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Go AI teaches itself to beat other Go AI

There once was an AI that beat one of the best human players at the most complex game in the world.

Then there was an AI that with no knowledge of the game, taught itself to play and beat the old AI. In three days.

Via Exponential View email newsletter.

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Brand marketing: From media to capability 

The facades of empires always look most impressive just before they fall.

The same goes for industrial giants and even whole industries.

The Roman Empire didn’t disappear. Neither did the British. But the centre of power in the world shifted, first chaotically, confusingly and then all of a sudden when the fog of revolution cleared.

Newspapers haven’t disappeared. Record labels haven’t disappeared. But there was a storm of change, a half-decade or so of intense uncertainty in each industry as it was ravaged by digital disruption. And then… new power structures and new masters emerged.

Media companies won’t disappear either, but their place at the centre of the brand marketing system is ending.

To Google and Facebook the advertising revenues, away from the media owners, at an expanding an inexorable rate. To automation and in-house teams and consultancies go the muscle and the influence once held by the media buying agencies.

Image result for scott galloway google and facebook advertising revenue chart

Image: Scott Galloway/L2Insights

The CMO’s closest advisor ten years ago, maybe even five, would have worked for a media agency. Now, it could be a chief digital officer, a management consultant, a creative technologist, even an author or similar species of seer.

The new order has yet to emerge, but the days of the media agency as the centre of the brand marketing system is ending.

Little by little. Then all at once.

The levers that improve the fortunes of a brand – its awareness among target consumers, their proclivity for it at the right moment – are more complex now because consumers are changing their media habits and the way they find and buy things they want. The big lever you used to pull was called media.

Now, as things move faster and more unpredictably, brands want the tech and the know-how to be closer to home, something they can call on in the moment, without a day rate or delays. In-house.

What makes the difference in a global brand marketing organisation isn’t the ability to pull the trigger on media – it’s the capabilities to think and act at the speed of the digital consumer. Capability – from technical and data know-how to a digital mindset – more than media muscle alone, is what will set leading brands apart in the coming decade.

Marketing, then, is moving from media to capability as its focus.

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Keep on moving

Maybe we need to stop thinking of change as something that needs to be managed, an awkward event that comes along every few years and upsets everyone who was getting on just nicely as they were.

But how? I wrote some things about this for CMO.com. Part of the answer lies with data that helps people quickly understand, communicate and display the value of their work:

Reframing and offering data that helps our people explain their value and their status within the organisation could act as an antidote to less useful ways of expressing status—presenteeism (“I am here all the time and super busy”) and attachment to a particular job title or role that may not be useful after the next wave of change hits.

In Cal Newport’s Deep Work, he describes how email and other always-on busy-work can act as a replacement for really valuable work in organisations where the value of what someone does is hard to measure or express:

Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner. This mind-set provides another explanation for the popularity of many depth-destroying behaviours. If you send and answer e-mails at all hours, if you schedule and attend meetings constantly, if you weigh in on instant message systems like Hall within seconds when someone poses a new question, or if you roam your open office bouncing ideas off all whom you encounter—all of these behaviours make you seem busy in a public manner. If you’re using busyness as a proxy for productivity, then these behaviours can seem crucial for convincing yourself and others that you’re doing your job well.?

Could it be that the mystery of the productivity gap – the lag between companies investing in technology and workers’ output increasing – can be explained by email and messaging apps allowing appear-to-be-busy-work while simultaneously tempting us with distractions and ludic loops in social media and games that erode our ability to do the work that would really make us happy and our organisations more successful? Whilst it is too simple to think solely in these terms, there would seem to be a case for further investigation.

With productivity seeming to be an economic and management mystery, perhaps using data to measure value to the individual and the value that the individual creates would help change behaviours. Not to spot where shirking – accidental or otherwise – is happening, but to inspire and reward behaviours that are more useful.

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Horowitz on culture

Ben Horowitz has posted a video of his talk on culture change on the A16Z blog. He gets straight to the heart of the matter: Everyone says culture is important, but in terms of advice very few have “more than the platitude” to offer people running companies about what they should do to shape or change their culture.

