in the USA: The Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing
Reviewed December 26, by Jon. I read that Vaclev Smil is one of Bill Gates favorite authors. Made in the USA is firstly, an industrial history of the U.S. Smil describes - with lots of data and references how the US became the world's industrial powerhouse based upon manufacturing. His writing is very data-dense and he does a good job of quantifying things and putting them in perspective relative to both the US and global economies. He then turns his attention to the retreat of American manufacturing from its position of prominence. He makes no bones about his feeling that manufacturing is central to a robust economy - although he does reason that it is not the source of mass jobs that some politicians think it is. He blames hubris of American manufacturers and business people for the retreat of manufacturing. I'm not completely sure of his prescription but he makes a compelling case that manufacturing is central to a modern economy and that the US needs to reinvent its manufacturing base to remain a world power.
Five Talents for the Robotics Age
Reviewed December 6, by Jon. Neumeir starts out by describing what automation is doing to rote, industrial jobs - no mystery there, many have written about that. He further goes on to describe our educational system and is design to produce uniformity, conformity, and reliability - all characteristics of mass production - again, many have written about that. The useful contribution is that he describes the five metaskills that shoud be taught:
The astute observer will notice that these are actually design skills - Neumeier articulates them in terms. I won't spoil it for the reader by going into too much detail. Read the book. It is probably the best articulation of design skills that can and must be taught and learned if we are to develop a generation (both future and current) that has imagination, foresight, and creativity that are the foundations of design and entrepreneurship.
Shareholder Value Myth: How Putting Shareholders First Harms Investors,
Corporations, and The Public
Reviewed November 26, by Jon. Since the 1970s, the prevailing view has been that the reason corporations exist is solely to maximize shareholder value. This idea is based on the notion that shareholders “own” corporations and are primarily economic actors – solely concerned with maximizing their economic position. It assumes that the interests of other corporate stakeholders, such as customers, employees, and society are subservient to shareholders. This view was initially defined by a University of Chicago economist – Michael Jensen – in the mid 1970s. The central problem he was thinking about was how to align the incentives of owners (the shareholders) with the managers running the company. Jensen’s work led to stock-based compensation for executives and was the reigning orthodoxy for 30 or so years. Recently, this orthodoxy has been questioned. Do corporations really exist solely for the benefit of the shareholders – or do customers, employees, and society have reasonable claims to benefit from corporations as well? Certainly the singular focus on shareholder value has led to a lot of problems with corporations. It is even plausible that it contributed to the 2008 financial meltdown.
In The Shareholder Value Myth, Lynn Stout challenges the idea that corporations exist solely or even primarily to create shareholder value. One thing that proponents of the shareholder value viewpoint assert is that shareholders are the legal owners of the company and have sole claim to the value created by the corporation. Stout is a law professor and challenges this. She has searched the legal precedent and found that, despite many assertions, there is no legal basis for shareholders owning the company. In fact, in corporate law, shareholders own shares in the corporation. The corporation is an entity in and of itself – sort of an artificial person. If this is the case, it negates the shareholder value argument.
Stout, in fact, asserts, that a corporation has obligations to many parties – customers, employees, societies, and shareholders. In fact, a strict focus on shareholder value – at least in the short term – can destroy the very things that lead to long term success in a corporation. Cutting R&D or support costs can damage customer relationships. Not treating employees right can result in retention and quality problems, and not doing the right thing for society can lead to regulation and litigation. She does agree that all of these things are better served by a long-term focus on shareholder value but, unfortunately, much of the focus on shareholder value has been short-term in nature, and thus corrosive to long-term value of the corporation.
The Shareholder Value Myth is worth reading. It debunks some of the ideas that have led to poor corporate behavior and it establishes a fresh view of the purpose of the corporation – one that serves customers, employees, society, and shareholders. In fact, it even opens the door to the possibility that corporations can have an even higher purpose. For example, to help people imagine, design, and create a better world.
Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All
Reviewed November 14, by Jon. Creative Confidence is more about individual creativity than the typical design thinking rhetoric that comes out of IDEO. The book follows many of the IDEO/d.school approaches and precepts but focuses more on how to foster creativity in yourself or your team than about design methodology or process. Much of the writing was familiar from my exposure to the two Kelley's and the acolytes in a variety of contexts. This was a good book but not a great book. Easy to read and a good introduction to some of the Kelly's ideas.
Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action
Reviewed November 12, by Jon. This is a classic book about how professionals (designers, physicians, teachers, managers, ...) work -- which I have never read -- until now. The basic premise is that professionals to not necessarily work on a model of technical rationality - in which they apply knowledge in the form of rules and algorithms to problems. Rather, they work by reflecting on the problem, framing and sometimes reframing, and using intuition as well as rationality. The key notion of playing with the problem to understand and gain insight was a key element of my design education. The book is a bit long-winded at times but sheds some pretty useful light on this hyper techo-rationalism that people often associate with problem-solving and places it in context of what design is about - exploring the problem space with a combination of analytical and intuitive skill. Schön also describes the role of representations - and interacting with those representations - in the professional work. After hearing about this book for many years, I am glad I finally got around to reading it.
End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving
Reviewed October 30, by Jon. The End of the Suburbs postulates that we have reached "peak-burb" and the economic, environment, and lifestyle aspects of the suburbs cannot be sustained. Gallagher has lots of examples of people moving back to cities. One of the most compelling arguments is that low-density housing requires and expensive infrastructure that is usually not paid for by developers. This requires ever-expanding growth to feed the tax base. But this just perpetuates the problem. This is a good but not a great book. It makes observations that many have made before, but it is well-written and accessible. A nice primer on the re-urbanization of America.
of the States: The New Geography of American Prosperity
Reviewed October 24, by Jon. Whitney is a member of the financial community – first as an influential analyst and now as head of an investment firm. Her fundamental thesis is that the central tier of states in the US - which missed out on the housing bubble – are in fundamentally better shape than the coastal states and those affected by the housing bubble. She asserts that those states affected by the housing bubble overspent – particularly on public employees – and are now faced with debt and pension liabilities. Her thesis makes sense, but the one flaw I saw is that she celebrates states with largely extractive econonomies – e.g. North Dakota, Texas, Louisiana. States such as that have seen a lot of boom and bust in energy bubbles. My sense is that she also views the world through the sole lense of homo economis – thinking that people are solely rational actors. She ignores the emotional and quality of life issues. Further, she sees competition between the states as a zero-sum game. The key issue is that we need innovation to lift all boats. While there were things I liked about this book – it did remind me of Tyler Cowan’s viewpoint in Average is Over – a very rational, logical argument – but depicting a world that is not particularly appealing or exciting.
World We Made: Alex McKay's Story from 2050
Reviewed October 21, by Jon. The World We Made is a History from the point of view of 2050. It is basically and environmentalist fantasy projected backwards as a history. It is beautifully produced with lots of credible scientific and policy waypoints along the way to the future. The picture of the future painted is very optimistic – although some would probably find it hopelessly naïve and others would find it a techno-hippie utopian vision. It is useful in the genre of future history – but not in a way that is surprising or compelling.
Confederacy of Dunces
is Over: Powering American Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation
of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country
Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era
Town: Two Parties and A Funeral - Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking - in
America's Gilded Capital
Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War
Ten Types of Innovation: The Discipline of Building Breakthroughs
Universe of Design: Horst Rittel's Theories of Design and Planning
Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War
Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail, but Some Don't
Reviewed July 27, by Jon. Silver has written a great book about prediction, forecasting, and statistics. He uses examples from sports, politics, science, and other realms to describe how we should think about statistics and probability. He does a good job of describing Baysian statistics (a pretty simple idea with an intimidating name). Silver, of course, gained credibility by predicting Obama’s reelection. He has created an accessible and popular book that demystifies a complex topic. He has taken the realm of certainty – which so many profess – and put it into the realm of risk and probability. Worth reading.
