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



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

Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace,
Random House, New York, 2014


This is an excellent case study of creativity and collaboration at scale. Ed Catmull was one of the co-founders of Pixar. With co-author/collaborator Amy Wallace, Catmull reflects on the lessons he and his colleagues have learned over nearly three decades of superior creative work. 

There’s a management summary of key lessons at the end of the book. For example, here’s Catmull on errors: 

Do not fall for the illusion that by preventing errors, you won’t have errors to fix. The truth is, the cost of preventing errors is often far greater than the cost of fixing them.

Pithy, but you’ll do yourself a disservice if you skip ahead to the conclusion. The value here is in the details and the unfolding stories of challenges met and mistakes made. 

I’ve been a fan of the movies forever and I’ve always been intrigued by the complexity hinted at in the credits. It’s easy to be dazzled by the egos of movie stars and auteur directors. The real work of any movie is hideously complex and interdependent. With the likes of Toy Story or The Incredibles, you must integrate art, science, technology, and business in a dynamic balancing act that spans months and years. This is organizational and management challenge in the extreme. 

Catmull is a computer scientist by training who grew into an executive role in a business that makes money by creating art collaboratively. The lessons here are applicable in any organizational context. They are all the more important because the organizational and economic world is moving along paths that Pixar has already travelled. Catmull’s observations and lessons learned are a report from the future. 

Organizations are backward focused. Accounting systems, standard operating procedures, human resource policies all look backwards. That can be appropriate in a slowly evolving world, but that is not the world we live in. That we live in a time of rapid change may be a cliche, but that does not make it less true. Catmull offers timely advice for this new world:

Whether it’s the kernel of a movie idea or a fledgling internship program, the new needs protection. Business-as-usual does not. Managers do not need to work hard to protect established ideas or ways of doing business. The system is tilted to favor the incumbent. The challenger needs support to find its footing. And protection of the new—of the future, not the past—must be a conscious effort.

Congratulations to Euan Semple on the publication of his first book “Organizations Don’t Tweet, People Do”

Euan Semple’s first book(of many I hope) has just hit the net in e-book format. It’s already on my iPad awaiting my next flight. I’ve known Euan long enough to know that it will be excellent even before I read it so I am recommending it now. I’ll follow up with a review later.

– The Obvious? – The eBook edition of my book is published!: “The eBook edition of my book is published!



Thanks to the guys at Wiley the eBook edition of my book “Organizations don’t tweet, people do” is available for purchase on Amazon and iTunes. You can also get it from

From the blurb:

Practical advice for managers on how the Web and social media can help them to do their jobs better.

Today’s managers are faced with an increasing use of the Web and social platforms by their staff, their customers, and their competitors, but most aren’t sure quite what to do about it or how it all relates to them.

Corporations Don’t Tweet People Do provides managers in all sorts of organizations, from governments to multinationals, with practical advice, insight and inspiration on how the Web and social tools can help them to do their jobs better. From strategy to corporate communication, team building to customer relations, this uniquely people-centric guide to social media in the workplace offers managers, at all levels, valuable insights into the networked world as it applies to their challenges as managers, and it outlines practical things they can do to make social media integral to the tone and tenor of their departments or organizational cultures.

A long-overdue guide to social media that talks directly to people in the real world in which they work

Grounded in the author’s unparalleled experience consulting on social media, it features eye-opening accounts from some of the world’s most successful and powerful organizations Gives managers at all levels and in every type of organization the context and the confidence to make better decisions about the social web and its impact on them”

(Via .)

Review: “The New Edge in Knowledge”

The New Edge in Knowledge: How knowledge management is changing the way we do business, O’Dell, Carla and Cindy Hubert

Carla O’Dell and her co-author, Cindy Hubert, have been tilling the fields of knowledge management since the earliest days of the notion. In their latest effort, The New Edge in Knowledge, they take stock of where the field has been, where it is today, and how it is evolving. With their work at the APQC (American Productivity and Quality Center), they’ve always split their time between the trenches and the big picture. Spread that over 15-20 years and the result is lots of pragmatic guidance buttressed by an equal measure of real examples.

