Books

"The Launch Pad: Inside Y Combinator"

YCombinatorIf you care about startups, entrepreneurship and innovation, you have to read "The Launch Pad: Inside the Y Combinator" by Randall Stross. The book follows (some of) the startups selected in the Summer 2011 batch of Y Combinator, Paul Graham's Silicon-Valley-based startup accelerator. (And if you care about startups, entrepreneurship and innovation, you don't need me to tell you who Paul Graham is. But if you have arrived at this page because of some other post I wrote, say in healthcare, you might want to know that Graham is an English computer programmer and venture capitalist who co-founded Viaweb, later sold to Yahoo! Y Combinator is said to be the best, or the second best if you ask its main competitor TechStars, startup accelerator in the country. Graham is also an essayist, majored in philosophy at Cornell, studied painting after college and got a doctorate in applied sciences from Harvard, concentrating in computer science.)

What I loved about the book is that it is strongly story-driven with compelling characters - Stross explains well what the various startups are about, but he doesn't get bogged down in technical details (although he could have, given the strong focus of Y Combinator on "hackers"). Instead, he is more interested in showing the dynamics between teams or with Y Combinator's partners, and the reader gets as close as a book can bring to experiencing the summer leading to Demo Day, and to benefitting from Graham's insights. In particular, I felt the book would be particularly relevant to would-be entrepreneurs who not only want a taste of what to expect in startup accelerators, which have been sprouting all over the nation, but also are curious about Graham's thought process, because in that business what matters most for the mentors is to be asking the right questions.

Great read, highly recommended.


Book review: "Decisive" by the Heath brothers

Decisive Some time ago I read “Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard” by the Heath brothers (Chip and Dan) and reviewed it on this blog. My post started as follows: “Here is my one-sentence review: The book is so good I feel sorry the authors have to sell it at the same price as the other hardcovers out there. If that's enough to convince you to give it a try, great. Otherwise, read on.”

I wasn’t quite sure I’d like “Decisive” as much. I felt that the topic (how to make better decisions) was less original, the green cover of the book is simply hideous, and the introduction, which I’d read before the release date, just didn’t grab me. But the preview I got included Chapter 1, not just the introduction, which meant I got to read the story about the brown M&Ms that a rock star had set as a “tripwire” for his national tour (to figure out whether people had read the contract full of technical specs he’d made them sign, with severe safety implications for his crew) and “Switch” was truly very good. So I bought the book.

And enjoyed it immensely. Now, for me “Switch” was a six-stars-out-of-five sort of book, and “Decisive” doesn’t rise to that level, but I give it a solid five stars nonetheless. I still had that feeling of being sorry for the authors that they have to sell their books at the same price as the other hardcovers out there, especially the puffed-up magazine pieces that find their way into bookstores these days. Also, while the topic of making better decisions has received significant attention, the Heath brothers do manage to give fresh insights and make the reader re-think his or her approach to looming big decisions ahead. In other words: “Decisive” is a much-needed book, and it delivers.

The book is centered on a 4-step framework to avoid common unconscious biases in decision-making: the WRAP process. (They’re business experts. Of course they had to have an acronym for their method.) Below I provide the four parts of WRAP and keywords for some (but far from all) ideas that the Heath brothers give in their book:

  • Widen your options
    • Think AND not OR
    • Run the “vanishing options test” (if the options you’ve thought about so far weren’t available/allowed, what would you do?)
    • Toggle between the promotion and prevention mindsets (if you had suddenly more time/money, how would you spend it? what if there was a severe cutback?)
    • Find someone who has solved your problem
  • Reality-test your assumptions
    • Ask disconfirming questions
    • Consider the opposite
    • Zoom out: respect the base rates (for instance in a medical situation: what are the averages?)
    • Zoom in: take a close up (for instance, the reviews on a website like Yelp might be summarized into a lackluster average, but if you analyze them more carefully, you may realize people either love or hate the restaurant for specific reasons that may not be relevant to you)
    • “Ooch” into it (as in: lean into it, although the authors caution against “emotional tiptoeing”, which is used to delay commitments)
  • Attain distance before deciding
    • Try 10/10/10 (how will you feel about it in 10 minutes? 10 days? 10 months?)
    • Fight the “status quo bias”
    • Shift perspectives to gain distance (imagine it’s not you but your best friend who has to take the decision – what would you tell your best friend to do? And at work, imagine you’ve been replaced and ask the “Andy Grove question”: what would your successor do?)
    • Identify your core priorities to resolve dilemmas (what would an outside investigator conclude about your priorities by reading your calendar?)
  • Prepare to be wrong.
    • Create a “realistic job preview” (what are problems people in this situation often encounter?)
    • Set a tripwire (for instance a deadline by which something must have happened, or you’re switching to Plan B)
    • Run a premortem and preparade (you’ll have to read the book to understand what that means)
    • And more!

If you’re still on the fence regarding the book, you can download free resources to make better decisions by signing up on the Heath Brothers’ website. I can attest that they email their list very rarely, and only with relevant information, so readers definitely get the best of that bargain, given the great resources – podcasts and summary sheets – available for download upon registration. (It’s because I had signed up after I read “Switch” that I got a sneak peek into “Decisive”.) SSIR - Stanford Social Innovation Review - also has an excerpt of the book here.

