You can look at my home page for more information, but the short answer is that I'm a dilettante who likes thinking about a variety of subjects. I like to think of myself as a systems-level thinker, more concerned with the big picture than with the details. Current interests include politics, community formation, and social interface design. Plus books, of course.
Experimentation Matters, by Stefan Thomke
I'm not sure where I originally heard about this book, but given my preference for rapid prototyping in my work, I thought it would be interesting. Thomke is a Harvard Business School professor who's spent the last ten years studying how experimentation is integrated into and leveraged by organizations. This book is his attempt to explain "why experimentation is so critical to innovation, underscores the impact of new technologies, and outlines what managers must do to integrate them successfully."
This is a book that's difficult for me to review, mostly because so much of what Thomke espouses is just common sense to me. Unfortunately, much of the business world does not see it that way, so books like this and Serious Play are necessary to make the case for rapid prototyping.
Thomke identifies the main business benefit of experimentation as being cost savings. By experimenting more early, unfruitful approaches can be discarded, and resources can be shifted to more successful methods. It is a matter of managing uncertainty, from "technical uncertainty", where it's unclear whether something is possible, to "production uncertainty", where it's unclear whether it's scalable, to "need uncertainty", where it's unclear what the customer desires, to "market uncertainty", as described by The Innovator's Dilemma. The earlier a company can test its assumptions about these various areas of uncertainty, the better.
One of the key culture shifts that Thomke identifies as being crucial to integrating experimentation into a company's processes is the need to reward failure. When an experiment fails, it should be recognized as just as much of an accomplishment as an experiment succeeding. Both cases provide information to the company on what will and will not work. The only true mistake in an experimentation culture is performing an experiment that provides no new information, due to poor experiment design. However, most companies punish employees whose experiments fail, thus creating an environment where employees waste months writing reports and justifying their position before actually trying an experiment to get an answer. A company that rewarded failure would get answers and find its way onto the correct track faster, as I suggest in Trust but Verify post.
Thomke breaks the experimentation process into four steps: Design, Build, Run, and Analyze. He suggests that the organizations that will be the most successful are the ones that can most rapidly perform this process iteratively. Thomas Edison apparently optimized his laboratory to maximize the number of experiments that could be run, to the point of having machine shops and storerooms located next to the actual laboratory, so that scientists could quickly get what they needed.
With the advent of ever more powerful simulation and design tools, Thomke believes that companies should be testing more than ever before. He uses the example of a BMW safety design team. By studying some early prototype crashes, "engineers on the team had learned that in crash after crash, a small section of the B pillar folded." (p.34) Aha! The engineers decided to add metal to the pillar to strengthen it. Done. Move on.
"One development team member, however, insisted on verification, pointing out that it would be neither difficult nor expensive to do this via computer simulation. When the program was run, the group was shocked to discover that strengthening the folded area actually decreased crashworthiness... reinforcing the lower part of the B pillar made the part higher up - above the reinforced part - prone to buckling... the solution to the folding-B-pillar problem turned out to be completely counterintuitive: Weaken it rather than reinforce it."
This is a case where simulation, and trying things out, led the design team to a wholly new solution, one which they would never have considered trying. With today's tools, it is often faster to build a prototype and try something than it is to discuss the feasibility of something.
I liked Thomke's discussion of how a company's processes have to change to accommodate experimentation. Beyond the ideas already mentioned (experiment early, experiment often), Thomke identifies three "Realities" that impede companies:
I particularly like #3. This is a common theme in my thoughts (although it doesn't really show up in my blog, oddly enough). I believe that technology determinism, the idea that technology will drive social change, is naive. Technology is only used when it can be embedded into people's already existing behavior. A company can install Lotus Notes, which theoretically enables all sorts of collaboration possibilities, and what happens? Everybody ends up just using it for email. Until there is a need to be filled, technology is just a doorstop. However, when there is a need, technology will be warped and twisted to fill that need, no matter how inadequate the technology is (this is the story of social software).
