The Definitive Drucker (review: 2.5/5)

It’s almost always the anecdotes that bore me in business books. The Definite Drucker is a sort biography of the ideas of Peter Drucker, the late consultant and management guru. I like a lot of the theory and philosophy, but when we get to the struggles of Motorola’s supply chain or decreasing overhead at Colgate-Palmolive, I tune out a little bit.
But it’s not at all hard to cherry-pick some good stuff, and Drucker is full of good ideas. Here’s one line in particular that I’d really like to bust out in a meeting: “What would it take for us to seriously consider this idea?”

There’s another interesting bit about specializing in what you’re good in, “core competencies” if you must. The analogy is to distinguish between your “front room” and “back room”. The last line is great:

The first step in structuring a collaboration is to identify your company’s ‘front room,’ which Peter defiined as your strengths, or the activity that is most important for you to do—that which stirs your passion and shows off your excellence. Everything else is your backroom, and it can be almost everything. One of Peter’s famous quotes is, ‘the only thing you have to do is marketing and innovation.’

If you’re sufficiently focused, “the only thing you have to do is marketing and innovation.” What a great goal.

The last little tidbit I really liked is about management style, bureaucracy, and decision-making. Again, the last line is fantastic:

It is part of our basic strategy to maintain the kind of working atmosphere that is attractive to the high-talent people we need to serve our clients well. Such an approach should include a philosophy of relying on autonomy and responsible self-government by the individual just as far as we can. Operationally, this means that the burden of proof should always rest with the proponent of centralized control and bureaucratic rules.

Update: Oh, and one more line that I twittered the other day: “It is good to do one thing right. Don’t do too much.”

A Whole New Mind (review: 2.5/5)

I first heard about A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age when Joshua Blankenship posted this excellent quote from author Daniel Pink. Great stuff, so I found the book, which isn’t as great.
The premise is that the Information Age was led by left-brained, linear-thinkers. Now, as we enter the Conceptual Age, the balance is shifting such that right-directed, sympathetic, synthetic thinkers are more and more valuable.

To survive in this age, individuals and organizations must examine what they’re doing to earn a living and ask themselves three questions:

  1. Can someone overseas do it cheaper?
  2. Can a computers do it faster?
  3. Is what I’m offering in demand in an age of abundance?

Luckily the book isn’t about outsourcing paranoia, but about some soft skills and sensibilities you’ll need: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. The book is heavy on the anecdote, and generally light-hearted, but not particularly gripping. Like some other pop-business books I’ve read like The Long Tail and The Tipping Point, I think it would have been great as a long essay. As a book it feels a bit thin. I’ve heard excellent things about Pink’s other book Free Agent Nation, so maybe that’s worth a look.

Making Memes

Tim Walker writes about meme entrepreneurship. I love it. Go read it. Unless I misunderstand the point, it seems like a lot of folks are already working in that vein—writers. Just glancing at my bookshelf, there’s Florida and his Creative Class, Friedman and his Flat World, Weinberger‘s Miscellany, Anderson‘s Long Tail.
I don’t mean that to sound flip, because I think these all occupy an interesting middle ground. The ideas aren’t quite as heady and broad as, let us say, praxeology (brilliant though it is). But they’re a step up from the mundanities of something like Six Sigma. For the most part, the far ends of that bell curve can be safely ignored, unless it happens to be your pet interest. But if you’re paying attention, strong arguments in that middle ground can force a conversation. That is what great memepreneurs do well.

Tim brings out a political example to contrast bad memes with fruitful memes. “Bush is stupid” vs. ‚ÄúBush pursues dangerous ideas—expensive dangerous ideas.‚Äù The latter is more effective because it comes across as not a simple couched argument or opinion, but an invitation to explore. Provocative, sure. Good memes usually are. But more than that, it’s actually a functional starting point. The best memes are forward-looking.1 That’s one reason I always liked political theory more than any other field of political science. I get to escape those messy details of policy and history and think about what could be.

I’ll let Tim close it out:

We need better memes in the world to counter all the stupid ones that drive so much of our behavior. I would say “that drive so much of our thinking,” but in fact the purpose of many of these memes is to relieve us from thinking, so that we reflexively reach for the products we’ve had marketed to us, or reflexively reach for the attitudes that favor certain special interests within the society. (Note that these special interests can be political, commercial, religious, or what have you. I take the broad view here.) But those of us who are awake to these tendencies can work to shape them in other, better directions.


