Notes on a Book: Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis

I recently finished reading Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis (professor in business administration) and Patricia Ward Biederman (journalist).

Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis
Organizing Genius by Warren Bennis

Notably, the reason I picked it up is because in Tribal Leadership – David Logan mentions Warren as mentor, and his work in this book as a predecessor to the Tribal Leadership book.

It’s easy to see why, yet they are very different books. In contrast to Tribal Leadership, Organizing Genius is a collection of stories (some might say case studies) of famous “Great Groups” (or in Tribal Leadership language, Stage 5 groups).

Some notes:

  • I have a greater appreciation for Disney films. I’ve never been a fan of Disney… until now – reading about the start of the Disney corporation, I have a much stronger insight into how it was created as elegantly oiled machine. I’m still not a fan of the films, but the effort, and the organisation are impressive.
    • When Disney was getting started, they were the only animation studio – and since animation was such a new thing, hiring was a big point – so Disney hired lots of Architects and industrial artists, and gave the the freedom to study art in greater detail – later setting up a faculty to do so.
  • In Disney, like in other Great Groups, there was often an insane amount of specialisation – “I mainly draw rabbit’s feet”- but in a large organisation where they are actually very good at drawing rabbits feet, and they enjoy it, this makes sense.
  • In many of the Great Groups, weekly meetings were a foundation of the group – in the Xerox PARC for instance, they were the only time of the week one had to be there. In almost all examples, they were used as opportunities for the group to share knowledge – what they were working on, what they had been working on, what they were going to be working on next.
  • I found the description of Bill Clinton’s initial election campaign very interesting. I guess partly because I’ve ‘done’ election campaigns myself, albeit on a different scale. What I noted from that especially was how even a “very serious” thing like an election campaign had a esoteric custom of giving “staffer of the week” award, every week, that was a bottle of sauce!
    • In other places, in-jokes were also a big thing – the Skunkworks was named after a practical joke (when someone answered the phone “Hello, Skonkworks!”.
  • Leaders in great groups appear to be multiheaded, multithreaded expert generalists – the ability to provide creative and technical direction, see where and how people work best, and herd cats in the right direction are characteristics of a one of these people. Interestingly, leaders in great groups often seem to find these strengths inside them during the collaboration, yet may not display them at other times.
    • In large organisations, the role of the leader may also be the role of the organisational buffer person – the one who intereacts with the parent organisation, and makes sure both parties get what they need, whilst insulating the language and cultural differences between the child & parents groups.
  • In the chapter about Xerox PARC, the book describes how Taylor mediated disagreements in the group by trying to get people from (what he called) a Stage 1 disagreement – where the parties couldn’t describe each other’s positions, to a Stage 2 disagreement – where both parties still disagreed, but could eloquently explain each other’s positions. I think this a basic representation of various Non Violent Communication mediation techniques – I should read more into that again.
  • The final chapter sums up a lot of Warren’s thoughts about great groups – that’s the distilled knowledge in essence – if you found the stories dull, you could just read that. But don’t do that – if you find the stories dull, just read Tribal Leadership instead.
  • The book is organized into chapters (first we talk about this group, then in the next chapter, we talk about this group) – however right from the first chapter, the book makes comparisons between the group dynamics of what’s happening in this group, with a group in a future chapter. I found that without proper introduction, these moments were a bit unhelpful – I hadn’t read ahead, so I didn’t know about the things being compared to.
  • One thing about the book that struck me was how often in the groups there was conflict and interpersonal drama that I think I’d find quite stressful. Interestingly, the collaborations often lasted through these moments – so much did people feel drawn to their mission, but I think it might be interesting to look at Great Groups that also have stated aims of being nice to each other.

I wouldn’t say this book is “as good” as Tribal Leadership for actually explaining what is going on, but it does explain give a lot more examples of Stage 5 groups, and consequently is useful for understanding more about those. It’s an enjoyable read if you like stories, but for many people will have limited practical use. You should read it to understand more, and to enjoy understand more.

If that appeals, grab yourself a copy!

