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Posts from the ‘Book Review’ Category

unexpected discoveries

One of the things I love to do is walk into a small bookstore with an uninterrupted hour at hand. I realize “love” isn’t usually used on an organization development blog, but I find my pulse quickening with anticipation when I discover a small, independent bookstore. I know an adventure is about to begin.

I love walking into a small bookstore. I observe the store lay out. I look at what’s kept closest to the check-out. I get a cup of coffee. And I listen. I listen to the kids playing in the children’s section, the clerk suggesting books, the three retirees rehearsing the morning’s golf game in the coffee shop, the baristas planning their evening escape.

And I read. I pick up random books, reading and browsing. There are some by local authors, fiction, history, photography. But the most exciting thing is encountering books by authors that don’t appear on my Barnes & Nobel or Amazon suggestion list. A random trip through the independent bookstore defeats the algorithm. Discovery begins.

I purchased two books: This is the Story of a Happy Marriage and Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect. In the first, Ann Patchett gathers essays on life, relationship, work, and art. Her writing flows, and the essays kept me asking myself about my own choices. In the second, Matthew Lieberman asks who we are as individuals and what drives our behaviors in relationships. His use of a mix of stories, examples, and research was interesting, but his writing style is what kept me reading: “fairness tastes like chocolate; our trojan horse selves; business brain.” I asked what this means for me and the people in the organizations I encounter.

I recommend both books. And, more importantly, I recommend seeking out an adventure this weekend.

What will you discover?

The photo is of my longtime favorite independent bookstore: Page and Palette in Fairhope, Alabama.
And my favorite local independent bookstore is Watermark Books in Wichita, Kansas.


Power Listening

Listening is a vital business skill. Listening can be the deciding factor between a cohesive or fractured team, profit or loss, or long or short job tenure. Bernard Ferrari’s book, Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All, offers an overview of this powerful skill.

We all know people who are poor listeners. We may even exhibit some of these characteristics ourselves depending on the situation. Practicing self-awareness can alert us to when these crop up in our conversations. Ferrari identifies six types:

  • Opinionator: listens only to confirm his beliefs, never doubts, can be intimidating or squelch others’ ideas
  • Grouch: assumes nothing others say is valid, can be contemptuous
  • Preambler: goes down side trails, asks questions containing her preferred answer, a one-way communicator
  • Perseverator: talks on-and-on to sharpen his point and support his bias, self-serving
  • Answer Person: offers an instant solution, seeks to impress with quickness and brilliance, needs to “save the day”
  • Pretender: is not interested because he has reached a decision or is distracted

Ferrari goes on to suggest habits that we can practice to improve listening skills:

  • Plan: know what you hope to accomplish in a conversation before you begin.
  • Stay focused: set aside distractors and set a goal of keeping a running summary of the important points, seeking the right question to clarify as needed.
  • Be respectful: act in good faith, with honesty. It can help to say so at the start, “Talking with you helps me think through our options and risks.”
  • Be quiet most of the time: use the 80/20 rule – speak only 20% of the time. Keep your mouth shut; ask good questions. (Note: if there are two good listeners, it should be a short and effective conversation!)

While this is not groundbreaking information, I appreciated the first third of the book as a summary of types of listeners and listening habits. The remainder discusses listening skills for decision-making, improving performance, sorting information, and steering conversations. Ferrari offers examples of effective questions and uses stories throughout to reinforce his points.

The book is well-organized and comes with an index, which I find particularly useful. A reader who is looking for a review of listening habits and questioning tips will find a good summary and thoughtful ideas presented here.

As an introvert, I find the “be quiet most of the time” habit the easiest to practice. The challenge I continue to work on is keeping the summary of important points in memory, which lessens the distraction of writing down everything someone says in conversation.

What is your easiest habit to practice? How would you challenge yourself to improve?

Ferrari, B. T. (2012). Power listening: mastering the most critical business skill of all. Penguin Group, New York, NY.

Freud, Kandinsky, and Mahler meet in a coffee shop

“People” who give advice about writing blogs say that an entry should always be short – terse and concise. But, I’ve been processing information about neuroscience, creativity, history, art, and education – asking how this all fits with organization development. This reflecting process doesn’t fit neatly onto one computer screen. If you’re interested in the same, I invite you to read on and add to the conversation … .

Mixing together at coffee shops, museums, and parties, Freud, Kandinsky, and Mahler were some of the scientists, painters, writers, and musicians who lived in Vienna, Austria at the opening of the 20th century. It was an exciting place and time. Biology, anatomy, chemistry, and physics stirred together giving birth to neuroscience. Painters, musicians, and writers experimented under the influence of new ideas from scientists and philosophers.

