Understanding Variation – Donald J. Wheeler

“Businessmen are finding that while they have more numbers than ever before, they still do not know what these numbers mean.”

“This book was written to help organizations overcome the effects of numerical naivete.”

Understanding Variation is a classic in understanding and measuring how businesses work. Its key lesson is that things vary. When we see that trade is down in February compared to last year, it’s tempting to assume that means something. The media will certainly report it as such, but we really don’t have any reason to do so. For that data to be meaningful would require that last year be ‘normal.’ I’m not sure that’s ever happened.

Variation is a significant challenge for businesses. If a business has bad results one month, should it make changes? Wait? Ignore it? There are no hard and fast rules, though entire disciplines have arisen over what type of results mean something (see: Six Sigma). Even good managers fall victim to regression to the mean: when they see results that are worse than average, they reprimand the employee, and things get better! Of course, when they see good results, they reward the employee, and things get worse. Managers learn to always be mean, rather than the true lesson that things can’t permanently stay above or below average.

Wheeler presents a few key rules, including that no data have meaning apart from their context, and that to detect a signal, filter out the noise. Much of the book, however, focuses on laying out tools that can help businesses identify meaningful variation. Wheeler swears by the control or XmR chart, a time series combined with a graph showing the size of the change each period. It means you can track both level and variability simultaneously, and look for significant changes in either.

The book is a bit outdated now, but the lessons ring true. Variation was and remains a challenge, and one it is far too easy to neglect.

Working Minds – Beth Crandall, Gary Klein, and Robert Huffman

Cognitive Task Analysis “investigates what people know and how they think.” – Working Minds

Some people just seem to have a certain je-ne-sais-quoi. Nurses who know whether a baby is sick before the lab tests are back: firefighters who know when a building is about to collapse: chess grandmasters who can see the right move without thinking about it.

Whether services or manufacturing, more and more of the modern world relies on the knowledge of experts. Nurses, AI specialists, consultants, and a myriad of other professions all require expertise, and it isn’t always clear what exactly that means or how it can be transferred to others.

Enter Cognitive Task Analysis. The goal is to take an expert task and break it into pieces that can be organized, understood, and replicated. Working Minds is a how-to guide to making that happen: the method draws on concept maps, interviews, and other methods of trying to see into the head of experts and write down what they know and the processes they use, even if they aren’t aware of them themselves.

The book is aimed almost exclusively at practitioners, but the method itself is still interesting. The first half introduces a number of useful tools and ideas, and though probably too specialist for most readers, if this is something you’re interested in cognitive task analysis may be a good place to start. Working Minds, though a bit heavy-going at times, serves as a useful introduction to how to conduct one.

Working Minds gets bogged down in the second half, where it tries to address the potential use of cognitive task analysis. When it spends a chapter explaining that this would be useful to teach others how to do the tasks, for example, it feels like largely a waste of space; the benefits were pretty much self-evident.

What is Government Good At? – Donald J. Savoie

“The requirements of contemporary politics and deficiencies in public administration explain in large measure why government is not as good as it once was or needs to be in several areas if it to enjoy the support of citizens.” – Savoie

Our governments do an enormous amount of work on our behalf, and many of those things they do reasonably well. They are also under tremendous strain. Below the ‘fault line,’ says Savoie, operational employees focus on serving Canadians. Above it, however, political pressure forces civil servants to play the blame game, responding to crises rather than getting things done. The problem, he argues, is that the culture of the public service has focused power and prestige above the fault line. Below it, there are fewer and fewer resources and results.

Donald Savoie is a Canadian expert on public administration, and has strong opinions about how governments are and should be run. Despite the name of the book, its focus is mostly on why governments do things badly. If you make it to the last fifty pages, Savoie highlights that governments are best at tasks with wide public appeal or at least comprehension (such as a war), that are visionary in nature (such as going to the moon), and at dealing with wicked problems (largely because no one else can). Useful points, and it’s a shame he didn’t explore them earlier, rather than retreading arguments he has made in other books.

Savoie has a strong position, but I find some of his statistics hard to interpret. He mentions, for example, that 60% of civil servants are effectively back office, doing policy or other work that doesn’t involve dealing with Canadians directly. He roundly condemns this, but I’m not so sure. Is that good? Bad? A number of his statistics are impressive, but hard to interpret.

The book is on an interesting question, and if the title is a false promise, the content is still interesting. A useful work to read and reflect on, but if you were hoping to learn what government is good at, you’ll be disappointed.