This is doubly frustrating as a strategist. Strategy is hard, hard work – mis-used, half-used or abused as a discipline, the downtrodden strategist can find themselves at the end of their quest to discover, define and action-plan the hell out of a plan, only to be met with a wry smile from a senior stakeholder and the invocation of Peter Drucker’s observation that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

I’ve always held the definition of culture to be “how we get things done around here”. Ben’s working definition is similar but a little more useful in describing what a particular culture is: the collective behaviour of an organisation. Or, as he puts it “What do people do when you aren’t there to give them direction?”

He has some easy questions to test what your culture really is (rather than what the business plan says it is)…

  • Does your company get back to people quickly when they call?
  • Are decisions made using data or intuition more often?
  • Do people turn up on time to things?
  • Are you careful when you are spending company money?
  • Do you always tell the truth to each other, to clients and suppliers?

It’s a useful way of thinking about culture. In getting down to what works in changing culture, Horowitz takes inspiration from the “only successful slave revolution in human history” – the Haitian Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th century). Most cultures of slavery relied on a culture of fear

The four rules are:

  1. Keep what works.
  2. Create shocking rules.
  3. Incorporate people from other cultures at high levels in the organisation.
  4. Make decisions that demonstrate priorities.

These mostly make sense to me – a mix of pragmatism and taking action to affect changes in how people behave. It’s about what you do and what you demonstrate to be important and effective behaviours that make the difference.

I recommend watching the whole presentation. Apart from being useful and fascinating, it’s a masterclass in engaging storytelling and presenting.

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Cognitive diversity

I wrote a piece for Huffington Post about the concept of cognitive diversity, and why we should take it seriously in business and wider society. It’s had a good response and I hope to write more on the topic. I was grateful for the chance to pull together my thoughts on the topic and I think there’s more to be said and explored.

Here’s an excerpt:

Leaders need to stop thinking about this as a wellness issue and wrap it in the broader strategic imperative of developing cognitive diversity. A culture that is more accepting of mental health opens up the idea that we need a mix of ways of thinking in our organisations. The same commercial argument that supports diverse gender, ethnicity, age and sexuality stands for accepting people with different kinds of brains and different ways of thinking.

Consider the greater prevalence of people on the Asperger or autism spectrums in technology companies. These companies have embraced difference as a strength and other business would do well to follow suit.

Digital is turning business models on their head, ripping up the play books for whole industries and organisations know they need to innovate. Innovation requires new ways of thinking and a fight against the mediocrity and conformity of groupthink.

For the full post, please visit Huffington Post.

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2016 reading challenge

This post originally appeared on Medium on 7th November 2016. I’ve attempted to post it with that date here as well.

Recently I finished my Goodreads.com reading challenge for 2016, so here’s some lists of the best books I’ve read this year.

It’s the second year I’ve set a goal for reading a certain number of books. Last year I went for a book a week?—?52?—?and passed it, so this year I set a goal of 66 books.

There are a number of reasons that I find it useful to have a goal. Mainly it is to do with micro-decisions and the way that measuring things nudges people toward a beahviour?—?well definitely myself?—?if it is measured.
Reading is one of my favourite things to do?—?for knowledge, for pleasure, for inspiration and development as a writer. But it’s easy to let the habit slide and have one’s time filled by work, TV and videogames. Setting a goal reminds me that it is a personal priority for me and gives me the satisfaction with each book I read that I’m moving towards it, and therefore doing what I want to do with my time, not what is easiest. We love to blame our smartphones and computers for inflicting on us the perils of distraction, but we can use them to help us focus too. The Goodreads and Kindle apps sit right on the front page of my iPhone?—?a reminder of what I really want to be doing with my time and attention.

I am considering a change of tactics for 2017?—?setting a goal at half or this year’s level. Part of the motivation for reading more is to develop my own writing, and I could set a creative writing (thousands of words, or completed stories / chapters) challenge for the year instead.

The luxury of having finished two months’ ahead of schedule is that I can spend some time trying out different ways of reading and writing and see what works for me. I’m also re-reading old favourites, now that I’m off the clock, as it were.

One recent tool that may help with the writing goal is the wonderfully addictive Flowstate app. It asks you to set a time limit?—?from five to 180 minutes and once you start writing it will not let you stop. If you stop for five seconds all of your writing starts to disappear and then?—?ping!?—?it’s all gone. It’s slightly terrifying, and I’ve only tried it in five minute bursts so far, but it seems to work well to get the words flowing out of me.

Anyway?—?that’s enough tangent?—?let’s take a look at the best books I’ve read so far this year….

