This article is adapted from a letter to my team at Brilliant Noise last week. It has a special resonance on the eve of the 75th anniversary of VE Day.
Dear Brilliant People
They are beginning to ease the lockdown in Italy. And other places too. It looks like we’re past the peak in deaths in the UK. The first wave may be passing.
Coronavirus is a slow-motion natural disaster. It’s invisible and slow compared to an earthquake but it manages to reach across the whole world.
In a previous century’s pandemic, artists imagined the disease as an archer firing invisible arrows – because no one could see the cause, but they could see the damage, the people falling ill and dying all around them. Maybe we can imagine the results of coronavirus as invisible bombs falling from the sky.
We’re not living through the Blitz, but this ain’t nothing. Around 32,000 people died in the Blitz across the UK, and we’re just passing 20,000 coronavirus deaths right now and some estimates put the real total at 50% higher overall. [At the time of publishing this on LinkedIn, UK coronavirus deaths are over 30,000.]
It’s embarrassing sometimes when people draw parallels between our current crisis and the Second World War experience on the Home Front. They are invoking folk stories, memories of memories that risk being oversimplifying, misleading or horribly nationalistic.
The “Blitz Spirit” wasn’t some kind of British superpower –apart from anything, London and other big cities were stuffed full of Poles, West Indians, Jews and Irish, French governments in exile, and a throng of different nationalities. London’s an international city, always has been. The Blitz brought out a lot of kindness, mutual help and gritty determination, but it still left a bunch of grieving people and undiagnosed PTSD cases. As well as volunteers manning soup kitchens and forming human chains to dig people out from the rubble there were looters, black-marketeers, profiteers, busybodies, rich people fleeing the cities to countryside boltholes and fake news gossip-merchants galore. Londoners, Brummies, Liverpudlians and people in cities across the country were just like us today: they endured because they had to – and made the best of it, or the worst, depending on their character and choices.
In 1942, a year after the Blitz, my Grandmother was living with her three young sons in one of the great pre-welfare state social housing Peabody Estates, at the top of the Fulham Palace Road in Hammersmith. My Grandfather was operating an anti-aircraft gun on the south coast, so they didn’t see him for long stretches. One of her brothers was fighting in Africa and another was dying slowly in a prisoner of war camp in southeast Asia.
One night a bomb took the roof off the block they lived in and they had to leave. They didn’t know it, but they were lucky. A council map of bomb sites in West London shows their home was later destroyed completely by a V2, one of the first long range missiles. Homeless and without anyone around likely to help, she set off with the boys in tow to look for somewhere to live.
Image: The Peabody Estate in Hammersmith after a V2 attack in 1944.
In nearby Chancellors Road, she found a terraced house that had been abandoned. It was at a slight angle, as the whole terrace listed slightly toward a bomb crater three doors down. She persuaded a carpenter to change the locks and claimed the house. My family ended up renting it all the way up to 1989, not long before the Berlin Wall fell. My Mum was born in that house in the early fifties, had her wedding reception there and I was brought back to it from hospital when I was born a few months later. I lived there on and off with my Mum until I was seventeen. The house was still wonky – if you put a ball on the floor it would roll all the way to the wall.
My Grandmother was from Wexford in Ireland. She came to England in the twenties because an invisible bomb called Spanish Flu (which actually originated in Kansas during the First World War) killed her Dad and his poultry business, pushing her whole family into some very hard times.
So, I was born to the daughter of an immigrant who had herself come to London fleeing post-pandemic poverty. My first home was a house that my family claimed with squatters rights in the middle of a war-zone.
I’ve never thought of it like that.
Now I sit here with nothing apparently happening outside in comfort that would astonish my Grandmother. Despite the invisible bombs falling, and the struggle to save lives going on in care homes and hospitals around me, there is peace and time to reflect.
All these stories. Memories come up unbidden in lockdown. I’ve heard its quite common. A side effect of the sometime–stillness. Novels will be written about it, I’m sure.
Thank for reading this very personal letter. Like I said – they are a box of chocolates and this is the one that came out this morning.
I’m going to shake the remembering out of my head and get on with this week.
A friend asked on Twitter: “What two books would you recommend a new people manager reads and why?”
One book I recommended was The Prince, by Niccolò Macchiavelli.
Why on earth would I recommend a book by him? To people managers?
Well, I wouldn’t advise treating The Prince as a management manual – HR will have issues if you start destroying your enemies completely, and some of Niccolò’s misogyny is unforgivable to modern eyes. But if you’re going to read about leading and managing you might as well read something interesting, something that’s stood the test of time.
But isn’t Machiavelli short-hand for cunning and conniving and untrustworthy?
In short, yes – but we confuse Machiavelli with Machiavellian, the adjective that conjures scheming, sneakiness and self-interest. Such is the popular image of Niccolò Machiavelli that if you’d not read The Prince, you might think it was the intellectual equivalent of reading a shady pick-up artist guide or Donald Trump’s guide to deal-making. Why would you bother? You’re not that kind of person, are you?
Here are a few reasons why The Prince is still one of the best books on management and politics (often the same thing) and why you should read it and if you read it years ago (perhaps under academic duress) read it again, now that you are engaged in whatever variation of the Great Human Game of getting things done in groups has ended up as your calling.