His last chapter is an exploration of the idea that companies should move "the locus of experimentation" to the customer by providing the customer with the tools necessary to do their own product development. In the normal model, the company goes to great expense to determine what customer needs are via market research, identifies the largest volume needs (because their centralized production process can only serve the lowest common denominator), and serves those customers. Thomke points out the problem with this model:
"Customers with low-volume needs have little choice but to go elsewhere... The missed opportunity, however, is that there are thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands of potential customers out there whose cumulative volume needs for custom [work is] significant."
It's the "long tail" of customers showing up in yet another form, customers that are only accessible by throwing open the tools of production, and letting customers do what they will. Again, my social software rant demonstrates my affection for this idea.
Lots of good stuff here. Again, I think most of this stuff is pretty obvious, but it's good to get the backing of a Harvard Business School prof. It's also good, because he's done the case studies and the literature research necessary to support my bald assertions (things like providing the references to the importance of feedback in learning (p.126 note 20), that making changes late in the product development process can be 100 times more costly than early (p. 197 note 4), and that trying to maximize the capacity of a scarce resource in an organization often leads to bottlenecks for everybody (p. 236 note 2) - this is the swapping problem in computers, but it's more broadly applicable). I'm not sure I'd bother recommending this book if you already believe in rapid prototyping and experimentation, but if you have a recalcitrant MBA boss, I'd recommend this over Serious Play as a book to help change their minds.
posted at: 20:45 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal
Gonzo Marketing, by Christopher Locke
Subtitled "Winning through Worst Practices", this book caught my eye when poking around the clearance section of a bookstore. Plus it referred to "gonzo" marketing, and since I'm a huge fan of Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo journalism, I picked it up.
Christopher Locke was one of the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto, which I never got around to reading, but meant to. In this book, he builds on Cluetrain and tries to outline what will follow the era of mass media and mass marketing, two institutions that he claims are soon to be dead. He calls his ideas "gonzo marketing", with the conceit that, just as gonzo journalism rejected any pretense at objectivity and was all about letting loose with one's individual voice, gonzo marketing rejects any pretense at professionalism and lets loose the individual voices of people within a company.
The idea that mass media is starting to come to an end is a pretty common one these days. The internet is allowing millions of new voices to publish their own viewpoints, and the mindshare held by mass media like television and newspapers is rapidly declining. Instead, people's attention is spread over the long tail of other media, or as Locke refers to it, micromedia. Locke points out that mass marketing, with ads that appeal to the lowest common denominator, will probably not survive the death of mass media. But how can a large company advertise to the plethora of micromarkets that results? His answer is "gonzo marketing".
Unfortunately, he never really defines what he means. Building off of the Cluetrain idea that "markets are conversations", Locke believes that the best way for companies to engage their potential customers is to treat them as genuine people, rather than bovine consumers. For companies to develop an authentic voice, and engage with their audience as equals, not in the predator-prey relationship evident in such terms as targeted advertising. He has a couple examples of ways in which "gonzo marketing" might manifest itself, including underwriting of independent websites without explicit pushing of product, and fostering of communities of interest of their employees with the idea that their employees would serve as ambassadors of good will. But I thought he could have spent less time ranting, and more time developing the concepts of "gonzo marketing".
He does ask a good question, which is why "professional" is now synonymous with boring. Corporate websites don't have even an iota of personal voice in them. You can skim somebody's blog, and get a good idea of the type of person they are in a few minutes, but reading a press release is like watching paint dry. I know that part of it is the fear of legal recriminations, but it's boring. So I applaud his efforts to encourage more companies to find an authentic voice.
The other criticism I have of the book is that he attempts to write it in a "gonzo" style, which I don't think works for a book of this type. Gonzo writing works better when relating experiences, than for trying to explain ideas. To convey an idea to a reader requires constructing a good map to the world. And rambling on in a stream-of-consciousness format just makes Locke seem like he suffers from literary Tourette's. In other words, he's not a good enough writer to pull off the style and make it interesting.