Non-fiction

I’m pleased that there’s a mixed field in non-fiction this year. I’d like to read more, but for writerly reasons, reading fiction is my priority, and it’s also just a lot more common to find a book you can’t put down that’s fiction than not.

  1. A First Rate Madness , by Nassir Ghaemi. The author takes a psychological view of leadership and makes a compelling case for what we think of as mental illness sometimes being a benefit for leaders, especially in times of crisis. He also develops a fascinating theme of the danger of likeable, average people (his term is homoclytes ) in leadership roles when the chips are down. The book is gripping and thought provoking from a historical, psychological and social point of view in the questions that it raises. Next time you hear someone referring to a politician or corporate leader as crazy, you might start wondering if the problem is that they are frightening “normal”.
  2. The Witches: Salem 1692, by Stacy Schiff. It took me all year to finish this book?—?I tend to have multiple books on the go at any one time?—?but I’d happily read it again. A deeply researched and beautifully written account of the bizarre social phenomenon of the Salem witch trials. We are taken through the crisis and out the the other side and an aftermath where the Salem community and wider New England commonwealth had to deal with the consequences of having, on the word of a group of extremely unreliable witnesses, brutally killed and imprisoned women, men and children. The facts are startling and fascinating, and the vivid picture of the mental landscape of the Puritan settlers that Schiff paints is gripping.
  3. The Pigeon Tunnel, by John Le Carré. A gorgeous book of anecdotes and tales from the author’s life. From weird lunch dates with Rupert Murdoch and taking German diplomats to a Mayfair brothel, to meeting Arafat, Russian gangsters and central African war-lords, they are fascinating stories. It’s lovely to spend time with an author’s mind, outside of their novels?—?and Le Carré’s is a rich, fascinating, beautiful and angry mind indeed.
  4. The View From The Cheap Seats , by Neil Gaiman. I’ve read less Neil Gaiman than Le Carré, but like the Pigeon Tunnel, this book was a real treat, an invitation backstage into a highly original author’s mind. I bought the audio and the Kindle text versions of both of these books, and enjoyed alternating between the two formats, allowing the author’s voice to come through strongly in every sense.
  5. A Room of One’s Own, by Virgina Woolf. Having read literature as a minor at university, it’s shameful that I have never read this book until now. In case you don’t know, it is an essay based on lectures she gave at Oxford in the 1920s, a voice from the beginning of feminism, a writer explaining their needs, and putting into historical context why women had contributed so little to literature. (Spoiler, because they never had a bloody chance.)

Business

Business books were thinner on the ground for me this year than previously?—?partly this is because I re-read some, and others, like Scaling Up, held my attention for months on end. Others, like Zero to One, Flourish and Smarter, Faster, Better were interesting but not remarkable enough to make this list of highlights. Remarkable business books now have to beat a high standard to grab my attention now?—?I’d rather be reading about writers, history or psychology than management, unless someone has something very original and useful to say on the subject.

  1. How To Have A Good Day, by Caroline Webb. Caroline is a friend, and I knew this book would be good, but it massively exceeded my expectations. The product of four years of research, the book is grounded in the latest scientific evidence about how our minds work. Caroline takes the academic insights and applies them to how we live our daily lives. She believes that we can be all be more effective if we understand a little more about how our brains work, are happier and have better days. A simple proposition, a complex truth, usefully presented to the reader.
  2. Shoe Dog , by Phil Knight. As business yarns go, this is one of the best?—?passion, derring-do and epic (in the scope of the company’s eventual achievements). The founder of Nike takes you through the travails of trying to break into a market where brands like adidas had an apparently unshakeable grip, with a combination of innovation, bravery and chutzpah. As business books go, this one’s almost a thriller.
  3. Superforecasting, by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner. This is an intensely practical book that changed the way that I think about?—?and talk about with colleagues?—?the future and the likelihood that one thing or another will come to pass. I loved it so much I was seriously considering taking Maths A level to up my numeracy at one point. After reading this you will have a better mind?—?a few more tools that will help you think more clearly. Well worth the price and the time to digest it.
  4. Team of Teams, by General Stanley McChrystal. The general and his new consultancy team are laying out their wares in this book, which deals with the challenge of leadership and management in a world characterised by complexity and networks (see Eric Beinhocker’s The Origin of Wealth for the best primer I’ve read on complex adaptive systems and markets). McChrystal adapted the way that joint special forces in Iraq responded to the networked threat from Al Qaeda and ISIS?—?and has practical advice for any organisation looking to become more responsive.
  5. Scaling Up, by Verne Hamish. I started reading this book in 2015 and applied a great of its lessons to the business plan for my company in 2016. It is profoundly useful book for management teams and leaders of growing businesses and I think it and The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz?—?which I re-read at least once this year?—?have been the two most useful books to me as a CEO. More than just recommending them, I am very grateful to the authors of both.