Practical Performance Measurement – Stacey Barr

“ Performance measurement shouldn’t be a post-mortem; it should be a health plan.”

Performance measurement (PM) is oft-maligned: organizations see it as useless or a waste of time when they should focus on results. What many miss is that without clear evidence and data on progress, it can be hard to deliver results, or even know when you’ve delivered them. Performance measurement may well be unnecessary when things are going well, but it’s hard to know if they’re going well or not without it.

Stacey Barr developed what she calls PuMP: the Performance Measurement Process, with an extra ‘u’ thrown in to make it easy to pronounce. In the book, she runs through an 8-step pilot to implementing the process in an organization. The method places heavy emphasis on using PM for improvement, not accountability: if you punish people based on what is measured, you’ll end up with useless measures, she points out.

The book is well organized and useful. A few points needed more defense or explanation: her rejection of brainstorming because not all the ideas it produces are good felt more like a PR move than a well-considered argument, and her espousal of XmR graphs as a way of reporting performance seemed overly strong as well. Since the book’s purpose is partly salesmanship for her course, that may play a role.

The key lesson from the book is engagement. Several of the 8 steps in the pilot are about getting buy-in from the organization and ensuring others feel ownership: without engagement, she argues, performance measures will be ignored at best, and more likely rejected out of hand. I suspect she’s right in that: for any process that is that embedded in an organization—including PM but also HR, IT management, and others—if it remains the project of only a few people it will not lead to the culture change necessary to provide results and maximize impact. A lesson more of us could learn.

How to Make Good Teachers – Economist

Are good teachers made or born? Made, says The Economist and an increasing section of the literature, but the public still tends to look for super-teachers rather than train the ones we have in what works.

Early on in humanity’s lifespan, whether you lived or died of a disease was largely in the hands of the heavens. Some people were born with the ability to intercede with the heavens, and they were recognized and elevated early on for their innate talents. They might have extensive knowledge of the theory of how the gods thought and behaved, as well as how they could be convinced to change their minds.

Fast forward, and medicine is more skills-based than theory-based: theory clearly matters, of course, but doctors learn specific techniques that can help improve outcomes and allow patients to recover. Medical schools focus on teaching the concrete details of how the body works and how to treat disease, rather than abstract philosophies about medicine.

Unfortunately, says The Economist, teaching is still in the first state. The overwhelming narrative in education tends to be about accountability; testing and other methods find out how good teachers are, so we can separate the wheat from the chaff. That may have value, but far more useful is to ensure teachers are teaching well, using skills and practices that can be learned. Unfortunately, far too many education degrees focus on abstract theories of pedagogy rather than actually teaching how to teach.

The data highlights how important it is. The things we fight about in public policy – school uniforms, class size, streaming – make effectively no difference to student outcomes. Good teaching, on the other hand, makes all the difference, with good teachers getting students to learn about three times as much material as poor ones. That is the difference between getting 1.5 years of education or 0.5 years each year.

Good teachers ask probing questions of students; assign short writing tasks to check progress and get children thinking; they plan their classes and how to achieve their goals; have classes that are teacher-led but interactive; anticipate errors; and space out the content they cover. Regardless of your theory of teaching, these methods help students learn, in the same way that regardless of your theory of medicine, some practices will help patients recover.

North America has a lot learn from the places that prioritize education, such as Finland, Japan and Singapore. Their systems aren’t perfect either, but we certainly have room for progress.

You can read the full article here.

Wiser – Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie

“In this book, we begin with a simple question: Do groups usually correct individual mistakes? Our simple answer is that they do not. Far too often, groups actually amplify those mistakes.”

If you want to find out how an appellate judge will vote about an ideologically connected case, many of us would check if they were appointed by a republican or democrat. That’s a pretty good predictor. But in many areas, there is an even better predictor: who appointed the other two judges on the panel?

Being in a group affects what decisions we take. That much is clear. But should we take a decision alone or with a group? Both methods seem to work in some situations, and not work in others. In Wiser, Sunstein and Hastie set out to explore the difference.

In general, using a group does two things. It increases the cost of making the decision, because all group members have to be consulted and negotiated with: and it reduces the cost of errors, because it means the group can aggregate wisdom and ideas to minimize expensive mistakes. Or at least, that’s the theory.