One of those books that looked more interesting in the store than it does upon completion. Alas.
posted at: 23:09 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal
In Search of Stupidity, by Merrill R. Chapman
I picked this book up after reading the interesting foreword that Joel Spolsky wrote for it. Chapman's insight was that several of the companies lauded for having a great corporate culture in the famous business book In Search of Excellence had fallen off the face of the planet within a few years. From his own experience, he concluded that there was no singular "culture of excellence". Companies that survived were simply companies that avoided making hideously stupid blunders. A simple prescription, you'd think. Alas, no.
Chapman describes, as the subtitle declares, "Over 20 years of high-tech marketing disasters". He witnessed several of them from the inside as a marketing executive. Stupid cases like releasing two different products with the same name so that your customers had no idea which one to buy (Micropro had Wordstar and Wordstar 2000 competing against each other). Or the IBM PS/2 fiasco. Or Ed Esber, the CEO of Ashton-Tate, who enraged his customers (by threatening to sue them, calling them "parasites" and daring them to "Make my day!") to the point where one developer told Chapman (a product manager for Ashton-Tate at the time) "Ed Esber is a diseased amoeboid life form with the intelligence of a sick protozoa."
Lots of fun stories like that in this book. Chapman lived through several of these disasters, so he's got lots of good details sprinkled throughout. He's also got an engaging story-telling voice, which makes the book just zip along. I can't say that I learned that much from the book, but it was a quick read, and an enjoyable stroll through the last twenty years of techno-history (I had lots of "Oh, yeah, I remember that!" moments as they described various products).
P.S. In case any of my readers are curious about my increased rate of book consumption, it's because the holidays are over, which means there's lots of traffic on the Bay Bridge, which frustrated me to the point where I started taking BART regularly again (2-3 times a week for the past three weeks). An hour and a half of enforced reading time each day means I can keep up with the Economist, and finish four books in the last few weeks. Crazy stuff. I'm actually through my last Amazon order, and considering ordering more. Yay!
posted at: 00:32 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal
Managers Not MBAs, by Henry Mintzberg
I read about this book in the Economist, and the concept intrigued me. I've been in the business world long enough to develop the typical technologists' disdain for MBAs and their lack of domain knowledge and emphasis on numbers that are probably meaningless. I was looking forward to reading this book to gain more armament in my arguments against such a restrictive view of management. Alas, it did not deliver in that promise.
The problem is that Mintzberg takes it for granted that MBAs and their analysis-centric view of the world are wrong, and that the more touchy-feely know-your-business synthesist view of management is right. He spends the first several chapters of the book ranting about the evils of the MBA, and how it is damaging not only companies, but the MBAs themselves, as well as society as a whole. That part of the book uses a lot of "Clearly"s and "Obviously"s, which up the emotional quotient, but aren't actually an argument. I think I agree with his viewpoint for the most part, but he makes a very poor case for it.
The second half of the book is his recommendation as to what management education should look like. Naturally, it is a description of the program that he helped to design, the International Masters in Practicing Management. I didn't find this part very interesting, and had to slog through it.
So, short answer, don't bother reading this. I'll tell you everything of interest in the book in the following list of bullet points.
"It would be nice if we could carry reality around in our heads and use it to make our decisions. Unfortunately, no head is that big. So we carry around theories, or models, instead: conceptual frameworks that simplify the reality to help us understand it. Hence, these theories better be good! The university is society's instrument for developing and disseminating good theories." (p.249)
Understanding the difference between the map and the territory is huge, and something that I wish we could teach better. Good maps (aka theories) are enormously helpful, and worthy of sharing. But at some point, you have to connect the theories with your particular situation, your territory. And the IMPM program sounds like it gives its students a chance to do that.
Sources of Power, by Gary Klein
Subtitled "How People Make Decisions", this book attempts to explore the process of decision-making from a perspective far outside the normal business-world-oriented theories. In business school, people are taught that the right way to make a decision is to define the problem, generate a list of possible solutions, evaluate all of the possible solutions, and then carry out a course of action. Klein spent twenty years studying decision making in the field, from firefighters to nurses in the emergency room, and proposes an alternative theory that describes how people make decisions in the real world ("Naturalistic Decision-Making"), calling it the "Recognition-Primed Decision Model".
