All this free time at home has been a golden opportunity to finish some of the books that I’ve been reading recently, as well as pick up a few new ones. To some extent, these books all have had direct implications on the work I’m currently doing and have been a great source of ideas for things I might try. At the very least, they’ve been very entertaining reads.
Here are a few of the titles I’ve been reading lately and a few interesting things I’ve learned from them so far.
“Business Adventures” by John Brooks
Ever since Bill Gates mentioned this book as his favorite business book, it’s recently come back in print after being out for a while. Call me a “bandwagoner”, but this definitely piqued my interest enough to pick up a copy. The slightly antiquated language and references (side note: it always amazes me how language evolves even in just a few decades’ time) made it a little bit more challenging to read through. But once you get engrossed in the stories, it’s hard to put this book down.
“Business Adventures” includes stories about the stock market (about “corners”, “insider trading”, and heroic rescues), big company successes (how Xerox championed a culture of innovation in the 70’s), big company failures (such as the fall of Ford’s Edsel make), and about the economy at large (how the Sterling Pound fought to stand its ground against devaluation). John Brooks is an incredible storyteller and makes even the seemingly mundane details come alive.
What I’ve learned
In general, this book offers a lot of perspective into how economics and businesses really work in ways that might not be so obvious nor covered as much by press. Surprisingly, despite the stories mostly being set in the mid-20th century, a lot of them sound like they could have happened only yesterday – a testament to how timeless this book actually is. As an investor, there’s a lot to be learned in terms of how cut-throat the market can actually be and what others have done to survive it.
On a more practical scale, I learned a lot about organizational culture and the psychology of business and work. A particularly interesting case to me was about how a (then socially prevalent) wink of an eye ultimately resulted in a few huge companies being investigated for price fixing and how their top executives were ultimately absolved from the whole fiasco. While the stories may not fit your context exactly, it isn’t hard to imagine how behaviors described in them could easily reflect in your own work setting.
“Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman
This book by Daniel Kahneman was quite a seller in the last few years and it’s not hard to see why. When I got this book, it felt intimidating to say the least. Other than being longer than your usual, a lot of technical descriptions and diagrams pop up as you skim through the pages. Upon closer look though, the way Kahneman writes about decision making, biases, and heuristics is actually relatable in ways that easily translate into our day to day lives.
In a nutshell, the book talks about System 1 (the intuitive) and System 2 (the calculating) thinking. There’s a whole lot to cover here, but one striking aspect I’ve picked up so far (I’m still halfway through) are insights about risk assessment. Risk, as the book details, is often much higher than we initially perceive it. That’s due mainly to different biases our intuitive thinking holds, a result of what it knows (“availability”) and what seemingly makes sense (“cognitive ease”). What we often fail to consider is the “base rate” which represents how things have turned out statistically, regardless of our own experiences.
What I’ve learned (so far)
Understanding how the intuitive brain makes decisions (mostly based on biases and “mental shortcuts” or heuristics) and how it can often be wrong opens a lot of questions about the decisions we make day to day. This book has at the very least taught me new ways to make and evaluate decisions. A very practical example relates to hiring people. While we often want to factor in everything we can based on our intuition, experiences, and knowledge, chances are we could have better success using a rigid algorithm or criteria to come to a decision.
Another idea from the book that I’m keen to try is the premortem, which addresses the simple question, “if this project were to fail, what would be its story?” Risk is often hard to imagine due to our bias towards positive confirmation. The premortem seems like a creative approach to risk assessment that anyone in an organization can probably easily grasp.
“The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures” by Lipmanowicz and McCandless
I picked up this book while I was doing some research on how to do retrospectives on a larger scale, a real challenge I’m currently facing at work. My research somehow all pointed towards liberating structures. While the book is apparently written to “sell” the idea, it has undoubtedly opened my eyes to several possibilities on how to better run engaging meetings.
The goal of liberating structures is to engage everyone in the organization, break down hierarchical barriers, and bring out everyone’s potential. “Separating the deciders and doers” is something that happens all too often in our organizations. Liberating structures aims to keep this from happening.
What I’ve learned (so far)
I’ve learned a few new, creative ways to run meetings and engage my team and other people through the organization on making decisions. Also, I’ve learned about the role “microstructures” play in the way we work. For context, people and processes are generally part of our “macrostructure”. While they definitely have an impact on results, they typically take a lot more effort and time to shift towards a good direction. As the book describes, changing “microstructures” – rearranging how our meeting rooms are arranged and questions you might ask in meetings, for example – are a more practical (and underrated) way to positively influence how the flow of decision making happens.
I personally have not tried any of the liberating structure hands-on but I can see how it could be applied directly to my work – whether in retrospectives, design workshops, or team formation activities. I’m excited to share how these methods actually contribute to solving real life challenges.
Have you read any of these books before? Any important points I might have missed out? Any other book recommendations? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
Dexter is an engineering manager at Synacy, a co-founder of ATeam Business Software Solutions, and founder of TechManagement.Life. He loves to share his experiences and thoughts on managing software teams and running businesses.