Category Archives: Books

Service Economy

I attended a seminar the other day from a group that was offering a new service to businesses and business professionals. I admit that my attendance was more at the urging of a friend who played upon our friendship to get me to go than any specific desire on my part to attend a seminar of this sort. I don’t usually go to these things. I usually prefer root canals to seminars. However the lure of a “free” lunch in exchange for having to listen to the speakers, and the fact that I was reminded by my friend that I had agreed to go a couple weeks earlier was enough to swing the deal.

I should have known. I think most of you can guess where this is going.

I’ll start with the lunch. It was your typical buffet set up. Not too bad. Most of us understand the idea of getting in line and taking our turns walking by the assorted warming trays and selecting the ingredients for our meals. That is most of us with the possible exception of those that are prompt enough to get in the front of the line.

Why is it that the people in the front of a line need any kind or urging to actually do what they got to the front of the line to do in the first place? I guess they just wanted to be at the front of the line. They didn’t actually want to be first to get their food, sit down and eat. Didn’t they realize that by slowing the line down at the onset that the follow on effect would be that every subsequent function, including the after lunch speakers, would also be delayed.

Wait a minute. In hind sight that might not have been such a bad thing.

Come on, people. I was here for a lunch and some enthralling discourse, not to stand in line wondering why those in the front weren’t holding up (pun intended) their end of the bargain and getting a move on. Step up and take control of the situation. We are supposed to be business leaders.

After almost ten minutes of standing around, a slight nudge and a direct suggestion (Why don’t we get started with lunch?) by some obnoxious loud mouth (I couldn’t say who. Really…) somewhere back in the line, lunch got started. It is here that I should have reinforced one of the rules I had learned at previous buffet lunches.

If you have to ask someone what the contents of a buffet lunch warming tray are, if it is not readily apparent just by looking at it, you probably shouldn’t put it on your plate and try to eat it.

As I said it had been a while since I had been to one of these things, and I was hungry. After all we had been standing in line almost tem minutes. The response to my tray contents question did not include the words “poison” or any other items related to “inedible”, so I gave it a go. It did not go well. I ended up eating the rice, vegetable medley and a roll, all of which were easily identifiable at the outset. I had to go back and get butter for the roll. I have my standards when it comes to breads.

My friend (the one who insisted that I go to this thing) informed me that he was a vegetarian so it seemed that he was able to avoid my food selection miscue. His lunch plate contained no mystery ingredients. It seems these events are scheduled monthly and he has attended them in the past. If he had been a true friend he would have suggested my conversion to the vegetarian life style before lunch.

So it was on top of the delicious, nutritious and filling repast that we then embarked on the actual reason for the meeting. We were going to listen to a couple of people tell us about a new service that they had put together. I could hardly wait. It was going to be good.

Now I always try to simplify things. It just makes it easier for me. If it is simple I can rapidly come to the determination if I think it is useful or has value. It took me a while listening to them talk and rereading the handout to figure out what their service was.

They were offering a service where they would read the management trends and directions books on the management book (I really didn’t know there was such a thing) best seller list and provide the subscriber of their service a synopsis of each one. Really.

The netted out value was that you still had to read (their synopses), you just didn’t have to read as much.

I had to give them points for creativity and trying to figure out a way to monetize their love of books and reading. I enjoy books and reading too. But there are some books that even I have a hard time reading.

“Finnegan’s Wake” by James Joyce is probably at the top of that list. It’s over six hundred pages long. It took him several years to write the base story and then more than a decade to obscure it in a variety of dialects, images and allusions as to render it almost unreadable. I am not the only one that feels this way about this book. You can look it up. It took a few weeks of dedicated effort for me to get through it, and then when I was done I had to additionally read one of those literary analyses books about it just so I could understand what it was that I had actually read.

The rest of the books on my personal “Hard to Read” list are comprised almost entirely of business management books. Their titles are basically interchangeable and don’t really seem to matter. They are usually on the list because of their content, not their style.

It is George Bernard Shaw who is usually attributed as the author of the phrase:

“Those who can’t do, teach”

I would be so bold as to extend this with the corollary:

“Those who can’t teach, write”

If these business management book writers were so good at business management, why aren’t they captaining businesses themselves and being successful implementing their own ideas? But I digress.

My point here is have we really reached a point in a service based economy where we need a service to read books for us and provide us with their views of the salient or important topics of each book?