Republic is Calling You
Reviewed July 27, by Jon. This is a book about the life of a North Korean living in South Korea as a spy. The book is a bit hard to follow because of all of the Korean names but does give a flavor for life in South Korea with the spectre of North Korea hanging overhead. An interesting book but a bit tedious. It has been translated from Korean, which might be part of the challenge.
Voices of the Sixties, Personal Reflections on the Sixties and Today
Reviewed July 25, by Jon. Boom! Is Tom Brokaw’s interpretation of the 1960s and how it influenced the baby boomer generation and today’s culture. Brokaw interviewed a wide variety of people from all walks of life – politicians, musicians, activists, authors, … and provides a very comprehensive view of the 1960s – covering race relations, feminism, the Vietnam war, popular culture, music, conservative/liberal politics, etc. It was written just before Barak Obama was elected and Brokaw and his interviewees had a lot of speculation about what the election would bring – so it was kind of interesting to see that. Boom! Is well worth reading – the short vignette style makes it pretty digestible and Brokaw does a good job at interviewing a pretty rich set of characters thus providing a multi-dimensional view of an important era in US history.
Sad, True Love Story: A Novel
Reviewed July 22, by Jon. This is a dystopian novel set in NYC in the not too distant future. It is a love story between Lenny Abramov, a Jewish guy of Russian descent and Eunice Park, a young Korean woman. The US is falling apart, run by the “bipartisan” party and a military called that ARA that is not quite a real military. The president is a figurehead and the Secretary of Defense is really running the country. Society is totally focused on the “retail” and “credit” sectors and the U.S. is deeply in debt to China. The US is fighting a war in Venezuala and refuses to pay its soldiers a promised Venezuala combat bonus. People are constantly communicating via “apparat” – a thinly disquised reference to smart phones. Everybody’s credit score, health, and sexual desirability score is public available and displayed. Society is a totally consumer-focused culture with lots of extrapolated trends. There is a thread of story about the culture clash between Lenny and Eunice (although they are more alike than they will admit). The book presents a dystopian caricature of an extrapolation of today’s society. Entertaining and frightening.
End of Competitive Advantage: How to Keep Your Strategy Moving As Fast As
Reviewed July 15, by Jon. The primary thesis behind The End of Competitive Advantage is that the idea of sustainable competitive advantage as espoused by Michael Porter is no longer viable. Things are changing so fast that competitive advantage is fleeting and the only way to remain competitive is to constantly innovate to create new competitive advantage. So far, I agree. The only real issue is that I think Rita overstates the loss of sustainable advantage. While advantages do erode, I’m not sure they are as fragile and transitory as she asserts. There are some advantages that are more durable. Nevertheless, her concept that successful competitors need to constantly innovate to create new advantages is a good one. She has a variety of prescriptions for continuous innovation – which I found to be weak. The contribution of the book is calling for a more dynamic strategy based on continuous innovation.
for People: Handbook of Human-Centered Design Methods
Reviewed July 7, by Jon. Innovating for People is just what its title promises - a handbook of design methods. It is concise and well laid out. Various methods and their interrelationships are described. A nice reference book.
From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live
Reviewed July 6, by Jon. Live From New York is about Saturday Night Live from inception in 1975 to the mid-2000s. It is told through short paragraphs by writers, stars, producers, and guests with a few short explanations by the editors. It gives a great backstage view at what has become an institution that has defined American comedy for almost three decades. Reading Live from NY, gives and opportunity to see the stellar cast of comedic talent that has gone through the show and gives some insight into what the show was like then and now. It took a long time for me to read (because I put it down) but it is worth the time. Very fun to read. It'd be great to get an update of what has happened since the mid 'oughts.
Mankind Gets an Upgrade
Reviewed June 23, by Jon. Nexus is a neuroscience operating system that lets peoples' minds connect. It covers a bunch of ground - an elite group of intelligence agents who can interact through thoughts, special forces soldiers bred for specific kinds of operations, etc. It takes place in Silicon Valley and Bangkok. The book starts at Nasa Ames where, ironically, I met the author at one of Autodesk's IDEAS workshops. The book is provocative and is a pretty good read. It is Ramez's first novel and pretty good as such.