In practice, groups can help or hinder. At their worst, they can amplify the errors of some of their members, get trapped in groupthink, become more polarized and extreme without become more correct, and focus only on shared information rather than the key information only some members possess. Perhaps the biggest concern is happy talk: group members go along with the consensus or say nothing is wrong, instead of providing new, sometimes critical, information. Good group design—red teams, giving equal voice to members, and other simple methods—can minimize these costs.

At their best, groups can guess how many jelly beans are in a jar. Groups are good when you need to forecast an unknown result, whether a presidential election or the number of jelly beans: they can aggregate opinions and if everyone is slightly off, the final result can often be very close because the average minimizes the individual errors.

Though Wiser discusses these themes at length, it is short on clear lessons, and indeed the book itself can feel repetitive or meandering. It is an interesting idea, and an important subject, but not as well or as clearly explored as I would have liked, making it hard to distill or learn from.

The Orenda – Joseph Boyden

“We had magic before the crows came…And we understood our magic.  We understood what the orenda implied.”

The orenda is a spiritual energy present in all natural things—humans, animals, plants, rocks, storms. If a hunter did well, his or her orenda was stronger than that of the game: a shaman had great personal orenda.

The Orenda is the story of three people: a Huron warrior; an Iroquois girl captured by the warrior; and a crow, a French missionary sent by his leaders to the Huron village. As the tale of early interaction between Huron and French is told, each of the three struggles wrestles to adapt and accommodate differences, with the two foreigners (Iroquois and French) each forcing the village to change in response to their presence.

Boyden carefully makes his characters complex: none of them are purely good or pure bad, but instead each has their blind spots and flaws. The Orenda takes events that many Canadians may be broadly familiar with and makes them visceral, giving us characters we can empathize with, even understand. The one odd note for me was the detailed descriptions of torture: though I appreciate he wanted to get historical facts right, I found I largely skipped through those sections, particularly after the first one.

The other note he strikes, one which has been controversial, is the issue of roles. He doesn’t paint the First Nations as solely victims: at one point, the narrator asks “what role did I play in the troubles that surround me?” There is a sequence of back-and-forth throughout the novel, as individuals wrong others and are wronged in turn—sometimes they forgive and grow past it, sometimes not.

I read this book in almost one sitting: I’d highly recommend it, though I might also recommend skipping the torture scenes. It won the 2014 Canada Reads Competition.

Winning the Brain Game – Matthew E. May

“I intended this book to be a mindful guide–complete with a super-curated set of battle-tested tools–for using our minds to win the games our brains are hardwired to play on us…this struggle of mind over matter is the brain game.”

When you’re confronted with a problem, is the first thing you do brainstorm solutions? That’s not a bad approach, but you might be able to do better. Winning the Brain Game suggests starting with ‘framestorming’ – before you generate solutions, try to generate as many different frames of the problem as possible, so that you don’t get trapped in one line of thinking.

Winning the Brain Game aims to identify the fatal mental flaws we are subject to, and ways we can overcome them. It is written very much from an applied perspective: May compares himself to a ‘jeweler trying to fix a broken wristwatch, not a philosopher pontificating on time’.

Reframing is May’s solution to the first flaw: leaping to the solution without understanding the problem. He identifies six others: overthinking things, getting fixed on specific ideas, satisficing, focusing on an easier but different problem, rejecting ideas that aren’t our own, and self-censoring. For each, he also presents a mindset that can help us overcome that flaw, giving the book a nice problem-solution structure.

Where the book loses steam is in categorizing the errors. He opens each chapter with a motivating story, and it isn’t always clear how the anecdote supports his point. It’s not a clear a marathon runner who doesn’t know their own limits, and so excels, is an example of someone who refuses to downgrade a problem to make it easier, for example. His categories also sometimes seem to overlap or contradict each other: overthinking is both a flaw and a solution in the sense of using system 2 instead of system 1.

Overall, some compelling examples and nice applied structure, but it could have done with a bit more care in setting out the flaws in thinking, and to catch a few small errors such as mistaken citations – he mistakenly suggests Schwartz conducted the famous jam study on choice, for example, instead of Iyengar and Lepper.

Disclosure: I read the book as an advance reader copy. You can see more reviews here: Winning the Brain Game.

The New Russia – Mikhail Gorbachev

“You, M. Diderot, propose sweeping changes, but you write on paper, which is very durable, whereas I must write on human skin, and that is very sensitive.” – Catherine the Great, to Diderot

Gorbachev is a titanic figure in modern history. American stories of victory aside, it takes two to end a war peacefully, and Gorbachev played that role in the USSR. Without him the outcome, though possibly the same in the end, could have been much more violent.