While I think of Freud as one of the fathers of psychoanalysis, Freud began his career studying anatomy. He was part of the group of scientists at the University of Vienna medical school who studied the brain, deconstructing one cell at a time – and anticipated the neuron doctrine. Another, Santiago Ramón y Cajal was a painter and anatomy specialist who ultimately theorized that neurons are the brain’s building blocks. Biology, neurology, fine art, and human behavior intersected.

Is it important that Ramón y Cajal was a painter? Eric Kandel, In Search of Memory, writes, “He brought to his task an uncanny ability to infer the properties of living nerve cells from static images of dead nerve cells. This leap of the imagination, perhaps derived from his artistic bent, enabled him to capture and describe in vivid terms and in beautiful drawings the essential nature of any observation he made (p. 61).” The suggestion made by Kandel and others is that Ramón y Cajal used his cross-disciplinary skills to make discoveries.

The connections formed across disciplines in Vienna included interactions with musicians like Mahler who were bridging from Mozart and Beethovan to a new school of composers. It included interactions with the expressionist and early abstract painters including Klimt and Kandinsky in Vienna and Cézanne and Picasso elsewhere in Europe. Klimt in particular interacted with scientists and artists; he was influenced by Darwin and the research coming from London’s Royal Society. For example, Klimt’s paintings, Adele Bloch-Bauer’s Portrait and The Kiss include geometric, cell structures hidden within the figure.

These artists and musicians were using the ideas of deconstruction to experiment with perspective, time, and form. Eric Kandel, The Age of Insight, reconnects these: “Visual perception begins in the retina as an information-processing system that deconstructs the form of objects and faces and then turns the critical components of those images into a neural code; this code is reflected in a pattern of action potentials in the brain (p. 219).”

Kandel asks if there is a common set of neurological skills underlying all of this creativity? While not implying that scientists, artists, philosophers, and musicians can swap places, his argument is that creative insight is universal. He suggests that creativity depends “on abilities like constructing metaphor, reinterpreting data, connecting unrelated ideas, resolving contradictions, and eliminating arbitrariness (TAoI, p. 458).” While “arbitrariness” is different for a quantum physicist and a painter, Aha! moments arise from similar strategies: planning, then relaxation, and even dreaming.

Research in neuroscience demonstrates that “the brain is a creativity machine. It searches for patterns amid chaos and ambiguity and it constructs models of the complex reality around us. This search for order and pattern is at the heart of the artistic and the scientific enterprise alike (TAoI, p.498).”

As I consider organizations, I observe a necessity for knowledge of science, philosophy, art, and, even, music. Organizations need external knowledge of logic and analysis along with internal knowledge of human behavior. They need strategy, engineering, and planning along with emotion and perception that allow creativity and adaptability. They need to creatively construct and destruct. The music flowing through the headset of the engineer and project manager can shift neural pathways. All of this works together, generating Aha! moments.

Recently a student asked which business books and magazines she should be reading in order to grow in understanding of organization development. Along with the usual suspects like Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Wired, I asked her if she had a membership at the local art museum, plans to attend concerts with friends, and a hobby that engaged her emotions and mind.

I close this reflection with a quote from biologist Stephen Jay Gould:

I want the sciences and humanities to become the greatest of pals, to recognize a deep kinship and necessary connection in pursuit of human decency and achievement, but to keep their ineluctably different aims and logics separate as they ply their joint projects and learn from each other. Let them be two musketeers –both for one and one for both– but not the graded stages of a single and grand consilient unity (p. 197).

What generates Aha! moments in your life? Do you engage with others who have broad interests?
How can organizations intentionally embrace science and the humanities?

Gould, S. J. (2003). The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox. Harmony Books, New York.
Kandel, E. R. (2012). The Age of Insight. Random House, New York.
Kandel, E. R. (2006). In Search of Memory. Random House, New York.

Can imagination be taught?
Brain Pickings: The Age of Insight

Insanely Simple

Obsession with simplicity is front and center in Insanely Simple by Ken Segall, the man who put the famous “i” in Apple’s product names. Even if you’re not an Apple fan, this book offers insight into the ways our organizations function. Segall looks at ten behaviors and values that support Apple’s value: simplicity.

He tells sticky stories about Apple and other companies. Sticky because they stick in my mind. I’ve been telling these stories to family and friends as I read, not waiting to finish the chapter before I’m saying, “Jon, listen to this one.”