Klein's interest in this area began when his consulting firm was asked to "study how people make decisions under time pressure" by the U.S. Army. Without a war to study, he chose to study firefighters, who often have to "function under the stress of having to make choices with high stakes". He went in believing in the "rational" decision-making methodology described above. But after observing and interviewing firefighters, he found that such a model did not correspond at all with what they actually did. In fact, one fireground commander, when asked about how he made difficult decisions, claimed, "I don't make decisions. I don't remember when I've ever made a decision." Klein was startled to hear this. When pressed, the commander "agreed that there were options, yet it was usually obvious what to do in any given situation." He was not listing options and comparing them, as the normal decision-making methodology would have. He was just reacting to the situation.
"The commanders' secret was that their experience let them see a situation, even a nonroutine one, as an example of a prototype, so they knew the typical course of action right away. Their experience let them identify a reasonable reaction as the first one they considered, so they did not bother thinking of others. They were not being perverse. They were being skillful. We now call this strategy recognition-primed decision making."
Klein goes on to explore how RPD works. What are the elements that let an expert immediately generate good options? How do teams work under the RPD model? What lets an expert quickly evaluate whether an option is good enough, and decide whether to move on to another option? He does this primarily through careful interviews and observations. His team focuses on a scenario, identifies the key decision points, and reviews them with the subject afterwards to see what they thought of at the decision point. It's an anecdote-based system, but a powerful one for generating a model. And when they have tested the system, for instance by studying how chess players of different levels handle time pressure, the results have supported their theories.
Part of the issue with the normal model is that it's completely unrealistic. In the laboratory, it is easy to study how people make decisions; you give them a goal, and some information, and examine how they use the information to move towards that goal. In the situations that Klein covers, the goals are undefined and can change on a moment-by-moment basis. The information is incomplete and disorganized, so you have to take your best guess, start acting on it, and then see if the situation evolves as you expect it to. For instance, he describes fire-fighters who go into a house, thinking that it's a small fire in the basement, then realize that it's a much bigger fire because it's spread up a laundry chute, switch priorities from putting out the fire to search-and-rescue, calling in a second alarm to get some more help.
The situation is evolving constantly, and an expert will know which elements are important to follow, and which are not. The expert has been in a situation enough times before that they can mentally simulate what should be happening, and recognize when things are deviating from their expectancies, which is a sign of danger. Another good example: a fire commander goes into a building for what he thinks is a regular kitchen fire. As he's scouting around, he realizes that it's not behaving like a normal fire. It's too quiet, and too hot. He doesn't like it, and pulls his team out of the house. A few moments later, the floor of the house collapses - the fire was actually in the basement. He had no idea that there was even a basement, but his experience let him know that something was wrong, and that he needed to figure out why the situation diverged from his expectations before he continued.
Klein goes into much further detail of how experts "see the invisible" (because they know what signs to look for), generate a course of action, mentally simulate the results of that action, and then carry it out. He also describes the non-linear aspects of problem solving; it's an iterative process, where you continually are updating your mental model with the results of what has occurred compared to your expectations. He devotes a chapter to the power of stories, a topic dear to my heart. He talks about the power to read minds, where if a commander communicates his intent clearly, not just of the plan, but of the overall goals of the plan, their subordinates can make the right decisions, even when those decisions conflict with the plan as laid out. He describes how teams function together, studying how the team has a collective cognition which can be developed by working together closely.
At the very end, he examines rational analysis and where it is appropriate and where it is not. In situations where the problem can be analyzed into basic components, rational analysis is a great tool. However, trying to force other situations into that form can be disastrous, because much of the relevant information may be lost. This is also why he says that teaching novices a set of rules as the only way to do things is misleading, and restricting experts to follow those rules can be dangerous. The path to expertise depends on learning the situations that generated the rules, understanding when to apply the rules, and when to break them. The whole point of having experts is to leverage their expertise, not to keep them from using it.