The Rise of the New Global Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else
Reviewed June 23, by Jon. Much has been written about income inequality in the U.S. and Plutocrats adds to that body of literature. What is different is that Freeland takes us into the world of the top .001% and shows how they came to be plutocrats. She chronicles a winner-take-all economy and advantages - such as elite Ivy League education - that reinforces the Plutocratic group. The book is interesting and easy to read and does provide a view of a tiny subclass of society. What is disappointing about the book is that it admires the problem but does not really offer any solutions to income inequality.
The Future of Government
Reviewed June 16, by Jon. Sunstein is a colleage of Richard Thaler and co-author of Nudge. He is a strong proponent of designing "choice architectures" with defaults that lead to desired behaviors. He calles this "benevolent paternalism". Sunstien served in the first Obama administration's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). OIRA is the office charged with reviewing all proposed regulation to make sure the benefits outweigh the costs. He used the principles of choice architecture in that job and tried to use the framework to help government be more responsive to people's needs. By designing a choice architecture with the defaults set to desired behavior, he got more good for citizens without forcing them to do what they did not want to do (they could opt out rather than opt in). Interestingly, Sunstein referred to Kahneman's System 1 and System 2 and described how to put the concepts into action in the regulatory sphere. I found Simpler easier to read and more succinct than Thinking, Fast and Slow and, rather than rehashing the concept (although there was some of that), showed how to put the concepts into action.
Fast and Slow
Reviewed June 16, by Jon. This book gets lots of critical acclaim. I have seen a number of people claim it is the best book they read last year.I don't get it. The fundamental concept behind the book is good. Kahneman is a psychologist who describes two systems of thought - System 1 is fast and intuitive - pattern matching based upon our past experiences. System 2 is slow and analytical - weighing the facts and making a rational decision. Kahneman shows us that most of us default to System 1 and may thus, sometimes make irrational decisions. This is the fundamental basis of behavioral economics, is a good insight, and provides a framework for thinking about thinking. The problem I had with the book is that it is way too long. The fundamental concept was very useful but the book seemed to drag on forever, constantly rehashing the points. A good and important book, yes. The best book I read this year, no.
Company You Keep
Reviewed May 19, by Jon. I read this book because I saw the movie of the same name. The movie was reasonably good and I thought the book would shed more light on the subject - the fugitives still in hiding from the Weather Underground. Unfortunately the book did not have much more to offer than the movie and it was hard to read. The author jumped around in time and space - always a challenge to get right. He used the vehicle of writing the book as a bunch of email messages but is was always a little unclear who was speaking and when. The book is kind of interesting but I'd recommend skipping it and going to see the movie. The movie is better executed and easier to understand.
How to Take the Town Square Digital and Reinvent Government
Reviewed May 19, by Jon. Citizenville applies the lessons of technology to government. It is a bit of a lightweight book in which Gavin drops lots of silicon valley names as well as anecdotes from his time as mayor of San Francisco. It is a bit of a techno-utopian book. It does, however, point out lots of opportunities for the public sector to emulate the private sector and use technology to make government more efficient and responsive. While it is a bit light, I think it is a good addition to the dialog - it certainly is more solutions-oriented than most of the political rhetoric around government.
It So: Interaction Design Lessons From Science Fiction
Reviewed April 30, by Jon. Make It So is written by my friend Nathan Shedroff. Nathan systematically goes through a variety of human computer interface techniques and points to precedents from science fiction. It is fascinating to see how much of how we interact with technology was predicted by science fiction writers. The authors seem to focus on a more narrow range of Sci-fi than I would have expected but the lessons are good and the parallel drawn between the work of science fiction and real hear and how interface techniques is intriquing.
to Win: How Strategy Really Works
Reviewed April 23, by Jon. Playing to Win is a pretty straightforward primer on strategy as told by Roger Martin and illustrated by lessons and examples from Proctor and Gamble's strategy. It is a nicely written book that clearly lays out what strategy is and a process for getting strategy. The P&G examples are helpful but a bit pedestrian (I guess that is what we get for thinking about soap and diapers). The strategy lessons are clear and straightforward. This is a useful book for helping to frame what strategy is really about.