Fiction

Lastly, the joy, the delight of my favourite fiction books this year. They are not in any particular order as each of these was a very special experience for me in its own way.

  1. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. I started the year off on New Year’s Day with the Goldfinch, a kind of statement of intent for the year. It’s a huge book, but it sucked me right in with its plot, and kept me there with the incredible characters and sense of place that Tartt evokes. So richly drawn are the settings that they felt more like memories to me than fictional spaces.
  2. A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James. I listened and read to this book in sprints. As there are so many characters, each with a very distinct and patterned voice, I got into the habit of listening to the Audible book at the start of a chapter to tune in to the character. This book is fresh, exhilarating and visceral. Listening to one passage while I walked along the street my jaw literally dropped in shock at the violence being described.
  3. Bring Up the Bodies , by Hilary Mantel. I’d tried and failed to get into Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies, but the BBC dramatisation pushed me into trying again and this time it stuck like sealing wax on a royal warrant. Simply incredible.
  4. The Heart Goes Last , by Margaret Atwood. It was an Atwood-heavy year for me?—?I preferred this book to the Oryx and Crake trilogy (although that was definitely enjoyable too). It is the story of a couple who, caught in a bad recession, are living in their car when they hear an advert for people to join a new model community, where people live one month in and one month out of prison. Dark, fun and mind-bending, as you’d hope.
  5. Six Four, by Hideo Yokoyama. One of the few crime books I read this year, and it was a beauty. The tension is as much around the social conventions and customs in Japanese society and the politics of the police force as the murder mystery at the heart of it. Having visited Tokyo last year, it brought back the feel of the place wonderfully. And a really different, engrossing take on the detective genre.
  6. The Night Manager, by John Le Carré. Funnily enough, another book read on the back of a brilliant BBC adaptation. Different enough to fascinate as a tale in its own right, it’s a wonderful read.
  7. Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee. [From my Goodreads review:] At first this book is all joy, as we return to Scout’s world. With her we see its changes, and then with her we are challenged and pummelled by uncomfortable shifts in perspective. The book starts like stepping into a summer’s day and ends with you nursing a punch to your jaw and thinking maybe you’re the wiser for it.
  8. The Power, by Naomi Alderman. Pow! It hits you in your centre mass and puts you on your back. Alderman’s question is “what would happen if women were more powerful than men?” Women discover they can give electric shocks that can incapacitate or kill men. And the world begins to change very quickly indeed. This is a greta story, the high concept never mishandled or clumsily deployed. It was written while Alderman was in a mentoring scheme with Margaret Atwood and there’s definite influences from the latter, while being very much a new (to me) and distinct voice.
  9. His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet. [From my Goodreads review:] Wow. What a wonderful book. In the style of an early novel, it comprises several documents, the longest being a personal account of a terrible crime by the protagonist, written from his jail cell. The story is set in a remote highland village, a claustrophobic community, brought vividly to life and death by Burnet’s deft prose. It’s different. Not difficultly or affectedly different, just original in composition (accepting the Gothic novel structure or the crime novel themes) and wholly satisfying as a story. I’d recommend to anyone. It’s an amazing read.
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Newspapers and digital transformation

  When Christina Scott, CIO at The Financial Times spoke at Dots 2015 I introduced her with a joke that she was one of the top five CIOs according to an industry journal – number three in fact, so she might want to try harder. I recalled this earlier this year when she was awarded CIO of the Year at the Women in IT Awards 2016 – an incredible achievement, and one earned in large part by her digital transformation efforts. As Information Age put it: 

When Scott joined the Financial Times almost four years ago, technology was not in a good place at the 127-year-old newspaper. Not only was it criticised for not delivering on its goals, it was seen as being subservient – or, at least, a blocker – to the business.