In summary: “Decisive” is not quite as earth-shattering as “Switch,” less profound research, but far better than 99% of the business books out there.


Book Review: "The Innovator's Solution"

Today's post is about "The Innovator's Solution" by Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor, a book I read several weeks ago and have been wanting to write a blog post on ever since.

Readers interested in innovation will most likely have heard of "The Innovator's Dilemma", Christensen's 1997 best-seller that presented his theory of disruptive vs sustaining innovation. I tried to read it but didn't care for it. The high-tech examples, although surely fascinating in their day, are now hopelessly outdated. (There is only so much of relevance today in the hard-drive disk industry of the early 1990s.)

Overall I felt The Innovator's Dilemma could be convincingly summarized in a magazine article - or maybe even just a few pages, as Christensen and Raynor do early in the present book.The beginning of Chapter Two will tell you everything you need to know about disruptive innovation, and emphasizes the importance of the circumstances of innovation to predict whether incumbents or new entrants will prevail. In particular, "in disruptive circumstances - when the challenge is to commercialize a simpler, more convenient product that sells for less money and appeals to a new or unattractive customer set - the entrants are likely to beat the incumbents." Figure 2-1 p.33 ("The Disruptive Innovation Model") and the case study starting on p.35 [of the hardcover edition, I don't think the book is available in paperback - Harvard Business Review Press knows how to keep its margins!] about the minimills, which upended integrated steel companies, convincingly illustrate Christensen's theory.

In contrast with the earlier book, which "summarized a theory that explains how, under certain circumstances, the mechanism of profit-maximizing resource allocation causes well-run companies to get killed", The Innovator's Solution focuses on how companies can "create the right conditions, at the right time, for a disruption to succeed." I was pleasantly surprised by how informative it turned out to be. Below are the points that I found most valuable when I read the book. (I left out plenty of great insights.)

In Chapter 2, Christensen and Raynor distinguish between new-market disruptions, i.e., "disruptions that create a new value network" (defined elsewhere as "a particular market application in which customers purchase and use a product or service") and low-end disruptions, which "attack the least-profitable and most overserved customers at the low end of the original value network." That chapter also offers three sets of questions to help managers determine whether an idea has the potential to become disruptive (see p.49-50). At a high level, these questions seek to identify whether the idea can be turned into a new-market disruption or a low-end disruption, and whether it will be disruptive to all the established players in the targeted market. 

In Chapter 3, the authors make the fundamental argument that "customers "hire" products to do specific "jobs"", and that therefore companies should segment markets according to those jobs and not according to the characteristics of the product. Since many retail channels are attribute-focused, many successful new-market disruptors have had to identify new channels to reach the customer.

Chapter 4 elaborates on the "jobs question" by investigating how to know whether current non-consumers could be enticed to begin consuming. In the authors' words, "a product that purports to help non-consumers do something that they weren't already prioritizing in their lives is unlikely to succeed." Christensen and Raynor also emphasize the importance of reframing disruption as an opportunity rather than a threat, which usually requires placing the disruptive idea in a new, independent unit of the organization for which it will represent pure opportunity.

Chapter 5 explains when the company should use a proprietary product architecture and when it should use modular, open industry standards (in other words: when to outsource and when not). Product architecture is defined as the set of components that represent the product and the way they must fit and work together to achieve the desired functionality. The chapter also discusses interfaces and interdependent vs modular architectures. (Because modular architectures don't exhibit interdependencies, those are the ones for which outsourcing is possible.) The best architecture depends on the limiting factor in meeting customers' needs; different choices are required if functionality/reliability are insufficient (in the early stages of a disruptive innovation) and if speed/responsiveness are the bottleneck factors.

In Chapter 6, Christensen and Raynor explain how to avoid commoditization. Their idea is that if commoditization is happening somewhere in the value chain, then decommoditization is happening elsewhere. Commoditization starts when the product sold by the incumbent becomes too complex for customers' needs and customers refuse to keep paying ever-increasing prices for it (a disruptive innovator then captures market share starting at the bottom of the customer base by producing a cheaper product that is not yet good enough for the top customers, but will soon be). The authors describe the six steps of the commoditization process in detail starting on p.151. The parallel process of de-commoditization is described on pp.152-3 using the example of the steel minimills and summarized starting at the bottom of p.153.

Chapter 7, "Is your organization capable of disruptive growth?", makes the distinction between right-stuff thinking and circumstance-based theory to pick the right people to manage a venture. Using the right-stuff thinking theory, companies should recruit employees who exhibit right-stuff attributes such as "good communicator", "results-oriented", etc. The authors prefer the circumstance-based theory due to someone named Morgan McCall, which views business units as "schools" and the problems encountered as the "curriculum" that potential hires have been through. In this way of thinking, managers who have worked in stable business units in the past haven't taken the "courses" to start a new plant and so would probably be weak in such a task, and the key to successfully staffing a new venture is to examine managers' prior experiences. I enjoyed reading the case study about Pandesic, a promising joint venture between Intel and SAP that ended in a costly failure.