Last Six Million Seconds
Reviewed April 24, by Jon. The Last Six Million Seconds moves John Burdett from Thailand to Hong Kong, with a new character Charlie Chan Siu-Kai. Chan is a half Asian, half Irish detective much in the mold of Thai detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep. The Last Six Million Seconds refers to the period before the British turned Hong Kong over to the Chinese. The story is a murder mystery that involves New York police, drugs, Chinese gangs, British Diplomats, a beautiful Chinese Hong-Kong woman, and mainland Chinese ready to take over. Lots of action in the Burdett tradition. The ending was kind of abrupt with a lot of things not clearly resolved - typical of many Burdett books. I do hope this is the beginning of a new series for him. It was well done. The author has clearly done his homework on Hong Kong.
Not Break: A Life in Two Worlds
Reviewed April 16, 2013 by Jon. Bend, Not Break is the autobiography of Ping Fu, founder of Raindrop Geomagic. It bounces back and forth between her early years in China and the founding and development of her company – first in Illinois, then in North Carolina. The book depicts Ping as a persecuted young Chinese girl who rose above her roots to become a successful high-tech entrepreneur. Ping claims that China has tried to censor her book because it is critical of the communist regime. I personally did not find anything that revelatory. The book is entertaining, although somewhat self-promotional (I suppose most autobiographies are). It is an easy read and does provide some insight into China and Ping.
How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work
Reviewed April 16 by Jon. Decisive is another book by the Heath brothers. Like its predecessors – Made to Stick and Switch – it is well researched and clearly articulated. Decisive is about the decision making process and the authors offer a number of techniques to address the “four villains of decision making”
I like the book – it offers concrete, practical advice rooted in theory and a framework of decision-making.
Future: Six Drivers of Global Change
Reviewed April 13, by Jon. The Future is a continuation of Al Gore's argument about climate change but he also puts it in the context of six larger trends:
The book is very dense and brings together a lot of somewhat diverse threads. It can be a challenge to read sometimes because the style is a little ponderous. I did like the overall message. A nice feature of the book is that each chapter was mind-mapped, with the mind-map at the beginning of the chapter. It was a great way to get a summary overview. I wished Gore had done a little more with mind-mapping - perhaps inside the text to help flesh out the arguments more. Nice innovation in writing style.
Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable
Reviewed April 9, by Jon. This is a fable about a new leader of a high technology startup who find - surprise!, a dysfunctional team. In the Lencioni style, this is a fable with a point to it. The fable takes one through the story and points out a pyramid of dysfunction in which each issue builds on each other. As the author points out, this is mostly common sense, but it is difficult to actually do it. The book is readable and pragmatic. Worth the time.
House Burning: The Founding Fathers, Our National Debt, and Why it Matters
Reviewed April 6, by Jon. White House Burning is a discussion of federal financing. Johnson covers some historical ground discussing the origins of the national debt (to pay costs states incurred for the American Revolution and War of 1812), What is striking is that the debates over the federal debt were seemingly settled over 2000 years ago yet factions in our society continue to try to relitigate the issue. The fundamental point of view of the book is that the debate over more taxes on the rich vs. tax cuts is a false debate. The real issue should be to determine what kind of government we want - i.e. what services should government provide - then determine how to finance them. The authors go over options. Nothing dramatically new here. They reinforce what I have read elsewhere that we need both tax and entitlement reform. They are clear that focusing on discretionary spending deflects debate from the real issues. A well-written and comprehensive view of government finance. I wish the ideologues on both sides would read this.