But when she joins News UK – publisher of The Sun and The Times – as its new chief technology officer later this year, she will leave behind an organisation where technology is now seen by stakeholders and the CEO as an important partner to the FT’s success.

Changing how technology is viewed by a business so positively requires more than just delivering solid IT projects – Scott has, in particular, transformed how the FT approaches data – but a complete, organisation-wide cultural change

I’d highly recommend taking a look at the slides and notes of her talk – there’s also audio of her talk on the Brilliant Noise podcast feed. I learned a great deal from working with the FT and from Christina’s talk. Recently I finished a book she mentions, Turn the Ship Around!, a book on devolving leadership and change by a US Navy nuclear submarine commander – I also highly recommend.

What makes Christina’s Dots talk useful and interesting is just how candid she is about how tricky change can be, even in an organisation like the FT, admired for its efforts in digital. For newspapers – which, like the music industry have been one of those sectors to feel the full force of digital disruption over the past 15 years or so – digital transformation isn’t just about getting the right tech in place – it’s about changing the culture. 

I was lucky enough to see how the FT was transforming on the inside. At Brilliant Noise in our strategic consultancy team we designed a programme for FT staff called FT Digital Campus, helping executives in the business think about how digital was affecting them at personal, team and organisational levels. It was working with the company’s excellent learning and development teams and Christina’s strategy team that we honed the idea of the digital mindset – which I spoke about at Learnfest 2015 last year (slides here). 

Often in the past, I’ve seen IT leaders cast as the conservatives, the blockers to change – but leaders like Christina show that it’s not about your job title, it’s about attitude, ability and a will to change organisations for the better. 

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Pace: Buzzfeed’s competitive advantage

For the past year or so I have been giving talks for students on Google’s Squared programme (and its sibling-programme Squared Online) about the digital landscape. My talk covers a brief history of the internet, the evolution of media, changing customer behaviours and how media and brands are adapting.

Buzzfeed‘s my primary example of a media company that understands how content works on the web – and that gives brands many clues about how they should think about digital. As a case study Buzzfeed is useful not just because it is so successful, but because it is open about its approach, tools and strategy which is unparalleled.

“Why are they so open?,” one student asked me the other week. “Can’t people just go out there and copy them?”

Fair question. There are two answers:

First, Buzzfeed talks about its strategy actually has a strategy. As Richard Rumelt wrote in Good Strategy/Bad Strategy:

The first natural advantage of good strategy arises because other organizations often don’t have one. And because they don’t expect you to have one either.

The reason many media organisations won’t share their strategy for digital, for their business, is that they don’t really have one. They are concerned with preservation of old business models. Even companies with strong digital capabilities are essentially concerned with creating digital versions of their old businesses (“Wouldn’t it be great if TV worked on the web?”, “Wouldn’t it be great if advertising worked just as well online?”).

The second answer is that Buzzfeed doesn’t need to keep its strategy a secret. Sure, it may not share its code or spreadsheets, but its success doesn’t rely on being the only company ever to understand how to do this – it is about executing at scale faster than anyone else. (And then selling, most likely.)

I’ve seen evidence of this openness and pace very clearly three times in the last year or so.

1. The Andreesen Horowitz investment. While a lot of business media ran snide stories about the high valuation of a website that specialises in vacuous listicles and cat pictures, canny commentators pointed out that the Buzzfeed press release made better reading than the coverage and detailed where the investment would go – video, commercialisation and other interesting areas that would build an ambitious web media company.

2. The POUND announcement. A while back it shared details of its POUND technology which allows Buzzfeed teams to understand how content is spreading across different channels and optimise its efforts accordingly. (Spoiler alert – Facebook delivers volume, but isn’t the whole story of how things go viral.)

3. Embracing Facebook Instant Articles. Buzzfeed used the occasion of its supporting Facebook to re-articulate its business model (see below) in an incredibly compelling and clear way.

Reading the Facebook announcement about Instant Articles last year, it seemed the  quotes from traditional media partners were given through gritted teeth. They knew that they had to work with Facebook to keep reaching the massive audiences there.

Buzzfeed the other hand, really wants to work with Facebook on this because they understand the web as it is. It was the only native web media who was a partner for the launch of Instant Articles, as Adam Tinworth noted.