The titles are based on Apple’s Think Different advertising campaign. The ideas focus on managing and leading effectively:

  1. Think Brutal. Openness and honesty mean no guessing at what managers are thinking and expecting.
  2. Think Small. Small groups of smart people who include the final decision maker will succeed quickly.
  3. Think Minimal. Communicate and focus on one theme that people will remember.
  4. Think Motion. Create project timelines that include the right timeframe and the right people.
  5. Think Iconic. Find and use an image that symbolizes your theme.
  6. Think Phrasal. Use simple sentences. Use simple words. “Simplicity is its own form of cleverness (p. 202).”
  7. Think Casual. Informal conversations connection, inspire, and create.
  8. Think Human. Intangibles are often more important than metrics.
  9. Think Skeptic. Don’t let a “no” or extra work stand in the way of acting with Common Sense.
  10. Think War. Use your bullets wisely. Remember the passion you have for your idea.

Keep your highlighter handy for the pithy quotes. Keep family and friends handy for the sticky stories. Choose the idea you’ll work with first. This book is light enough to be a summertime read and compelling enough to share with others in your organization.

How do you “Think Different”?

Review: Great by Choice
Ken Segall’s Blog

redux: Orbiting the Giant Hairball

It’s been almost two years since I did a series of posts on Gordon MacKenzie’s Orbiting the Giant Hairball. Recently Jon read the book. He read “hairball” stories aloud and told stories of his own as ideas percolated.

Reminded of the book’s continuing relevance, I’m choosing to run the risk of getting more emails and links from companies specializing in hairball management of the feline sort. I’m bringing the “hairball” posts back to the top of the reading list. And, if you want a light, but thought-provoking read for the upcoming summer season, I highly recommend the book!

Start here (Orbiting thought – Over and out) and follow the thread or begin with Orbiting thought #7 and thread your way to #1.

Related posts:

My teacher got rid of my imagination…
Meep, meep …!

If you choose to read the quotes or the book, which experiences come to mind as you read?

extrovert – introvert

Silence is lyrical. Silence is energy. Silence is time: The space of time between the pulling back of the arrow in the bow and its release.

Or …

Teams are fun. Meetings and parties are energy. People are motion: The speeding motion between the arrow’s release and the explosive arrival at the target.

Not long ago in a hiring discussion, I overheard someone proclaim, “Of course the person we hire needs to be an extrovert.” I cringed. On the Myers-Briggs introvert – extrovert scale, I fall slightly toward the introvert side. Surprised? You’ll find me leading organization processes, delivering training, and speaking publicly.

The confusion arises from a misunderstanding of the scale. In the original Myers-Briggs’ definition, the introvert and extrovert get their energy from different places. Extroverts are energized by the outer world of people and action. Introverts gain energy from an inner world of ideas and concepts. The scale has nothing to do with whether people get along with others, are confident public speakers, or provide good leadership.

The fact that different types of experiences energize people is not a sound hiring metric. Opportunities and challenges exist across the extrovert – introvert scale. For example, research with groups at the University of California, Santa Cruz demonstrated that while extroverts talked more in the groups, they had a wide-range of topics and were “light-hearted.” The introverts talked less and focused on one or two  serious topics. The extroverts appreciated feeling understood by having someone actively listening. The introverts appreciated the relaxed ease of the conversation (Quiet, p. 238-239).

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking describes the value of extroverts and introverts in organizations.  She offers ideas about using the strengths of both sides of the scale to build organizational effectiveness. Wherever you fall on the introvert – extrovert scale, one key is tuning into the energy of those around you. Adjust your communication patterns to meet them in their comfort zone and invite them into the conversation.

How does your organization work to embrace the strengths of extroverts and introverts? What does your preference on the scale mean in your life?

Susan Cain’s blog: The Power of Introverts
Susan Cain’s book: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking
Related link forwarded to me by a friend: The Introverted Leader

Note: I followed Cain’s choice to use the word extrovert from the common usage, rather than the word extravert which is found in the research literature (Quiet, p. 271).

Habits for organizations and individuals

Charles Duhigg’s new book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, uses case studies and stories along with descriptions of current research on habits and change to demonstrate the power of habits. Habits of individuals, successful organizations, and societies are held up as examples.

I discovered this book after reading the recent New York Times article: How Companies Learn Your Secrets. I was intrigued by the way companies use data analytics to market to consumers before the consumer knows what they want. The key is using the data to not only discover and support existing habits, but to target consumers who are at life-change-points. Change points disrupt routine, allowing the company to attempt to create new habits through marketing schemes. Perhaps scheme is too strong or too British a word, but the changed habits result in a big jump in the bottom line. For example: Target’s sales grew from $44 billion to $65 billion after they began a “heightened focus” on “specific guest segments” (p. 210).

