Books I Recommend

I am occasionally asked to recommend books – good books – for those who are pursuing certain areas of study or who are interested in developing certain sets of capabilities.  I try to always provide a thoughtful answer.  There are certain “go to” books I routinely recommend to help others improve their speaking or writing skills, or learn more about history, or economics, or science, or philosophy, or theology, for example.  And, of course, I have my favorites in the areas of systems engineering, systems architecture, complexity, chaos, and artificial intelligence.

But I am now considering a hypothetical problem: What books would I recommend, not simply to develop a skill or learn more about a particular subject, but to begin the process of developing a rational framework for the better understanding of everything? Let us say that I must limit myself to a handful of books currently on my shelves – for I might otherwise point one toward a Great Books curriculum – and these books should be, in a sense, first books, not ultimate books, that are nonetheless sufficiently engaging intellectually to introduce you to lines of thought that might ultimately lead you to pursue studies at a yet higher level.  And, the goal is that, upon completing the recommended books, you might truly say “this has made a difference in my way of looking at the world; I now see some things in new and important ways.”

What would I recommend?

1. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn

2. Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman

3. The Road to Serfdom by F. A. Hayek

4. The Abolition of Man: How Education Develops Man’s Sense of Morality by C. S. Lewis

That is where I would begin.

Back to Consulting

So now it’s time for me to change course.  Going forward, my primary focus will be teaching consulting skills.  I’ll be developing training resources to help other people strengthen their own skills.  This is something I truly enjoy doing and I’m headed back that way.  Whether this blog plays a role or not remains to be seen.  But I have crossed the Rubicon (again).

Four Teams

I’ve been thinking about teams recently.  There are a number of reasons why.  It would take multiple posts to explain it all, if I even decide to go there, and I probably won’t.  But a few minutes of recollection reminded me of four very different, and significant, team experiences I’ve had professionally.

Two of the teams were part of new hire training.  We did not know one another.  We did not choose one another.  We were simply grouped together and told we were a team.

This first team was, in one sense, a team, but only by definition.  In another sense, an important sense, it was not a team at all.  Let’s describe it as a “nominal” team.  This team was a failure from the very beginning because certain members pursued a strategy of intentionally embarrassing other members in front of management, making their teammates look bad in order to promote their own interests.  The result was complete failure, at least from a team perspective.  (Whether it ultimately advanced anyone’s personal career, I don’t know.)

The second team, also nominal, was also a failure.  The failure resulted from the team being factional and quarrelsome from the very beginning.  It essentially split into competing sub-teams and success was never achieved.

That leaves two other team experiences, and they were extraordinary.

The third team evolved naturally.  We knew one another.  We had worked side-by-side for many years.  We gravitated toward one another and developed friendships.  We had total trust and confidence in each other.  Each of us was competent in the complex technical things that we needed to do, but each member also had their own highly-specialized areas of expertise that made us significantly more effective working as a team – fewer problems, faster resolutions, flawless execution. I think back often about the privilege it was to work with Valerie and Johnny.

The fourth team also evolved naturally, but in a different way.  I was with a new company, returning to a technical role after five years of doing something more staff-related.  My new situation was a little different organizationally.  There were fewer of us, working from our homes, scattered across a large geography.  But, over a span of time, I again had the privilege of working with two amazing teammates, Jane and Van.  Interestingly, I think the thing I valued most about this team was the friendship and support.  It was often the peer-to-peer dialogue, the mutual understanding of the challenges and complexities we were facing, that was most valuable.  Basically, we could rant to one another as needed in order to reduce some of the stress.  But they also had great strengths in their areas of specialization.  I benefited from that while, honestly, offering them very little in return.  That team dissipated late last year and there is not a day that goes by that I don’t reflect on what great teammates they were.

Why I’m not “linked in”

I recently saw a PowerPoint presentation on the professional value of being on LinkedIn.  It was reasonably well done and fairly persuasive. At the conclusion of it, I nearly signed back up.  It would have been my third time.

But I didn’t.

It has some upside, I’m sure.  And it has some downside, as well.  But the tipping point for me was when I asked “my network” for some help.  My connections were in the (low) triple-digits, mostly colleagues, students, and professional acquaintances.  And when, for personal reasons of significant importance to me, I asked that as many as possible endorse me for a set of skills that 99% of them knew I had, I got only nine responses.

