Thursday, November 12, 2020

Review: Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow

Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Homo Deus is an insightful, irreverent, and thought provoking book that explores what motivates and connects humanity. Hararri discusses the evolution organizing ideas, including Theism, Humanism, and what he calls Dataism (for example, the idea of the “Quantified self” ) and how they reflect our ways of interaction.  

Hararri draws some interesting parallels between religion, science and economic systems, in particular in terms of how they each have their own organizing principles and stories. In particular, I found the discussion of morality through various lenses particularly insightful; it got me thinking about how we can balance a principle of a right to a “pursuit of happiness” while also having a shared moral code. The general answer could be by measuring whether it impacts another life, but that question too depends on the code you believe in.

The idea that our ability to create and share stories  helped humans for large networks,and thus become dominant, is central to the book. Stories and myth are powerful in creating unified organizing principles, and this power can be used for good and bad ends. An intersting insight, which resonates with current political discourse, is that myths can be more powerful than facts. Good facts are not always enough to gather people around a cause: sometime you need a good story to comment people even with fact. 

Whether you are inclined to agree or not with Hararri’s ideas or approach, Homo Deus is a book that will challenge you to think about what drives you in your personal life and in interactions with the larger society. And that sort of thinking and the understanding it leads to can make for a stronger self and society.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Review: You're About to Make a Terrible Mistake: How Biases Distort Decision-Making and What You Can Do to Fight Them

You're About to Make a Terrible Mistake: How Biases Distort Decision-Making and What You Can Do to Fight Them You're About to Make a Terrible Mistake: How Biases Distort Decision-Making and What You Can Do to Fight Them by Olivier Sibony
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You’re About to Make a Terrible Mistake is a book about why organizations make bad decisions, and how to create processes and environments where we can make better ones, understanding the value of process and collaboration over any specific individual’s leadership.

Much of the advice here will seem familiar if you have studied ideas about how we make decisions but the context of strategic decision making is new.  The audience and examples are geared towards strategic business decisions, but this will give you insight into how you and others make decisions that might not be optimal in all aspects of your life.

The advice is obvious and common sense in retrospect, but obvious and common sense doesn’t always mean visible and common. I’ve come across few groups that follow even the general principles here, much less the entire framework. 

Sibony references agile organizations, and while his meaning isn’t the same as “Agile” in the context of software development, If you are familiar with Agile Software Development practices, many of the concepts, and some of the practices may seem familiar. Agile Retrospective frameworks, for example, follow a process framework that helps teams avoid many of the problematic decision making biases. 

A recurring theme in the book is the importance of process and collaboration over any specific individual’s leadership. In my experience process can make the difference between success and failure for a team, and this book drives the value of process and collaboration home. And Sibony notes that circumstance plays a role: The same good plan can succeed or fail depending upon factors beyond your control, and the same bad plan might work surprisingly well if one is lucky. Sibony tells us how to set up processes so that our big strategic decisions factor in these factors so that we have a reasonable sense of risks involved.

A key part of a good decision process is the definition and role of a leader.  Sibony points out that much of the advice he presents goes counter to the model of the certain, definitive, action-oriented leader. For better decisions we need to to step away from that idea. While final decisions may rest with an individual leader,  the process to get there must be collaborative. 

The book ends with a summary of the key concepts, and good bibliography, and notes. You may well find your self finishing this book with a much longer reading list than when you started.

Whether you are a senior manager, a team lead,  or active in a volunteer organization, the principles in this book will help you create frameworks to enable better decisions. And as an individual you will gain insight how to understand how others make decisions, as well as how you might think about how you make important decisions.

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Sunday, October 11, 2020

Review: The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win

The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win by Maria Konnikova
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the surface, The Biggest Bluff seems to be simply about the author’s adventure learning about poker in an attempt to compete in the World Series of Poker: A Personal Quest story. But the book isn’t about Poker. And while it is a personal story, it’s more than just that. It’s about how we make decisions, and Poker turns out to be a remarkably good lens to understand how people make choices in situations which combine uncertainty and experience.

I was surprised to learn useful things that relate to my daily life like the impact of implicit bias and emotion on decision making, and the relationship between luck and skill in being successful.

The lessons here will give you insight into many facets of your life. While, poker may not be a good model for life, it is, according to Konnikiva, a way to develop skills important to ones life.

My one complaint is that I wish that there was an appendix with pointers to some of the research and the. references she cited. This is minor as a web search is easy enough to do, but was something I missed.