"Managing the strategy development process" is explained in Chapter 8. The two main processes are called deliberate and emergent. Deliberate strategy-making uses a careful analysis of extensive amounts of data and is implemented top-down. An emergent strategy "bubbles up from within the organization". It often results from "tactical, day-to-day operating decisions" (see the example of Sam Walton and Wal-Mart). Table 8-1 on p.228 explains the discovery-driven method for managing the emergent strategy process.

Chapter 9 discusses funding issues, and in particular how the type of money used to fund a venture will affect its prospects because it defines the investor expectations that the managers will have to meet. Christensen and Raynor recommend a "patient for growth but impatient for profit" approach in the early states of a new business. The "death spiral" from inadequate growth is presented starting at p.237. 

Finally, the role of senior executives in leading new growth is described in Chapter 10 and the epilogue contains a summary of the authors' advice in thirteen points starting on p.288.

I found The Innovator's Solution to be packed with insightful advice and highly recommend it.


"The Numerati" by Stephen Baker

I read The Numerati some time ago and never got around to writing a post about it, so here is my long overdue summary. Stephen Baker is a former BusinessWeek writer with interests in technology; his latest book, Final Jeopardy: Man vs Machine and the Quest to Know Everything was published last month. The topic of The Numerati, according to the book jacket, is "a new math intelligentsia [who] is devising ways to dissect our every move [using the trail of data we leave on the Internet] and predict, with stunning accuracy, what we will do next, [in order] to manipulate our behavior."

Whoever wrote the book jacket got a bit carried away ("the mathematical modeling of humanity", really?) but the book itself makes an important contribution. It is divided in seven chapters: Worker, Shopper, Voter, Blogger, Terrorist, Patient and Lover; in each, Baker describes what he learned from extensive discussions with experts in the field. To be honest, I am not quite sure I belong to his intended audience (who seems to be the majority of the population who doesn't practice data-mining nor math modeling, and needs to be educated about the potential and pitfalls of data), although Baker did attend the INFORMS annual meeting two years ago and autographed some of his books to operations researchers. On the other hand, I don't know if the people who would benefit most from his research will be sufficiently interested in data-mining to buy a whole book on it - I can see how they would gain from an article in their favorite magazine, but a book is a tougher sell. Thankfully, The Numerati is now out on paperback and Kindle, so people can get the book relatively cheaply.

I found myself a bit frustrated at times by the book's high-level descriptions, since I understand the technical part enough to want to know more about the complexities faced by the experts Baker interviewed, but the level of technicality was excellent for a layperson interested in learning more. I particularly enjoyed reading the issues faced by Google's Adsense with respect to spam blogs, or splogs, (in the "blogger" chapter); as an update, Google changed the way it ranks search results just last month to try to fight content farms.

Also, the "patient" chapter was fascinating from beginning to end; it focused on networked gadgets that can help hospital patients or people in poor health. A scientist at Intel Research Lab whom Baker interviewed "sees sensors eventually recording and building statistical models of almost every aspect of our behavior. They'll track our pathways in the house, the rhythm of our gait." But Baker also points out that taking advantage of this technology is not as easy as it sounds. In my favorite anecdote, on p.158 of the hardcover edition, he explains: "One woman, researchers were startled to see, gained eight pounds between bedtime and breakfast. A dangerous accumulation of fluids? Time to call an ambulance? No. Her little dog had jumped on the bed and slept with her."

However, the potential of data analysis is undeniable: according to the Intel scientist, "specialists studying the actor Michael J Fox in his old TV shows can detect the onset of Parkinson's years before Fox himself knew he had it." (p.165) In another startling analysis, described p.177, researchers at University College London studied the manuscripts that prizewinning novelist Iris Murdoch left behind when she died of Alzheimer's, and were able to identify a curve followed by her use of language in her books, growing more complex until the height of her career and then falling off. While Baker sometimes oversells his case by picturing a distant future where our lives will be dominated by data-mining, rather than the more relevant (for readers) near- to medium- term, the studies he quotes are very interesting.

Finally, the "lover" chapter has an unexpected application to the resumes of job candidates: "according to BusinessWeek, 94 percent of US corporations ask for electronic resumes. They use software to sift through them, picking out a selection of "finalists" for human managers to consider." (p.195) Baker comments: "The point is that when we want to be found... we must make ourselves intelligible to machines. We need good page rank. We must fit ourselves to algorithms."


"Switch" by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

I recently read Switch: How to change when change is hard, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Here is my one-sentence review: The book is so good I feel sorry the authors have to sell it at the same price as the other hardcovers out there. If that's enough to convince you to give it a try, great. Otherwise, read on.

Some of you might have heard of the Heath brothers already: we owe them another bestseller, Made to Stick: Why some ideas survive and others die, which I haven't read but has received very positive media coverage; Chip Heath is a professor at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University and Dan Heath is a senior fellow at Duke University's Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship. Switch is said to have debuted at #1 on the New York Times and Wall Street Journal best-seller lists, and deserves all the acclaim heaped on it.

The book builds upon an idea found in The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt (another bestseller), specifically, that "[t]he mind is divided in many ways, but the division that really matters is between conscious/reasoned processes and automatic/implicit processes. These two parts are like a rider on the back of an elephant. The rider’s inability to control the elephant by force explains many puzzles about our mental life, particularly why we have such trouble with weakness of will. Learning how to train the elephant is the secret of self-improvement." (This quote is from the chapter-by-chapter summary on the Happiness Hypothesis website.)

