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The Essential Drucker – Peter Drucker

The fundamental task of management is to “make people capable of joint performance through common goals, common values, the right structure, and the training and development they need to perform and respond to change.” – Essential Drucker

Why did the Allies win World War 2? They had longer supply lines, a smaller population, and lower production of war material. For Drucker, the victory was because of management. The Allies won because they could make better use of the resources they had.

The Essential Drucker a collection of some Drucker’s key essays and ideas, conveniently collected into a single book. It is an old book, and at some points that shows, particularly in the examples he uses. An amazing number of modern management books just recycle his ideas, though. In part, that’s because of Drucker’s tremendous span: the book covers management in the broadest possible way, from managing yourself and your time to large organizations and even society. The book goes from arguing management is a liberal art to suggesting the single largest reason for an organization’s decline is a failure to innovate; that if someone doesn’t perform, it is the failure of the person who put them in the wrong place, not the failure of the person who is there; and that effectiveness is only poorly correlated with intelligence.

Perhaps the strongest chapter for me was the one on managing your own time. Drucker argues most of us have no idea how we spend our time. He suggests everyone should allocate a week to keep a time diary, recording exactly what activities they spend their time on. It’s a surprise. When you know how your time is spent, though, you can make it more effective. Rather than spending 15 minutes on something here and there, you can consolidate, streamline, and improve.

If you’re someone just starting in a management role, The Essential Drucker is a perfect book to begin. Broad, sweeping, and you can pick the sections you like and read the rest of Drucker’s work on the subject.

Leading Change – John P. Kotter

“A managerial mindset will develop plans, not vision; it will vastly undercommunicate the need for and direction of change; and it will control rather than empower people.” – John P. Kotter

What’s the difference between a manager and a leader? Most of us can glibly dismiss managers as not-leaders, but explaining the difference takes a little more thought. Kotter argues that management is about the processes that keep a complicated system running smoothly, including planning, budgeting, organizing, staffing, and controlling. Leadership, in contrast, is what creates organizations in the first place or adapts them to change, by defining what the future should look like, aligning people with that vision, and inspiring them to make it happen.

Kotter is a giant in the change management field. Except, he compellingly rejects the idea of change management. What we should be doing, he argues, is change leadership. Historically, the focus in universities and businesses has been hiring and training managers. That’s a good thing: they are essential! But as a result, we are now short on leadership, and we often end up with a manager where leadership is needed.

Kotter presents eight steps to changing an organization. If you skip any, go back to step 1.

  • Establish a sense of urgency
  • Create a guiding coalition
  • Develop a vision and a strategy
  • Communicate the change vision
  • Empower broad-based action
  • Generate short-term wins
  • Consolidate gains and produce more change
  • Anchor new approaches in the culture

The first six are about building up momentum, while the final two are about preventing backsliding. The distinction between management and leadership also provides another lesson, though. Far too many leaders, or would-be leaders, spend so much time managing they don’t have any time to lead. Developing a vision and inspiring people takes time: all culture changes are slow, and cannot be rushed. One can hurriedly set up a budget; one can’t hurriedly change people’s minds.

Kotter is an engaging writer and the book is powerful. If you’re thinking about changing an organization—and these days, who isn’t—well worth the read.

The Ethics of Influence – Cass Sunstein

“The private sector inevitably nudges, as does the government. No government can avoid some kind of choice architecture. We can object to particular nudges, and particular goals of particular choice architects, but not to nudging in general.” – The Ethics of Influence

Two young fish are swimming along in the ocean. They pass an older fish, who says “morning boys, how’s the water?” The young fish keep swimming along (like many young fish, they are somewhat rude to their elders), until one turns to the other and says: “What’s water?”

This, says Cass Sunstein, is the story of how we are affected by our environment. The effect is so everpresent we often don’t even know it is there, and it is inescapable. At a time when nudges have been enormously popular with governments (see, for example, the UK Behavioural Insights Team, or the US Social and Behavioral Sciences Team), the question of whether they are ethical is very salient.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given Sunstein’s role in popularizing nudges, The Ethics of Influence argues they are. It advances four key arguments: that individual nudges can definitely be unethical, but that nudging qua nudging is not unethical in the same way that taxes qua taxes are not; that objections are pointless, because nudges are inescapable, such as snowy days increasing how many four-wheel drives are purchased and then returned to car dealers; that it’s possible to set the rules of the game, including nudges, without predetermining outcomes (for example, by making a decision easier across the board); and that in surveys, people prefer educational campaigns to direct nudges, but if they are told that education is less effective, support for nudges increases.