Start with the source. The Prince is the original getting-things-done manual. A lot of advice about work, business and power is diluted re-telling of previous writers’ insights, watered down with platitudinous cant and fashionable feel-good-isms. Why bother reading recycled and re-packaged insights when you can read them in the original.
It is the longest surviving management manual. In the natural selection process of whether texts survive, The Prince pre-dates the printing press and hasn’t been out of print since print was a wave of disruptive new media.
Everything is political. Power is always a part of how organisations work. Politics are unavoidable. If you aren’t Machiavellian, you should understand how people who are that way inclined will behave to get their way, even at your expense. If you say – and I said it myself for years – “I try to steer clear of politics”, then you may as well say “I steer clear of ambitious projects that might make a real difference”. Politics is how everything gets done in groups.
It is a reminder that every author has an agenda. Few books make money for their authors, especially business books and leadership manuals. Niccolò wanted to save his backside by ingratiating himself with a Duke. He did this by providing the best demonstration of his usefulness that he could, The Prince. Some business books these days are written to boost a consultancy, set up a sideline in punditry and public speaking, or to boost a reputation.
It’s short. This is a virtue shared by too few business books. It makes its points and then leaves you to get on with its life. It has some respect for the reader.
The above are general points about the book. Here are some specific lessons from The Prince that will help any new people manager:
You lead for the benefit of the led and with their implicit consent. If you expect respect or compliance because of a new job title, you’re already on the wrong track. If you’re managing a person or a team you need to succeed by making them successful and not seek the credit for what they do.
Be unusual. Reputations are built on what you do differently, on the big challenges that you overcome.
Be alert to the need to adapt — and do it boldly when it is time to do so. Change will come, but we act as if it never will. Best to accept that it is coming and be ready when you see signs. The positive version of this is – change is good, and there are always opportunities if you look for them.
If you’re going to make changes an organisation, best to do it quickly. Ever lived through a six-month re-org? If not, I hope you never do. Everything else stops, no one can think about anything other than the change that will come.
Innovation requires power. To innovate you need to be in power, or as Thomas Cromwell puts it in Wolf Hall, “pick a prince”. In modern corporate parlance, find a senior sponsor for your brilliant project. Having a great idea and being passionate are not enough to get things to happen – you need support. That’s politics.
One more reason to read The Prince: If you’re a Hilary Mantel fan, this is a text that Thomas Cromwell owned in the original Italian. With the final part of her trilogy The Mirror and the Light out in March 2020, this would be a great preparatory read.
Herminia Ibarra was building on an insight from John Kotter‘s study of general managers which showed that the most successful individuals had the most unstructured time in their days, the most gaps in their diaries. Effectively they made themselves less busy.
“Capacity to lead” is such a useful phrase when thinking about being a leader and our relationship with being busy. Kotter’s more successful general managers had more capacity to lead because they hadn’t overcommitted themselves to meetings and other scheduled activities in advance.
Unstructured, uncommitted time means that you have more ability to respond to things in the moment. Perhaps it also means that you’re more available, more present in the main workplace, instead of being sequestered away in meeting rooms. You get to see and hear what’s going on, get a better idea of what’s happening.
Ibarra’s phrase – “capacity to lead” – is striking because it is so fundamental to the role of a CEO or another leader. If you are too busy, you reduce your capacity to lead, which is irresponsible if not incompetent. Worse, you are implicitly saying, through your actions and demeanour – this is what a leader looks like: busy, over-stretched, unavailable.
In saying your responsibility is to create and protect your capacity to lead, we head off that other unconscious bad habit of busy people, that being less busy – having time to reflect, talk to people, lend a hand where it is needed – is an aspirational luxury, and probably an unattainable one. This attitude is an abdication of responsibility and a denial of the power that they actually have in their working lives. “I’d love to spend some time thinking, but it isn’t going to happen.”
Leading is an endurance sport
The Olympic marathon champion, Joan Benoit Samuelson, talking about long training runs, says “You need to have the guts to go slow at the start”.
Guts. You have to be brave enough to hold back. To go slower than you know you could. It’s harder than it sounds.
On long runs –in races as well as training – when you start out on a 90 minute or longer run you start full of beans and a bit excited about the challenge. You discover you have lots of energy and want to go faster. Suddenly you’re moving a minute or two faster a mile than you wanted to. Perhaps you’re fitter than you thought? Maybe all the training and the rest has paid off more than you thought. The endorphins begin to enter your system and –wow– it occurs to you that you might actually be a superhuman.
An hour later with miles still to go and you’ve run out of glycogen and the easy stores of energy in your body, it’s harder to keep moving and you don’t feel like you’ve anything in the tank. You will finish through sheer bloody mindedness, but it won’t be pretty and there won’t be anything like a sprint finish. Kind of the opposite, in fact.
When you run well, you go slower at the start of a race, even if that means you see runners you know you could keep up with heading off into the distance. Then you go a little faster each mile, or maybe speed up a lot more towards the end–it’s called a negative split. In the middle of a race, if you run like this, you start to catch up the people that sped off at the start but have found out the hard way they won’t be able to keep that pace up. In the last third, you start over-taking people and keep doing so all the way to the end. I heard one coach describe this experience as “the tide goes out at the start, stops in the middle and comes in at the end”.