Intelligence: Harnessing the Power to Create, Connect, and Inspire
Reviewed March 24, by Jon. Nussbaum is the former innovation editor at Businessweek and a one-time proponent of the notion of Design Thinking. In this book he recants and tries to build a new meme called Creative Intelligence. It is many of the same concepts as design thinking -- integrative thinking, prototyping and making, customer empathy - but reframes into a broader context. Bruce does a good job at contrasting this kind of thinking with traditional analytical thinking and shows how it can help get out of the stagnation of a focus on optimization. The book was both more than I expected - he covered business education and strategy -- and less than I expected - he did not get to a unified theory of creativity. It is a nice start, though, and I hope it reframes the dialog around creativity, innovation, and design.
Apart: The State of White America: 1960-2012
Reviewed March 16, by Jon. Coming apart describes a bifurcation between upper and working class white Americans. Murray sees upper class white Americans as exemplifying positive values - hard work, education, religion, marriage, etc. and becoming more successful both financially and socially. Conversely, he sees these values eroding in working class white Americans. The book is a big statistical exercise. He removes other races from the dialog and then adds them back in at the end. The message is that traditional values create success - not a particularly revealing thing. This book has been heralded by conservatives as an important work. I don't get it. The book is pretty straightforward and just illustrates common sense. I'm not sure what the big deal is - except to point out that the working class is becoming more dysfunctional - which is probably because it is getting poorer. For some reasons conservatives herald this book but I think is has equal value to liberals.
Battle for the Soul of Capitalism
Reviewed March 5, by Jon. John Bogle is the founder of the Vanguard funds family. It is refreshing to read a book by a financier who really focuses on the moral aspects of finance and feels that finance is there to serve people, not itself. Bogle feels that corporations must serve the long-term interests of their shareholders and that mutual funds must serve the needs of their investors. I agree with most everything Bogle says. I wish his voice were listened to by more people.. This is a classic. Bogle is a true capitalist (who sees capitalism as a tool to benefit society) much like Warren Buffet.
Have A Strategy, No You Don't: The Illustrated Guide to Strategy
Reviewed February 24, by Jon. This is a strategy book for creative agency types. It defines strategy as something that has an intended purpose, a plan, a sequence of actions, a distinct measurable goal. It claims to be illustrated but is really a cutesy cartoon book. Strategy candy - not terribly useful, kind of cute.
and Training for the Fight: A few thoughts on leadership and training from a
former special operations soldier
Reviewed February 23, by Jon. This is a leadership and training book for special forces and law enforcement (SWAT teams). It is written by a former special forces master sergeant and has a much different character than Secrets of Special Ops Leadership. Howe has lots of examples from combat and it is clear that he was in the thick of things. He minces no words about killing bad guys and his approach to fighting as a soldier. He now does training for military and police and the book is both about leadership and training. Clear and unvarnished. Some useful stuff. Not for the queasy.
Little Book of Economics: How the Economy Works in the Real World
Reviewed February 23, by Jon. Greg Ip is a columnist for The Economist, formerly with the Wall Street Journal. The Little Book of Economics is a primer on macroeconomics. It covers a comprehensive set of topics on the economy today - including the causes of the financial crisis. It is pretty mainstream economics. It is worth reading because it gives a pretty straightforward and dispassionate view of economics, without the political hyperbole.
of Special Ops Leadership: Dare the Impossible, Achieve the Extraordinary
Reviewed February 19, by Jon. This was a pretty superficial book. The author tries to tie special operations theory to business but did so in a pretty minimal fashion. He uses vignettes from the history of commando operations and business history. The vignettes are useful but somewhat simplistic. He does describe key special ops practices that are useful:
Overall the book was mildly useful. I would have liked more depth.
Share of the Task: A Memoir
Reviewed Feb 19, by Jon. Stan McChrystal is, of course, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan who was dismissed by President Obama after a Rolling Stones article about his team’s sophomoric behavior and critique of the Obama administration’s policies relative to Afghanistan. I saw McChrystal do a TED talk shortly after he was dismissed and was impressed by his comments on leadership. As with most memoirs, this started with his early days. He spoke about his days at West Point where he was a “C” student. Thankfully he did not dwell on this phase. Much of the book is about his command of special forces in Iraq. This section dragged a bit because it went through a lot of history and I got a sense of what the battle was like. More interesting was the part where he commanded the Afghan theater. He gave a sense of what command was like. Unfortunately, the most interesting but shortest section was about the events that led up to his dismissal and the immediate aftermath. I looked forward to reading this book and was not disappointed but not as excited as I thought I would be.
