Book Reviews

Blog posts that get meta about blogging can be a little yucky, but I hope you’ll allow me to get a little meta.  Having worked with databases for years I have come to appreciate the ability to label people or items more than one way in a database.  Multiple labeling helps me find these items later and know several things about them at a glance.  When blogging and other media sprouted up on the web with a tagging feature, I was intrigued.  It’s especially helpful to watch multiple people contribute to a set of tags and see how different people label the same thing.

Imagine my surprise then, when I came across this paragraph in the (otherwise unreadable) foreword of Roger Schank’s (quite readable) 1990 book, Tell Me a Story; Narrative and Intelligence:

[W]hy do some people resemble an old grandfather who can only tell the same few stories over and over again?  By contrast, why do other people seem to respond with a truly pertinent case?….[W]hat enables such people to respond intelligently? The answer…is that they have previously mulled over their experiences and labeled them in multiple interesting ways.  From a sequence of experiences they have constructed a narrative; they have reflected on this narrative and found a number of ways in which it is significant; and in so doing, their memory has attached several labels to the story, which allow them to recall the story when another narrative suggests similar labels.  Once the earlier story is recalled, these people can reflect on pertinent comparisons with the current situations.  Present wisdom depends on earlier indexing. (emphasis added) (pp. xv-xvi)

In 1990, Schank described the human intelligence that computers try to mimic through systems like tagging and search.  We’re built to index things, and we’re smarter when we do it and when we then employ those indexes.

The next time you’re writing a blog post and want to skip the tags, don’t do it.  Think about what’s relevant or how you’ll want readers to find the information in your post and hit that tag feature.  Be a friend to the hive’s intelligence.  Present wisdom depends on earlier indexing.


Upon joining the non-profit sector, a number of people opined to me that they are happy I’ve decided to dedicate my time and effort towards strengthening the sector’s work. In fact, one of the sound bites I kept hearing is that non-profits – despite their inability to sell equity (and thus raise money through either private investors or the larger public capital market) or the lack of an agreed upon “profit” metric for measuring organizational success – need to behave more like for-profit businesses. So, listen up my fellow non-profit professionals, I’m going to impart some words of wisdom I learned from my days working in the for-profit world (at institutions such as Freddie Mac, UBS Investment Bank, and others).

We need larger pay packages to attract and retain qualified professionals. In order to create the type of fast thinking, innovative companies such as AIG, Bear Stearns, Enron, Tyco and others, we need to increase our compensation packages. Currently, this kind of fast-thinking/innovative executive talent retails for approximately $10.5 million, or roughly 344 times the average worker’s salary ($30,700). Since the average executive director of Southwestern Pennsylvania only makes a mere $96,110, or 3.6 times the average worker’s salary – that’s a lot of innovation we’re leaving on the table! Lesson #1: if we are to attract for-profit executive talent then we must start paying our non-profit executive directors better.

Ignore sustainability and adopt a “do whatever it takes” attitude to exceed your short-term goals. We in the nonprofit sector spend far too much time talking about creating sustainable programs and achieving long-term outcomes. Instead, we need to adopt a more market-centric view of the world, just as for-profit businesses have to when their performance is measured by the market. Take General Motors, for instance. In the late 1990s and well into the first decade of the 21st Century, GM ignored suggestions that the company should rethink its focus on the sale of light trucks and SUVs and instead become a pioneer in the production of fuel-efficient (sustainable) automobiles. However, GM’s short-term focus on becoming the premier seller of light trucks and SUV (its most profitable product line) seemed to be paying off:

In 2002, GM sold more than 8.5 million cars and trucks and was the first auto manufacturer to sell 1.2 million SUVs and 2.7 million trucks in a calendar year. The company set industry sales records in the United States and owned nearly 15 percent of the global vehicle market. And investors took notice – the company’s stock rose approximately 45% over the next year.

Of course, you know the rest of the story by now – fuel prices rose and consumers grew tired of paying for non-fuel efficient vehicles. GM was stuck with a bunch of cars and trucks (mostly trucks) that they tried to “give away” with 0% financing and large rebates – again, focusing on exceeding the company’s short-term sales numbers even at the expense of hurting long-term profit margins – but nobody wanted them. Lesson #2: for-profits rarely practice sustainable planning so why should your organization.

The market rewarded GM's banner 2002 year with stellar market returns in '03. Nevertheless, GM's lack of a sustainable business model finally forced the company into bankruptcy in '09.