Perhaps because it is the beginning of the year her words came back to me in January. Rested and raring to go after the long Christmas break, I thought that I would come in and hit the first week at full speed. That’s what I need to do, right? That’s what bosses do.
No. No, it’s not.
Have the guts to go slower at the start. Have the guts to increase your capability to lead. January is a good time to spot behaviours you want to change as they start to reassert themselves after a long break.
Writing about what I read in the past twelve months has become an annual ritual, part of the seasonal no-man’s-land between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve when we relax and reflect and get confused about what day of the week it is.
This year I read 59 books (at the time of writing, anyway). You can see all of them and along with ratings and reviews on my Goodreads profile if you like. I’ve selected a top 5 in each of three categories: fiction, non-fiction and business.
It’s difficult to pick out just five, especially in fiction. I’ve not included some books I enjoyed immensely, but these are the five
A near-future Britain, the Island has been surrounded by a massive seawall that keeps out the Others, refugees from an otherwise mainly flooded world as the oceans rise. Young people have to do a kind of high stakes national service on the wall, repelling or killing anyone who tries to get in. If they fail to stop anyone, they are put to sea and lose their citizenship. There is intergenerational guilt — “OK, Boomer” played out — Johnsonesque politicians and all manner of echoes of now.
I read and listened to The Wall (and I’d highly recommend the audiobook, which is narrated by Will Poulter). It’s a simple, sad and short book, the story contained and precise — a stabbing punch to the gut.
The Wall stayed with me and reflected the mood of the year — of the last four years — living through the Brexit crisis in all its twisting manifestations and the gathering intensity of the climate emergency. Don’t let that put you off, though — it’s a great read.
Tana French’s In the Woods was turned into the BBC series Dublin Murders this year, and The Wych Elm was published along with heartfelt endorsements from authors like Gillian Glynn and Stephen King.
The Wych Elm was the first book I read in 2019 and it was a brilliant start to a great year of fiction. Written in the first person, a young PR practitioner in Dublin tells his story, one that doesn’t so much have a twist as much a series of moments where it turns itself inside out and performs a similar exercise on your mind. The voice of the protagonist is beguiling and real, you are with him from a drunken night out through a long dark night for his soul and sense of self. But I’m making it sound profound and challenging — it’s a suspense mystery that is exactly as complex as you want to make it as the reader.
The Wych Elm reminded me of the best non-science fiction novels of Iain Banks, especially The Crow Road. It has a quality of being once read like one of your own memories. Now that’s a mark of a good book.
*Published as The Witch Elm in America. I know this because I got an American copy as it came out a few months later in the UK and I couldn’t wait.
The Handmaid’s Tale is like 1984 a book that made a huge wave when it was published but has grown in reputation and readership as it has aged and its warnings about the future have continued to resonate like an alarm bell that cannot be silenced. To write a sequel to a book that has taken on so much importance and a life — or lives, even — of its own is bold for the author and scary for the readers. What if she gets it wrong?
She didn’t. Taking an unexpected and wholly new perspective on the world of Gilead and the story, The Testaments was everything one might have hoped for from this book. My short review of the book on Goodreads was:
The HandMaid’s Tale is like 1984. You follow the victim protagonist through the dystopia as they survive and triumph or fall. The Testaments is like Wolf Hall, it is about politics and survival in a deadly regime. I heard Atwood say Cromwell was Henry VIII’s Aunt Lydia, and that stuck in my mind while reading some of this book.
Margaret Atwood is my favorite author of the my past decade’s reading. I’ve read more of her books than anyone else’s and become one that rare species, a heterosexual male Atwood fan. I was completely unaware of how rare this was until I went to see her at The Dome, a large theatre in Brighton where a thousand or more people had turned out to see her interviewed on stage. I bumped into ten or more friends at the bar before the event and in the interval. Not one was a man. During the Q&A from the audience, the lack of men there was discussed and laughed about, giving me a through-the-looking-glass glimpse of what it is like to be the ignored, invisible minority in a room. How apt.
Ian McEwan did something new for his writing with this book: speculative fiction. Machines Like Me is based in a counterfactual history of the 1980s, where Turing wasn’t arrested after the war for being gay and driven to suicide, and so was able to accelerate the information revolution, which results in super-smart missiles for the Falklands War and the first artificial intelligence-powered automatons for sale, among other things.
I wrote the following review:
My favourite Ian McEwan novel yet. The odd, parallel world it takes place is headily high concept, but never overpowers the central plot or the relationships between the sometimes machine-like humans and the sometimes human-like machine between them.
I look forward to reading it again. While I was reading it this time it pushed all my other reading to the sides and demanded all of my attention. It made me uncertain and unsettled and yet unable to do anything but keep reading.
Something there in common with all of my top five fiction books for 2019 — I would like to read all of them again.
An account of the John F Kennedy assassination, focusing on Lee Harvey Oswald. I picked it up after reading an interview with James Ellroy, who said it convinced him of the lone gunman theory where previously he had seen a conspiracy. The atmosphere and themes are close to Ellroy’s Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy. The terrible things emerge from a cross-hatch of small, selfish plots and plays by Mafiosi, CIA, FBI and assorted low-lives and one sad, lonely simpleton. The things that look like conspiracies in hindsight are accidents because the actual conspiracies never really achieve coherence.