Now I think we have had this in the past. There was a set of “books” called CliffsNotes. They could be purchased at just about any bookstore (this is in a dark historical period before Amazon and eReaders, where books were actually composed of paper). These short booklets contained the summaries and salient explanations of many different literary works. In today’s vernacular they would probably be known as Lite Books along the same lines as Lite Beer. All the literary enjoyment, but much less reading.

They were primarily purchased by students that were too lazy to actually read the entire book they were assigned to read, yet still had to pass a test on the book in their English class.

In reality I am not so sure how I actually feel about this new service in our serviced based business society. I am strongly in favor of reading and enjoy a broad spectrum of topics and genres. However I am not particularly in favor of reading management self help books as they all strike me as being somewhat derivative of the previous generations of these instructional books and the authors haven’t quite learned yet how to compensate for this shortcoming with incremental entertainment value.

Yet further on the other hand (since we can’t have three hands) is the fact that the service actually reduces the amount of reading that one would have to do if one actually desired of such management instructional input. This would result in less time actually wasted on reading these books.

I guess the bottom line is that the value of this service depends on the value that each person ascribes to management self help books. If you are a devotee of them, then here is a way to increase the number of them that you become aware of with the same reading effort as a synopsis is shorter than the actual book. If you are not, then it is just a shorter version of something you wouldn’t have read anyway.

Either way, I think next time I’ll make my friend buy me lunch.

Finding Inspiration

I need to send out thanks to my friend Ulrich for the inspiration for this post. Uli is a friend that I met in Brazil on a trip sometime back. He had some really amazing electronic gizmos and gadgets that made me quite jealous. While we were talking about his electronics preferences the conversation shifted, as it often does to other topics. One of the topics we touched on was our reading preferences, and the types of books that we both drew inspiration from. I mentioned that I like to read, and prefer to read a broad range of literary genres and topics. Uli too likes to read but said he usually keeps his reading centered on business and management oriented books and materials. Those happen to be one of the specific genres that I for the most part avoid. It was interesting that we had such divergent approaches to the items that we read, and the information we applied to our business responsibilities.

As I have noted in the past, many of the items I have read seemed initially to be outside of a direct association with business and management. This isn’t by chance. I have read many management articles and books. However in doing so, from my own point of view, I started to notice many similarities to the tenets covered, and only slight variations in the applications of them. There were only so many ways to dress up the ideas of the need to be flexible, that things are going to change and how to deal with these inevitabilities.

That type of management book similarity has sent me off in a couple of different directions when it came to reading and applying what I read to business. One direction I went was into the past to see where many of these “new and improved – yet strangely similar” business strategies came from. I have covered this topic several times in the past. Remember, business, commerce, and strategy has been around almost as long as humans have been around. I have found that sometimes the best books about business are not actually about business. If I need true specific business management input or strategy I go to the four texts that I see as the basis for just about everything in business management and leadership that has been written since. They are:

The Art of War by Sun Tzu. This is a twenty five hundred year old text written by a pre-china general that never lost an engagement that is still used in military academies around the world, and in many business schools.
The Prince by Machiavelli. A sixteenth century political and strategic treatise by an Italian diplomat and political theorist.
The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. A text on focus, adaptation and martial arts by a seventeenth century Japanese swordsman.
The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Baltasar Gracian. A book of maxims for dealing with the real world written by a seventeenth century Spanish monk.

These are not the books for everyone. These are just the primary books that I turn to when I need a jumping off point for inspiration on a specific business or related issue. I continue to reread them and usually pick up something new every time I do.

I recommended them to Uli. We will see if he reads them and agrees with my assessment of them, or if he continues to buy and read the latest derivative management strategy books that are on the market. I guess it doesn’t really matter as long as he is enjoying and finding value in what he is reading.

The other direction that I go is to read just about anything but management books. This covers the literary spectrum from magazine articles to Blogs to Science Fiction novels to Classic Literature. Much of it is not directly applicable to anything associated with business and leadership, but occasionally there are some interesting aspects that present themselves. Whenever I per chance happen to make one of these unexpected business leadership synaptic connections with something that I have read I try to capture it specifically and share it here. Hence the idea of inspiration as the topic for this piece.

Uli on the other hand noted that the source of business inspiration for him came from business oriented literature, be it articles or books. If this works for him, then great. There seems to be a never ending supply of new management and business oriented articles and books every day for him to read. If they provide inspiration to some of their readers then there must be some value in them.