Duhigg writes about organizations from Starbucks to the Indianapolis Colts to Saddleback church. He details how these diverse organizations make use of individual and community habits to create change and transformation. He looks at how leaders alter existing habits and create new ones through accident and design. He tells stories about leaders using change, crisis, and disruption to introduce new habits and behaviors into organizations.

My favorite case study is the story of Paul O’Neill, CEO at Alcoa. O’Neill focused on changing one habit across a multi-national organization: safety, . Through focusing on changing one habit, everything about Alcoa’s culture shifted. Priorities, goals, and ways of thinking changed. The focus on safety “created a climate in which all kinds of new ideas bubbled up” (p. 118).

There are three essential points on the neurological loop: the cue, the routine, and the reward – supported by belief. The opportunity to change happens when we identify a cue, routine, reward cycle. The simplest transformation happens when we simply change the routine we use, the center of the cycle. For example: cue – I’m tired, routine – surfing the web, reward – idea stimulation. Replace the routine with taking a walk around the office or around the block. The reward is the same, but the physical activity can offer even more rewards.

This is not a self-help book or an organizational blueprint for change. But if you are interested in case studies and stories of how habits influence organizational and individual change, I recommend this book.

What are the habits that influence your organization’s priorities and behaviors?

Great by Choice

Great by Choice

“I love the straightforward title,” said a friend about Great by Choice. And, like Collins’ previous work, the book is as straightforward as the title. Collins and Hansen seek to answer their question, “Why do some companies thrive in uncertainty, even chaos, and others do not?”

Their research uses their standard research method: compare matched pairs of companies using market data and original documents. These companies were chosen for achieving spectacular results, while navigating uncertainty and chaos in their industry, and for being vulnerable early in the time window as young, small, entrepreneurial companies.

The value I found in this book is that it adds detail to Collins’ idea that great results are driven by disciplined people, disciplined thought, and disciplined action. Through stories drawn from their research and stories of explorers and adventurers who demonstrate the traits, Collins and Hansen make the case for what discipline looks like:

  • 20 Mile March – the discipline to have understandable and rigorous performance mechanisms.
  • Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs – the discipline to blend creative methods with the ability to amplify its value.
  • Leading above the Death Line – prepare when things go well, manage risk, ask the tough questions.
  • SMaC – Specific, Methodical, and Consistent – make operating practices visible and replicable.
  • Return on Luck – Luck happened, both good and bad; the question is what return did you get on it? But the most important kind is “Who Luck” – the luck of finding the right “mentor, partner, teammate, leader, friend.”

Each chapter ends with a summary and a list of questions. Even if you find yourself arguing with Collins and Hansen’s methods or opinions, the questions are worth asking about your business and your self.

Who is your best luck?

Uncertainty as Opportunity
A vision is not a destination

Questions for leaders

Jim Collins wrote about the need for leaders to look in the mirror, holding themselves accountable for the direction and culture of their organization. Robert Kaplan’s newest book, What to Ask the Person in the Mirror, lists questions for leaders to ask:

  • Why did you choose this job?
  • Does the way you spend your time match your key priorities?
  • Do you coach and also solicit feedback from your key subordinates?
  • Do you have a succession-planning process in place?
  • If you had to design your company today with a clean sheet of paper, what would you change?
  • Do you act as a role model?
  • Are you reaching your potential and being true to yourself?


What other questions would you ask leaders? What other questions would you ask yourself?

Read an interview with Kaplan and book excerpt.

Avoiding questions

The power of informal learning

I’ve been re-reading Julia Sloan’s, Learning to Think Strategically. She begins by saying that “strategic thinking is a long-term informal development process, best learned from experiences outside the work environment and supported and processed inside the work environment.”

From this I take away the need to integrate broader life experiences and encountered environments into my work. What does drinking coffee at Mojos or walking through Longwood Gardens have to do with work? What does listening to music or creating art have to do with work?

Everything. Informal does not mean accidental. Spend time observing the processes going on around you, reflecting on how each experience creates emotions and thoughts, and considering the implications for your work. What can you learn? How could the processes, observations, and experiences inform your work? Your strategy? Informal learning may be non-routine or unstructured, but we can bring awareness and curiosity along with us everywhere we go.

What did you learn outside of the office today? How will you apply it when you return?

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