Libra is the first DeLillo book I’ve read and I want to read more as soon as I can.
I’ll end this section with the opening paragraph of the book, which smacks you round the brain with an image of Oswald as a child, riding a subway train in New York:
This was the year he rode the subway to the ends of the city, two hundred miles of track. He liked to stand at the front of the first car, hands flat against the glass. The train smashed through the dark. People stood on local platforms staring nowhere, a look they’d been practising for years. He kind of wondered, speeding past, who they were. His body fluttered in the fastest stretches. They went so fast sometimes he thought they were on the edge of no-control. The noise was pitched to a level of pain he absorbed as a personal test. Another crazy-ass curve. There was so much iron in the sound of those curves he could almost taste it, like a toy you put in your mouth when you are little.
After reading an interview with Benjamin Dreyer, copy chief Random House, I knew I would love this book and ordered a copy from the United States. When the UK edition was published, I’ve got two more copies for our library at Brilliant Noise. Here’s what I wrote in my review:
I‘m not sure I’ve ever a style guide — and this is not quite that but close enough — from cover-to-cover before. Certainly, I’ve never enjoyed one as much as this. Dreyer gives us as much of his experience and advice about writing as he can get out of his head and onto the page. He’s clear about where there aren’t rules and where taste and style matter — and then lays down his taste like the law, but in such a charming and wry way that you will love it.
This is a book a joy for people who write a great deal — but I think that anyone with an interest in writing a little better than they do already would get a lot from this book, especially the first two thirds. The last third is more a reference work in list form of things to do or not to do.
I won’t read it from start to finish again, but I will be keeping a copy within arm’s reach of my desk at home and I’ve ordered one for our office library too. I have a feeling that one may not be enough there — it’s going to be in demand.
An eight-hour non-negotiable window of opportunity to sleep, less caffeine and as little alcohol as you can. That’s the not-so-magic trick to getting more sleep, according to Matthew Walker, a sleep scientist and, it turns out, an excellent writer.
Sometimes I suffer from insomnia. Or at least I thought I did. As Walker broke down the problems with sleeping, I realised I may simply be sleep-deprived, and just need to be more consistent in how I go about getting sleep.
Whatever the issue is called. I’m interested in how to get more sleep and have read a fair few books on the subject. Many are patronising, poorly researched or — worst of all, scaremongering. Given how likely it is that someone reading a book about sleep may have trouble sleeping, a couple of chapters upfront about how bad for you a lack of sleep can be is thoughtless at best, cruel in the worst analysis.
Although there is a chapter on the effects of not getting enough sleep — I skipped it on my first reading — Walker describes sleeping more in such attractive terms that you become interested in getting more in a positive sense, as opposed to trying to avoid losing sleep. His descriptions of deep sleep as rich and nourishing are like a gifted food writer’s description of an exotic dish. It makes you want to rush out and buy it or make it and indulge in the delight of it. A sleep gourmand, a connoisseur of slumber — now that would be something to aspire to be…
Why We Sleep feels like it is written by the expert on the matter, a primary expert rather than a lifestyle journalist, not a sleep-coach, not a productivity guru, but a scientist who has dedicated their life to understanding sleep, and who gives us with a clear, engaging account of the state of scientific knowledge about sleep. Because of this, the book is deeply fascinating, fresh and useful.
Cognitive science and storytelling are both subjects that completely enthral me. I’ve read a couple of books that address the intersection of these subjects, but none have been as thrilling and inspiring as The Science of Storytelling. Will Storr teaches a writing course, which seems to be well admired. He’s taken everything from that course and then dived deep into the field of neuroscience to understand the detail of what happens to our brains when we hear a story — why it is so satisfying, so compelling to hear a story that we seek them out constantly and when we hear a good one are completely transfixed.
This is a book that is particularly useful to writers, but since we all use and consume stories as part of our daily lives, it could be interesting to anyone.
Many books on this list are ones I found it hard to stop reading once I started. As I read several books at the same time, the sign that I’ve found something really special is often that all the others are set aside for a few days while I focus completely on the one text.
That wasn’t the case with 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. At first, it felt like a series of essays. Less compelling than Harari’s two previous books’ grand narratives about the past (Sapiens) and future (Homo Deus), I wondered if it was cynical cash in on his success, a collection of articles packaged together by the publisher to tide us over until his next great work was complete.
As I read on, however, I grew more engrossed in the themes he was addressing: the of power stories (it’s a great book to pair with The Science of Storytelling), our relationship with technology and change, ways that society is likely to change in the next few decades.
This isn’t necessarily a book with all the answers, but it has some damn good questions. It’s a book for grown-up minds that don’t need all of their answers wrapped up in twenty-minute inspiring talks or feel-good self-help manuals.
Let me share one quote which I have used a couple of times at the end of this year, and that speaks to the challenges of our times and that is typical of the thoughtful provocations and insights in the book:
Panic is a form of hubris. It comes from the smug feeling that I know exactly where the world is heading — down. Bewilderment is more humble, and therefore more clear-sighted. If you feel like running down the street crying ‘The apocalypse is upon us!’, try telling yourself ‘No, it’s not that. Truth is, I just don’t understand what’s going on in the world.’