Notes on a book: Remote: Office Not Required by 37signals

I first heard about Remote: Office Not Required when my friend, John Leach, mentioned on social media he’d been interviewed for it.

Remote: Office not Required
Remote: Office Not Required

Interested enough to see what it was he was interviewed about, I ordered a copy, and finally finished reading it yesterday.

In short, the book is a persuasive set of mini-essays about why teleworking works well for 37signals, and various of their friends.

Written by Jason Fried (co-founder of 37signals) and David Heinemeier Hansson (author of Ruby on Rails & 37signals person), the book basically assumes that you aren’t already remote working, and perhaps, are seeking to convince your boss/management or your workforce, it then goes on to explain various different advantages of remote working, and techniques 37signals (and friends) have used to work effectively.

Personally, I already work from home… (at the very least, one morning a week), and many of the people I work with are geographically dispersed, so online collaboration and chat is something I’m used to.

Even in my personal life, as I write this, I’m watching my girlfriend makes silly faces in a different city on my second monitor, through the power of web:rtc video chat.

Reading the book, I had various thoughts:

  • There’s a chapter called “The New Luxury” which contrasts the luxury perks of “old” companies in days gone by with the perks of “new” large tech companies:
      • Old:  “a nice company car, an office on the top floor of a high rise and a secretary”
      • New “fancy chef & free meals, rooms of arcade machines, free laundry, massages”
    • The chapter goes on to say they’re both ways to make you trade hours at home/doing your hobbies/with your family, for time at work.
    • I think there’s a lot to be said for this – whatever you think of free food etc (I think it’d jolly nice – I <3 free food!) if you have hobbies you can’t take part in, because of work, or family, friends, you rarely see or you’re prevented from living the lifestyle you dream of living because you’re forced to live within commuting distance of a specific office building, then remote work may work for you.
  • When they talk about talent not being bound to hubs, I’m reminded that one of the strong drawing points (after friends/family) that means I remain in Manchester – rather than say, London – is the proximity to mountains of an interesting nature.
  • I was intrigued to read about their 6 monthly retreats – it seems like a sensible way to get their whole organisation in one place for some time, and intensely do all the face to face collaboration, team building and strategy setting, and then dissipate back to their different parts of the world refreshed with enthusiasm and socialisation
  • Thinking about their hiring process, clearly, they have a problem with having to sift through a great deal of talent to find the person they want, but I feel their approach of giving people 1-2 week paid breakable projects to demonstrate themselves on, is a good way to let a candidate’s personality show through.
  • Their idea of a check-in – speaking to every employee every 1-2 weeks (outside the pattern of any project-based communication) and this seems very wise – in their words: “These quick calls prevent issues and concerns from piling up wiithout being addressed…. Waiting six months or a year for the next formal review is too long”.
  • They talk a great deal about tools – Basecamp their self-written workflow product, email, IM, etc. but the most important tool they talk about is the ability to communicate clearly through written language – the largest proportion of their debate and conversation is text based, so it makes sense that this is actually the most important skill for any of their employees to have, and to develop.
  • It’s somewhat unfair to mention, but I was struck (as I often am) by the cultural differences between UK & US companies. 37signals is a very progressive US based company, no question, but even their ‘unlimited’ vacation policy would probably make me feel self-conscious about taking the minimum statutory UK holiday time.
  • I like their idea of semi-digital nomads – and I raised my eyebrows hearing how many of their employees had relocated around their countries or the world, whilst working for 37signals – that seemed very appealing. (Other people are also doing this)
  • For an occasional remote worker like myself, I found their suggestions of external co-working spaces, coffee shops, and libraries as a way of sustaining motivation and getting a change of scenario, provoked various thoughts – I should probably give it a try.
  • One of the really cool things they did, was that every week, they created a thread on the company forum/mailing list and wrote a few sentences about what they’d been up to that week – so everyone knew what their colleagues (remotely distributed) were up to, even if they were in different parts of company, and the world!

I didn’t find the book groundbreaking. Lots of it, like their evangelism of 40 hour work weeks, giving a shit about staff, online collaboration and in essence remote working, is stuff I already agree with and (to some degree) know about.