Sunstein’s definition of nudges is quite generous, which can sometimes muddy the waters: he includes all educational campaigns as a nudge, for example. That’s not wrong—after all, it is a non-coercive form of affecting behaviour—but it is very different from the examples that most people have ethical concerns about, such as using opt-out to encourage organ donation. At a few points, the book feels closer to salesmanship than analysis: in a chapter on environmental nudges he repeatedly raises the example of setting printers to double-sided defaults, cutting paper use by 40%. It’s a good and useful example, but if you’re already a critic of nudges, that isn’t what you have in mind.

Ethics of Influence is more academic than some of Sunstein’s recent books, and so readers expecting Wiser, Simpler, or Nudge may be a bit taken aback. It is heavily footnoted and abstract, making it somewhat hard to follow at points. It’s also on a very important topic, and one that is making huge waves in government. Probably not a book for the casual reader, but if you’re already interested in the field, Sunstein is a giant in it, and his arguments are relevant and important.

Disclosure: I read this book as an advance reader copy. You can read more reviews and order it here: The Ethics of Influence.

The Holmes Manual – Mike Holmes

“We can’t live without water, but it can be a real pain.”

The HVAC system (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning) is the lungs of your house. There’s some fascinating work looking at the microbe colonies that life on and around our bodies – when you enter a work environment, your colonies mix with those of your coworkers, and over time they become more uniform. If your house or work recirculates air, that’s a much more dramatic process: if it takes in air from outside, then you’ll get more exposure to different microbes. This may help increase your resistance to some things, and make for a healthier environment – work is ongoing.

There, something you may never have thought about. I was reminded of these studies reading Mike Holmes’ book (the Holmes Manual, of course) on home renovations: he very much sees a house as a living organism, one that must be allowed to breath easily. Not a perspective I usually take.

Holmes is a bit of a cult figure in Canada, with multiple TV shows to his name. His book is not really a DIY guide: Holmes only believes in doing work to the highest possible standard, often to a level beyond what the everyday homeowner could achieve. As a guide to the best possible solution to any household problem though, the gold standard of construction if you will, he’s excellent. He spends most of his time on parts of the house homeowners may never see, including the HVAC, foundations, attics, and roofs: he wisely suggests that if you do good work on these parts of the house, you carefully document and photograph it, so that for resale you can provide evidence. Often, such investments can more than pay for themselves, in value at sale and in savings in energy bills (particularly in Canada), but without evidence people tend to assume mediocre work at best, since that is the norm.

The Holmes Manual is an unusual book for this blog, I know, but I happened to pick it up – better, I sometimes think, to read the wisest book from many different disciplines, then hit diminishing marginal returns by reading too many in the same field.

The Conservatarian Manifesto – Charles Cooke

“If there is a conservatarian ideology, its primary tenet should be to render the American framework of government as free as possible and to decentralize power, returning the important fights to where they belong; with the people who are affected by their conclusions and who are therefore best equipped to resolve them.”

The Republican Party has always seemed like a bit of an unstable alliance to me: libertarians, who value individual freedom and so are economically but also socially liberal, and conservatives, who are economically liberal but socially conservative. Thomas Friedman argues a more reasonable party would be those who support trade and globalization, both Democrats and Libertarians, against those who do not, such as trade unions and social conservatives. I’m not so sure, but it’s generally interesting to see attempts to fuse libertarians and conservatives together, even those with aesthetically displeasing words like conservatarian.

Cooke is worried that this instability and an increasing failure to connect with the population is damaging the Republican Party, and lays out areas where the two sides can agree, and how they can built a platform that can truly connect with Americans again.