Inspiration for me is a strange element. I have very seldom had it strike me metaphorically from the blue. I normally get it by recognizing analogies, connections and parallels to seemingly unrelated events and topics. I look for stories of success or leadership in seemingly unrelated fields and then wonder how it might be applicable to business. This approach has led me to better understand the leadership secrets of Captain Kirk from the Star Trek shows and movies, as well as how Jerry Seinfeld applied himself to his craft as a writer to such a successful extent. Along a non-literary line, it has also taught me how to deal with and negotiate with my soon to be fifteen year old son when it is time for him to mow the yard. Success can be achieved from many different directions.

The point here is to start recognizing what keys your specific moments of inspiration. What are you doing, what are you reading, who are you talking to when you have your best ideas? More importantly how do you recognize them when they occur and how do you capture them? There is something about those environments that triggered the creative process. A little self analysis and cognitive association will go a long way here.

I have never been able to innovate because I have read a book on how to innovate. I have read many other books on many other topics that I cannot do, even though I have read about them. I have read about time and space travel and even though I might like to try it I don’t think I can do it just because I have read a book about it. On the other hand, I did learn about physics and differential calculus from books, but I also had a reasonably highly skilled mentor / professor to help me there. Almost all the innovations that I have been involved in have come from trying to apply something new from outside the accepted business norm, to the business norm. That and a significant amount of stubbornness in refusing to listen while everyone else patiently explained to me why my new idea would never work.

It is a significant step going from knowing where you can hope to find inspiration to actually doing something with the inspiration you found.

I also think that part of the reason that I have been able to draw business inspiration from such a diverse literary catalog stems from the fact that I genuinely like to read. I enjoy books. That may be the key to finding inspiration, at least for me, and probably others. I seem to draw my inspiration from relating the things I like to do, like reading to the other things I enjoy in business. I would think that this might be the case for others as well. Conversely, I would guess if you dislike something enough it may be a source of inspiration in how to avoid or improve it. I’ll have to think about that one a little more.

Inspiration doesn’t seem to be a well that I can just wonder over to and dip a bucket in and come out with a new idea. It is more of an understanding of how things work and how I relate to them, and putting myself in the positions where there has been a proven tendency to find inspiration, and then being aware enough to recognize it when it hits. It seems to be the doing of something, possible fully unrelated to the topic that allows you to form the new associations to the old issues.

For me anyway, that does not usually involve the reading of the latest management self help, or how to innovate book. In this case it came from talking to a friend out those books.

Read the Classics on Management

As we moved up the management chain I was always interested in what were the sources of information on how to better manage, and how to be a better manager, that people were reading. I wanted to understand them and to do well too. I suspect that I was not too unique in this respect. As a matter of course I read several of the management books that were popular during various periods. I won’t name them, but I came to refer to them as “Management Techniques De Jour”, much along the same lines as soup de jour at a restaurant.

I started looking for management texts that had endured a little longer than their time on the best seller list. After a while I finally found a few. You may have heard of some of them, and all of them are quite old. However, I have found all of them to deliver valuable insights into some of the various aspects of management and leadership. I’ll share some of them here:

1.       The Art of War, by Sun Tzu. A relatively short book written in 500 B.C. (yes, that is 2500 years ago) by a Chinese general, who was never defeated in close to 100 campaigns. It is an excellent source on the topics of leadership and strategy, two key aspects of successful business management.

2.       The Book of Five Rings, by Miyamoto Musashi. Another relatively short book written in the early 17th century (yes, that is 400 years ago) by a Japanese Samurai who is credited with creating an entirely new method and school of sword fighting (kendo). It provides great insight on the importance of knowing ones craft, skill, timing and spirit.

3.       The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli. Written in the 16th century (yes, that is 500 years ago) by an Italian nobleman and politician, it deals (sometimes very uncomfortably) with the aspects of leadership, power and politics.

4.       The Art of Worldly Wisdom, by Baltasar Gracian. Also written in the 17th century, but this time by a Spanish priest. This is a collection of 300 aphorisms on how to approach life and interpersonal relationships.

There are many more out there, but these are some of the best, and most famous. Don’t read them with an eye to how they are written. Read them with an eye toward how they may be applied today, in the business world we must operate in.

If you have any other books that you might like to add to this list, I would be interested to hear them.