In The New Russia, Gorbachev looks back on Russia’s recent history. His key message is the importance of dialogue and cooperation, the same notes that led to the end of the Cold War. Gradualism and a middle path, he suggests, are fundamental to achieving real, sustainable change, in contrast to the shock therapy in Russia in the 90s, or the Arab Spring today. He also emphasizes the cost to people: he quotes Catherine the Great above as a reason to be careful in making changes, least the changes hurt those who can handle it least.

He issues a clarion call for democracy: one built on the cultural characteristics, traditions, mentality and national character of the relevant nation, but one that also has certain basic features. He highlights regular honest elections, a stable constitutional order, a balance of power between the three orders of government, competition between political parties, respect for basic human rights, a just and impartial legal system, and a developed civil society as essential to a successful democracy, no matter where.

The New Russia underscores one of the fundamental tensions between the US and Russia today. Russia sees itself as a great power, one that should be consulted at every turn: indeed, for most of history it has been. In the last twenty years, however, it has not been, and its pride is deeply wounded. Were positions reversed, and the USA a declining power, I suspect it would feel identically. Unfortunately, this pride and belief in its own exceptionalism leads to a scrabble for power that, even when as in Syria it works, can be enormously costly to the world.

The only weakness for me was the limited discussion of Ukraine and Syria. Having written a book about the need for dialogue and cooperation, Russia’s interventions in both countries appear only at the end, and are not well discussed or analyzed. It would have been fascinating to hear his thoughts on both.

The New Russia is a little longer than it needs to be. Like many politicians, Gorbachev remains wounded by some hurts he took while in power, and he discusses them at more length than necessary, making parts of the book a bit slow. Still, given Russia’s recent surge in activity, a book worth reading.

Disclosure: I read this book as an advance reader copy. You can see more reviews here: The New Russia.

Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City – Philip Mansel

“What is left of Aleppo has become a city of bread queues, electricity and water cuts, rationing and road-blocks. Rubble and rubbish fill the streets…Aleppo had once carried a message: that different races and religions can coexist in the same city.”

When I visited Aleppo ten years ago, its citadel towered over the city, and the souqs below it sprawled in a fascinating adventure. It wasn’t a tourist hub, but perhaps for that reason people were tremendously friendly, as they were across Syria. All of that is effectively gone, and Syria is undergoing a heartbreaking loss of memory. For that reason, books like Aleppo are tremendously timely.

Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world: humans have lived there since the 5th millennium BC. Standing as it does between the Middle East and Europe, it has served as a cultural melting pot for almost that long, prizing diversity as a means to trade. When one sultan was asked to expel the Jews, he responded that flowers were shown to best advantage when mixed with others of different colours, and refused.

Aleppo focuses on the history of the city under the Ottoman Empire, when it was a major economic hub. Camels and caravans from India, Iraq, Iran, the Gulf, Erzurum, Damascus, and the Arabian Peninsula stopped at Aleppo before heading to the Mediterranean and Europe, meeting merchants from Venice, England, France, and across Europe going the other way. Lawrence of Arabia would remember it as a place of coexistence, shaped by the civilization that had wheeled around it without being overtaken by them. Today, its population has fallen from two million to less than a quarter of that.

Having introduced the history in its first half, Aleppo’s second half is excerpts of travel diaries from travelers who visited it during the Ottoman period. I found these a bit disappointing, since a number of them are difficult to follow without considerable background knowledge. They do have highlights, however: there is a particularly thoughtful essay by Francis William Newman, younger brother of the future cardinal, and Gertrude Bell’s comments are also very good. The diaries do not shy from detail: one striking passage explains attempts to avoid Aleppo Button, which caused nasty boils, by taking a person already badly infected and taking some of the boil and injecting it into someone as a vaccination.

My favourite part, however, are the Aleppine proverbs the author shares, almost all of them trade-related. If you do business with a dog, you should call him sir; excess is obnoxious, even in religious worship; the piaster equips its owner with seven languages; the greatest blessing is in things concealed from view.

The book isn’t perfect, and its structure can be a bit hard to follow or absorb. It does, however, provide an important reminder of the happy and glorious history Syria has had, and for people interested in the city, it’s a fun and interesting read.

Disclosure: I read Aleppo as an Advance Reader Copy. It is released April 26th.