In a blog post called “Making content for the way people consume media today” (which could itself be a fair summation of the company’s content strategy) Buzzfeed’s publisher, Dao Nguyen and chief of staff, Ashley McCollum, talk about their approach and why Instant Articles fit perfectly with it. They call out four reasons the company is “thrilled” to be working with Facebook:

  1. Good experience for the user.
  2. Data and insights. They can still get the data insights they need for their editorial and
  3. A great business. Facebook helped them build ad units that would work for their “big story unit” approach.

The article also presents a new visualisaton of the company’s business model – the Network Integrated Media Company.

enhanced-5519-1431473122-8
This isn’t theory for Buzzfeed – it’s what the company is building its core business around. Incumbent media may look at this as an ideal state, something for the digital teams, something to pilot or test – none of which will present a signficant challenge to Buzzfeed’s rapidly building knowledge and capabilities.

So, while smart folks elsewhere will try to use this, while observers like myself will continue to exhort others to “copy Buzzfeed”, most won’t be able to overcome inertia and entropy in their organisations. Buzzfeed meanwhile will be miles down the road ahead of them.

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Medium post: The web will tear us apart

The web will tear us apart — the decay of the Arab Spring

:: Postscript: I published to Medium first partly because I’m enjoying that platform and partly because I was able to publish direct from Ulysses, my favourite writing app. I’m trying the Ulysses Beta for iPhone/iPad/Mac at the moment and have found myself using it for writing everything – from plans for presentations to occasional bits of fiction. It’s really a wonderful app. Just need to work out a good workflow for publishing to my blog now…

Image 04-02-2016, 20-57.5819e36136964fdcaf32fe502bad3f55.png

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What I read in 2015 (and how it changed how I read, work and write)

A version of this post was originally published on Medium.  

Well what do you know, a New Year’s resolution that stuck…

About this time last year I decided that I would like to read more books. Not a sudden epiphany, this?—?I’d always wished that I had more time to read. I’d slipped into the habit of reading articles and Twitter during the day and books were relegated to downtime?—?bedtime and when on holiday.

Not good enough.

On holiday I would rip through several books in a week. These binges always felt so good?—?both the reading and the side effects: delight, useful insights, new knowledge.

So why wasn’t I doing it more the rest of the time?

It’s a question of habit, I decided. Habits are hard to build and hard to break?—?that’s why they’re useful. It’s getting going with a new behaviour and then knowing that you’ve got going that’s the hardest. The less you focus on growing a new habit and then maintaining it, the more chance of falling off the habit-wagon. This was something I’d learned from a spate of reading about how our minds work a few years ago, when Brilliant Noise was commissioned to write the #smartereveryday series of books for Nokia (now Microsoft Mobile). (To find out more about habits and effectiveness take a look at the free Design Your Day e-book, or for more depth read The Power of Habit, Willpower, and Your Brain At Work. Also a hot pre-order tip?—?How to Have a Good Day by Caroline Webb is out this month and will be incredible.)

One thing that had worked for me in establishing previous habits was using data. Setting goals and recording them. At just the right moment I rediscovered my Goodreads account?—?a social network for reading, effectively, that I’d updated and used sporadically before. Was there a way of setting a reading target? There was?—?an annual reading challenge.

After a bit of thought, I settled on a target of 52 books as achievable. Reading a book a week was unlikely?—?I run a young company and from time to time it takes every bit of energy and every hour of the day?—?sometimes for a few weeks. However, I knew that I would make up for these periods of reading less while on holiday. And when I do read, I read pretty quickly. So 52 books felt like a stretch, but not a ridiculous one.

I passed 52 books last week at the start of the Christmas holidays, and reached 58 by the end of the year.

In the spirit of an agile retrospective I’m going to run through what went well, what I will do differently this year (because I’m going to set the challenge again this year), what I learned and what still puzzles me about reading and this challenge.