In the spirit of inquiry and of accepting the uncertainty and complexity of our world, as set out in Harari’s book, I took a whole year to work through the last of my five picks for non-fiction books. For years I’ve been attempting to understand my company as a system, and in the last 18 months or so I’ve intensified my efforts to understand and put to work the ideas in the field of systems thinking. Naively, I was hoping there was a manual somewhere that would have a step-by-step guide to drawing a tube map-like diagram of how an entity like a business works. As none seemed to exist, I realised I needed to go deeper into the topic. Having read Peter Senge’s TheFifth Discipline Fieldbook, I knew some of the principles (Senge is one of the thinkers the book includes).
Looking for a primer on the subject I came across Systems Thinkers, written by two academics from the Open University. It is an expensive coursebook — the Kindle version was nearly £50 — but I treated the expense and the reading of the book like a distance learning course, which made it all seem a little more reasonable.
Over the year I worked through the chapters, each describing a major figure in the field of systems thinking and what they contributed, followed by an excerpt from one of their books or articles. There are 25 people profiled across seven phases in the development of the systems thinking over the past 100 years, from early cybernetics to learning systems. The ideas are big and hard to grasp at times — one book cited is called How Real is Real? — but I did find intellectual slog in some the sections is leavened by details of eccentricities and strange working patterns of some of the thinkers — one knits while chairing intense discussions, one refuses to move universities because it would endanger his vast network of connected ideas that he has captured in a pre-web “hyperlinked” set of index cards, someone else looks and speaks like an 1860s evangelical preacher while working at MIT in the 1960s.
Systems thinking has an influence on so many ideas and — a splinter from it is renamed “artificial intelligence, the concept of ecosystems comes from it, some of those profiled use their insights in work as software engineering consultants, family therapists and management consultants — and insights from the middle of the twentieth century still sound fresh and even challenging today, fifty or sixty years later.
Business books top five
My choice of business books is never going to be everyone’s bag. I read business books for specific reasons more than for general knowledge or inspiration. These five are books that made an impression and that I think I will refer again in the coming months.
A superb and in-depth analysis of the prospects for the professions – knowledge workers with barriers to entry to their field, like lawyers, doctors and accountants – which also has a huge amount of relevance for anyone who will be working in the next couple of decades.
Why this book is useful is because of the rigour and the critical analysis of the authors. It is – depending on the frame you choose to adopt – either inspiring or terrifying. Professionals and knowledge workers are both on the verge of being hugely disrupted by technologies including machine learning and automation. I’ll read it again and would urge anyone interested in these questions to put it to the very top of their reading list.
I know Neil and have worked with him in the past on the Dots Conference by Brilliant Noise which he helped curate. This is is his second book addressing strategy and management in the age of digital disruption and a highly useful contribution to the field.
What Neil has done with Agile Transformation is to provide an effective and usable field-book for consultants and executives trying to develop better ways of working and organising themselves. I work in this area myself, so I knew a lot of the examples and models that are offered, but even the bits I know they are so well articulated and curated with evidence and explanations that I have found it a useful reference source when working with clients. We have several copies of Neil’s previous book in the Brilliant Noise library and have regularly given them to clients and partners to help explain fundamental ideas like digital mindset and agile working.
Here’s a good example of the Feynman Test. You know McKinsey, right? They have been around for the whole of your career. You, like anyone else in business or government or professional life, has an opinion on the firm. Here’s the test: write down an explanation of what they do, what your opinion of them is and the rationale behind it. Each time you get to a bit that you find hard to explain or fill in the details, circle it in red or some other method of highlighting text.
Unless you have worked for McKinsey or read this book, the answer will be full of highlighted gaps — you have an impression and scraps of information with perhaps one or two examples, but not a complete, fact-based view of the company.
The Firm is fascinating in all sorts of ways. Seeing what’s myth and what’s not, an example of practical and practised elitism (a word I don’t intend as a pejorative, the politics of a powerful global organisation, its influence on global business and politics, and the most incredible business model I’ve ever heard of in consultancy (charging what it likes). As a bonus, the book also serves as a gap-filler for your knowledge of how management thinking has evolved since the early twentieth century. A bit like Systems Thinkers, I found I suddenly understood the relationships between different big ideas like strategic planning, conglomeration and core competence and the political and economic contexts of their times.
How you frame an issue is everything, and there’s always more than one frame that can be usefully applied. How massively wealthy criminal organisations work as economic entities and organisations is a new frame on issues in business and management. It’s also a new frame on how drug cartels work – the reporting of them too limited to give a sense of the scale and complexity, and fiction being more like a soap opera than insight into how they work.
The book won me over by immediately calling bullshit on the valuation of drug seizures by law enforcement organisations (they are usually calculated at street prices rather than wholesale, which is misleading and unhelpful). Unlike the way that fiction deals with organised crime, there isn’t a sneaking admiration for the drug-lords in here, there is a matter-of-fact examination of the relationship between violence, risk and pay and the quality of recruits a gang can attract, the advantages and disadvantages of franchising.
