BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

And not a candlestick in sight ...

I suppose that one of the nice things about the “Early Reviewer” program is that it's like a grab-bag gift exchange, but instead of the shape of the item, and how it's wrapped, the way you end up guessing what you're going to like is the paragraph or so of promo copy that the publishers provide about the book. Yes, you're way ahead of the game vs. a “pig in a poke” pick-a-gift in that you sort of know what you're getting … but I'm finding that I'm only rarely reading the book I thought I was requesting. Today's title is another example of this.

Now, I guess if I had heard of the author, or of his New York Times column, or previous book, I might have had a better sense of what was coming. But when the description said that Adam Bryant had interviewed “more than two hundred” (a figure that keeps coming up, even though less than 150 seem to have actually made it into the book) CEOs for this, I figured that Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation was going to be a series of interviews (or highlights thereof) extracting from these leaders their “wisdom and guidance to move an organization faster, to be quick and nimble, and to rekindle the whatever-it-takes collective spark of a start-up, all with the goal of innovating and thriving in a relentlessly challenging global economy”. But it's not.

Frankly, what Bryant has done here is much easier to digest than what would have been the case were it to have been just interview after interview, but it took me a bit longer than half the book to come up with a model of what was going on in it. The material here is fascinating, and I was getting the feeling after each chapter that I'd just attended a really interesting seminar by top-notch experts on a particular subject … and it struck me that this book was somewhat like a series of sixteen heavily-moderated (since everything is woven through Bryant's narration) panel presentations, each with a different mix of CEOs (although a few of them keep showing up across the book), and each chapter pretty much free-standing like that.

Now, had I had that perception going in, I might have gotten more from the earlier parts, when I was still trying to “figure it out” … I kept finding myself enjoying the book when actually reading it, but having a hard time picking it up in favor of other things I was reading (although I must admit, I did finish this first of the three books I started reading in the first week of January). Given this, it might be useful to walk through Quick and Nimble's chapters (with a brief note on my take on the “theme” of each) to see what these “expert panel seminars” are discussing:
  1. Why Culture Matters (“culture eats strategy for breakfast”)

  2. A Simple Plan (mission statements, measurable goals, etc.)

  3. Rules of the Road (values that steer your company)

  4. A Little Respect (bad bosses and behaviors)

  5. It's About the Team (working together, relying on each other)

  6. Adult Conversations (“tough love” for the greater good)

  7. The Hazards of E-mail (easy to misinterpret, easy to abuse)

  8. Play It Again and Again (constantly communicating)

  9. Building Better Managers (not everybody comes equipped)

  10. Surfacing Problems (researching how things really work in-house)

  11. School Never Ends (not growing = dying)

  12. The Art of Smarter Meetings (optimizing those sometimes-necessary evils)

  13. Knocking Down Silos (how to avoid tribalism)

  14. Sparking Innovation (keeping things fresh, and hungry)

  15. Can We Have Some Fun? (some silliness solidifies solidarity)

  16. Alone at the Top (trust, urgency, and change)
Again, there are a lot of voices here, perhaps a dozen or more on some of these, so there's more of a “lively give-and-take” than a definitive statement in any … although, obviously, the author is constructing a pathway to a particular point with each. Because of this structure, I found it difficult to pinpoint specific statements to hold out as illustrative of their subjects. I did, however, end up bookmarking a couple of things that somewhat stood out to me.

One of these is sort of second-hand, coming from AOL's Steve Case, but in this quoting a fellow founder of the online service, Jim Kimsey. Case says that his view in the early part of his career was that “looking like you're working hard mattered”, but he relates Kimsey's insistence that “the art is trying to set the priorities and assemble a team so you wake up in the morning and actually have nothing to do”. He continues with:
The objective should not be looking busy, but actually creating a process that allows great things to happen in a way that you can be less involved. So it was sort of a process of letting go, which is hard for entrepreneurs. But at some point you've got to let go and you've got to step back. Ultimately that is about trusting the people you've got but also trusting yourself, that you've set the right context in terms of the vision, the priorities, the team.
I don't think anybody would be surprised that this is the opening part of the “Alone at the Top” chapter, but it's a good sampling of the sort of material that fills Quick and Nimble. Some of it runs close to “common wisdom”, what' you'd expect, but a good deal goes counter to what one would guess to work best.

One other quote that stood out here was in this category, coming from Marcus Ryu of Guidewire, from the “Play It Again and Again” chapter:
Even though we talk about how important rationality is in the company, I've come to accept that rationality plays a very limited role in persuasion, and that it's mostly about emotion. It's mostly about empathy and about authenticity and about commitment. … {S}ort of a corollary to that, is about communicating with large groups of people. I've come to realize that no matter how smart the people are that you're communicating to, the more of them there are, the dumber the collective gets. And so you could have a room full of Einsteins, but if there are two hundred or three hundred of them, then you still have to talk to them like they're just average people. As the audience gets bigger and bigger, the bullet-point list has to be shorter and shorter, and the messages have to be simpler and simpler.
Which is, I guess, a more round-about way to get to the classic “KISS” advice for Keeping It Simple.

Anyway, as noted, reading Quick and Nimble is very much like sitting through a series of top-talent panel-based seminars, with input from a remarkable selection of CEOs across a very wide assortment of industries, and I almost feel like one should get a certificate for finishing it (not that the book is a difficult read by any measure). This has been out for less than two weeks at this point, so you should be find it in the “new releases” sections of the remaining business-oriented brick-and-mortar book vendors, but the on-line behemoths are currently knocking off a quarter of the cover price on the hardback. Anybody with an interest in business, marketing, and innovation should consider picking this up … it's quite the experience!

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Tags: book review
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