I think, if you’re considering trialing remote working in your organisation, or you want to start a globally distributed company, or you’re interested in how remote working might practically work, then this is the book for you.

If you already remote work, or allow teleworking, you may like to read it to understand how 37signals do things, and how 37signals deal with problems you’re familiar with – it seems like the book speaks lots of common sense – yet no knowledge is common until is shared – so grab a copy and familiarise yourself with their approach.

So if that appeals, grab yourself a copy!

Founders at Work

Notes on a book: Founders at Work

Yesterday, I finally completed Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days.

Founders at Work
Founders at Work

The book is a collection of interviews conducted by Jessica Livingston of YCombinator with cofounders and key people of a great deal of well known (and in some cases, less well known, but notable) companies.

Because each chapter is a different interview with a different person, about a different product, company or service, it’s very easy to read small amounts at a time.

There’s quite big variety of products and services that are discussed, but the chapters I particuarly enjoyed were:

  • Max Levchin/PayPal: I hadn’t realised PayPal had originally been a PDA based crypto-system.
  • Craigslist is always somewhat fascinating, and Craig Newark as always seems like a sensible and straightforward sort of person you’d like to work with.
    • Their “softly, softly, BAN, reconcile” approach with rogue apartment real estate agents in New York seems to work well for them.
    • In the long term, I’m concerned that Ebay’s influence on them, will mean they’re unable to compete in new markets because of Gumtree.
  • Charles Geschke/Adobe – I hadn’t realised Adobe developed PostScript for Apple to solve the problem of printer/computer communication.
    • Apple’s present day support for CUPS makes more sense.
  • James Hong/HOT or NOT and Joshua Schachter/ – I found these chapters interesting as they were essentially developing “somewhat trivial” web services, that no-one would have said they would have needed.
    • HOT or NOT had the interesting ‘luck’ of being an instant, unexpected hit, with scaling problems associated with that, whilst was able to grow relatively smoothly and organically whilst its founder was still a programmer for an investment bank.
    • I found James Hong’s description of getting his uptight asian  parents to do the initial moderation for HOT or NOT (and when he decided it was time to get someone else to do it), exceptionally amusing.
  • In contrast, James Currier‘s (which I hated i 2007!) set out with a serious aim in mind (and arguably sold itself to Monster on its original ‘serious’ premise) but quickly realised it had to lighten up to make themselves appeal much more.
    • I’d say that HOT or NOT and probably had a much easier and less stressful growing experience, because they solved their growth problems and got their users first, and worried about everything else after that.
  • Most interestingly, none of them (and you can include Caterina Fake/Flickr in this), said “we going to set out to do a startup to dothis relatively trivial thing” – they all built things as a joke/side project/personal project – that only became the product of a startup, once they had lots of users.
  • Probably controversially, I didn’t actually find the Steve Wozniak/Apple Computers chapter very interesting, accessible or useful. I don’t doubt his mastery of his field (using as few chips as possible, to do as much as possible), but the detail just lost me.
  • Having said that, it was very interesting to contrast him with the Ron Gruner and what he had to say of his time at Alliant Computer Systems.
    • I think I’d definitely prefer to work with Wozniak than someone whose hiring process involves refusing to tell candidates what the process is, telling them they’re working every other Saturday and fostering what came across as an exceptionally competitive working environment (based on his background).
  • It was interesting read David Heinemeier Hansson‘s experiences at 37signals of writing the MVP of Basecamp – I’ve heard of agencies trying to build products on various occasions, but some of the reasons Basecamp succeeded.
    • (37signals already were well known, and widely looked up to by the people who [initially] were likely to find it most useful, and be most likely to consider adopting something new.)
  • In that regard, it’s somewhat similar to Joel Spolsky‘s Fog Creek Software – Joel was widely regarded via his blog, and then put out a product (FogBugz) that appealed directly to the people who were his blog’s audience.
    • On a sort of note, I’d be interested to know how much GitHub was slaughtering FogBugz’s market. I can see Fog Creek Software have git/hg products now, but when I was reading the interview – I sort of felt that the debates mentioned in the book about whether integrated wiki’s were what consumers wanted missed the point.