Elisabeth Holmes, a Stanford dropout, starts a company that will be the iPhone of medicine – unbelievably easy, cheap and fast blood testing. Unbelievable, because it wasn’t true. However, thanks to its charismatic, well-connected founder and a growing pile of venture capitalist cash, it was able to cause people to suspend disbelief for long enough that actual pharmacies started using their service with actual people.
Books about massive screw-ups, disasters and corruption are fascinating first for the mistakes, but also for the look inside companies that they provide.
This story is a fable of the hokum of positive thinking (a.k.a. magical thinking) that makes people think it is just wanting something enough that is required to bend reality and deliver a breakthrough. No one believed in this company more than Elizabeth Holmes, to the point where dissent was an unforgivable violation and where unfortunate people’s health was disregarded.
How could this happen? Well, greed. Incompetence. Cults of personality. It’s not new and it’s not over. There are Theranos-clones in business now, building up their hype and hoping not to get outed before they IPO. We await the books about Adam Neumann’s WeWork shenanigans with interest.
Previous years’ book-lists
Previously, I posted these lists on Medium and cross-post to my blog. For the sake of consistency and ease of reference, I’ll pull the links together here.
This is a very short book. You’re either going to read it because you like Lee Child’s writing or are curious what the author of the most successful contemporary series of books about an archetypal hero has to say on this subject. If you know someone who likes Lee Child, this may be the perfect gift.
I like Lee Child’s writing a lot. He delivers great Jack Reacher books on schedule once a year and more often than not they are brilliant, and always they are exactly what you want and expect from these stories. I am not damning with faint praise here – he is a superb writer. I heard – or read – him say once that he took a great deal of care over his sentences, and was always delighted by ones he liked, but that success was writing that didn’t draw attention to itself.
I mention this because this book is a lovely example of his writing outside of the Reacher series. It’s an essay on the origins of fiction and of the idea of the hero. Both the prose and the structure are a joy to read – just like Child’s fiction they pull you in, carefully, steadily and keep you transfixed. Friends have told me they read Reacher books faster than any other and the reason is the writing – it’s hard to take your attention away. It’s almost as if you are afraid you will miss something. That’s good writing.
I read it in one sitting.
The essay takes you on a waltz through history and anthropology and evolutionary psychology without ever showing off or slowing down.
TL;DR: “dynamic, self-adjusting system cannot be governed by a static, unbending policy” is academic for “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face”.
Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has plans until they get hit.” In the odd process that popular quotations go through, it is often misquoted as “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
Tyson also said: “When you see me smash somebody’s skull, you enjoy it.” And: “This country wasn’t built on moral fiber. This country was built on rape, slavery, murder, degradation and affiliation with crime.” Unsurprisingly, neither of those one-liners has made it to as many inspirational slides in keynote presentations and self-help seminars as the one about plans going awry.
Donella Meadows was an environmental scientist, who contributed a lot to the developing field of systems thinking, especially in her books Systems Thinking: A Primer and The Limits to Growth, the latter being an ur-text in the environmental movement. The quote below is of the principles Meadows proposes in her article “Dancing with Systems”, in Whole Earth (published in 2001, the year she died).
I couldn’t find any accounts of Mike Tyson, world champion boxer and quotable killer, meeting Donella Meadows, but they were thinking along similar lines.
“You can imagine why a dynamic, self-adjusting system cannot be governed by a static, unbending policy. It’s easier, more effective, and usually much cheaper to design policies that change depending on the state of the system. Especially where there are great uncertainties, the best policies not only contain feedback loops, but meta-feedback loops–loops that alter, correct, and expand loops. These are policies that design learning into the management process.” – DH Meadows
There’s a lot going on there. I’m going to need to break it down and make some connections.
“…a dynamc, self-adjusting system…”
There are all kinds of systems. Once you understand them – throw in a working knowledge of network theory and ecology to speed you along – you see the whole world as systems, from the weather, the sun, the wildlife around us, to human cities, supply chains and less visible infrastructure. But I’m most interested in human social systems, and that’s what I’m talking about here. Partly because I lead – and what lead means in this context is a slippery concept – a group of humans in a company, and help leaders in other organisations do work in this area too.
All groups of humans are dynamic, self-adjusting systems. We lived in layers and interlocking lattices of human social networks. Someone does something, others respond then even more people feel the second and third order effects of those actions and make decisions and take actions as they perceive a new reality. Even with just a few people the connections and contexts people are working with and that are affecting each other makes the group a complex-adaptive system. Our brains probably evolved to be so big and capable because of the advantage that being able to live in and get things done with these social networks. There’s a perspective that says that high-order intelligence, language, art, culture and the whole shimmering wonder of humanity is a side-effect of our getting better at living in dynamic, self-adjusting systems.
…cannot be governed by a static, unbending policy.”
Planning is not a bad idea, unless you then pretend that what you have planned is the only way that things can play out. That’s the “unbending policy” that Meadows is talking about. A policy is another word for a plan. This is how we’re going to run things people, please read the paper and then do exactly what it says Or as close as you can…
A static policy is one that once the exhausted planners have agreed upon it, they will not change course. It has emerged in the plan as the answer, and fuck you if you don’t like that answer. This kind of plan, or attitude to plans is utterly pointless.
We’ve always known this. The two best quotes about plans are, of course Tyson (see above) and Moltke, the 19th Century military theorist who said “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”
The reason that we get “static, unbending” planning is that we are simple creatures who like to understand the world through stories, and once we have a good story we will do almost anything not to let go of it.