Cooke is a thoughtful and reflective writer, and – as can sometimes be unusual these days – is willing to grant a point to the other side while still making the more nuanced argument that though the other side has good points, the costs still outweigh the benefits. Broadly, he argues for a decentralization of power, as has traditionally been the case in the US: when Republicans argue for power centralization in order to stop Obama, he argues, they sacrifice what matters in the long run for short-run benefits, exactly what they object to in Democrats.

The Conservatarian Manifesto has some weaknesses: issues such as gun control and drug legalization are well-trodden, and he doesn’t have that much to add to the existing discussion. Some of his arguments are also based on an echo-chamber effect: appeals to authority and the founding fathers as reasons the constitution is important, for example, are arguments that aren’t convincing unless you already believe in conservative ideals. As a result, left-wing readers may find some sections more annoying than convincing.

The media tends to portray the Republican Party as choosing between a fast slide into oblivion or a slow one. As Cooke points out, this is almost certainly nonsense. Their stance may change on specific issues, but the appeal of small government remains an enduring one for many. The right is likely interested from the perspective of winning elections, but even the left can benefit from thinking carefully about what the right believes.

Disclosure: I read the Conservatarian Manifesto as an advance reader copy. It is released on March 10th.

The Analects – Confucius (trans. David Hinton)

“If you can revive the ancient and use it to understand the modern, then you’re worthy to be a teacher.” – Confucius

Confucius (around 500 BC), stood for family loyalty, ancestor worship, respect of elders, and ritual. He argued that society was made up of the structure of human relationships, and that to be fully human you had to fulfill your role in society with respect to others. He also argued for egalitarian education for all and a meritocracy, as well as espousing an early version of the Golden Rule. While alive, he was one of many philosophers: after his death, his philosophy would be adopted as an official creed in China, and Confucianism is one of the most lastingly influential creeds in history. It also came to stand for obedience to authority and sacrifice of the individual, but at least from the Analects it’s not clear that’s a fair interpretation.

In any case, I thought I’d share a few quotes that struck me!

General Advice

“When you’re an official with free time, study. When you’re a student with free time, take office.”

“For people to talk all day, enthralled with their clever chitchat, and never once mention right or wrong – that must be difficult indeed!”

À la Rumsfeld: “When you understand something, know that you understand it. When you don’t understand something, know that you don’t understand it. That’s understanding.”

On governing

“I can hear a court case as well as anyone. But we need to make a world where there’s no reason for a court case.”

“One day the stables burned down. When he returned from court, the Master asked: ‘Was anyone hurt?’ He didn’t ask about the horses.”

On Society

“To be poor and free of resentment is difficult. To be rich and free of arrogance is easy.”

“We’re all the same by nature. It’s living that makes us different.”

“Don’t grieve when people fail to recognize your ability. Grieve when you fail to recognize theirs.”

The Signal and the Noise 2 – Nate Silver

The Signal and the Noise (reviewed last time) is one of many books that cite’s Philip Tetlock’s work on expert predictions, and so I thought there might be value in summarizing that work here. Tetlock is a professor of psychology and political science, and in the 80s, he started collecting predictions from experts across academia and government on a variety of topics. What he found was that the experts were about as good at predicting the future as random chance. Experts were better than undergrads, but still absolutely rubbish, and worse than just assuming the status quo would persist.

That’s the headline result, but there are also some extensions. The most commonly cited of these is the idea of hedgehogs and foxes, from the title of an essay by Isaiah Berlin discussing Tolstoy. He, in turn, took the title from a Greek poet; “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

In the context of predictions, what Tetlock found was that Hedgehogs (experts who focused on a single big idea, and specialized heavily) were significantly worse at forecasting than Foxes (experts who have a plethora of little ideas, and are often multidisciplinary). Unfortunately, hedgehogs are the ones who go on tv – why ask experts who think there are two sides to an issue when you can have panelists who think everything looks like a nail? Big, bold predictions may be usually wrong, but they’re exciting, and that’s what matters for a public intellectual.

Takeaway: experts don’t have much to tell us in predicting the future (though have significant value in other ways, one hopes), but adaptable experts with breadth have at least a little more to tell us than heavily specialized ones do. In the end, humility about what we can predict and what is predictable may be our only option. 