The Biggest Bluff tells an engaging story, and by understanding the path Konnikova follows you will learn about how you make decisions and interact with others. And you may learn a bit about poker along the way

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Monday, October 5, 2020

Review: Humankind: A Hopeful History

Humankind: A Hopeful History Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Humankind is an optimistic take on human nature  grounded in Science , Philosophy, and History. The author explains why humans are intrinsically good. He isn’t naive, and acknowledges that bad things happen but he explains that we tend to focus on and remember the bad things. Bad news tends to get more attention and play and thus reenforces this dynamic leaning to a downward spiral -- Good news stories don’t go as viral as bad news ones, and the banal, everyday good things people do don’t get reported. 

All bad news isn’t just a case of it getting our attention, and Bregman gives us some insight into why hate, for example, can spread in some cultures. In some cases, it is our desire  to be good, to belong, and to be collaborative can lead to us to follow  people acting in ways that are contrary to that. Even empathy -- which seems like a good thing -- can cause us to focus on the wrong things at times.

We also learn why widely spread research results, such as  “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” “No Broken Windows,” and  “The Tragedy of the Commons” are at best highly incomplete and at worst, just wrong.  Many of these ideas that assume that people  are motivated by self interest, and seek power are often based on, well, assumptions about other people (because we often believe that we are different). We also learn about why less restrictive prisons can be more safe, and have less long term costs (and how the US almost adopted a model common in Norway). You also learn that the fabled 1914 Christmas Truce, after which English and German forces refused to fight each other, was not unique in history. 

One thing I really enjoyed about the book -- once I got used to it as it is very different from many similar books -- is that walks through the evolution of ideas.  You might be tempted to highlight and share some insight, only to read a paragraph later a “wait, there’s more!”  style discussion. Which makes sense, as human nature and interactions are complex.

The book resonate with things I’ve long thought, in particular that  forming connections is essential to reducing intolerance, and that organizational dynamics affect well being and productivity, and that it’s often worth giving people the benefit of the doubt before assuming bad intentions. This book gave me a good sense of the historical and scientific basis for thinking that these are not crazy ideas (or at least ideas that only make sense in the contexts I have experience in). Similarly it gave me some sense of awareness to detect when my optimistic nature could possibly lead me astray.

In terms of structure, the first half of the book makes the case for goodness with a walk through history.  The second half of the book interweaves stories and examples that provide guidance on how you can apply the information in the book in your personal, work, and community life.

Part history, part scientific survey, and part philosophical argument for the goodness of humans, Humankind will generate ideas for you to think about, and ideas for things you can try to do to change your approach to interacting with others.

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Friday, July 24, 2020

Review: Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World

Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World by Olga Khazan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When this book showed up in the Next Big Idea Club box I thought that I’d relate to this book, and I did. While I may not be “weird” in any obvious sense, but I’ve definitely experienced the not fitting in feeling for a variety of reasons. And as a book, Weird is a bit meta. It’s a weird book about the challenges and benefits of not fitting in. But it’s weird in all the wonderful, positive ways that the Khazan describes. It might not have imagined a book about the challenges of being different having laugh out loud passages, but this one does, and they pull you into the story. It’s not an autobiography, but it weaves autobiographical moments to help set the frame for the facts, history, and other people’s stories that are the core of the book. 

Khazan explains Weirdness isn’t a bad thing, in some ways it can be a superpower, as diversity of thought and approach can lead to better ideas in groups (the challenge is figuring out how to communicate them and being in a group that accepts a degree of “different” thinking. But not everyone assumes that, and as a rule, we like to fit in, and be around people who fit in -- though she also points out that humans gravitate to groups that are somewhat unique; it’s being the singleton that can make one lonely, awkward, and on edge. 

While race isn’t the main theme of the book, it runs throughout, in that the biases that people express towards people of different races and ethnic groups are in some ways just magnified versions of other forms of outsiderness. And this connection can be a way to find a deeper understanding of the challenges of racism. As Khazan states at the start of the book, the challenges of, say, a White immigrant are not equivalent to those faced as a BIPOC person or someone with a rare medical condition, but being aware of the extent to which social exclusion affects such a “broad swath of humanity” is useful for building empathy. 

In learning about weirdness, you have a chance to reflect on your differences and your biases, and perhaps considering these can help you find an empathy anchor when you see someone who is isn’t part of the group being challenged or feeling frustrated. And you may even learn to embrace the differences you and others bring to groups., and understand your reactions to being someone who brings a difference to a group. 

With a writing style that is engaging, and at times laugh at loud humorous, Weird will help you understand how you react to differences, how you are different, and perhaps guide you towards coping with the challenges and benefits of not quite fitting in, and also being more aware of your reaction to outsiders. 