So there are plans that might as well be cosmic ordering mumbo-jumbo – universe, please grant me this order of things (and accept the burning of this budgeted amount of money as tribute to your might). There are plans that are fantasy – this is how things will be because I will them to be thus.
You can’t bend complexity to your will by pretending it is just complicated and imposing your will upon it via “levers”.
Complicated vs. Complex A quick aside on this distinction, because it comes up a lot and I don’t think I’ve written one down before, although I’ve discussed the idea of tame and wicked problems (tame = complicated and wicked = complex). A process is complicated if you can, with sufficient analysis, accurately predict or control the outcome. If a process is complex you may be able to predict the outcome, but only after it has taken place. Connect 4 is complicated, chess is complex. Choosing which trains to get from London to Vienna is complicated, driving around the Arc de Triomphe is complex.
It’s a case of learning to see systems. Have a working model of your own organisation’s systems and then how it interacts with other systems. Start building and refining systems views. Don’t think of them as creating accurate maps, but as a way of exercising your ability to visualise systems. When I started reading about systems thinking I think I was hoping for a simple visual language and methodology for mapping systems. They don’t really exist. It’s useful to borrow from electrical systems, flow charts, and systems diagrams of all kinds, but ultimately you need to develop your own way of seeing them and explaining what you see to others.
No one of these systems views is going to show you the world as it is. They will give you other perspectives. Maybe you combine a few and try to triangulate the truth from their reference data. Whatever you do don’t pick a favourite, it means you are making yourself willfully blind to possibilities.
“…the best policies not only contain feedback loops, but meta-feedback loops–loops…”
That annoying acronym KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) is useful in mass communications but useless when it comes to managing systems.
None of them are pointless exercises, as long as you don’t cling to them too tightly once the enemy has been sighted, once causes generate effects, once actions start to be taken.
The most useful kind of planning is going will do two things:
Allows the planners to practice decision-making, responding, thinking about how they will measure and decide upon new courses of actions.
Sees the things that are within their sphere of control and influence, usually the team or company they are working within, as a dynamic system and how that system might change if they need it to.
“…design learning into the management process.”
This is about cadence of feedback loops. Building in reflection to rhythms of decision-making and review. Simple things that need to be repeated to the point where you don’t think about them, where you know that they are going to happen. But it also means that when you are drawing a system, or being so precocious as to design a system, you need to acknowledge the bits in the flows and the loops where the system can improve itself. It’s not just results, data, metrics that flow back in those feedback loops, it’s learning. “Learning is a deliverable”, is a useful catchphrase we sometimes bandy around. When you’re innovating, experimenting or – more importantly, having the humility to realise that the best laid plans are questions, and the best executions may be ones that bring back answers you weren’t expecting. Think of every outward flow in a systems loops diagram as a question and everything that comes back as a provocation, facts and findings that demand nothing less than another, slightly better question.
Systems thinking, more generally
Over the past few years, I’ve been learning about systems thinking and applying some of what I have learned to both what we do at Brilliant Noise and how the company itself works as a system.
So I know that I know a little, but also that I may be standing at “the peak of Mount Stupid” on this field. Must. Tread. Carefully. Treat this post then, dear reader, as notes from a novice rather than an authoritative account on the topic. (An attempt to dress it up as such would make the sermon from Mount Stupid, I suppose.)
On the recommendation of our excellent team coach, David Webster, I read Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline Handbook, a brilliant and applicable collection of practices and ideas about systems thinking in the workplace.
I’m now working my way steadily through Systems Thinkers, a collection of articles and essays by people who have contributed to the field since the 50s, when it was known as cybernetics. It is edited and given a useful commentary by Karen Shipp and Magnus Ramage.
I imagine, if you come back here, you’ll hear more on the subject soon.
The different approaches at WPP and Publicis are examined in an FT article today. While both companies have endured falling share prices for the past few years, there are signs that WPP may be beginning to recover. Meanwhile, Publicis is talking a good game, but the markets are impatient for them to deliver better results.
Mr Sadoun [CEO of Publicis] is attempting to survive a revolution with Publicis’ margins — the highest in the sector — intact. It is investing in its own data and technology to help brands “take back control” of their customer relationship, a service it believes clients will prize more highly. Mr Read, meanwhile, is trying to steady a listing ship, paying down debt, selling data assets and trying to bring closer the traditional and digital wings of the WPP empire.
The FT says that digital disruption has hit European advertising groups especially hard because they invested heavily in media agencies. Automation, declining media viewing, and better targeting have made digital ads more attractive and CPG / FMCG clients have “slashed their marketing spend” accordingly.
Publicis is taking a “bold and strong” approach to transforming the company, while WPP is:
managing expectations, tidying up the corporate structure and repairing its balance sheet, in large part by raising $3.1bn from the sale of a majority stake in Kantar, its data and research business. WPP returned to quarterly growth for the first time in a year, albeit with slimmer margins; the 0.7 per cent rate was even a touch ahead of the Big Four’s average.
The future for neither company is certain, however.
“What worries me,” said one gloomy veteran of the industry, “is that both of them may be wrong”.