There's so much incredibly good stuff in this book. I could go on and on and on. I was scribbling notes throughout, and I was going to type them all up here, but I think I will instead say to go read it yourself if you're interested in how people make decisions in the real world. It's a very easy read (300 pages, with lots of interesting stories). And Klein's model agrees well with my intuition of how these things work, and of how I work. I have enough experience at debugging problems in the lab that people can show me a problem and I'll go "oh, it's probably this", because I know which factors are relevant, and can trace down inside the code in my head to find where something might be wrong. Others see it as magical, but it's just experience at work. Anyway. I highly recommend this book.
posted at: 09:32 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal
Inside the Tornado : Marketing Strategies from Silicon Valley's Cutting Edge, by Geoffrey Moore
After reading Crossing the Chasm by Moore a few months ago, I had some interest in reading his next book Inside the Tornado but didn't quite get around to it. However, one of my coworkers brought it into work last week, and I borrowed it and read it over the weekend.
Inside the Tornado picks up where Crossing the Chasm left off. Crossing the Chasm was about managing the transition from a "gee whiz!" technology company to one that serves the mainstream customer base. Inside the Tornado discusses the difficulties of managing the mainstream. To be specific, Moore identifies three different phases once the chasm is crossed: the Bowling Alley, the Tornado, and Main Street. Each of these phases has different priorities and different management objectives. The critical observation that Moore makes is that the priorities and objectives are diametrically opposed from phase to phase; the same management strategy that works in the Bowling Alley will be a complete disaster in the Tornado, and vice versa.
Moore does a good job of identifying key forces at work within each phase, and how those forces interact to create roles; in the Tornado phase, he talks about the gorilla, the chimps and the monkeys of each market. He also lays out the various strategies necessary to be successful in each phase in terms of partnering, positioning and management, and, more importantly, gives advice on how to identify which phase your company/technology is in. It's interesting how the focus must shift from technology excellence to organizational efficiency to customer-focused marketing in each phase, and the reasons for it.
Above all, Moore emphasizes the importance of long-range strategic thinking in a high-tech organization. It is all too easy to chase immediate revenues at the expense of long-term growth, or to get dangerously distracted by a side business when you should be focused on expanding your main business, and Moore gives good examples of each of these. By having the Chasm/Tornado paradigm available as an explanatory and strategic tool, companies can use Moore's insights and vocabulary to help chart their own strategy and have the necessary discussions about the market strategy and positioning at each stage. In particular, while reading this, I was continually thinking about how it related to the project I'm currently working on, and trying to figure out where it fit into this scheme of things. Good book. Nice succinct summary of the market forces at work in the high-tech world. And surprisingly undated despite having been written almost ten years ago in 1995.
posted at: 02:25 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal
Aramis or the Love of Technology, by Bruno Latour
I really liked Science in Action, another book by Latour, so when I saw this on a friend's shelf, I borrowed it. Unfortunately, it took me several months to actually get through it; I started it over Christmas vacation, but I kept on getting distracted by other things, until I finally powered through the last bit a few weeks ago. And now I'm finally writing it up.
Aramis was a proposed public transit system in France, one that would combine the best aspects of the train and the automobile. It was designed to be a point-to-point train system, with small cars that would pick you up at your home and take you directly to your destination with no stops in between. To do this involved many technology leaps, such as "nonmaterial coupling", where two train cars would act as a train without any physical connection (so that a car that was speeding out of a stop could hook up to the train in front of it, and another car could drop out and stop without stopping the whole train). It sounds like a fantastically cool system. The project existed in various forms from 1970 to 1987, through several iterations of prototyping and proof of concept. The technology even worked - the book has some great photographs from the final testbed of cars actually travelling together without being connected physically. But Aramis never made it to the real world. And this book is the tale of a sociologist hired to find out "who killed Aramis?" - what was the fatal flaw in the project or in the management of the project that prevented Aramis from achieving reality?