What went well

  • It worked. Having a target and publicly recording each time I finished a book was motivating. It’s not like running a marathon or losing weight?—?and I didn’t share with Facebook or Twitter every time I notched up another book, just like I don’t share every time I finish a run. It’s the combination of the goal as a reminder and guiding lots of little micro-decisions (I’ll read instead of watching TV, or checking Twitter, reading feeds).
  • Reading more books is wonderful. I love cinema and I love great TV (Fargo season 2 and Narcos were particular highlights this year), but there are more great books about than there are great movies or box-sets. There more good books than you will have a chance to read in your lifetime?—?with some good choices you’ll always be reading something good. Watching TV is a bit how I think being a football fan must be like?—?you have to sit through a lot of tedium to get some moments or runs of pure brilliance.
  • Reading helped my work. I was surprised I read more fiction than non-fiction, somehow I thought it would be the other way around. However, what I did read was brilliant and directly supported me in my work at Brilliant Noise. The strategy books helped clarify my thinking and work on a strategy method and Scaling Up came at the right moment to help make sense of 2015 and planning for 2016 (actually haven’t finished this one yet). Reading a good business book?—?there are more middling-to-poor ones than really good ones?—?is partly about exploring new ideas or other’s experiences and partly about having the space to reflect on your own work.

What will I do differently this year

  • Find ways to read more on paper. Not because it is better in any particular way, but I’m curious about what reading books on paper is good for?—?or how it is different and useful to me.
  • Set a slightly higher target. I’ll probably hit 60 books in the last few days of this year and my reading has got faster over the last 12 months, so I’ll need to aim higher. Not sure how much higher?—?maybe 66 or 70.
  • Read more non-fiction and business books. There’s definitely room for more of these, although I have less patience with badly written business book than a slightly clumsy novel?—?so I tend to abandon them faster and end up sticking with the few that actually deserve to be a whole book rather than an essay.
  • Keep a reading journal. In one of the books I read this year about writing, the author recommended keeping a writing journal while working on a book. I think a reading journal would help me get more from reading?—?I leave notes and highlights in Amazon that are useful if I decide to return to them, but I don’t do that as much as I should.
  • Write more. I’ve dropped out of at least two NanoWriMos?—?the write-a-novel-in-a-month challenge?—?as November always seems to be such a busy month. With more preparation and planning?—?or attempting the challenge in a different month?—?I think I could do it. In part, I think all this reading is about preparing to write fiction (I already write several thousand words a week in reports, plans, articles and communications for my business).

What did I learn

  • I love reading about writing. So yes I want to write. I’ve read a lot of books about writing this year. It’s a genre I enjoy, even though I rarely write fiction?—?in fact I mostly do it on my holidays, a bit like the way I used to read.
  • While I love paper, e-books work better for me. I have a stack of paper books in my study waiting to be read, but I find it hard to get to them. I move between my Kindle Voyage, iPad Air and iPhone 6S Plus Kindle apps, and the excellent Audible audiobook app. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, convenience in being able to have a quick read whenever I have a spare minute on my phone, moving between whichever device suits me at that moment, being able to highlight text and also to get the book I want, or the next in a series instantly. Second, I can change the font and layout of pages on apps and the Kindle to help me read in the way I want?—?thinner columns and larger text look uglier from a distance, but I read a lot faster in this way (and I know this because the predicted reading time for chapter or a book on the Kindle device and apps gives you the data).
  • Sometimes you’re not in the mood for a book?—?come back to it later. Two science fiction books?—?both “hard sci-fi”, meaning filled with technical detail and actual science?—?turned me off on the first attempt. This happened with Seveneves and The Martian, but I returned to both a few weeks later and couldn’t put them down. Glad I didn’t just give up add them to my DNF (did not finish) shelf on Goodreads.
  • Reading a lot is about focus. Reading for long periods takes a bit of focus, but it gets better with practice. By the end of the year I’ve found that I can focus on a book even with annoying background noise quickly and stay in it for longer.
  • The more you read, the faster and more deftly you read. There’s a lot to be said for reading slowly (Francine Prose talks about this in her excellent book Reading Like a Writer. It is lovely though to be able to read quickly and to be able to decide when it is a good idea to sprint or slowly walk through a passage or chapter. There’s something to do with mindfulness in this?—?or meta-cognition?—?reading something and understanding the depth or quality of attention it requires, that you want to give it and applying just the right amount. That’s what you might call reading deftly?—?not speed-reading for the sake of speed?—?but having the mastery of reading and understanding and experiencing a text.
  • The Hard Thing About Hard Things rewarded re-reading. I’m going to have to write a separate post about my love for this book?—?I read it last year, so it doesn’t appear on the list of books I read in 2015, although I think I read?—?or listened to it on Audible?—?three or four times over the year. It’s the best book ever written for a founder-CEO or people running small, growth businesses.