Homeward Bound: Why Women are Embracing the New Domesticity – Emily Matchar

“Fashion is fashion, but our current collective nostalgia and domesticity-mania speak to deep cultural longings and a profound shift in the way Americans view life. I call this phenomenon ‘New Domesticity.’”

All of us probably consider quitting our jobs at some point. Historically, however, most who did would simply go look for another job. Today, Matchar argues, young people, particularly women, are starting to pursue a different option.

That option is New Domesticity. It is going back to the domestic activities of a century ago, making jam from scratch, knitting, making crafts and selling them on Etsy, blogging from home about household issues, and urban homesteading. It’s about looking for fulfillment at home, doing things yourself, instead of in the workforce, doing as you’re told. Young people today, Matchar suggests, are looking for a “more authentic, meaningful life in an economically and environmentally uncertain world.” She worries, though, that such a movement, thought it has many advantages, may disenfranchise the (mainly female) people who pursue it as they take on economically marginal activities, no matter how fulfilling they may be.

The book is interesting, and if a few chapters feel like they bite off more than they can chew, attempting to address subjects like women in the workforce that would require a book of their own, overall it is excellent. Vaguely aware of Pinterest as I may have been, I had no idea of the immense scale of home-focused blogs, or how little money people were prepared to live on in order to sell their products on Etsy or grow their own food. I also found her broader question profound: is there a tradeoff between fulfilling and economically powerful jobs? Does it matter which you select?

In some ways, the book reflects what to me is a human constant: a desire for agency, or choice. When women were forced to remain in the home, the fight was for the ability to choose the workplace: now that working is increasingly becoming the default, the appeal of choosing to work at home is growing. Being forced to do something can put us off something we might have enjoyed had we chosen it on our own, whether we’re schoolchildren or in the workforce.

Matchar is convinced New Domesticity represents a deep cultural longing, and not a passing trend, and if I’m not yet quite convinced, I’m certainly interested to hear more about it. The book is also a fairly light read, largely focused on relating stories and experiences, while still managing to ask the right questions. It’s well worth picking up; you can get it here (or in the UK or Canada).

Montaigne 2

Two of the most interesting essays of Montaigne are his essays on Death and Education (though others recommend themselves, perhaps most of all his essays on friendship, written shortly after he lost his best friend, and on solitude). I thought I’d share a few insights. (A broader discussion can be found here)

On Death

“We are all bound one voyage; the lot of all, sooner or later, is to come out of the urn. All must to eternal exile sail away.”

Referring to death; “And to begin to deprive him of the greatest advantage he has over us, let us take a way quite contrary to the common course. Let us disarm him of his novelty and strangeness, let us converse and be familiar with him, and have nothing so frequent in our thoughts as death. Upon all occasions represent him to our imagination in his every shape; at the stumbling of a horse, at the falling of a tile, at the least prick with a pin, let us presently consider, and say to ourselves, ‘Well, and what if it had been death itself?'”

“The premeditation of death is the premeditation of liberty; he who has learned to die has unlearned to serve.”

“Why should we fear to lose a thing, which being lost, cannot be lamented?”

“Wherever your life ends, it is all there. The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man may have lived long, and yet lived but a little. Make use of time while it is present with you”

“Why dos thou fear thy last day? It contributes no more to thy dissolution, than every one of the rest; the last step is not the cause of lassitude: it does not confess it. Every day travels towards death; the last only arrives at it.”

On Education

“[I]n truth, all I understand as to that particular is only this, that the greatest and most important difficulty of human science is the education of children.”

“We only labour to stuff the memory, and leave the conscience and the understanding unfurnished and void.”

Better a “well-made than a well-filled head…to prefer manners and judgment to mere learning”

“Let my governor [teacher] remember to what end his instructions are principally directed, and that he do not so much imprint in his pupil’s memory the date of the ruin of Carthage, as the manners of Hannibal and Scipio; nor so much where Marcellus died, as why it was unworthy of his duty that he died there.”

“Let him be able to do everything, but love to do nothing but what is good.”

You can pick up your copy of the Essays here (or in the UK or Canada). Or, if you’ve got a kindle, the essays are often cheap or free!