Latour takes an interesting approach to the book, using a form that he calls scientifiction, a cross between narrative and history, of culture and technology. His protagonist is a young engineer working with the sociologist to figure out the history of Aramis and where things went wrong. Interspersed throughout the work are interview excerpts from people they talk to, as well as impersonal observations from the author himself. Plus there are bits where Aramis itself speaks and asks to be born. These different authorial voices are distinguished by typeface, but that only makes it slightly less confusing. And it made it a bit of a slog to try to keep everything straight, so every time I put it down for a couple weeks, it would take some effort to figure out where I had been and what was going on.
It's pretty interesting, though. Latour is a philosopher of science, emphasizing the culture in which the science is embedded. In Science in Action, he talks about how the bureaucrat lobbying for a laboratory in his district is doing science, because it's all part of the same process. Here he is taking the same approach to project management. The main idea of his that I took away from this book was that a project is not real until it's built. Until there's something physical that everybody can point to and say "That's Aramis", it exists in a realm of uncertainty, where all of its parameters can still be negotiated. Latour goes one step further in fact; like his idea of black boxes in Science in Action, where things are packaged up so we don't think about them, Latour claims that the project doesn't really exist until it no longer exists. That sounds contradictory when I say it that way, but his point is that if Aramis had been built, people would have started using it and it would have faded from their consciousness. They would not have said "I am taking Aramis to meet you at the theater", they would have just said "I'll meet you at the theater". Only when something is taken for granted is it truly real.
The book is fascinating because the sociologist and his engineer intern interview all the various parties involved with the Aramis project, and trace it through its various ups and downs, and the number of different viewpoints is astounding. Everybody has a pet theory of why the project eventually failed, but none of them seem to match up with what happened. If it had really been a critical technical failure, it would have been caught much earlier in the process. If certain people had the antipathy towards Aramis that others suggest, it would never have been approved to go forward with the final full trial. If it was all just politics, that doesn't quite sync up either. It's a conundrum.
Latour brings out all of this and presents it to the reader. His authorial viewpoint sections also point out the negotiations that are taking place in the design of Aramis. As new people get involved, the vision of Aramis changes as do the requirements ("The only way to increase a project's reality is to compromise, to accept sociotechnological compromises."). He points out that in a successful project, these requirements eventually converge and a physical thing actually gets built which sets the technology into a concrete reality. In Aramis, that never happened; the requirements shifted on a yearly basis depending on which branch of the government was involved, and where they were trying to build it. Latour warns the reader:
If we say that a successful project existed from the beginning because it was well conceived and that a failed project went aground because it was badly conceived, we are saying nothing. We are only repeating the words "success" and "failure", while placing the cause of both at the beginning of the project, at its conception... All projects are stillborn at the outset. Existence has to be added to them continuously, so they can take on body, can impose their growing coherence on those who argue about them or oppose them.Those projects that succeed are those where the actors involved agree on a coherent vision of what they are building, or alternatively where one of the actors is strong enough to impose their vision on others. This did not happen in Aramis. There was actually a nice compare and contrast project that Latour uses, called VAL, which was an automated rail system built during the same timeframe by the same company. That was an instance where the desires of the company matched up with the desires of the city where it was to be built, and the project went smoothly and VAL came into existence. It's interesting to see how things went differently in the two cases.
This whole thinking of the project as a continuous negotiation is of great interest to me. At work, I couldn't see the point of spending weeks writing a Product Specification Document. But reading Latour made me realize that the point was that setting things down in such a document was a process of negotiation and compromise, and the reason that people took the document so seriously is that they were authoring their vision of the future. My cry that "It's just a document - it's not real!" is inappropriate, because the document will define reality for this instrument, and now is the time when all of the various actors need to address their issues and balance their needs. The project is a living thing, with the documents being merely the history of the compromises necessary to move the product along.