    • I suspect they’ll have legacy renewals, but I worry for the product’s future growth prospects – I’d suggest that perhaps that that product is now yesterday’s posterchild.
    • Today I learned he went on to create Stack Overflow… so I guess FogBugz worries may not be a personal concern so much.
  • I really liked the three interviews with Dan Bricklin/Software Arts, Michell Kapor/Lotus Development and Ray Ozzie/Iris Associates.
    • Being a child of the 00s, Lotus Notes wasn’t really a thing when I started playing with computers. I knew it existed from the Save As dialog that let you save in a format that it might accept, but I never understood anything about the background to the concept of spreadsheets (Visicalc) or the unusual development setup that Lotus Notes was produced under.
  • It’s quite hilarious to read (in 2014) about WebTV and how they managed to cause so much of a stir (to the point that Microsoft bought them) when that category of device was still (somewhat) trying to break through in 2014.
    • (Set top boxes are really the conceptual children, and whilst it’s easy to understand why Microsoft were probably being visionary in realising their significance, it’s most interesting that Microsoft didn’t succeed in the smartTV, setop box, PVR sector, even when the original XBOX was released)
  • Compared to the story of TiVo a few years later, it seems to me, that WebTV open people’s minds, but TiVO actually produced an MVP (and later real-life-actual-product) that people really wanted, once they realised it was possible – Mike Ramsay‘s description of demo’ing ‘pausing’ live TV – to people for the first time is a great example of how consumers should react when they’re presented with a feature that they didn’t know (until that moment) that they needed in their life.
  • Given the majority of people were at least somewhat technical, it was interesting to read about Lycos which was effectively founded by non-techies (the technology was sold to them by a university, and Bob Davis – previously a salesman – was positioned as CEO, which is somewhat unusual).
    • Financially, Lycos looks like a success in hindsight – it was sold to Telefonica -, but I struggle to associate it was much to sing about. I simply can’t help feeling that Telefonica was just getting a bad deal buying it (and indeed, they were!).
  • I particularly liked the chapter about ArsDigita from Philip Greenspun‘s perspective.
    • There’s a lot about how he ran ArsDigita that seemed to make sense from my point of view – for example, recruitment, working quality of life, technology stacks, small self-managed groups with responsibility for their own P/L and where everyone had some common responsibilities for key things.
    • His adventures with Venture Capital sound like a farcical nightmare, almost worthy of a sitcom. However, it does re-enforce – “if it ain’t totally broke” – don’t take someone else’s money in exchange for arguing with their people about how to do things – the distraction is never going to work out for you.
  • Firefox’s non-profit ‘intrapreneur’ development within Mozilla is quite interesting.
    • We forget the days when Firefox was the edgy browser that was up and coming, but Blake Ross did a good job in his interview of explaining how he took the Mozilla browser project as it stood, focused on things that users would want, simplified things, then managed to develop the community of raving users who (for example) took out a full page advert in the New York Times to shout about how awesome Firefox was.
  • Similarly, we forget that less than 10 years ago, Google was just a search company, and their first branch out, was Gmail.
    • Created by Paul Buchheit, at the time, Gmail radically changed the way people looked at email, and radically changed the way people looked at Google. He encountered quite a lot of organisational hurdles and technical hurdles (fun fact: an early [internal prototype] version of Gmail was stored on a single harddisk with no backups, Paul transplanted the hard disk platter into another housing and was able to recover all the data)

There’s many more interesting stories – the story of Hotmail, the story of all the blogging platforms – Moveable Type, Blogger, the story of WAIS, Alexa rankings, toolbars, the Internet Archive, etc but honestly, if you want to read about them, you may as well grab a copy of the book and read through them yourself.

I also feel it worth noting that there were a few moments in the book where I felt people were talking out of their arse/commenting on things they didn’t seem to know about. It’s fact of life when taking advice from anyone, and I’m happy they weren’t edited out – you need to consider things people say, and decide for yourself whether it’s actually what you should do, or whether it simply was what once worked well for the person suggesting it.