O’Dell has always supported the notion that knowledge management is primarily an organizational challenge, that is aided by the effective use of technology but not dependent on it. That position remains strong here. Fortunately, the rest of the world appears to be catching up to this perspective. In many respects, this book is deceptively simple. It tends to gloss over the organizational resistance that many KM efforts will encounter as they are deployed. Granted, that isn’t a specific goal of the book. Nevertheless, KM can present unusual problems of resistance to change because the target audience (knowledge workers in all shapes and sizes) constitutes such a critical resource for the organization. Moreover, they have greater degrees of freedom in whether and how they choose to cooperate, support, or sabotage KM efforts.

Overall, this is an excellent introduction to the state of KM in today’s organizations and a usefully pragmatic playbook for someone wanting to put an effective KM program into practice within their organization. Many of the topics benefit from deeper dives to understand them, but this is the place to start for a coherent view that effectively integrates the big picture with a pragmatic approach to getting started and making progress.

Focusing on mission – why asking why is where to start

Morry Fiddler is a friend and one of my personal trusted advisors. During one of our recent breakfasts, he recommended the following TED talk by Simon Sinek on how leaders inspire action.


Since then, I’ve found myself weaving Sinek’s thinking into my own work and recommending it to others.

I also made a point to get my hands on the book version of Sinek’s thinking: Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.  While it helps fill in some holes in his argument, I think most will find the TED talk more than sufficient to grasp Sinek’s argument and start adapting it to their particular situations.

As you’ll discover, Sinek believes that the differentiating role of leadership is to define and ultimately embed into an organization’s culture a clear sense of "why" the organization exists.

Sinek’s arguments and examples are sufficient to encourage me to make the why/mission question more explicit in my work and I’m already seeing it bear fruit in several settings. Sinek makes an effort to anchor his ideas in what we’ve been learning about the organization of the human brain. While he makes an interesting case, I think it’s a bit of a stretch and not essential to his argument.

What Sinek does do is give you both a framework and some plausible examples to support important conversations with organizations and leaders who are struggling to find their focus.

Summary of 2010 reading – 50 books challenge

Several years ago I became aware of the 50 books challenge. The notion is to set a goal of completing a book a week. I find it a good discipline and track my efforts internally using a program called Readerware. I write detailed reviews of a portion of those books here. I thought it might be interesting to review the entire list and reflect a bit on my reading habits and practices.


Non-fiction covers the gamut for me from biography to management books to technical reference. The best of these get reviews of their own on the blog.

  1. Linksys WRT54G Ultimate Hacking, Asadoorian, Paul
    What fun is having hardware that you can touch if you don’t play with it?
  2. Managing as Designing, Boland, R. J. (Editor)
    A collection of papers from an academic conference on the topic. The papers are a mixed bag as you might expect. Enough of them are good to excellent to warrant taking a look if you’re interested in how managing and design fit together.
  3. The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, Bradley, James
    A look at Teddy Roosevelt and his policy towards Asia at the beginning of the 20th Century. Bradley tells a good story and makes his case for how Roosevelt’s particular view of the world contributed to later troubles in dealing with the Far East. I don’t know enough about that period to judge how much Bradley is editorializing versus doing history. Thought-provoking and compelling enough for me to want to dig deeper.
  4. The Design of Design: Essays from a Computer Scientist, Brooks, Frederick P.
    Brooks always has something useful to say. Here’s the review I posted Fred Brooks on the Design of Design
  5. Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood, Campbell, Donovan
    A compelling account of life on the ground for a marine platoon lieutenant and his men in Iraq. With a son about to go into the marines this year, I was hooked.
  6. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Carr, Nicholas
    I find Nicholas Carr’s writing simultaneously thought-provoking and exasperating. A former editor at the Harvard Business Review, he writes excellently. At the same time, I feel he succumbs to the notion that a journalistic approach to any topic will always yield insight. In the case of the intersection between society and technology, I find this a dubious premise. Here’s my more detailed review from last summer. Nicholas Carr s latest book The Shallows
  7. PHPEclipse: A User Guide: Take advantage of the leading open source integrated development environment to develop, organize, and debug your PHP web development projects., Chow, Shu-Wai
  8. 8 Things We Hate About IT: How to Move Beyond the Frustrations to Form a New Partnership with IT, Cramm, Susan
    My review of 8 Things We Hate About IT
  9. resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences, Duarte, Nancy
    An excellent look at the role of good-storytelling in successful presentations. If you present regularly do yourself and, more importantly, your audience a favor and include this in your professional development plan for the year.
  10. Blind Spot: A Leader’s Guide To IT-Enabled Business Transformation, Feld, Charlie
    The title of my review earlier this year captures my underlying assessment: One Deeply Informed View of IT as a Transformational Tool
  11. Career Renegade: How to Make a Great Living Doing What You Love, Fields, Jonathan
    Veers occasionally into the cheerleading segment of the self-help genre, but there are useful nuggets
  12. Rework, Fried, Jason
    The folks at 37 Signals have built some hugely popular services on the web. Basecamp, for example, defined a lightweight view of project management that a boatload of organizations have found significantly more useful and productive than the over-engineered solutions offered elsewhere. In Rework, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, reflect on their experiences building 37 Signals and the lessons they have taken away from that experience. This is certainly a valuable exercise for them and they make it valuable for others as well.
  13. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, Gawande, Atul
    My review from last Spring: Checklists for more systematic knowledge work
  14. Trouble With Tribbles, Gerrold, David
    The story of how Gerrold went from science fiction fan and author wannabe to selling and delivering the script for one of the best Star Trek episodes of all time. Along the way, Gerrold provides some excellent advice on story telling and writing. The book is out of print, but I was able to track down a copy without too much trouble given the wonders of online markets for used books.
  15. Worlds of Wonder : How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, Gerrold, David
  16. Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, Godin, Seth
    My review: Choosing to draw your own maps: a review of Seth Godin s Linchpin
  17. The Education of a Coach, Halberstam, David
    Halberstam on Bill Belichick. A great combination if you are a football fan. Better still if you’re a Patriot fan.
  18. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Heath, Chip
    Yet another take on change and why it is both so hard to accomplish intentionally and simultaneously so ordinary a part of living life. The Heath brothers take their run at what we know about managing change in organizations over time and ways to make it somewhat less difficult. They do a credible job summarizing what we know today from the behavioral sciences and offer as good a formula as any for thinking about change.
  19. Hacking Work: Breaking Stupid Rules for Smart Results, Jensen, Bill
    This is one of those books whose premise exceeds its execution. One more in a long line of books acknowledging that much of what we believe about work, organizations, and jobs is tenuously relevant at best and dangerously obsolete at worst. They argue that much of the real work that gets done in today’s enterprise is accomplished by hacking the existing systems as opposed to using them as intended. They attempt to develop a notion of "benevolent hacking" where employees and managers subvert the "stupid rules" in the system in order to accomplish the presumably still worthy goals of the system. Questions about who determines which of the rules are stupid and which necessary get ignored.
  20. Seizing the White Space: Business Model Innovation for Growth and Renewal, Johnson, Mark W.
    My review: Can you design business models?
  21. Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, Krakauer, Jon
  22. Bare Bones Project Management: What you can’t not do, Lewis, Bob
    A good take on stripping project management down to its essentials. Given how many of us are called on to act as project managers in today’s organizations I would recommend this as a starting point over the vast bulk of formal advice on project management you will encounter in workshops, seminars, and credentialing programs. Lewis has clearly been there and done that and knows how to cut through the BS in a clear and simple way.
  23. Leading IT: The Toughest Job in the World, Lewis, Bob
    Lewis offers a very pragmatic and unadorned take on challenges of effectively running IT in today’s organizations. It’s the kind of advice you would expect from a true "trusted advisor" who’s interested in helping you develop your own capacity to handle the job. It is a welcome contrast to the consulting advice you so often encounter that is more about perpetuating your dependence on consultants instead.
  24. Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking, Martin, Roger L.
    Here Martin digs into the notion of the "opposable mind" as an analogy to the opposable thumb as a core strength that we can and should develop in more systematic ways. Part of my ongoing effort to wrap my own head around design as a core skill in today’s world.
  25. The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage, Martin, Roger L.
    Roger Martin is the Dean of the Rotman School of Business at the University of Toronto. Rotman has made a serious commitment to integrating design into the management curriculum and Martin is one of the leading forces behind the general trend to pay more attention to design as something more than chrome sprinkled on products after the fact. This short book offers the core argument behind why we should place more emphasis on design. Again, a book that warrants a more complete review.
  26. The Shibumi Strategy: A Powerful Way to Create Meaningful Change, May, Matthew E.
    I picked this up on the recommendation of Bob Sutton, whose Work Matters blog is one of my top reads these days. It falls in the "business fable" genre, which I generally don’t warm to. In this case, I found it acceptable and found May’s efforts to introduce some core concepts from Zen worth the format. It’s a very brief read, but warrants further reflection.
  27. Getting Organized in the Google Era: How to Get Stuff out of Your Head, Find It When You Need It, and Get It Done Right, Merrill, Douglas
    Written by the former CIO of Google, it contains one integrated approach to using technology (mostly Google-based products and services, naturally) to deal with the demands of modern life. Parts of it are distracting and a bit off target. I found it primarily useful as a case study I could use as a data point in designing my own individual approach.
  28. Living with Complexity, Norman, Donald A.
    The most recent thinking from Don Norman. Here he explores what it will take to live in a world where complexity is the norm. Glossing over or trying to hide the complexity is the wrong answer. This also warrants a full review in the near term. In the meantime, I highly recommend it.
  29. The Design of Future Things, Norman, Donald A.
    I’ve been a long-time fan of Don Norman and his writing on design. Here he takes a look at updating his approach to design to accommodate a future world built on ongoing partnership between human and smart machines. I’ve just finished this over the Christmas holiday and it warrants a fuller review in the next few weeks. Stay tuned
  30. Mercurial: The Definitive Guide, O’Sullivan, Bryan
    Taking a look at the latest generation of distributed source code management tools.
  31. Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1, Patterson Jr., William H.
    Heinlein remains my favorite author. This is a fascinating look into to the first half of his life and the early stage of his writing career. I’m eagerly awaiting the next installment.
  32. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Pink, Daniel H.
    Pink takes a look at much the same evidence base as Lawrence and Nohria do in Driven with a slightly different purpose. His take is that organizations rely too heavily on extrinsic motivators (carrots and sticks) at the expense of tapping into much more powerful intrinsic motivators. He is less interested in building a robust model of human behavior in organization than he is in trying to distill some practical short term advice. It makes for an easier read than Driven and Pink is a much better story-teller than Lawrence and Nohria. On the other hand, it sacrifices some important depth in the process. My detailed review: More from Dan Pink on the Science of Motivation and Purpose
  33. Book Yourself Solid: The Fastest, Easiest, and Most Reliable System for Getting More Clients Than You Can Handle Even if You Hate Marketing and Selling, Port, Michael
    Some useful nuggets buried in think positive cheerleading and pitches for Port’s other products and services. Worth skimming and extracting those nuggets
  34. The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, Pressfield, Steven
    My review: The War of Art
  35. Presentation Zen Design: Simple Design Principles and Techniques to Enhance Your Presentations, Reynolds, Garr
    More insight and advice on helping your ideas and presentations be as effective as they can be. I’m continuing to work at incorporating those insights and advice into my own work.
  36. From Knowledge to Intelligence: Creating Competitive Advantage in the Next Economy, Rothberg, Helen N.
    I used this as a text for a course I co-taught on Knowledge management and Competitive Intelligence. Stronger on the Competitive Intelligence side than on it’s knowledge management insights
  37. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Shirky, Clay
    More insight from the always provocative Clay Shirky. My review: Cognitive Surplus
  38. Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst, Sutton, Robert I.
    My review: Good Boss, Bad Boss
  39. Possiplex: Movies, Intellect, Creative Control, My Computer Life and the Fight for Civilization, Ted Nelson
    Relevant largely if you’re intrigued by Ted Nelson and his influence over the personal computing industry. The guy who coined the term "hypertext" and hates the Web. I’m still undecided whether Nelson will ultimately be deemed a prophet ahead of his time or an eccentric with a severe case of ADHD. This book is available through Lulu
  40. The Complete Guide To Competitive Intelligence, Tyson, Kirk W.M.
  41. Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story, Updated and Expanded Edition, Weissman, Jerry
    One of the Ur-texts on effective presenting techniques. The focus is very much on story-telling both in terms of structuring your presentations and delivering them. For all the solid advice out there on the whys and wherefores of effective presenting, you would think the average quality of presentation would be higher. Would that that were so.
  42. The Professor and the Madman, Winchester, Simon
    Late to the party on this book. Glad I finally made time for it.


My fiction reading breaks down into three categories: speculative fiction, mental floss, and comfort reading. I got hooked on speculative fiction (aka science fiction, aka s-f) soon after I got my first library card; Heinlein was my real gateway drug. Today, s-f remains the core of my fiction reading. The best of it illuminates the interaction between what is enduring about the human condition and what is shaped by the technological and cultural environment we are embedded it. When it is good, it entertains as well or better than other forms of mental floss.  As for mental floss, my preferences run to thrillers and techno-thrillers of various sorts. Comfort reading consists of picking up old favorites and re-reading them from time to time.

  1. Hell’s Corner, Baldacci, David
  2. Stone Cold, Baldacci, David
  3. True Blue, Baldacci, David
    More good mental floss. Baldacci introduces a new set of heroines – sister cops. One is the chief of police in DC, while her younger sister is trying to get back to being a cop after being framed and serving time in prison. Nice blend of police procedural, action, and DC behind the scenes power politics.
  4. Directive 51, Barnes, John
    A near-future thriller by SF author John Barnes takes a look at our vulnerability to cyberwarfare. Turns about to the the first of at least two books, which makes the ending a non-ending. Decent mental floss and good enough that I’ll take a look at the sequel when it arrives. Barnes has done much better work with his straight science-fiction. Let’s see if he improves in the thriller category over time.
  5. Cryoburn, Bujold, Lois McMaster
    Mental floss. I enjoy Bujold’s characters and their predicaments
  6. Die Trying, Child, Lee
    Mental floss
  7. The Hunger Games, Collins, Suzanne
    I came to the Hunger Games a bit late. The advantage was that I was able to read the whole trilogy over the course of the summer instead of having to wait. It’s an excellent example of the strength of the Young Adult market segment and of the possibilities the s-f genre presents to good story-tellers.
  8. Catching Fire, Collins, Suzanne
  9. Mockingjay, Collins, Suzanne
  10. Crescent Dawn, Cussler, Clive
  11. In the Stormy Red Sky, Drake, David
  12. Camouflage, Haldeman, Joe
  13. Double Star, Heinlein, Robert A.
    Heinlein was the first real storyteller I encountered in my youth. I probably read my first Heinlein "juvenile" somewhere around age 10 to 12 and proceeded to work my way through anything of his I could find until he eventually passed away in 1988. When I need a break or a temporary escape from the real world, I often head back into those old favorite stories. Out of work actor, Lorenzo Smythe, takes on a job doubling for a famous politician and learns he has deeper talents and honor than even his inflated ego suspects. This was one of several Hugo award winners the Heinlein wrote. Still worth my time forty years later.
  14. Live Free Or Die, Ringo, John
  15. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Rowling, J. K.
    Had to re-read this before the movie came out.
  16. WWW: Watch, Sawyer, Robert J.
    The second in a trilogy by Sawyer. Tells the story of the relationship between Catlin, a girl born blind whose sight is restored by technology and the World Wide Web as it becomes self-aware. A fun mix of thriller and provocative speculation about intelligence. Looking forward to the final installment.
  17. Genus Homo, Sprague de Camp, L
  18. The High King of Montival: A Novel of the Change, Stirling, S. M.
    Stirling is way outside my normal s-f preferences but I’m completely hooked by his writing nonetheless. Eagerly awaiting the next installment.
  19. The Fuller Memorandum, Stross, Charles
  20. The Trade of Queens: Book Six of the Merchant Princes, Stross, Charles
  21. Freedom, Suarez, Daniel
    A solid and thought-provoking sequel to Suarez’s debut novel Daemon. Explores some of the ways today’s technologies might evolve in a techno-thriller format. The advantage is that Saurez knows what he is talking about technologically, but is also a good story-teller as well. And, he keeps his focus on the story-telling and puts the technology where it belongs.

Review of Bob Sutton’s "Good Boss, Bad Boss"

Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst, Sutton, Robert I.

I’m becoming a fanboy of Bob Sutton, an engineering professor at Stanford who co-founded the there. It started when i read The Knowing-Doing Gap : How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action, which he co-authored with organizational theory icon Jeff Pfeffer. In 2007, he wrote The No Asshole Rule, which became a NY Times bestseller and was judged among the best business books in 2007. In between, he’s written a variety of books and articles, and an excellent blog, Work Matters, on management and organizational issues in today’s economy. Bob was kind enough to send me an advance copy of his newest book, Good Boss, Bad Boss, which is due to hit shelves early next month.

In Good Boss, Bad Boss, Sutton turns his attention and preference for evidence-based insights to the "authority figure that has direct and frequent contact with subordinates–and who is responsible for personally directing and evaluating their work." The quality of your boss, or your own quality as a boss, makes a huge difference in both the quality of work that gets done and the quality of the working environment. We all want to work for good bosses, presumably most of us aspire to be good bosses as well. Sutton adroitly mixes the substantial body of empirical evidence differentiating good bosses from bad bosses with effective stories and cases. He makes a case that it is possible to  become a better boss for those who wish to make the effort. Substantial and continuing effort, to be sure, but possible.

Sutton does have one core bias, a bias that I share. In his view, "bosses ought to be judged by what they and their people get done, and by how their followers feel along the way." The heart of the book is a series of chapters reviewing what the best bosses do. The chapter titles offer a good clue to both their content and Sutton’s perspective:

  • Take Control
  • Strive to be Wise
  • Stars and Rotten Apples
  • Link Talk and Action
  • Serve as a Human Shield
  • Don’t Shirk from the Dirty Work
  • Squelch Your Inner Bosshole

Obviously, no book on its own is going to make anyone a better boss. Becoming a better boss, like any skill, is a matter of good practice and good feedback. What Sutton offers in Good Boss, Bad Boss is a well organized and well justified collection of practices and ways to sense how well those practices are working. I found myself dog-earring pages, scribbling notes in the margins, and picking up new tidbits each time I went through the book. It reads smoothly and easily; yet it’s also densely packed with insights and actionable advice. As one example, let me share Sutton’s

11 Commandments for Wise Bosses

1. Have strong opinions and weakly held beliefs
2. Do not treat others as if they are idiots
3. Listen attentively to your people; don’t jut pretend to hear what they say
4. Ask a lot of good questions
5. Ask others for help and gratefully accept their assistance
6. Do not hesitate to say, "i don’t know."
7. Forgive people when they fail, remember the lessons, and teach them to everyone
8. Fight as if you are right, and listen as if you are wrong
9. Do not hold grudges after losing an argument. Instead, help the victors implement their ideas with all your might
10. Know your foibles and flaws, and work with people who correct and compensate for your weaknesses
11. Express gratitude to your people

Spiderman may offer the best summary of this book -  "with great power comes great responsibility." Good or bad, bosses are always on stage; their every move and utterance scrutinized. Being a good boss requires self-knowledge and self-awareness to an extraordinary degree. It also requires a keen sense for balance and for timing.

Other books by Bob Sutton


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Review: Susan Cramm’s "8 Things We Hate About IT"

8 Things We Hate About IT: How to Move Beyond the Frustrations to Form a New Partnership with IT, Cramm, Susan

The tensions between business leaders and their IT counterparts remains an evergreen topic. Susan Cramm, a former CIO herself, weighs in on the topic in a way that’s revealing and productive in two ways. First, she looks from the outside in, asking what the business can and ought to do in order to get more value from the IT organization. Second, she focuses on the operational levels of the business instead of on the C-suite.

Cramm organizes her book around 8 tensions between line business leaders and It leaders that constitute the things "we hate about IT:"

  Line leaders hate when IT… IT leaders hate when the business…
Service or control is overly bureaucratic and control oriented makes half-baked requests and is clueless about impact
Results or respect consists of condescending techies who don’t listen treats IT professionals like untrustworthy servant-genies
Tactics or strategy is reactive rather than proactive develops plans without including IT
Expense or investment proposes "deluxe" when "good enough" will do focuses on costs not value
Quickness or quality doesn’t deliver on time changes its mind all the time
Customization or standardization doesn’t understand the true needs of the business want it all – right now – regardless of ROI
Innovation or bureaucracy doesn’t support innovation isn’t IT smart and doesn’t use or understand IT systems
Greatness or goodness inhibits business change is never satisfied with IT

(reproduced from Table I-1)

Straightforward and consistent with the kind of tension that invariably forms between the line and any centralized support function. Successful organizations don’t settle for picking one side or the other in these tensions, nor do they simply oscillate between the two poles. Instead, they make use of the tensions to create a more productive synthesis between the poles.

Cramm makes it very clear that her focus is on the business side of the equation:

business leaders may feel that IT leaders are being let off the hook, making the whole IT-business relationship the business leaders’ problem to solve. If you are to serve as a catalyst for positive change, this is the only productive point of view. The only person you can change is yourself, and, in the process of changing yourself, your counterparts in IT will be forced to change.

Starting from this core premise, Cramm examines each of these tensions with an eye toward providing line business leaders with a better perspective on what goes on in IT, why the tensions are the way they are, and recommendations on how to reconcile the tensions productively.

Although full of useful advice and perspective, I don’t think that it ultimately succeeds. There’s an unexamined assumption that IT functions the way that it does for good reasons and, therefore, line business leaders need to accept that reality and move on. That might indeed be accurate in the short run, but it will seriously hamper organizations that want to forge significantly better alliances between IT and the business. This book does a good job with one side of the story. What we need next is a companion effort to understand the other side.

Review: Clay Shirky and Cognitive Surplus

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Shirky, Clay

Anyone who can use lolcats to make a relevant and provocative intellectual point is worth paying attention to. Clay Shirky pulls it off in his latest book. Here’s his point:

Let’s nominate the process of making a lolcat as the stupidest possible creative act…. The stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act. [p.18]

Cognitive Surplus is a follow on to Shirky’s previous book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. In it, he explores the following thesis:

Imagine treating the free time of the world’s educated citizenry as an aggregate, a kind of cognitive surplus. How big would the surplus be? To figure it out, we need a unit of measurement, so let’s start with Wikipedia. Suppose we consider the total amount of time people have spent on it as a kind of unit – every edit made to every article, and every argument about those edits, for every language that Wikipedia exists it. That would represent something like one hundred million hours of human thought….One hundred million hours of cumulative thought is obviously a lot. How much is it, though compared to the amount of time we spend watching television?

Americans watch roughly two hundred billion hours of TV every year. That represents about two thousand Wikipedias’ projects’ worth of free time annually….One thing that makes the current age remarkable is that we can now treat free time as a general social asset that can be harnessed for large, communally created projects, rather than as a set of of individual minutes to be whiled away one person at a time. [pp.9-10]

Shirky takes this notion and uses it as a lever to pry beneath the surface of lolcats, the Apache project,, and other examples to look for something beyond the obvious. What makes it work is Shirky’s willingness to stay in the questions long enough to see and articulate deeper linkages and possible root causes.

One of the things that makes this work is that Shirky understands technology well enough to distinguish between accidental and essential features of the technology (to borrow a notion from Fred Brooks). Where this ultimately leads him is away from technology to look deeper into human behavior and motivation.

Like everyone else who’s been paying attention, Shirky turns to the wealth of insights coming out of the broad area of behavioral economics to understand why so much of the what is apparently surprising about today’s technology environment rests in our crappy assumptions about human behavior. As he argues in a chapter titled "Opportunity" when we find new technology leading to uses that are "surprising," the surprise is located in an assumption about behavior and motivation rooted in an accident of history not a fundamental attribute of the human animal. For example, he neatly skewers both the RIAA’s and the techno-utopians analyses of Napster and concludes:

The rise of music sharing isn’t a social calamity involving general lawlessness; nor is it the dawn of a new age of human kindness. It’s just new opportunities linked to old motives via the right incentives. When you get that right, you can change the way people interact with one another in fairly fundamental ways, and you can shape people’s behavior around things as simple as sharing music and as complex as civic engagement. [p.126]

For those of you who prefer your arguments condensed for more rapid consumption, Shirky provides one in the following TED talk

Shirky has his detractors. There are those who dismiss him as just another techno-utopian who imagines a world at odds with the practical realities of the day. At the level of a 20 minute keynote speech, that’s not an unwarranted takeaway. When you give his arguments a deeper reading, I think you’ll more likely to conclude they are worth your investment in wrapping your head around them.

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Fred Brooks on the Design of Design

The Design of Design: Essays from a Computer Scientist, Brooks, Frederick P.

Currently a professor of computer science at the University of North Carolina, Fred Brooks led the development of IBM’s System/360 and its operating system. He’s the author of The Mythical Man-Month : Essays on Software Engineering, which remains one of the best books on project management in the real world. In The Design of Design,  Brooks reflects on what he has learned about the problems of design over the course of his long and distinguished career. He combines his reflections with case studies drawn from multiple design efforts. Here is his justification for adding one more volume to the growing literature about design:

the design process has evolved very rapidly since World War II, and the set of changes has rarely been discussed. Team design is increasingly the norm for complex artifacts. Teams are often geographically dispersed. Designers are increasingly divorced from both use and implementation — typically they no longer can build with their own hands the things they design. All kinds of designs are now captured in computer models instead of drawings. Formal design processes are increasingly taught, and they are often mandated by employers.