I very much appreciated those nine responses.  But I was surprised that there were only nine.  I wondered why.  And I believe there were many good reasons for the low response rate: too much competing noise on the platform, people who never saw my request, people who didn’t have time to help out at that moment, and any number of other reasons.  But it drove home two important points to me.  First, my perceived “network” was a social-media illusion.  Second, I had foolishly allowed myself to fall into the (for me) moral trap of “self-promotion at scale.”


Five Thoughts for the Day

Here are some thoughts to ponder:

1. The best leaders are “reluctant leaders.”  Steer clear of those who never want to lead and those who always want to lead.  Look for those who don’t seek leadership roles, but who naturally emerge as leaders when the situation requires it.  They tend to have that rare combination of competence and humility.

2. Life really is a zero sum game.  Beware of those who tell you otherwise.  They’re just trying to get into your head.  Not everyone gets the job, or the raise, or the promotion.  Not everyone gets a fair shake or a decent chance.  That’s life.  But maybe you can offer someone a fair shake, or a decent chance, or some measure of hope.  And maybe you should.

3. Never emphasize teamwork for the sake of teamwork.  You need a better reason than that.  If you can’t explain in 10 seconds why you need a team to do something, then you probably don’t need a team to do it.  In that case, you’re better off without a team.

4. The greatest barrier to effective communication is that no one is actually listening to you.  That’s why your first sentence needs to get people’s attention.  Remember the professor who always started the term by saying, “look at the person to your left and to your right because one of you isn’t going to be around at the end of the term”?  Make your first sentence an attention-grabber.

5. Never assign an optimist to advise you about risk factors.  Always look for the person who can tell you “why the plan is going to fail.”  It’s not a character flaw.  It’s a super-power.  Leverage it.


Humility is a good thing

Do you know the definition of humility?  I ask because it’s a word that I don’t hear used much any more.  Humility refers to having a low or modest sense of one’s own worth or value.  It’s sort of the opposite of pride.

Humility is a good thing.

A friend of mine once told me that a representative from HR (in the company that he and I worked for at the time) had given a talk in the branch office one day and made a point of telling those at the meeting that the company was looking to promote people who were good, who knew they were good, and who didn’t mind telling other people they were good.

We were both surprised by that.  And unsettled.  It’s easy to tell people how good you are – even when you aren’t.  It feels like bragging.  That’s not something either of us was comfortable with.

What a strange criterion.

On the other hand, neither of us got the promotions we wanted.

But, as I say, humility is a good thing and an occasional humbling experience is good for you.  It keeps you grounded.  I had a humbling experience just this week.  It was timely indeed!  I’m thankful.

A Systems Philosopher?

It’s that time of the year when I think about what’s next.  What do I want to accomplish in 2018 and what do I need to accomplish?  What are my interests?  What are my priorities?

Do you ever find that your interests and your priorities don’t align very well?  I guess we all do.  That’s certainly my situation at the moment.  It’s one of the challenges of life, of course.  You have to make choices – trade-offs – and that’s not always easy.

I don’t have the answers, yet.  I know that I’d like to have more time to dig deeper and deeper into complexity and chaos.  Yes, I’m serious.  I suppose I’m more metaphysician than anything else.  If I could have made a living as a philosopher, that’s what I would be doing.

I’d also like to experiment with AI, just for some personal applications.  And, in general, I wish I could get back to doing more programming.  It’s been a long time since I’ve done that.

I’d also like to have time to do some writing, especially on professional development and consulting.  And I’d like to bring out a new version of my Effective Speaking book.

The desire to learn, apply, and teach is part of my nature.  Teaching is one of my question marks, though.  I have always enjoyed teaching, but, honestly, I seem to enjoy it less now.  Maybe it’s because I simply need to teach new things.  Or maybe it’s that, to me, technology has depersonalized teaching in the same way it seems to depersonalize everything else.

Then, there’s my profession – systems engineering.  It pays most of the bills and keeps me at the center of complexity (and always on the edge chaos).  It’s also “who I am” and “what I do.”  I’ll miss it when it’s gone.

How do I bring these disparate things together into a meaningful whole?

If only I could be a systems philosopher.