The book feels slightly dated – as a 7 year old book of startup stories is likely to feel. In 2007, the recent memories were of the dotcom crash, and the post dotcom successes – the boom in consumer social or mobile startups isn’t really addressed at all (the iPhone was barely released when the book came out).

Jessica has said that she’d like to write another volume, if/when she gets time, and I certainly think, there’s scope for it. There are many new stories from the past 7 years, and many existing stories with new chapters to be told, as well as many other stories from times gone by that deserve page space.

As a book, it comes across as well written, and is full of genuinely interesting interviews. If you’re interested in the history, or how some of these companies and startups came into existence, or you’re interested in learning what people feel they did right… and wrong, then have a read through it.

Notes on a book: Pitch Anything

I’ve recently read Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff.

Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff
Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff

It’s an interesting book, on the back someone’s written “move over Neil Strauss – Pitch Anything is the new the Game”. I think I can see why – they both inhabit an area of applied game theory or applied NLP, which when put into words, is likely to be quite polarising.

Pitch Anything explains an approach, or rather a toolbox of techniques, which one can use when trying to negotiate some kind of deal/pitch something to somebody.

A few months ago I read Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People (a very good book I need to reread and write about here) which quite early on explained the difference between co-operative and competitive negotiation strategies. Co-operative negotiators try to find out if there’s other concessions that can be made that might make a deal possible – for example in terms of a salary negotiation – the worker might explain that he’d like more money, explaining his young child needing childcare – his boss might offer instead that perhaps he could work more flexibly and together they could work out something that’d work for both parties – and the could review it in a few months time to see whether it was working. This is a classic example of where competitive bargaining techniques aren’t likely to get the best results.

A competitive bargaining situation might be where you’re buying a used car, you see the car listed for a bit more than you’ve seen other similar cars listed for, and you think it doesn’t look like it’s in such good condition as was promised. In addition, you’re unlikely to see the seller again (NB: a different approach should be taken when buying from a friend) so if you don’t competitively bargain, you won’t get the best deal. You might say you’d see similar cars listed for a lower amount, and you think it’ll need a bit of work doing, so you’re only willing to offer 70%. Then you might stick to that, and gradually move to say ~75%, but only when the seller has moved to ~80-85%.

(If this sounds scary and interesting – Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People is amazing.)

Most people have a native default to either co=operative negotiation styles, or competitive negotiation styles, which they prefer to apply to things.

The thing is, a co-operative negotiator and a co-operative negotiator will find a good result and a competitive negotiator and a competitive negotiator will find a good result (though they may not find as good a solution), but co-operative negotiator put against a competitive negotiator will lose out, big style.

Pitch Anything doesn’t cover any of this, nor does it say that in co-operative negotiating situations, you should probably avoid anything written in this book. The author’s background is investment banking, which clearly has a much more competitive atmosphere to negotiating deals.

I think this book is excellent at providing advice on how to teach yourself to approach a specific type of negotiation with a competitive mindset.

Various parts of it might seem like “being a dick” – and I think it’s worth being aware of that. Ignoring someones receptionist, and storming through a building, opening every door asking to speak the managing director *is* rude. In the context of someone who’s effectively stolen $600k your money into a ponzi scheme? Perhaps that what you need to do to show that you mean business.

In fairness, the book makes it very clear about keeping it fun, and like any tools, you can apply them to situations as you see fit.

The book is heavy on detail, and Oren is a master at starting stories and leaving you waiting for the ending (in itself a pretty fun trick), but I think it will be two or three reads through before I’m funny able to grasp his approach from start to finish.

It’s a fun book, and if you’re generally quite a co-operative negotiator, then I recommend it – it’ll improve your confidence in those slightly more competitive situations, (which you don’t like, because you feel people walk all over you).

I’d probably recommend reading the negotiation strategy book mentioned above, first, but feel free to just dive in.

If you’re a traditional sales person, you too, might find it interesting. Basically it’ll throw out everything you’ve ever learnt. It’s polarising, and I suspect many traditional sales people won’t like, specifically because it walks all over them.

Anyway, that was fun. I’ve various other books on the go, and hopefully I’ll write them up when I get to the end of the next one.