What still puzzles me

  • Not finishing books. I’m not quite sure when it’s a good idea actually stop reading a book for good?—?instead of leaving it to pick up another day. I buy more books than I read. The nature of the reading challenge incentivises me to finish books, so that I can mark them as read and get a notch further along toward my target. Sometimes deciding not to finish a book can be a positive. It’s not worth the time and attention?—?in that it’s not informing you, challenging you or entertaining you. This can be as much to do with taste as anything. The Girl on The Train just didn’t work for me?—?something about the characters turned me off and the writing didn’t connect with me. But I’m no literary snob, I finished a several-year project to read all 20-or-so of the Jack Reacher novels this year, and as much as they seem formulaic I’ve really enjoyed them and hugely admire the writing style of Lee Child. Like Elmore Leonard, Child makes sure the writing gets out of the way of the reader?—?but that’s easier said than done. Leonard and Child’s restrained style rewards the slow reading, Francine Prose talks about?—?it’s only by looking closely that you can spot the craftsmanship.
  • Reflecting on what I’ve read. Maybe the reading journal will answer this, but would it be useful to spend more time reflecting on a book?—?what I learned, what I noticed about the writing?
  • How many books to have on the go at the same time. The “Currently Reading” shelf of my Goodreads profile makes me realise just how many books I read at the same time?—?some are on pause, as it were?—?but often there are 13 or 14 on the list. Should I have a cap on these? Focus on just three or four books at a time until they are finished?
  • How to prioritise what I read. Choosing a new book is a serendipitous affair. I have a “Want to Read” list on Goodreads, several samples of books on my Kindle and an Amazon wish-list. Sometimes I will hear a recommendation of a book and I will start reading the book right away. Would it be better to have a list of books I want to read, to prioritise them in some way? Or is serendipity doing just fine, thank you?

And these were my favourite books that I read this year..

Fiction

  1. Station Eleven: A beautifully written story about the end of the world that flits between the before and after of the fall of civilisation. I read it twice and it’s just lovely.
  2. Our Endless Numbered Days, by Claire Fuller: A dazzling debut novel from Claire Fuller, who I was delighted to meet at the Curious Arts Festival in the summer. Out in paperback very soon, if that’s your format of choice. I grabbed the Kindle version and a hardback copy at the Festival because I thought it was so wonderful.
  3. The Son, by Philip Meyer: Three generations of a bloody Texas family history told in parallel. Grabs you and pulls you into its violent world. Just when you think you have a fix on a character, it turns your assumptions on their head by introducing another point of view.

NB: I’m a third of the way through The Killing of Bobbi Lomax at the moment?—?and if I’d finished it before I wrote this list it might have been a contender for top three fiction books of the year too?—?another amazing debut novel.

Business

  1. Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, by Richard Rumelt: A kick up the corporate behind for the wafflers and befuddlers of business strategy. Helped me re-articulate the importance of strong strategy and stick to ours. Strongest line for me was:

The first natural advantage of good strategy arises because other organisations often don’t have one. And because they don’t expect you to have one either.

  1. No Ordinary Disruption: A practical, evidence supported analysis from the McKinsey Global Institute of four major forces of change that are affecting business today: digitisation, globalisation, an ageing population and urbanisation.
  2. Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, Hermina Ibarra: Andrew Hill of the FT recommended this book, and I confess I wouldn’t have bought it on the basis of the title. It draws on the insight that leaders have to model their behaviours before they really grasp them. It’s a useful guide to leadership behaviours and really got me thinking.

Non-fiction

  1. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson. I’ve read most of Jon Ronson’s books and I think they just keep getting better. This book takes the trend of social media shaming and looks at it from all sorts of angles. Ronson combines honesty and curiosity in a brilliant way.
  2. Postcapitalism, by Paul Mason. While he doesn’t have all the answers, he has a pretty strong overview of the issues facing global capitalism. Even the FT recommended this book?—?and so do I.
  3. Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari. A kind of meta-history of humanity, this followed on nicely from a similar book, War: What is Good For? I read last year. It is just fascinating to look at the challenges of today through the perspective of the whole span of our species history.

I’ll finish with an old school, blogger’s hat-tip to the Farnham Street blog?—?I think the posts there about reading helped nudge me into developing this habit of reading more.

Images: apart from the montage of book covers I read, the photographs I took on a visit to the incredible new Weston Library, part of the Bodleian Library in Oxford.