The are complexities in this sector that may be hidden from the view of market analysts. Agency groups are good tackling tame problems, where the solution is known and just needs expertise and competence to manage the system, but marketing in the age of digital disruption does not have a set of challenges in a steady state. What’s required is rapid experimentation and learning, something that favours in-house marketing organsiations working with partners to speed up planning and execution. Media agencies are being hollowed out with talent migrating to jobs with platforms like Google and Facebook while many media agency jobs are being replaced by algorithms. Meanwhile, clients are deepening their digital capability and their relationships with the big ad platforms.
Marc Pritchard, CMO at P&G, is right when he says that the challenge is to reinvent the whole marketing ecosystem. That doesn’t mean a more technologically adept media agency, it means a re-framing of what the challenge is for marketers and a new system of technology, processes and partners to get brands the results they need.
In an article in The Economist, “Lie Detector“, we learn about Demaskuok, a Lithuanian tool developed to spot fake news, a much larger problem there because of the intensity of its information war with Russia.
The tool spots fake news story candidates for analysis by humans by looking for things that make content more likely to be disinformation, including that it’s posted on a Friday.
Another clue is that disinformation is crafted to be shared. Demaskuok therefore measures “virality”—the number of times readers share or write about an item. The reputations of websites that host an item or provide a link to it provide additional information. The software even considers the timing of a story’s appearance. Fake news is disproportionately posted on Friday evenings when many people, debunkers included, are out for drinks.
Other reasons for posting fake news on a Friday spring to mind. People are tired and their defences are lower at the end a working week. Take a look at gyms on Friday morning vs Monday, or see how many people have a pastry or other treat instead of healthy porridge. In matters of information vigilance perhaps we are, as with diet and exercise, Spartans on Mondays and fatigued guards half asleep at our posts by Friday.
Velocity is another possible reason. As The Economist notes, fighting fake news is a race against time. If fake stories survive unchallenged in the news and social media for long enough they stick in people’s minds and become accepted. Weekends mean fewer people at work who may be able to spot and debunk information that is wrong. They get two days of lower scrutiny in which their story can take hold and start spreading under its own momentum.
Disinformation may be getting easier to identify with techniques and tools like this, but the goals of information war are harder to see. It’s commonly thought that the professional dissemblers are trying to stir up
Moreover, some worry that even Demaskuok’s success may play into Russia’s hands. Rob Procter, professor of social informatics at the University of Warwick, in Britain, offers a sobering thought. The Kremlin’s goal, he suggests, is not so much to convince Westerners that certain falsehoods are the truth. Rather, it wants its adversaries to doubt that anything can be trusted as true. If this is the aim, software that increases the number of news reports which get debunked may, paradoxically, have the opposite effect to that intended
For a little while, first thing this morning, the most-read article on the FT this morning wasn’t Brexit*, war or impending catastrophe of any of the current flavours, but a heartwarming story of how a few kind words from a member of cabin crew made someone feel a bit better.
It wasn’t dramatically over the top service. They didn’t perform a miracle. They were just an empathetic and tried to make things a little better. But it won over Pilita Clark:
“In an age of relentless customer service surveys and blather about “customer delight”, that flight attendant was a reminder of how little it takes to turn customer relations disaster into triumph — and how rarely it is done well. I have lost count of the times a bank or phone company person has responded to a plea for help with a computer-assisted wall of chill. Sympathetic, warm and humorous people may not be the easiest to find. But any company that manages to put them at the heart of customer relations will always be one step ahead, especially when that help is most needed 30,000 feet up in the air.”
There’s going to be a flurry high fives and glowing emails of pride over at Qantas HQ this morning.
You might take the wrong moral from this story: treat every customer as if they are an FT columnist because… they might be! The better lesson is to hire, train and support humans to be able to act like nice humans when faced by another sub-set of humans called customers. This can be achieved by letting the first kind of human have enough humanity left intact after undergoing processing and by the corporate machine that they can show it to the customer kind of human.
* This was about 6 a.m. An hour later when I checked, the top story was – once again as it seems it shall ever be – Brexit.
Researchers recently tested [the] idea that cliched metaphors become ‘worn-out’ by overuse. They scanned people reading sentences that included action-based metaphors (‘they grasped the idea’), some of which were well-worn and others fresh. ‘The more familiar the expression, the less it activated the motor system,’ writes the neuroscientist Professor Benjamin Bergen. ‘In other words, over their careers, metaphorical expressions come to be less and less vivid, less vibrant, at least as measured by how much they drive metaphorical simulations.’
So jargon can be excluding, annoying and sometimes dangerous. Loose meanings, loosely used, cause misdirection and misunderstanding. We hide the meaning of things even from ourselves when we start talking like an insider (or what we imagine an insider should sound like).
If you’re going to use images in your language, make sure they vivid and clear and new. If you’re just doing an impression of the last corporate shmuck’s soliloquy you heard, then you’re aiming low and no one is really listening to what you’re saying. (And if you’re reading that nonsense off a PowerPoint slide, you’re virtually guaranteeing that no one knows what you were trying to say – if indeed you were actually trying to say anything of substance in the first place.)
Sure, a lot of this is cultural, habitual, hard to stop doing; but the least you can do is to start to notice when you do it – and make a note to have a word with yourself later.