Transform your board. Nonprofit executive directors, not only are you egregiously underpaid relative to your for-profit brethren, but also you need to hold more board power. This year’s Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics winner, Oliver Williamson, in a recent article, “Corporate Boards of Directors: In Principle and in Practice,” submits that today’s corporate boards are largely ruled by the CEO and are passive financial stewards. He writes:

The CEO is in de facto control of the operation and composition of the board…most boards most of the time are responding with nodding approval, and boards are beset by inertia, hence are slow to become active when the corporation experiences adversity” (260).

In hindsight, we’ve spent far too much time espousing the idea that nonprofit boards need to be active and chart the agency’s strategy, raise money, etc. After all, when is the last time you heard of a corporate board functioning this way? No, on a corporate board the CEO/Chairperson sets the agenda and the remaining board members are asked to “nod in approval.” Lesson #3: we need to retrain our board members to be passive financial stewards and centralize all power with the executive director (and newly appointed chairperson).

As you read these “lessons,” I hope it is apparent by now that there is an awful lot each sector – the for-profit and non-profit – can stand to learn from one another. I think the three lessons above illustrate areas the for-profit sector should take a cue from the nonprofit sector and consider adopting these practices. Conversely, there are a number of for-profit practices – strategic planning, capital budgeting, using data to inform evaluative programmatic judgments and more – that I believe are beneficial for nonprofits to adopt. However, to think that either sector has a monopoly on best practices is just over simplistic and flawed logic. As Jim Collins’ writes in his monograph Good to Great and the Social Sectors, “We need to reject the naïve imposition of the ‘language of business’ on the social sectors, and instead jointly embrace a language of greatness” (2). Touché, Jim.

Every year thousands of executives and senior level managers spend millions of dollars trying to answer the question: how do I better run my organization? To accommodate this demand, a plethora of management books, tools, workshops, and lecture circuits are annually launched. Fortunately, every so often, a management book is written that presents a novel approach or unique solution – and Matthew May’s In Pursuit of Elegance is one such book.

While May’s book focuses on the creative process of crafting “elegant” solutions, yet another salient idea that surfaces from the novel is what he calls the “Law of Subtraction.” The Law of Subtraction says that an organization should seek to continuously improve the quality, cost, and delivery speed of its product/service (value-adding).

Summoning the lessons from his nearly ten years of work experience with the Toyota Motor Corporation, May suggest that well run organizations (value-adding) do this by focusing on eliminating to the best of their abilities the things that hurt quality, raise costs, and slow things down. To repeat: great organizations achieve their goal of continuous improvement by eliminating the things that negatively impact quality, costs, and time.

A simple case study will illustrate this point: Fortune magazine in March 2008 named Apple “America’s Most Admired Company,” as well as “Most Admired for Innovation,” honors stemming from the launch of its hugely successful iPhone. However, this market-changing innovation occurred as a result of Apple’s stop-doing strategy – or its implementation of the Law of Subtraction. As CEO Steve Jobs put it:

“We tend to focus much more. People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of many of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done.”

In practice, the Law of Subtraction suggests that your organization’s leadership team carefully define what mission-related product/service it excels at delivering and then begin the process of allocating resources in a “subtractive” manner. In the case of May’s old employer, Toyota, this approach (called the practice of Kaizen) decreased employee stress levels; led to higher and more consistent job performance; and reduced the wasteful use of organizational resources.

As you begin to think about your own nonprofit organization, and how the Law of Subtraction might apply, start by asking a classic Peter Drucker question: If you weren’t already in a particular program, would you start it today? If the answer is no, May’s Law of Subtraction suggest you may have found a jumping-off point.

Here is a list of the books that I would review today if I’d finished any of them.  They’re all on my overly-ambitious summer professional reading list.  I got them from the library but have only been able to crack two.  Recommendations came from Andy Goodman and Katya Andresen at Network for Good.

How we Decide by Jonah Lehrer

How we Decide by Jonah Lehrer

I’ve managed to read the first 100 pages of this one.  It’s popular neuroscience – summarizing all kinds of experiments and the reasons for human reactions.  In a work context, it helps to think about setting up the right incentives for people to join in for success.

Nudge; Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

Nudge; Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

The first 8 pages are incredible.  But not as incredible as Lehrer’s first 8 pages.  This book is apparently about influencing people to make decisions you want them to make.  Or it may be about large elephants and smaller elephants.

Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias

Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias

Apparently, we nonprofit folk have something to learn from the Hollywood screenwriting game.  That’s what Katya says, anyway.

Immunity to Change; How to Overcome it and Unlck the Potential in Yourself and Your Orgnaization by Robert Kegan

Immunity to Change; How to Overcome it and Unlck the Potential in Yourself and Your Orgnaization by Robert Kegan

Sounds awesome, doesn’t it?

That was then, this is now.

I just finished reading a fascinating, revelatory book by Clay Shirky called Here Comes Everybody.   shirkyIt’s about the radical changes in this brave new world we’re inhabiting when it comes to things like communications, organizing, publication…

We all know it’s going on.  From texting to blogging to Facebook to tweeting, everything’s different from the way it was last century, last year, heck, almost last week.

For old folks like me, we know Web 2.0 is out there, we may even use some of the tools, but we don’t really “get it.”  In fact, to some extent, we never will.  For example, at my house we have grad students living next door to us.  My wife and I have been stunned by how unfriendly they are when we pass in our back yards.  But our son explained to us that they’re not being rude, they just don’t interact with people that way – the way that we do.  They do it through technology.  Our son understands this because he’s 21.  And, at 21, he already feels a gap between himself and high school students!

The world is a very different place.  Mass amateurization and collective wisdom (notice that the link I inserted above for explaining Web 2.0 goes to Wikipedia, a poster child for these changes) are replacing dedicated, authoritative (also, sometimes, authoritarian) sources for news.  We are relying on the self-correcting collaboration of the masses for the dissemination of knowledge.  And the centuries-old model of filter (e.g., evaluate for accuracy, relevancy, etc.) first and then publish has been turned on its head as the Web has become a medium in which we publish first then let external forces filter the information after the fact.

But back to Twitter.  Who cares that you just left the coffee shop, or you’re going to get a haircut this afternoon, or you’re telling a snarky little in-joke that I don’t understand?  I certainly don’t.  But that’s just the point.  I’m not supposed to.  Those of us who don’t “get it” see all this as public communication.  But it’s not.  It’s just chatter among friends, across cyberspace instead of across a table, but not intended for those outside the small circle.  And once you understand that – once you realize that even though this overwhelming barrage of messages is out there for all the world to see, they’re only meant for an infinitesimal, carefully selected group of people to actually look at – this whole thing starts to make sense as a way for a new generation to communicate.  Those of us from the old school have been confused by thinking the medium is the message, but it’s not.  The message is the message.

And this is just the insignificant beginning.  Twitter is saving people who are unjustly imprisoned.  Twitter is leading to election protests that stress entire governments.  Twitter and the new organizing and communications power of Web 2.0 are changing the very framework of how society functions.

bandwagon Don’t underestimate this, and don’t forget it.  If you want your nonprofit to be meaningful in the future, Web 2.0 is one bandwagon (remember those? – I don’t!) you’d better figure out how to get on.

What does Zen have to do with PowerPoint? Simplicity, according to Garr presentationzencoverReynolds in Presentation Zen, an engaging guide to removing the noise from your presentations. While some would have you believe that PowerPoint (or Keynote for Mac stalwarts) is inherently evil, that’s not the case. But it’s close.

The problem, which was raised for many in the public and non-profit sectors in Andy Goodman’s Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes, is that the default settings in popular presentation products lead to bad habits. PowerPoint’s design templates point users to create slides that are a) full of overstimulating graphics or b) a dull drumbeat of text bullets.

We have all grown used to using presentation software not so much to present but to outline what we are planning to present. The problem is that as PowerPoint got popular, we all overlooked the fact that an outline makes a boring and ineffective presentation.

Reynolds calls on presenters to go further in preparation and create visuals that complement the words being presented. He provides easy-to-follow principles that help us non-designers work more like designers.  The example slides that he uses (some created for the book and some culled from strong presentation decks) are beautiful and terribly simple. Images fill as much of the slide as possible, and text is used very sparingly. The text can be transmitted in handouts or links provided to the audience at the end. Lines and lines of big text on a wall do not communicate very clearly.

Colin Chapman, founder of the Lotus automobile company stressed lightness in his vehicles. He famously exhorted designers and engineers to “Simplicate, then add lightness.” Reynolds preaches a similar doctrine for presentations:  Simplicate, then add minimalism, one might say. Here’s the first presentation that I created after reading Presentation Zen. What can you do to simplicate your next presentation?