Why The Global Culture of Disruption is Our Only Hope for Innovation
Reviewed February 11, by Jon. The first thing that struck me about Provoke is how often the author used the pronoun “I”. The message behind Provoke is not a bad one- it describes innovation as a process of disruption. The book fell flat, though. It felt like one long breathless speech from a consultant. Perhaps it was the self-serving tone but I found it pretty condescending. The message of the book was eclipsed by the tone. I found the examples a bit thin and overall felt this was a contribution to the burgeoning literature on pop-innovation rather that something that provided real, actionable insight.
Reviewed February 10, by Jon. I expected this book to be about how disruptive technology was changing higher education. It was but the format was something unexpected. The authors go into a deep dive of the history of Harvard University. They claim that one of the challenges with universities in general is that they all try to emulate Harvard – which has a very high cost model (and even with its huge endowment struggles sometimes financially). The idea is to focus on differences that matter and not try to be all things to all people. They also weave in the history of BYU-Idaho, which was less successful – partially because of the strong connection to the Mormon Church. Not that the connection is an issue in and of itself, but the strong hand of the church may have been able to change BYU-Idaho whereas other institutions which are more self-governed may struggle. Nevertheless the book is useful. It was written in 2011. I wonder how much the views of the authors would change in an era of Khan Academy and MOOCs.
Reviewed February 10, by Jon. Cynthia Montgomery teaches strategy in the Harvard Business School Entrepreneur, Owner, and President Exec Ed program. The Strategist comes from her observations in teaching that program. The Strategist is a refreshing view of strategy as a way of implementing the purpose of an organization. She takes strategy away from a dry, analytical, staff-driven exercise to a leadership imperative. She posits that determining a purpose that matters is the essential task of the leader. Beyond determination of the purpose, strategy is about aligning the organization with that purpose and making choices that matter. The Strategist at first blush appears to be in opposition to strategic thinking, I found, however that it augments strategy theory and methods. The difference is that it places purpose at the center of strategy and uses analytical tools and frameworks to support purpose rather than substitute for it. This is a short, very readable book that has a clear point of view that any organizational leader should read.
Reviewed February9, by Jon. The fundamental premise behind the connected company is that the world is becoming more connected. Companies that used to think of themselves delivering products in a linear fashion must change to deal with this connected world. As products become more like services, the whole model of of how a company deals with its customers (the outside interface) and its internal structure (the internal interfaces) change. The book talks about building a company of pods on a common platform with a common purpose. I liked the book in that it ties together thinking from a variety of sources – Gary Hamel, object oriented thinking, Amazon’s success, agile, etc. into a coherent theory or framework for businesses of the 21st century. Dave Gray is a visual thinking kind of guy so I appreciated the diagrammatic and iconic illustrations – reason to buy a physical copy of the book rather than a Kindle version.
Reviewed February 9, by Jon. USA Inc. is an attempt to evaluate the United States financial situation as if it were a business. Mary Meeker – the queen of the net and now a venture capitalist used a financial analysis approach. The format is a large PowerPoint presentation chocked full of financial information. The net result is what you might expect – a bunch of stuff on burgeoning debt. While she covers that she also recognizes that there is a dearth of investment in things like infrastructure and education. This is a nice addition the literature and thinking on our future. It is a good source of sober discussion – there are no easy answers but the perspective she provides is useful for a reasoned dialog about our future.
