Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: “Systems Thinking For Social Change”

Systems Thinking For Social Change“Why are people unable to solve a chronic complex problem or achieve a meaningful goal—often despite their best efforts?” David Peter Stroh offers insight into this question in Systems Thinking for Social Change. The book is a good blend of theory and practice. In it Stroh draws a contrast between our conventional ways thinking, which seek to understand and change the world in terms of its parts, and thinking in terms of systems, which emphasizes understanding and changing the relationships between these parts.

He attempts to show the effects of these two ways of thinking with several examples pulled from current issues. Among them are homelessness, mass incarceration, and rural housing development. However, Stroh runs the risk of losing readers of a particular ideological bent when he let’s his views slip into his explanations of the examples. This even as he rightly states the requirement to engage diverse stakeholders in creating a rich understanding of a system. That would be unfortunate as Systems Thinking for Social Change has much to offer in helping people think differently so that we may come together to solve whatever problem we are confronting.

Stroh’s style is generally accessible, although it did test my focus in a couple of spots. He avoids jargon and keeps his language understandable. He methodically introduces the reader to thinking in terms of systems; on how to use this new skill to map systems and see himself and his world in a new way; on how to identify desirable and undesirable dynamics of a system, and on how to act in a way that brings about desired change. The chapters are short, made to feel even shorter with many subsections. In keeping with the systems approach of using graphics to tell stories, they contain lots of systems maps and graphs. I do wish the many maps showing causal links also included the direction of change with those links.

I think Systems Thinking for Social Change is a book you will return to repeatedly as you practice the tools it teaches. Having said that, neither Stroh nor this book will miraculously transform you into a systems thinker or reshape the way you view the world. That is something you will have to do on your own through practice. I used it to map a couple of systems at my place of work. These gave me insight into the dynamics at play. I have shown my maps to colleagues to their approval. If nothing else, we now share an awareness of what is going on. Change is not brought about through thought alone. While ideas serve to inspire, change comes about through action.

Book Review: “The Bonobo and the Atheist”

“Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?”
— Socrates asks Euthyphro in Plato’s “Euthyphro”
TheBonoboAndTheAtheist In “The Bonobo and the Atheist“, Frans de Waal argues that the source of our morality is not religion. Morality is much older. It arose with life. It has been built into it. So much so that it is seen in apes, monkeys, canids (dogs), whales, and dolphins. Morality isn’t an exclusively human trait.I found de Waal’s explanation compelling and uplifting. At this time when there is such confused, often heated, disagreements over what religion is and what role it should play, it is reassuring to know that nature has built in several backstops to prevent us from complete devolution into anarchy. de Waal’s style in making his points is warm, not confrontational. That made them more compelling than the abrasive condescending approach of neo-atheists like Dawkins or Hitchens.

To be clear, I am not a believer, but I do want to understand the role religion has played in our history. Why does it have such a strong grip on so many of us regardless of culture? I don’t want to displace religion without having something else to take its place and serve the needs it has done up to now. The good news is many civic institutions are rising up to the task. I expect that trend to continue into the future freeing us from the need to believe in something supernatural.

I enjoyed the book. I agree with de Waal’s message. But, I didn’t think it was as fun to read as Robert Wright’s “The Moral Animal“. Still, I would recommend it for you to check out. I would love to hear what you think :)

Book Review: “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist”

ConfessionOfABuddhistAtheistEvery religion I’ve been exposed to is steeped in rituals and traditions that reach deep into history. I have no doubt that the various beliefs came to be with purpose. They solved a particular problem of the time. They were useful and brought tangible benefits. We carry them on now because we believe they worked in the past and that they will continue to work now and into the future.

What we fail to recognize is that the world is not static. The context for a given ritual or tradition has changed. Reality is like a slow boiling cauldron. Looking in, you think you have identified the surface of the liquid. It looks about the same from moment to moment but it is perpetually bubbling, always shifting. You need to be aware of its shifts and match them to stay on top. The Buddha had this insight 2500+ years ago: all things are conditionally arisen. Our actions need to meet the present reality.

The irony is that while the Buddha’s teachings questioned the validity of rituals and traditions of other religions of his time, Buddhism itself has became steeped in rituals and traditions over the ages. In “Confession of a Buddhist AtheistStephen Batchelor shares his experience of them with Tibetan and Zen Buddhism; his disillusionment with both, and his personal journey to find the historical man that came to be called the Buddha. Along the way he identifies what he believes were the Buddha’s core teachings.

I found the book very readable. I was sympathetic to Batchelor’s story and I gained from his insights.

Book Review: “the other side of innovation: SOLVING THE EXECUTION CHALLENGE”

OtherSideofInnovationNo one can climb a mountain for you. You have to do it for yourself.

The fundamental assumption that “the other side of innovation: SOLVING THE EXECUTION CHALLENGE” is based on is that your organization is attempting innovation initiatives beyond its current capabilities. Capabilities that you are not willing to develop internally. In other words you are attempting to climb Mt. Rainier, to use the authors’ opening example, when you are neither fit for the challenge nor possess the skills for it. Think about this for a second. Contemplate the likely outcome of such an attempt. If it doesn’t kill you it will most assuredly maim you leaving you worse off for having tried.

However, Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble “see no reason why established organizations should be incapable of executing any innovation initiative”. So, what is the solution these authors dictate? After 10 years of field research at “[innovative companies] as diverse as Allstate, BMW, Harley-Davidson, IBM, Nucor, and Timberland”, they recommend that you “Build the Right Team” and “Run a Disciplined Experiment”. Let us understand something clearly: it doesn’t matter how many expert mountain guides you hire or how well you plan your expedition, if you are not fit, if you do not possess the necessary skills, it will fail… disastrously. So, shame on the authors for making a flawed assumption and then impelling organizations to attempt such challenges.

To be fair, they have made valid observations of several crucial shortcomings in organizations today:

  • It is not an organization’s creativity and technology that falls short, it is its management’s capability: leaders just aren’t trained to drive innovation.
  • Organizations vest most of their innovation efforts in defining opportunity and not much in executing it. This is tied to the previous point.
  • As companies mature, they disengage from innovation efforts, relying on profit from increasing operational efficiency.

These are problems that organizations have to overcome internally through rigorous self reflection which leads to creating projects that (re)build the organization’s fitness and skills. They can thus expand their core competencies and cultivate deep domain knowledge necessary to address the total challenge of innovation. Not do it through hired outside experts or mergers and acquisitions.

Hugely successful innovation initiatives in recent memory such as Toyota’s Lexus or Scion, or Apple’s iPod, iPhone, iPad or iCloud have been internal to their respective companies. Neither Toyota nor Apple were first to market with these products. Each took its time to develop domain knowledge; stretching itself through multiple learning cycles before introducing class redefining products.

The authors underestimate and trivialize the value of such continuous improvement programs even when their own studies at Nucor and Deere & Company demonstrate successful outcomes. In fact they dismiss their own observations of successful innovation initiatives at many companies in favor of “What If?” scenarios. Never mind whether these hypothetical initiatives were ones these companies might have pursued but didn’t for lack of capability. They never say so.

The one example the authors cite where a transformative innovation initiative was required: the New York Times. But, this was necessary as the landscape of the entire newspaper industry was unexpectedly and fundamentally changed by an unaccounted force: the internet. An extremely rare event that no book or expert can help to plan for.

In any case, given that the book’s fundamental premise is faulty, the structure built upon it is rickety at best. Don’t get me wrong, there are some good ideas, but they are either poorly communicated or poorly reasoned or both. The authors assume an unjustified authoritative tone that often patronize the reader on his/her complaint (constructed in the authors’ imagination). There is a smugness in the manner they criticize their partner companies’ approach to innovation. I wonder if any of them will have these researchers back to work with them again. And, they fail to properly attribute their learning cycle – Plan-Do-Study-Act – to its developers and advocates: Walter Shewhart and W Edward Deming.

My suggestion is you pass on reading this book. It teaches the wrong lessons. Learn the proper way to execute innovation initiatives by benchmarking the best in class. Two excellent reads are “The Toyota Way” & “The Elegant Solution”. Develop your organization’s management foundations and knowledge building efforts with “Out of the Crisis”. There is a tough climb ahead, but not an insurmountable one provided you start preparing for it now.

Book Review: “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”

DriveAs I read “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” I found myself nodding my head in approval… a lot. Daniel Pink makes a compelling argument against the adequacy of commonly accepted ideas on what motivates us: ‘carrots and sticks’, and the effectiveness of management that continues to use those ideas today even after they have been debunked. He presents the findings of scientific studies conducted by thought leaders in the field of psychology, sociology, economics like Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, Carol Dweck, Dan Ariely, and Teresa Amabile as he builds his own model to describe what drives us.

Pink’s model of motivation is elegant. Made up of three parts, it is simple yet captures key factors that drive motivation:

  1. People have a desire for autonomy with respect to task, time, team and technique,
  2. People want to gain mastery over what they do, and
  3. People crave to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

It holds an intuitive appeal for me. I suspect that might be a function of the type of work I do and my experience doing it. For as long as I have been working I have been dissatisfied with the management style used by each of my employers. Among other things, I found them lacking in the way they chose to motivate. The studies Pink discusses in the book helped me understand why some of my job functions went from ‘play’ to ‘work’. They also explain why, from time to time, they reverted back from ‘work’ to ‘play’. His model crystallized what I am looking for as a knowledge worker: An opportunity to choose what I do, when I do it, with whom I do it and how I do it. An opportunity to do it well and get better at it. And, an opportunity to do it in the cause of something greater than myself.

“Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” is a well written book. Pink doesn’t make the reader work at it. He weaves stories that hook a reader and pull him along without being wiser to it. It takes lots of skill and effort to pull that off. Pink builds his case for his model of motivation logically, never losing the reader in the process. He doesn’t just cite studies, he explains their findings. Then he takes the additional step to explain the implication of those findings as he works to incorporate them into his model. So, the net result is an extremely reader friendly book that informs and educates. I place this book in the same space as Jonah Leher‘s “How We Decide“, Dan Ariely‘s “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions“, Ori Brafman‘s “Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior“.

Footnotes:

  • Check out a really wild animation of Dan Pink’s talk here.
  • Check out Dan Pink’s TED talk here.
  • Check out Dan Pink’s RSA talk here (related to the animation above).