I believe a "science of design" to be an impossible and indeed misleading goal. This liberating skepticism gives license to speak from intuition and experience — including the experience of other designers who have graciously shared their insights with me.  [The Design of Design, pp.xi-xii]

Brooks begins with a look at various rational, engineering-centric, models of the design process including Herbert Simon’s view of design as a search process and various waterfall models of software development. His take, and mine, is that these models bear only a passing resemblance to how real designers actually do design. Whatever value they might have as reminders to experienced designers is outweighed by the risks they pose in the hands of those without the necessary experience base to appreciate their limitations.

Brooks frames the design process problem this way:

  • If the Rational model is really wrong,
  • If having a wrong model really matters, and
  • If there are deep reasons for the long persistence of the wrong model,

then what are better models that

  • Emphasize the progressive discovery and evolution of design requirements,
  • Are memorably visualized so that they can be readily taught and readily understood by team and stakeholders, and
  • Still facilitate contracting among fallen humans?  {p.52]

Brooks thinks that something along the lines of Barry Boehm’s Spiral Model of software development will best meet these criteria.

In the middle section of his book, Brooks explores a variety of topics and issues relating to design including

  • when collaboration is useful vs. when it is not
  • conceptual integrity
  • identifying the core budgeted constraint (rarely money)
  • finding and developing great designers

In the final section, Brooks examines several cases in depth.

As a series of essays and reflections, this book is most valuable to those who have wrestled with design problems of their own. Given the frequency with which all of us are presented with design problems, Brooks’ reflections on real design problems offers many useful insights. Among the insights that I will be mulling over:

  • the boldest design decisions, whoever made them, have accounted for a high fraction of the goodness of the outcome
  • great designs have conceptual integrity–unity, economy, clarity. They not only work, they delight.
  • An articulated guess beats an unspoken assumption
  • wrong explicit assumptions are much better than vague ones
  • If a design, particularly a team design, is to have conceptual integrity, one should name the scarce resource explicitly, track it publicly, control it firmly 

Review of Nicholas Carr’s latest book – The Shallows

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Carr, Nicholas

Nicholas Carr has a knack for framing provocative questions. In his latest book, he expands on an article he wrote for the Atlantic in 2008, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Provocative but unanswerable.

When I was a young consultant, I would frequently get my hand slapped for trying to "boil the ocean." Later, as a doctoral student, my advisors would hound me to narrow my research questions to something they judged feasible and I felt constricting. It doesn’t appear that Carr got comparably wise advice.

Carr’s thesis is that the Internet (more precisely the World Wide Web) represents

…an important juncture in our intellectual and cultural history, a moment of transition between two very different modes of thinking. What we’re trading away in return for the riches of the Net – and only a curmudgeon would refuse to see the riches – is what Karp calls "our old linear thought processes." Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts – the fast the better…

For the last five centuries, ever since Gutenberg’s printing press make book reading a popular pursuit, the linear, literary mind has been at the center of art, science, and society. As supple as it is subtle, it’s been the imaginative mind of the Renaissance, the rational mind of the Enlightenment, the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution, even the subversive mind of Modernism. It may soon be yesterday’s mind. (The Shallows, p.10)

There are two primary threads in Carr’s argument. First is a review of the development of writing, the codex book, literate culture, and reading. The second is a look at the plasticity of the human brain and recent research studies about how new technologies might be leading to changes in how we think. While I found both of these journeys interesting in their own right, Carr fails to persuade me that they make his case.

Literacy enables substantially more complex thought than was possible in the oral cultures that preceded the invention of writing. Carr is a bit too quick to dive into the development of literate culture without examining how it differs from oral cultures. He acknowledges the work of Walter Ong and his study of this transition in Orality and Literacy, but would have done better to stay with that transition for a while longer than he does.

As for the plasticity of the human brain, my take on Carr’s analysis and on other reports from the world of neuroscience is that the jury is still out and will be for some time to come. Most of this research suffers from the limitations of all rigorous research. The studies need to be narrowly enough construed to generate results that are publishable. Few, if any, of the researchers conducting these studies would ever make the leaps of generalization that Carr does to support his interpretations.

Carr writes exceptionally well, which actually presents a problem. There are several spots where he smoothly leaps from his evidence to conclusions that go far beyond the evidence into unsubstantiated speculation. If you aren’t reading carefully, you’ll find yourself lost in the poppies somewhere. Somehow, I don’t think Carr intended this as a test of my abilities to closely follow his arguments. But you can draw your own conclusions.


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