Reviewed February 5, by Jon. Alan Blinder is a Princeton Economics Professor and former Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve. He claims that After The Music Stopped is a story of the financial crisis but he does not want to rehash all of the events. Instead he wants to get to root causes and solutions. I think he partially accomplishes his goal. He does get to root causes and solutions but getting to them is difficult without going pretty deeply into the details of what happened and who did what to who in the financial crisis. Blinder's analysis is almost textbook Keynesian - much like his Princeton colleague Paul Krugman. I liked the book but had a tinge of doubt because his views were so much like my own. I saw it as confirming evidence of my own views and did not feel that he challenged me. That may be because we are both right :). After all I have read a lot about this and do believe that the Keynesian approach to macro problems is correct. Blinder is very critical that the initial Obama economic team was too tied to the banks. He also correctly asserts that the perpetrators of the crisis were not brought to justice. Given his Fed background, he explained things like quantitative easing and Twist - but I still find them murkey. Overall, I found this a very credible and lucid explanation of the root causes and a reasonable treatment of the prescriptions. I hope more people read Blinder's book because it brings some logic and reason to what is too often an ideological rather than factual debate.
Reviewed January 15, by Jon. My Dad met this woman in his retirement apartment complex. She read the book to him. I read it. It is her story about growing up as a girl in Nazi Germany. Her father was a German Nazi Health Minister who committed suicide. The story gives some flavor of life in Nazi Germany and postwar Germany but is pretty lightweight.
Reviewed January 10, by Jon. Journalist Sebastian Junger was embedded for 15 months in the Koregal Valley in Afghanistan with a platoon of the 173ed Airborne Brigade. He was at a base called Restrepo - named after the unit's medic who was killed in action (the movie Restrepo was made from the book). War chronicles what it was like for the soldiers - to live under constant threat of attack and death and to go out on patrol among the local Afghans looking for Taliban. He does a good job of giving the texture and feel of being isolated with a tight unit of soldiers. The book is a bit disturbing but probably accurate.
The New Industrial Revolution
Reviewed January 7, by Jon. Makers is Chris Anderson’s book about the maker movement, 3D printing, and the impact on traditional manufacturing. It starts off a bit slow and parochially about the maker movement but that is probably necessary to set context on bigger issues such as what will happen with manufacturing and the economy. He covers a lot of interrelated issues such as 3D printing, arduino, TechShop, crowdfunding, and bio/nano. Makers is easy to read and a good survey of the maker movement and its potential impact on the world. It is worth reading.
Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Motivating Others
Reviewed January 7 by Jon. To Sell is Human is a typical Danial Pink book – well researched, engaging, entertaining, and providing a surprising outlook on something. Pink’s fundamental premise is that all of us are involved in selling in one form or another. He talks about selling as the need to move others. The book is basically about persuasion. How do we move others? He draws upon a lot of sales literature and psychological literature. Given the ready prevalence of information selling based on information asymmetry in our favor is basically extinct. Pink says the new world in won of vendor emptor – let the seller beware. The book is well written and engaging. It is a great treatment of a timeless topic – updated for the times..
Economics: The Race for Global Advantage
Reviewed January 4, by Jon. One Robert and Stephen work for The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation - a nonpartisan think tank in Washington on innovation policy. I found the book interesting yet tedious. The authors clearly advocate a government innovation policy and the book is mostly a case for such policy. A couple of insights I got are that the existing order (businesses, governments, people in power) don't really want innovation to happen because innovation - by definition - disrupts the order of things. Thus there are significant forces on the left and right - who prefer stasis. On the other hand, innovation is what drives productivity and increased standard of living - so it is necessary and a good thing. The other insight I got is that most government "innovation policy" is focused on mercantilism, and thus, winning in one place at the expense of a another. Kind of a zero-sum game rather than lifting all boats. Examples would include Texas "job creation" - which is actually just convincing business to move jobs from other states and Chinese currency manipulation - which makes exporting cheaper. They instead advocate innovation policy focused on R&D, education, free trade, IP protection, and other measures which create a level playing field globally. While I liked the sentiment in the book, I found it a little overly focused on manufacturing. The authors seem to hearken back to a manufacturing economy of the past - which I am not sure is the right solution. However, their analysis of what is needed to foster innovation sounds correct. By the time the book ended, I found myself wanting to hear more specific policy recommendations. The authors spend a lot of time debunking existing policies - particularly those of China. I would have preferred some more crisply articulated and proactive ideas on what innovation policy should look like.
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