Review: Filters Against Folly

Filters against follyFilters Against Folly: How To Survive Despite Economists, Ecologists, and the Merely Eloquent Garrett Hardin

You never know which books and ideas are going to stick with you. I first read Filters Against Folly in the early 1990s. Once a month, the group I was with met for lunch and discussed a book we thought might be interesting. I wish I could remember how this book got on the list. I’ve given away multiple copies and continue to find its approach relevant.

Some of the specific examples are dated and I think Hardin goes too far in some of his later arguments. What has stuck with me, however, is the value of the perspective Hardin adopts and the process he advocates.

We live in a world that depends on experts and expertise. At the same time, whatever expertise we possess, we are ignorant and un-expert about far more. Today, we seem to be operating in the worst stages of what Isaac Asimov described in the following observation:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.

Hardin offers a practical way out of this dilemma. We need not simply defer to expertise, nor reject it out of hand. Rather than focus on the experts, Hardin shifts our attention to the arguments that experts make and three basic filters anyone can apply to evaluate those arguments.

Hardin’s fundamental insight is that as lay persons our responsibility is to serve as a counterweight to expert advocacy; the expert argues for “why” while the rest of us argue for “why not?” It is our role to “think it possible you may be mistaken.”

The filters are organized around three deceptively simple questions:

  • What are the words?
  • What are the numbers?
  • And then what?

When looking at the language in advocacy arguments, the key trick is to look for language designed to end or cut off discussion or analysis. Of course, in today’s environment, it might seem that most language is deployed to cut off thinking rather than promote it. Hardin offers up a provocative array of examples of thought-stopping rather than thought-provoking language.

Shifting to numbers, Hardin does not expect us all to become statisticians or data analysts but he does think we’re all capable of some basic facility to recognize the more obvious traps hidden in expert numbers. That includes numerate traps laid inside expert language. In Hardins estimation “the numerate temperament is one that habitually looks for approximate dimensions, ratios, proportions, and rates of change in trying to grasp what is going on in the world.” Both zero and infinity hide inside literate arguments that ought to be numerate.

The Delaney Amendment, for example, forbids any substance in the human food supply if that substance can be shown to cause cancer at any level. That’s a literate argument hiding zero where it causes problems. The numerate perspective recognizes that our ability to measure  improves over time; what was undetectable in 1958 when the Delaney Amendment was passed is routinely measurable today. The question ought to be what dosage of an item represents a risk and is that risk a reasonable or unreasonable risk to take on?

Hardin’s final question “and then what?” is an ecological or systems filter. In systems terms we can never do merely one thing. Whatever intervention we make in a system will have a series of effects, some intended, some not. The responsible thing to do is to make the effort to identify potentially consequential effects and evaluate them collectively.

To be effective in holding experts to account, we must learn to apply all three of these filters in parallel. For example, labeling something as an “externality” in economics is an attempt to use language to treat an effect as a variable with a value of zero in the analysis.

For a small book, Filters Against Folly offers a wealth of insight into how each of us might be a better citizen. The questions we face are too important to be left in the hands of experts, no matter how expert.

Review – Sound advice on managing collaboration in teams

Collaborative IntelligenceCollaborative Intelligence: Using Teams to Solve Hard Problems. J. Richard Hackman.

I first met Richard Hackman in my doctoral studies. I was taking his course on the social psychology of organizations and the twenty five page reading list was an early hint that I might not have fully understood what I had signed up for. The enrollment was small so there was no place to hide. I did survive the experience and learned much of what was on that reading list. Better still, Hackman was THE authority on creating and leading teams.

This book grew out of his work with the U.S. Intelligence community post 9/11. That work flowed out of the belief that “what is most needed these days to generate the insights that policymakers demand are interdisciplinary teams that cross traditional institutional boundaries.” That is a need that is central to the mission of any knowledge intensive organization operating in today’s environment. This book is Hackman’s distillation of decades of work with teams of all forms and missions.

The essential message of the book is that the biggest payoff in quality team results comes from the work the goes into setting the team up for success at the outset. Getting the initial conditions right and crafting good performance strategies proves to be far more important than team-building, coaching, or process management along the way. Think of it as empirical support for the adage “well begun is half done.”

The book is organized around exploring and elaborating on six enabling conditions that set a team up for ultimate success. These six conditions each get their own chapter:

1. creating a real team (rather than a team in name only),

2. specifying a compelling direction or purpose for the team,

3. putting the right number of the right people on the team,

4. specifying clear norms of conduct for team behavior,

5. providing a supportive organizational context, and

6. making competent team-focused coaching available to the team

Much of what follows is solid, but unsurprising, advice for creating and directing teams. That doesn’t make it any less valuable, particularly given how often it is ignored in practice.

There are interesting insights that are especially relevant for teams doing knowledge intensive and innovative work. For example, Hackman points out that “only rarely do teams spontaneously assess which members know what and then use that information in deciding whose ideas to rely on most heavily.” This is part of a larger problem that managers generally don’t seem to do a very good job of designing work to take advantage of what teams can bring to a problem. Managers seem to be biased toward carving tasks up in a quest for the illusion of manufacturing efficiency rather than on “ways to elicit and integrate the contributions of a diverse set of performers.”

In an interesting parallel to Fred Brooks’s observations about the “mythical man-month”, understaffing teams seems to produce extra motivation and energy, while overstaffing appears to mostly lead to problems not benefits.

Diverse, interdisciplinary, teams are assembled on the premise that pooling team members collective knowledge and expertise will produce more innovative solutions. Here is Hackman’s cautionary take on that goal:

Perhaps the greatest advantage of teamwork is that team members have diverse information and expertise that, if properly integrated, can produce something that no one member could possibly have come up with. It is ironic, therefore, that teams typically rely mainly, and sometimes exclusively, on information that is shared by everyone in the group. Information uniquely held by individual members may not even make it to the group table for review and discussion. For decision-making and analytic tasks, that can significantly compromise team performance.

This reinforces his advice that team effectiveness depends greatly on the design of team structure, membership, and performance strategies. Putting the information in the room is not sufficient; you must also explicitly design for surfacing and sharing that information.

One of the most interesting findings about effective teams comes from research that Hackman worked on with his colleague Connie Gersick. They discovered an interesting pattern in how effective teams managed their time over the course of a project. They found that

every group developed a distinctive approach toward its task immediately upon starting work, and then stayed with that approach until precisely half-way between its first meeting and its project deadline. At that point, all teams underwent a major transition that included altering member roles and behavior patterns, re-engaging with outside authority figures or clients, and exploring new strategies for proceeding with the work. Then, following that midpoint transition, teams entered a period of focused task execution that persisted until very near the project deadline, at which time a new set of issues having to do with termination processes arose and captured members’ attention.

This would seem to contradict assumptions about what constitutes best practice in project management circles. Project managers are trained and rewarded for their ability to develop an initial plan and carry it to conclusion. Few project managers are likely to prepare or submit project work plans built around the assumption that the plan will be scrapped and rewritten halfway through the effort.

The way that I reconcile this apparent contradiction is to observe that many projects are not about exploration or innovation but about executing to a well specified final result. Hackman and Gersick’s observations appear to be most relevant to teams tasked with addressing the non-routine. It suggests that project managers need to be very careful to understand and communicate the limits and relevance of mainstream project management practices when dealing with less well-defined questions. This is increasingly relevant in the turbulent environment that more and more organizations are compelled to work in today.

This is not a long book, but it is dense. There is a lot of wisdom within that is grounded in a combination of rich field experience and rigorous thinking.

Review – Only Humans Need Apply

Only Humans Need ApplyOnly Humans Need Apply: Winners and Losers in the Age of Smart Machines
Thomas H. Davenport, Julia Kirby

In his most recent book, Tom Davenport, along with co-author Julia Kirby, provides an excellent entry point and framework for understanding the evolving relationship between smart people and smart machines. There’s a great deal of hand-wringing over technology encroaching on jobs of all sorts. This is hand-wringing that arises with every new technology innovation stretching back long before the days of Ned Ludd. Davenport and Kirby avoid the hand-wringing and take a close look at how today’s technologies—artificial intelligence, machine learning, etc.—are changing the way jobs are designed and structured.

They articulate their goal as

“to persuade you, our knowledge worker reader, that you remain in charge of your destiny. You should be feeling a sense of agency and making decisions for yourself as to how you will deal with advancing automation.”

In large part, they succeed. They do so by digging into a series of case histories of how specific jobs are re-partitioned, task by task, between human and machine. It’s this dive into the task-level detail that allows them to tell a more interesting and more nuanced story than the simplistic “robots are coming for our jobs” version that populates too many articles and blog posts.
Central to this analysis is to distinguish between automation and augmentation, which they explain as

“Augmentation means starting with what minds and machines do individually today and figuring out how that work could be deepened rather than diminished by a collaboration between the two. The intent is never to have less work for those expensive, high-maintenance humans. It is always to allow them to do more valuable work.”

They give appropriate acknowledgement to Doug Engelbart’s work, although the nerd in me would have preferred a deeper dive. They know their audience, however, and offer a more approachable and actionable framework. They frame their analysis and recommendations in terms of the alternate approaches that we as knowledge workers can adopt to negotiate effective partnerships between ourselves and the machines around us. The catalog of approaches consists of:

  • Stepping Up—for a big picture perspective and role
  • Stepping Aside—to non-decision-oriented, people centric work
  • Stepping In—to partnership with machines to monitor and improve the decision making
  • Stepping Narrowly—into specialty work where automation isn’t economic
  • Stepping Forward—to join the systems design and building work itself

Perhaps a little cute for my tastes, but it does nicely articulate the range of possibilities.

There’s a lot of rich material, rich analysis, and rich insight in this book. Well worth the time and worth revisiting.

Carve out time and space for deep thinking


Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport

If your value to an organization depends on the quality and insight of your thinking, Cal Newport’s latest book, Deep Work, offers important insights about how to think about your thinking. The forces at work in our environment and in our organizations favor quick, shallow, and social over other forms of thought. That is generally adequate for much of the activity that fills our days.

Exceptional value, however, finds its roots in sustained, focused, individual thinking and reflection. Deep Work builds the case for this mode of thinking and offers paths to carve out the necessary time and develop the necessary mental muscles to engage in deep work more intentionally and predictably.

Newport defines deep work as

Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

The ability to think deeply is a skill, so it can be developed. Much of the book offers counsel on techniques and practices that can help you develop your skills at deep work.

Newport is an academic computer scientist. In his world the contrasts between deep and shallow work can be stark. His binary distinction doesn’t transfer neatly to organizational settings where it is more useful to think in terms of a spectrum of work with shallow and deep anchoring the extremes. With the pressure toward superficial and shallow, there is great opportunity for individual knowledge workers to become more proficient at going deep.

Newport does offer practical advice for how to make deep thinking more possible. That advice needs tuning and refinement to work well in most complex organizations. Newport sums up why that effort matters thusly;

A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it’s not a philosophical statement—it is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done. Deep work is important, in other words, not because distraction is evil, but because it enabled Bill Gates to start a billion-dollar industry in less than a semester.

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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