sense that artistry can, in fact, be taught. While we can not all become Picasso, we can all become more Picasso-like.

For those interested in exploring a fresh perspective, Austen offers some material not typically expected in a “business” book (I defy you to find another business text featuring a recipe for Osso Buco.) If she can encourage business leaders to bring more creativity to the table, she’ll have made a wonderful contribution to the field.

Book Review: The Big Short and How to Hit A Curveball

 

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Scott Singer’s How to Hit A Curveball: Confront and Overcome the Unexpected in Business uses a baseball analogy and a nine-inning framework to discuss how to navigate obstacles in business and in life. He interviews an impressive array of people (Buzz Aldrin, Les Moonves, Jerry Levin, Alan Schwartz, Strauss Zelnick, and Michael J. Fox, among others) and has some interesting ideas for handling the unexpected. Especially useful were his suggestions for “out of the batter’s box thinking” using creativity tools such as brainstorming, Robert Eberle’s SCAMPER approach, Edward de Bonos’s concept fan idea, and Michael Morgan’s reframing matrix. It’s always nice to see the concepts we discuss in organizational development used in the real world.

Although much of the book is written for the individual — in fact, at many times, it reads more like a self-help book than a business book (not necessarily a criticism) — it does offer some good advice for creating a curveball-hitting culture within an organization. Singer emphasizes that “curveball hitters are made, not born” and many organization can help their people become more adept at handling unforseen problems and opportunities.

For anyone going through change (especially the unwelcome variety) this book makes for an interesting read.

*****

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Michael Lewis’s fabulous The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, is not, on the surface, a book about a decision-making, but in many ways, it’s entirely about decision-making. According to Lewis, the near-collapse of the financial markets in 2008 was caused by a thousand small decisions: the decision of investment banking firms to go public in the 1980s, the decision to let bond desks run autonomously, the decision of rating agencies to issue ratings on instruments they clearly misunderstood, the decision to permit investment dealers to enter into leveraged trades, the decision to allow home owners to enter into mortgages they could not afford to service, and the list goes on. But Lewis gets at the real problem: a problem that — since the government was forced to prop up these institutions deemed too big to fail — continues to go unaddressed: “What are the odds that people will make smart decisions about money if they don’t need to make smart decisions — if they can get rich making dumb decisions?” Lewis asks. All business leaders know that behaviours tend to align themselves with the compensation system and the bailouts ensured that this compensation system remains out of whack. As Lewis writes, “That was the problem with money: What people did with it had consequences, but they were so remote from the original action that the mind never connected one with the other.” The book does not leave one with warm and fuzzy feelings but is a fantastic read nonetheless.

Book Review: Switch

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Chip and Dan Heath, who wrote the popular Made to Stick, turned their attention to change management in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.

The book takes a look at why so many of us find change hard and — borrowing heavily from Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis — concludes that it’s because our brains are divided into two segments: emotion (the Elephant) and reason (the Rider). In order for change to happen at an individual or organizational level, the elephant and the rider must work together and be given a clear path to follow.

The authors provide a nine-point framework for change and use real-world examples to show the effectiveness of the theory. They also provide a number of case studies so the reader can practice using the framework and the book leaves one with a real sense that change — even painful and complicated change — is possible.

At many points throughout the book, the authors challenge traditional thinking about change management. We liked how they turned the typical focus on problem solving and trouble shooting on its head by encouraging change agents to focus on the “bright spots” and spend more time replicating success than minimizing failure. The end result is the same but we suspect that a focus on bright spots works much better with Generation Y employees and millennials (we’re Gen X and know we prefer it!) At times, the authors get a little cute and are too quick to dismiss some traditional management thinking in favour of a good line: “A trainer in California taught six elephants to stand in line and urinate on command, and they hadn’t even completed a Myers-Briggs.” It’s funny (we laughed out loud), but at times these bon mots undermine the book’s otherwise very solid content.

Switch is an engaging read  — much more engaging than so many books on change — and presents an elegant change framework that appeals on many levels. If you are a manager taking an organization through change or are simply contemplating change in your personal life, it’s well worth a read.