Review: Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America's Housing Crisis

Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America's Housing Crisis Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America's Housing Crisis by Katherine Levine Einstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Neighborhood Defenders is an academic, yet approachable, book that discusses the dynamics around how people stop housing development that can increase affordability in the name of defending the neighborhoods. The book is and exploration of how current zoning (and review) processes , which were set up to give everyone a voice, have served to give certain advantaged groups an outsize say in what can be built. The result is often that larger housing projects which might include a range of market rate affordable, as well as subsidized affordable units often end up getting scaled back or stopped.

“Neighborhood Defenders” refers to the groups of residents that often rally around stopping projects by expressing opposition in terms of rationales along the lines of “this will change the character of the neighborhood.” In the book we learn that even while some of the  Defenders may be well intentioned (but perhaps not all) the end result is that housing that has the potential to diversify make a community more diverse and affordable is less likely to be built.

The theme that most caught my attention is the role of the public meeting process that many cities and towns follow around zoning has in this. The public meeting process has its roots in giving people voice, but in some contexts the voices that participate are limited to certain groups, and often not the ones who might benefit from certain housing projects. It’s easy enough to introduce delays -- which add costs to projects. -- either projects don’t happen, or developers abandon the idea of larger projects with Affordable housing and build smaller market rate housing. For example commenters at meetings often raise issues that are tangential to the original project, leading to the need for new studies and delays.  

While there are many books that opine about housing this one is different in that it is backed by data. The authors have read meeting transcripts and reviewed zoning regulations in cities and towns and used that data to support their conclusions. As such, the book is detailed and not a very  light read, but it is very approachable, and worth a read if you are interested in understanding the dynamics of housing and zoning meetings.  

Anyone who is a resident of a community that has a zoning board -- whether you are an activist or not -- could find this a useful and enlightening read, that will help you understand the obstacles involved in community development and paths around them

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Sunday, July 5, 2020

Review: Startup, Scaleup, Screwup: 42 Tools to Accelerate Lean & Agile Business Growth

Startup, Scaleup, Screwup: 42 Tools to Accelerate Lean & Agile Business Growth Startup, Scaleup, Screwup: 42 Tools to Accelerate Lean & Agile Business Growth by Jurgen Appelo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Though I’ve never been a founder, I’ve been an early member of startup companies and internal ventures (such as  being a founding member of the, at the time new,  Boston office for Fitbit )  so I was curious to read Jurgen Appelo’s book Startup, Scaleup, Screwup: 42 Tools to Accelerate Lean and Agile Business Growth, and see how relevant it was for me. It turned out to be very much so.  Appelo combines lean and agile principles with a model for business development that is relevant for both an entrepreneur starting a company, and an intrapreneur, leading a product initiative or a team.   

Since the book weaves many agile concepts and processes, such as backlogs, burn down charts, and retrospectives, into the process,  I was tempted to title my review something like “Agile for Startups” or “A Startups with Agile values.” But those names would misstate two key take-aways from the book. First, agile themes like “Inspect and Adapt” are just a really good way to start a venture, as new ideas require that you get constant feedback and adapt to it. If this weren’t the case and you knew what would work and how to do it, it would not be a venture. Second, this isn’t just about startups companies. Appelo addresses these idea in the context of an entrepreneurial startup or any intrepreneruial internal venture. In either case, you need to demonstrate value to secure a continuing funding source, or fail. And the feedback loops agile approaches like experiments and retrospective are essential to building that value.

Reading through the book I was struck by how often Appelo makes points that are both obvious and iconoclastic.  At one point he asserts that “growth” should never be a goal in itself,  but way to achieve  success, such as delivering value to more customers, which seems counter to common business thinking,  but which makes perfect sense. Similarly he describes how teams often frame cultural fit as being “similar” rather than “complementary” -- which is to say that a new person fills a gap on the team.

The book covers everything from funding, and planning to hiring. The hiring ideas are reminiscent of the ones I learned from Johanna Rothman in Hiring Geeks that Fit, albeit with slightly different terms, which are in essence, figure out how to what qualities you need in an employee, decide how you measure them

Appello’s Witty, irreverent  and humorous style make this one of the more entertaining business books to read, and the style reflects a perspective on business that might make you want to reconsider things you took from granted.  At the very least you’ll be tempted to explore the supporting materials that are linked at the end of every chapter

Whether you are in a startup, involved in building a new product for an established company,  of just curious about how businesses succeed, Startup, Scale Up Screw Up is an enjoyable, informative, and actionable read that will likely generate many ideas of things to do or learn more about.

Review: Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow

Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari My rating: 4 of 5 stars Homo Deus is an in...