It's an interesting viewpoint, and one that should have been obvious to me, but reading this book really made it evident. Latour's emphasis that technology is always embedded in a social and cultural context, and that the technology does not bring itself to life, but requires real people (the sociologist in the book repeatedly emphasizes following the actors) to invest in it, both fiscally and emotionally. And following the trail of negotiations and compromises as Aramis moved from phase to phase, with new interests being brought aboard at each stage, was a fascinating mystery hunt for Latour to try to solve. I won't give away the ending of who actually killed Aramis, though - it won't make sense without reading the book...
posted at: 00:12 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal
The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World, by Peter Schwartz
I liked the talk by Peter Schwartz that I went to, so when I saw his most well-known book at the used book store for $3, I picked it up. A pretty quick read detailing the idea of scenario planning, a management strategy involving coming up with several detailed future possibilities for the world and playing them out to see how they would affect your corporate strategy. The point is not to predict the future, but to prepare for it; by having thought through how different factors in the world may affect you, you will be better prepared to deal with any of the myriad things that actually do happen. He emphasizes that a scenario fails if the people it is presented to don't consider it. It has to be realistic and detailed enough to be considered as a possibility, but it also has to challenge the audience enough to change how they think. As he says, "The end result, however, is not an accurate picture of tomorrow, but better decisions about the future."
After making the case for scenarios, Schwartz then goes into the details of how to prepare scenarios, how to identify critical decision points, how to gather information to construct the scenario story, balancing between pre-determined elements such as demographics versus unexpected possibilities, and composing a plot (he mentions several standard plots, including Winners and Losers, Challenge and Response, Evolution, et cetera).
Finally, he takes these ideas and uses them to construct three possible scenarios for 2005 (the book was written in 1991). And this is fairly interesting, since we're living in that future now. So it was fun to check how various trends that he identified either failed to come to fruition or achieved success that he wouldn't have believed. Not surprisingly, the world that exists has elements from all three of his scenarios (New Empires (where Europe matches up against a Pacific Bloc of North America and Japan and Southeast Asia), Market World (where laissez faire capitalism dominates - this is actually pretty close to what happened), Change Without Progress (our world has elements of this as well, particularly politically)). Interesting stuff.
I like the idea that scenario planning is centered around stories. Stories are one of the most powerful and compact ways to affect people's behaviors. This is the power of myth, as Joseph Campbell would say. Stories tell us what to do, and serve as guides to our daily lives. Scenarios are a way of consciously constructing those stories in a way that is immediately relevant to corporate management. I'm not sure I'd recommend reading this specific book, because it doesn't really have a lot of information; ipso facto, it's a quick read, though.
posted at: 23:08 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal
Crossing the Chasm, by Geoffrey Moore
This is one of those standard high-tech marketing books that everybody refers to in the technology business sector. I had never gotten around to reading it, but after our marketing folks started mentioning the chasm in every presentation recently, I figured it was time to skim through it, just to find out what they're talking about.
Moore originally published this book in 1991, but its lessons have not been undermined by the experiences of the nineties. He recently published a second edition (which is the one I read, and the one linked to at Amazon above), which updates the case studies to use companies that more people would be familiar with now, but the basic principles of the chasm and how to cross it remain. What is the chasm, you might ask? The picture at the right, taken from Wikipedia's review, illustrates the concept. In the development of any technology, Moore postulates that there is a pattern of adoption, starting with technology enthusiasts and visionaries. For these people, the fact that the technology is new and different is reason enough to use it. They adopt technology for its own sake, and are able to cope with its deficiencies in order to have the latest bleeding-edge features.
But to cross into the mainstream, the technology has to solve a problem in a way that is better than the current solution. In some sense, early on the technology is an answer in search of a question. To break into the large majority of consumers, the question must be posed and the technology must be demonstrated to be a superior answer to that question. Many high-technology companies, which are naturally run by technology enthusiasts, never understand this distinction, and therefore their products fail while crossing this "chasm" to the consumer majority. The first part of this book is an explanation of the chasm phenomenon, while the second part addresses tactics for crossing it and getting your product out to the general population.
I thought that this book had a lot of good points in addressing the different mindsets of different consumers. And as a technology enthusiast, I find it very easy to be seduced by new technology so I totally understand how companies can drive into the chasm at full speed. But I also sympathize with the consumers who just want to buy something that works. When I go and buy a television, I expect to be able to come home, plug it in, and be able to be watching shows 30 seconds later. I do not expect to have to spend days setting it up and playing with it to get it right. So the issues that need to be addressed to reach the consumer majority are not technology issues per se. They are design issues, they are support issues, etc.