The Heath brothers augment this framework by contributing a step-by-step, concrete approach to change based on the concepts of the rider and the elephant. The one-page summary is available at the end of the book and on the website after registration to the authors' email list; registration provides access to a significant amount of free resources for both Made to Stick and Switch. Here is the framework in a nutshell (the one-page summary has more details and explains the terminology):

  • Direct the rider: follow the bright spots, script the critical moves, point to the destination.
  • Motivate the elephant: find the feeling, shrink the change, grow your people.
  • Shape the path: tweak the environment, build habits, rally the herd.  

If you haven't read the book, those expressions won't make a lot of sense. (For instance, "script the critical moves" refers to the fact that you have to remove ambiguity in order to get people to act. The authors use the example of a weight-loss campaign in West Virginia. Instead of just telling residents to lose weight, which would have been confusing and counter-productive because the goal can be achieved in so many different ways, researchers at West Virginia University orchestrated a media campaign with the message that Americans should drink low-fat milk instead of whole milk. [Apparently there is as much saturated fat in a glass of whole milk as in five strips of bacon.] The instructions were simple, easy to remember and truly impacted the residents' buying habits at the grocery store. Buy low-fat instead of whole milk; no grey area allowed.)

But the fact is, if the book could be summarized in one page, it would make for a good magazine article but not a very interesting book. Switch's appeal lies not in its quick three-step formula, but in the abundance of real-life stories the authors share to make their point. It wouldn't do justice to the examples, and the extended treatment they receive in the book, to try to summarize them in a sentence or two here, so I'll just enumerate a few with page numbers, for those of you who are interested: how scripting critical parenting moves helped reform 80% of child abusers taking part in a study - twice as much as traditional anger management classes (p.63-67), how a Teach for America teacher turned a class of underperforming first-graders, who were lacking basic kindergarten skills when the school year began, into thriving "third-graders" by the time it ended (p.73-76), how returning to a drug-free environment helped almost all Vietnam war veterans who had become addicted during their tour quit using drugs, so that the epidemic the US government feared did not happen (p.203-207).  

The field of operations research and management science is even mentioned briefly when the authors describe the prowess of Gerard Cachon, then editor-in-chief of the Manufacturing and Service Operations Management journal, as he "rallied the herd" and succeeded in having most referees hand in their reviews substantially faster than before (p.229-32). 

(As a side note, thanks to the book, I learned about Clocky, "a clock for people who have trouble getting out of bed. When the snooze bar is pressed, Clocky rolls off the table and finds a hiding spot, a new one every day." I loved the idea, and it came as no surprise that the inventor, a fellow MIT alumna, had studied at the Media Lab. You can see pictures of Clocky by following the link above.)

Switch is extremely well-researched and draws anecdotes from many fields, from social services to health care to management, which will make it appealing to a wide range of readers. It is, without a doubt, one of the best business books of 2010 so far.


"Three Cups of Tea", by Greg Mortenson and David Relin

Lehigh’s Office of the First-Year Experience has assigned international best-seller Three Cups of Tea, by former mountaineer Greg Mortenson and journalist David Relin, for the incoming first-year students to read over the summer. The reading program is part of the evoLUtion seminar, a four-week seminar geared towards helping the freshmen (and freshwomen) make the transition into college. Over the past few years, many colleges and universities have introduced reading programs for their incoming classes, with the goal of building a sense of community by giving the students shared academic experiences early on. While I'm not sure that the reading program is nearly as successful in terms of community building as the events held during Orientation Week, I find any activity that makes teenagers read highly welcome.

As a faculty volunteer for the evoLUtion seminar, I have to read the book over the summer too. I had mixed feelings about Three Cups of Tea before I began. Although I was aware of its status as international best-seller, I had read some negative reviews about the book, which are hinted at in the Bookmarks magazine excerpt published on Amazon.com – it was supposed to tell a great story but in a grating style, and was overly focused on heaping praise on Greg Mortenson. (I also heard, and I’m sorry I don’t remember my source but the story is repeated on Wikipedia, that the book wasn’t selling too well with its initial subtitle of “One man’s mission to fight terrorism one school at a time”: only 20,000 copies were bought in the hardcover edition. Then, at Mortenson's prompting, the subtitle was changed to “One man’s mission to promote peace one school at a time,” and the book found itself propelled onto the bestseller lists, landing a coveted #1 spot on the New York Times rankings. Excellent marketing lesson.)

Three Cups of Tea turned out to be an engrossing, and very well-written, account of the extraordinary mission former climber Greg Mortenson set for himself after a failed attempt at climbing K2 (reputedly the most dangerous summit in the world): to build schools, especially for girls, in Pakistan. Mortenson, exhausted after his aborted bid for the summit, wandered off the track on the way down and ended up in the wrong village – a village Western climbers usually didn’t go through. He befriended the population and promised them he would come back to build a school for the village children, who studied their lessons in a field, and were even left by themselves on the days the teacher they shared with another village was away teaching the other children.

Mortenson was a bit of a Californian drifter back then, living in his car to save money, working as an ER nurse to pay the bills and spending his free time first climbing and later writing letters asking for money for the school. (Budget: $12,000, in early 1990s money.) I liked that he discovered, in his mid-thirties, what has become his claim to posterity by accident – so many students are expected to figure out their passion by the time they graduate from college, which is unrealistic – and he struggled to raise the money for months afterward. The people he contacted (painstakingly typing 580 letters one by one at a typewriter because he did not know about word processing) did not exactly fall over themselves to lend money to a stranger with no track record, no matter how worthy his goal sounded. I cannot think of a better lesson in fortitude and perseverance. Ultimately, a philanthropist named Jean Hoerni wrote the check for the whole amount Mortenson needed.

In Pakistan, the idea of building schools for the local children aroused much enthusiasm and Mortenson benefited from the advice of several Pakistanis, who helped him decipher local customs and introduced him to the right people to buy construction materials for the school. The need to rely on others, and to build schools in places where Mortenson already had contacts (a foray in Waziristan, where he ventured alone, could have ended tragically), was reinforced throughout the book. Those are valuable insights in business too. In addition, his criticism of the US media (the “circus”, as his driver called the whole thing), dropped in Pakistan after September 2001 with little understanding of the area, provides an interesting perspective. The hate mail Mortenson received in late 2001 for helping Muslims is contrasted with the overwhelmingly positive reaction that followed an article about him in the magazine Parade in April 2003. Eye-opening, the difference eighteen months can make.

Mortenson makes many important points. He explains that offering Pakistani children a better future through schools, in addition to being a source of great pride and excitement for Pakistanis, is key to winning the war against terrorism. To stop suicide bombings, he says, you have to give youngsters a reason to believe life is better than death; abject poverty just won’t do it. Education is a critical component of that fight. (“The enemy is ignorance,” a Pakistani Brigadier General is quoted as saying.) Mortenson also emphasizes the need to view Pakistan as many tribes with their own history, tribes who might or might not coexist well together. It comes as no surprise that, according to the afterword, the book has become “required reading for senior US military commanders, Pentagon officers in counter-insurgency training, and Special Forces deploying to Afghanistan.”

What about the criticism that the book glorifies Mortenson? Three Cups of Tea is indeed very positive about its main character, understandably so since he co-authored it, but I never felt that the book tried to gloss over his failings. For instance, the book does not hide that board members of the Central Asia Institute, which Mortenson directs and which raises money to build schools in Pakistan (and now Afghanistan), have criticized his inability to delegate or train replacements, and the fact that he is stretched too thin; this has even led Jean Hoerni’s widow, a former board member, to step down. (Another business lesson: the need to delegate to sustain growth. There comes a point where you can no longer do everything by yourself.)

Yes, the Central Asia Institute sounds a lot like a one-man show, with superhero Mortenson accomplishing incredible feats for the children of Pakistan, day in and day out. But you need a lot of self-confidence to attempt a climb of K2; besides, Mortenson shows himself eager to learn local customs and respectful of others’ religions – he’s not a know-it-all. When he tries to make people stick to his schedule to build a school, the elder of the village takes him aside and gently explains that he is driving everyone crazy. Mortenson learns the lesson and changes his ways. Later, as the foundation has a more solid financial footing, he does hire people to help him and finally gives himself an overdue raise. (He was originally paid about $25,000 a year. It’s a good thing he settled down in Montana with his wife rather than, say, Boston or San Francisco.)

As a side note, I enjoyed reading Tom Brokaw’s blurb on the front of the paperback edition: “Thrilling… proof that one ordinary person, with the right combination of character and determination, really can change the world.” Of the 580 people Mortenson contacted by mail before Jean Hoerni decided to help, a single one replied, with “a check for one hundred dollars and a note wishing him luck.” That person was Tom Brokaw.

In summary, I thought the book was excellent. Mortenson is an inspiring figure and hopefully will motivate first-year students to aim high and dream big. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Stones into Schools, about Mortenson building schools in Afghanistan.


"A Whole New Mind"

Some books are ground-breaking. Others read like inflated magazine articles from authors who fill pages with trite observations for the pleasure of charging $15 for the paperback of their musings. "A Whole New Mind" belongs to the second category. (I shudder to think it was once offered in hardcover, for which the publisher charged $25 or more.)

The author's thesis is that the era of left-brain dominance is gone and people now need to develop the right side of their brain. Goodbye lawyers, accountants, software engineers; hello designers, inventors, teachers, storytellers. The author lists the following three factors as having contributed to this situation:

  • Abundance: "The prosperity [L-directed thinking] has unleashed has placed a premium on less rational, more R-Directed sensibilities - beauty, spirituality, emotion."
  • Asia: companies have been more and more knowledge work to Asia.
  • Automation: routine tasks in many jobs are now turned over to computers.

The author, Daniel Pink, advocates the development of the following skills (introduced on p.65):

  1. Design. Today people have to "create a product, a service, an experience... that is also beautiful, whimsical, or emotionally engaging." (To develop this skill, Pink advises, among other things, to read design magazines. Fair enough. But then he includes as an example: "O Magazine - Oprah Winfrey's publication, which bears its creator's design sensibility, is one of my three favorite magazines of any kind. Period." (p.91) That's when the author - a former speechwriter of Al Gore's and straight married male - lost any credibility with me. Sorry, Oprah. My three favorite magazines of any kind are The Economist, Harvard Business Review and Yoga Journal. But hey, they all bear their creator's design sensibilities too.) For more on "design thinking", this article in The Economist is a must-read.
  2. Story. "The essence of persuasion, communication, and self-understanding has become the ability also to fashion a compelling narrative." (Pink advises to sit in a crowded place such as an airport and make up stories about strangers.)
  3. Symphony, or "seeing the big picture, crossing boundaries, and being able to combine disparate pieces into an arresting new whole." (Learn to draw.)
  4. Empathy. "What will distinguish those who thrive [from those who don't] will be their ability to understand what makes their fellow woman or man tick, to forge relationships, and to care for others." (Volunteer. Take an acting class. Measure your empathy quotient.)
  5. Play, or: video games are good for you. The story of the video game America's Army, developed by a West Point professor, is worth reading - it starts on p.189. (Sample of Pink's advice: find a laughter club, play the cartoon captions game.)
  6. Meaning. Find meaning in your life. (Read Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.)

The book had mostly good ideas (except for the part where MFA [Master of Fine Arts] is supposed to be the new MBA and companies allegedly want to hire poets to put in business positions - thankfully, Katherine Bell in this HBR blog post offers some convincing arguments as to why the idea has merits; it would have been nice if Pink had backed up his ideas a little more himself). The arguments, though, were rather shallow and the stories were never explored in any depth. I began to suspect that the author was desperate to fill pages when, in the "Abundance, Asia and Automation" chapter, he shows a picture of a rather ordinary toilet brush he bought at Target (p.34, everyone). He says the toilet brush has been designed by a renowned architecture professor at Princeton. There is no reason whatsoever to print a picture of it, especially since it looks like any other toilet brush you have ever seen and the picture takes half a page.

In the Design chapter, we are treated to the photograph (p.73) of a former student of the Charter High School for Architecture and Design (CHAD) in Philadelphia, which takes another half-page although that student is never even mentioned in the text. And I am very happy for the student that, according to the caption, he enrolled at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design and I wish him the best, but there is still no reason to print - in the middle of a chapter - the large picture of someone who is not mentioned in the text itself. I would have loved to learn more about CHAD, whose goal is to "use design to teach core academic subjects" to high-school students who, for the most part, "come from some of the roughest neighborhoods in Philadelphia." Before they enrolled in the charter school, "one-third read and did math at a third-grade level." (p.71) Unfortunately, the book does not go in any kind of details into the curriculum or the way students are taught to develop their right brain.

From the "Fast Facts" page on CHAD's website: "CHAD is the first charter high school for architecture and design in the nation. Design is central to the curriculum, and used as the instrument to help students develop: 1) creative problem-solving skills, 2) visual and spatial literacy and competencies, and 3) an appreciation for and understanding of the physical environment and its impact on our quality of life."

From the "Accomplishments" page on CHAD's website: "[Students] are serving as mentors in the Architecture in Education program. Architecture in Education brings architects, landscape architects and other design professionals into classrooms to help young people understand what it takes to make buildings and communities work for the people who live in them. Our students are partnering with graduate students from the University of Pennsylvania program of Architecture and are working with kids at Shaw Middle School and The Henry School. For more information, visit www.aiaphila.org/aie."

Also: "Several students, in all grades, are participating in the ACE Mentor Program, founded by prominent structural engineer, Dr. Charles Thornton. The ACE Mentor Program serves high school youth who are exploring careers in Architecture, Construction, or Engineering. The mentors are professionals from leading design and construction firms who volunteer their time and expertise. The program is designed to engage, inform, and challenge youth. This past year, three CHAD seniors were awarded college scholarships at the close of the program. For more information, visit www.ACEmentor.org"

There was a wonderful story waiting to be told about CHAD and it is a pity the author did not take the time to tell it.

Overall, the book would have made a superb magazine article for, say, Harvard Business Review, but there simply isn't enough substance in the author's research to turn this into a full-fledged book without a stretch. (Tom Davenport provides valuable counter-arguments to Pink in this HBR blog post. For instance: "The best statisticians and quantitative analysts are intuitive and creative. What is a hypothesis other than an intuition about what's going on in the data? And if they can't explain their results to decision-makers in metaphorical, easy-to-understand terms, they're not going to be very influential.") That did not prevent "A Whole New Mind" from becoming a New York Times and BusinessWeek best-seller. Pink's new book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, is out in hardcover now.


"A Prayer for the City"

This weekend I read "A Prayer for the City" by Buzz Bissinger (who, as H.G. Bissinger, also wrote best-selling "Friday Night Lights", leading to the movie and the TV series). It is an account of Ed Rendell's first term (1992-1995) as mayor of Philadelphia. I first learned about the book when I read a profile about his former Chief of Staff David L. Cohen in Philadelphia Magazine ("David L, explained", November 2009). I am sure the book must be quite well-known around here, but since I was not even in the States - let alone in Pennsylvania - when it was first published in 1997, I managed not to be aware of it for all these years.

I love nonfiction books that make you feel you're sitting in the room with the protagonists and follow their every move second by second, especially when there is an element of public service or greater good involved: "All the president's men" by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, "All too human" by George Stephanopoulos, "Hope in the unseen" by Ron Suskind. "A Prayer for the City" is in the same vein and provides a gripping picture of not only Rendell as mayor but also of the condition of Philadelphia in the early 1990s.

I loved the book, but as someone who lives close enough from Philadelphia, I will say the book left me with a very, very bleak picture of the city. I understand the facts described took place fifteen years ago; besides, New York City used to be a very unsafe place to live in in the early 1990s and has much improved, so one can't really judge Philadelphia today by how it was during the first half of the Rendell administration. But the book is very depressing. The Amazon.com review states: "It doesn't end with the eradication of the city's many social ills, but it does end with a second term, and with hope." Sure, Bissinger tells us toward the end of the book that Rendell has improved Philadelphia, although he is short on details, but what he shows over and over again is a city faced with terrible and senseless violence.

What I will remember most from the book is the litany of tragic deaths Bissinger mentions (some having taken place before Rendell became mayor), such as the murders of Sean Daily, son of a then Philadelphia police officer, who was tortured and beaten to death at age 17 for no reason by a gang of angry teenagers in May 1989, and of Robert Janke, a pre-med student who had just arrived to the city in August 1991 and called a friend from a pay phone in the wee hours of the morning after locking himself out (he was robbed of $5 by three teenagers roaming around looking for trouble and then shot in the head, execution-style). Oh, and the city employee who wanted to live in Philadelphia so badly but is forced to move because of safety concerns and ends up in Chestnut Hill, supposedly one of the nice neighborhoods in the city, is mugged in broad daylight as she is waiting for the train on the platform one morning shortly after rush hour. (Apparently, you don't want to be waiting on the platform, even during your morning commute. You want to wait in the waiting room with all the other people.)

And the Philadelphia Housing Authority! "By 1992, the vacancy rate at the housing authority, the fourth largest in the country, had climbed to 20 percent while the waiting list had grown to at least thirteen thousand applicants." (p.188) In fact, it took about four years and a half to reoccupy a vacant unit. Besides, "in a random inspection of eighty-seven units, eighty-six had failed HUD's standards for safe and sanitary housing. Each unit inspected averaged eleven violations." The story of the one-year-old who was permanently scarred by radiators that "raged with such heat 365 days a year that [the tenant] could put a pot of water on top of them and literally boil eggs" (p.189) was heart-breaking.

And the unions! It took three people to change a lightbulb at Philadelphia International Airport: "a building mechanic to remove the cover of the light panel, an electrician to actually replace the fluorescent-light fixture, and a custodian to clean up any dust or debris that might fall to the floor during the light-changing ritual." (p.113, paperback edition) What about cleaning city walls? (p.113-4) You also want to read the story of the leaked memo and of the "programmer for the Revenue Department who was dismissed by the city after his six-month probationary period because he repeatedly left work to play pinball and video games at local arcades" whose union fought the city in court on the grounds that his "preference for arcade games was a gambling addiction and therefore should be treated as a handicap": after the city won (following about three years of hearings), "the employee went to work for the city's Board of Pensions and Retirement." (p.113) Of course.

I thought the book was very positive about Rendell up until the last quarter, when the journalist shows Rendell becoming, shall we say, quite cranky when he's got too many things scheduled. On p.295, Bissinger quotes an excerpt of a letter the Philadelphia Inquirer's city editor, David Tucker, wrote to Rendell: "Thank you for apologizing to Amy Rosenberg today for having grabbed her neck yesterday afternoon in reaction to questions she was asking you in City Hall. [...] We regard it as absolutely inappropriate to grab an individual's neck, whatever the provocation."

And the 6-year-old Michelle Cutner who was killed in the crossfire of a gun battle! And the scandal of the 911 operators who didn't dispatch a police car for 40 minutes after the first call of panicked witnesses, leaving a 16-year-old boy dead, beaten to death by an angry mob "bent on revenge for what turned out to be a bogus claim of rape" (p.323-324)! And all the dreadful statistics about the middle class leaving Philadelphia for the suburbs! And the subpar public schools! And the city wages tax!

Bissinger mentioned here and there that Rendell was sometimes viewed as "Center City's mayor", being more preoccupied in making the historic part of Philadelphia attractive for well-heeled residents and tourists alike, for instance with the Avenue of the Arts (created in 1993 to "coordinate, oversee and encourage the development of Philadelphia's rich art district", according to its website), but there is no space in the book spent describing Rendell at work on those projects. 

All in all, I didn't feel the book conveyed much hope for the city, although Rendell was portrayed in a mostly positive light and certainly did his best to resurrect Philadelphia. But "A Prayer for the City" remains an excellent book, which tells a sobering story of local politics and urban America.


"Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer

I recently finished reading "Into Thin Air," by Jon Krakauer - a best-selling eyewitness account of the 1996 Everest tragedy, where eight climbers were killed and many others were stranded near the top of Everest during a storm in May 1996. I decided to write a post on the book when I realized it held many valuable lessons on leadership for students and graduates, even if they have no interest in mountain-climbing.

Krakauer was at the time a journalist for Outside magazine with significant mountain-climbing experience. He had gained a spot on the team of famed guide Rob Hall, who had launched his Adventure Consultants company to guide clients on top of the world's highest mountains, in order to write about the commercialization of Mount Everest, i.e., the idea that wealthy people who had done relatively little mountain-climbing could get to the top of Everest if only they were willing to spend the money (the fee was about §65,000). The Adventure Consultants team happened to be on Everest at the same time as another commercial expedition led by accomplished climber Scott Fischer and his Mountain Madness company, as well as several other teams, some apparently inexperienced.  

I can't do the book any justice in a few paragraphs, so I'll simply mention the points that struck me most and hope that interested readers will buy Krakauer's book to get the full picture. It is worth saying upfront that both Rob Hall and Scott Fisher, who come across in the book as exceptionally competent and talented, died on Everest that day, along with some of their clients and a Sherpa. (The other Sherpa mentioned in the dedication page died later.)

A fundamental challenge in ascending peaks like Everest is that air above 8,000m becomes extremely rarefied. There are only fourteen mountains in the world with maximum altitudes higher than 8,000m and while top climbers strive to conquer every single one of them, that also means their brain faculties become severely impeded at such elevations and they cannot spend much time in the zone above 25,000 feet without endangering their lives, even when there is no storm. According to Krakauer, Rob Hall had a rule about turnaround times (to make sure his exhausted clients would be able to make it back to camp before dark, since they traveled light to the summit and did not have much equipment with them.) He had announced before the summit bid that the turnaround time on that day would be either 1pm or 2pm, depending on conditions. He does not appear to have communicated the actual time to anyone, including any of the other guides. On May 10, he waited until 4pm on the summit for his last client to arrive, before starting the descent.

An important question Krakauer raises is: why didn't Hall enforce his own rule? The journalist suggests several answers. That last client was a postal worker who had been turned around short of the summit the previous year, and had worked two jobs to fulfill his dream of climbing Everest. Little kids had sold T-Shirts to help him fund the trip. He was writing them postcards during the trip. The postal worker seems to have become increasingly focused on making the summit during the year between the two summit bids, and Hall had convinced him to give it another try by giving him a discount. Therefore, Hall was far more emotionally invested than usual in that specific client reaching the summit. (Which he did, but he died during the descent.)

In addition, both Hall and Fisher needed to guide as many clients to the top as possible to gain new clients in future years and see their climbing companies prosper. Although they respected each other, they also competed for business. The number of clients they would be able to bring to the top would directly affect their income stream in following years. Therefore, Hall and Fischer might have taken more risks than they would have with professional mountaineers. (Of course, it is likely neither Hall nor Fischer realized they were taking serious risks with their clients' lives and their own at the time, until it was too late.) Another point Krakauer courageously makes, although he is obviously uncomfortable with it, is that the presence of a journalist in the group (himself), who had been assigned the task of reporting on the expedition, might have pushed Hall and Fischer beyond their limits, again because they wanted good PR. The tragic outcome of the 1996 expedition emphasizes how emotional involvement can override rational safeguards and lead to catastrophes.

Another lesson of the book revolves around money as a motivator. I have already mentioned that money seems to have played an important role in Hall's and Fischer's decisions because they needed good PR to keep their companies in business. More generally, climbers needed to guide clients to the top in order to come up with the money to secure expedition permits, but some climbers do not come across, in Krakauer's book, as overly enthusiastic about focusing on clients. Anatoli Boukreev in particular, a top Russian guide on Scott Fischer's team, made the ascent without additional oxygen (something Krakauer points out is very unusual for guides, who need all their brainpower to help clients if the latter get in trouble), and started the descent once he had reached the summit without waiting for late clients (a decision necessitated by the fact he had no additional oxygen). This reminded me that not everyone who is technically skilled makes a good manager/supervisor. Boukreev did courageously attempt to rescue stranded climbers once he realized they were in trouble, but his portrayal in Krakauer's book created much animosity between Krakauer and him, as well as a co-author who helped Boukreev write his own version of what had happened. Even if Boukreev did perform heroically on the summit (something that will never be known for sure, since he died in 1997 on another mountain), Krakauer strongly suggests financial pressures played an indirect role in the tragedy, because guides were forced to accept people of various abilities on the team and needed the money to enjoy their own passion of the mountains in a financially viable scheme.

I was surprised to read about the ferocity of the personal attacks Krakauer was subjected to, after the publication of his book, from Boukreev's co-author (because Krakauer's version of the facts did not suit him, for obvious reasons). Krakauer provides a glimpse into some readers' reactions in the postscript, and shows that the truth antagonizes certain people more than any work of fiction would. Some people will not hesitate resorting to personal attacks to gain the upper hand, but Krakauer's book is now heralded as "one of the great adventure books of all time" by the Wall Street Journal.

Finally, I enjoyed reading about the drive and determination of the various protagonists, including the clients of the expeditions. In an environment where students face intense pressure to fit - and especially to shrink to fit - it is refreshing to read about people passionate about their lifestyle and pursuing their endeavors with single-minded determination.