1. Bureaucrats and pundits are not. Though I’m willfully ignorant talking-head culture, I’ve seen enough to convince me that they tend to be far more concerned with digging up old grievances and winning now than actually caring about the future. It’s the nature of the gig. See “Property Rights and Time Preference” [pdf]

Something I learned today: I was reading this NYT article about fashion, and I discovered that if you double-click a word in an NYT article, it will make a pop-up with a little dictionary/ reference search for you. Doesn’t look like it works on the home page, but that’s pretty cool. Am I the last person to learn about this?

Peter has written a lovely little piece about Radiohead’s new album, In Rainbows. Everybody and their mom has touched on the overthrow of the big labels and the utopian arrival of direct-to-ear music subscription, but I thought this was really perceptive:

“They can independently master their disc and shuttle straight to their service provider, with no studio interns to smuggle a pre-master or studio reps to swipe a final copy.

Furthermore, fans get the music on Radiohead‚Äôs terms—not some nth generation digital-to-analog-to-digital transfer encoded to an MP3, but a direct-from-source version engineered to the band‚Äôs specifications.

It is, in a sense, the best possible leak.”

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (review:3.5/5)

I’m prone to reading phases, veering off on thematic streaks. Do other people do this? For example, in the past year I read through the Edward Tufte corpus pretty much back-to-back (reviewed Beautiful Evidence and Envisioning Information), all but one of Steven Johnson’s (reviewed The Ghost Map, Everything Bad Is Good for You), the Scott McCloud comics trilogy (Understanding Comics, Making Comics, Reinventing Comics), etc. I’ve also had a religion/science kick and a language/grammar phase within the past year.
So after wrapping up Michael LewisThe Blind Side, this weekend I finished his earlier book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. The question at hand: “What is the most efficient way to spend money on baseball players?”

The central character is the hands-on Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane. His story—that of the gifted athlete adored by scouts who crumbles in the majors—sours him on old-school baseball scouting and management. Beane discards baseball’s long heritage of subjectivity and gut instinct (e.g. “the good face“), and tries the objective, stat-crunching approach.

Winding in and out of this story, Lewis explores the work of baseball writer Bill James, the roots of the Society for American Baseball Research, and touches on sabermetrics. If anything, I wish there were more numbers in this book. I would have loved to dig in to some tables and really follow the statistical arguments. But at its heart, Lewis’ book is not a peer-reviewed research article, but a story. A pretty good one.

And as a tangential bonus, Lewis gives an little off-hand bit of writing wisdom:
“If you write well enough about a single subject, even a subject seemingly as trivial as baseball statistics, you needn’t write about anything else.”

The 4 Hour Workweek (review: 3/5)

Good book. I posted a while ago about my initial doubts and then how excited I became about this book as I began to read it. It all turned out fairly well, though I think the glow is gone.
Despite the hokey title, 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich seems to be pretty well grounded. It isn’t so much about the nuts and bolts of financial managment—you won’t find a lot of financial info about IRAs or 529 plans or whatever. It’s more about what author Tim Ferriss calls lifestyle design. Here’s how it boils down:

    Find ways to minimize interruptions and maximize time for what you want.
    Don’t stay in a crappy job.
    Don’t wait to retire—take mini-retirements along the way.
    Start a business selling products online.
    Outsource or automate most of the business.
    Use currency arbitrage to live well elsewhere.

The business side all sounds easy enough—and he lays out the steps pretty clearly—but as with most of these schemes, the magic doesn’t happen until you… y’know… actually do the work. The sections on respecting and maximizing your productive time are solid, though. Those are the parts that got me the most excited, and probably the most worth re-visiting.

If I have one reservation, it’s Ferriss’ nonchalance about lying. It has to be at least a half-dozen times that he suggests prevaricating to some degree, whether it’s used to avoid interruptions, to work from home or elsewhere, or to take some other step towards the long-term goal in lifestyle design. I don’t mean to taint his character—I don’t think he’s dishonest—but to someone like me who prefers to just shoot straight, it seems like careless advice.