I'd recommend this book for anybody involved in high-technology company. Since it has passed into the accepted wisdom of marketing at this point, it's useful for understanding the jargon being thrown around, and for understanding how your company's strategy tries to address some of these issues. Plus, it's a fast read, so why not?
posted at: 02:12 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal
Real Change Leaders, by Jon Katzenbach and the RCL team
Picked this up while browsing through the management section of the local library. It's the result of a team at McKinsey researching (to quote the book jacket) "why some companies were able to change and gro wto higher performance levels while most others got bogged down. Their extensive research led to a surprising conclusion: the make-or-break factor is not top management but a new breed in the middle: Real Change Leaders." The book details what they consider to be an RCL, different strategies for achieving meaningful change, and how one can improve one's own status as an RCL.
I think the main thing I got out of this book was that people can make a difference despite not necessarily having a position in the org chart of power and responsibility. A lot of the examples they gave included middle managers reaching across divisions and responsibilities to bring people together to make things happen. Of course, in a lot of these cases, people were rewarded for taking those chances rather than punished. So it requires developing the good will of the people at the top as well.
One of the other qualities that they emphasized is illustrated by the following quote describing "the best RCLs, who leverage the leadership potential of their people - and thus obtain far greater amounts of personal initiative and innovation, as well as productivity." (p. 291) This ties into thoughts I had as far back as 1994 on how to build teams successfully in business. A true leader figures out how to get everybody thinking and participating on their own - you get more out of everybody that way. It requires shepherding to keep everybody on the right track (this book dedicates a chapter to the importance of a "working vision" to keep people aligned), but the more involvement, the better.
All in all, a decent read. Kind of business-y, lots of hand-waving and case studies of questionable relevance, but that's pretty standard. I liked the overall philosophy guiding the book, though, and that counts for a lot.
Several quotes that I found interesting:
Smart Business: How Knowledge Communities Can Revolutionize Your Company, by Dr. Jim Botkin
I got this from the library, because I'm interested in communities and how they might relate to business, but it turned out to be incredibly lame. I can't really say that I read it - I just skimmed through it because it was so badly written that I couldn't take it. It seems to be a lame attempt at applying Etienne Wenger's theories on communities of practice to business. But Wenger's writings are much more convincing. I should have figured out that any book where the author insists on listing himself as "Dr. Jim Botkin" was probably lame. Plus any book without a bibliography is also lame. Waste of time. Don't bother.
posted at: 07:18 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal
Managing in a time of great change, by Peter F. Drucker
Drucker is generally considered to be the foremost expert on the art and science of management, and he was heavily cited as the primary influence on the authors of What Management Is, which I liked, so I figured it was time to see what he had to say. This was a collection of essays published in 1995. In general, I really like what he has to say. He's got a lot of insight into how to manage people effectively. In other words, he describes a style of manager that I would like to work under :). I was less impressed by his observations on the economy and society, which seemed somewhat misguided to me. Things I liked in his management section:
The Innovator's Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen
This was a short book on how and why dominant companies consistently get undercut by disruptive technologies. It uses the disk drive industry as a case study to illustrate the decisions that get made by market leaders which make sense in context, but inevitably lead to obsolescence. I thought the second half of the book, exploring how to cultivate disruptive innovation, was more interesting, in its ideas of how to construct a company and its culture that would be open to new ideas. Sounded like the kind of place I would like to work at.
posted at: 16:04 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal
What Management Is, by Joan Magretta
This book, recommended by The Economist, is a short treatise on the basics of management. The author, a former editor of the Harvard Business Review, seeks to distill management down to its most elementary components, which she breaks down into Design ("Why People Work Together and How"), and Execution ("Making it Happen"). I didn't really feel that there were any earth-shattering insights in here, but it was a good summary of modern-day management best practices. And a useful reference if I ever want to explain to a bad manager how their tactics are sub-optimal.
posted at: 15:49 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/management | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal