Author Archives: Bruce

About Bruce

I'm an analyst at a large Canadian bank.

Review: “Henry IV, Part One” By The Royal Shakespeare Company (2014)

Introducing “Henry IV, Part One”

Henry IV Royal Shakespeare Company 2014On the weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing “Henry IV, Part One” performed. It was a treat for several reasons. Unlike some of the other history plays – Richard III comes to mind – Henry IV appears to be rarer in performance. In fact, yesterday was my first encounter with the play. My comments are not comparative to other performances.

The play’s relative obscurity in performance is particularly striking given some of my recent reading. I’m currently reading “Shakespeare: The Biography” by Peter Ackroyd. In the book, Ackryod explains how “Henry IV” was one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays in his lifetime. The play’s popularity then and now is largely due to Sir John Falstaff, a legendary comic character. Even Queen Elizabeth was a fan of Falstaff.

Anthony Sher as Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV Part iI

Anthony Sher as Sir John Falstaff in Henry IV Part iI

It was indeed the presence of Falstaff that rendered these plays so popular; the first part Henry    IV was reprinted more frequently than any other of Shakespeare’s plays. The first quarto edition was read so often and so widely that it survives only in fragments; there were three reprintings in the first year of publication.” (pg 300) – BLOCKQUOTE

I find it fascinating to learn about the history of the play. Once upon a time, I imagined that all of Shakespeare’s plays were equally popular. In my experience, only a fraction of his plays are professionally performed each year. That fact makes it more difficult to see all of his plays in performance.

Reflections on The Play

Unlike Julius Caesar or Richard III, the title character of Henry IV Part One is almost invisible. In Shakespeare’s time and now, the star character is the Sir John Falstaff. In large part, Falstaff depends on his friendship with Prince Hal, the Prince of Wales and heir apparent, for funds and other support. One wonders how the two first met – their origin story is omitted from the play. In terms of characters, I found Prince Hal and Falstaff most engaging (it helps that Falstaff gets the best lines of the play).

As with Shakespeare’s other history plays, I found Henry IV Part One’s exploration of authority intriguing. Simply possessing the Crown is not enough to sustain Henry’s authority and legitimacy. The play is an interesting object lesson – power is never final. If you ignore the friends and allies that brought you to power in the first play as Henry is alleged to have done, then you risk losing everything. It’s easy to imagine the Middle Ages as a time when monarchs could do as they wished – Shakespeare helps us see that time more deeply (e.g. constant rebellions and shifting alliances were the order of the day).

 Watching Shakespeare In A Movie Theatre

Unlike a traditional performance, I saw “Henry IV Part One” as a broadcast at a local Cineplex movie theatre. The play was performed and recorded earlier this year by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. For the most part, I am quite happy with the production. It’s interesting to contrast a broadcast experience to a live production.

The broadcast format added several excellent qualities to the theatre experience. I enjoyed the pre-play interviews for their insight on casting decisions. During the intermission (or “interval” as the British call it), there were interviews and a segment on fight choreography. The fight director discussed how the climatic sword flight between Hotspur and Prince Hal was put together.

There are some downsides to seeing a broadcast production. Camera angles are a mixed blessing in my view. The close ups can work well to see the actor’s expressions – a luxury that is not always possible when one attends in person. On the other hand, the camera limits my ability to choose my area of focus. All in all, I found the movie theatre experience of Shakespeare enjoyable and plan to continue to attending performances.

Note to Cineplex: Please set up an email list to make it easy to find out about upcoming performances of Shakespeare. That would a great process improvement!

Final Notes

I’m looking forward to seeing “Henry IV Part Two” in August. I’m curious to see how Shakespeare handles the Part One versus Part Two dynamic. I wonder if Siobhan Richardson – the fight director – will be there at the next performance of Part Two.

Next On the Blog: I’m going to see “As You Like It” next. Expect a review to be published sometime in early August.

“King John” at the Stratford Festival

I’ve set myself the goal of seeing all of Shakespeare’s plays. I’m also planning to write about my experience. I’m calling it the Summer of Shakespeare. It’s going to be a fun project. By writing about the plays, I will deepen my experience. I hope you enjoy my reviews and notes inspire you. There’s one tremendous challenge in seeing all of Shakespeare’s plays performed. Some plays like “Romeo and Juliet” are performed constantly. By seeing multiple performances, I find that I can appreciate the play in different ways and better understand staging decisions. However, this summer I’m seeking to expose myself to new plays.

The Stratford Experience

Going to Stratford is an experience that I often enjoy. In this case, I enjoyed a Sunday with beautiful  July weather. During the long trip to Stratford, I had the opportunity to finish reading “Imperium” by Robert Harris, an engaging novel about Cicero and the politics of late Roman Republic. I’ve long been interested in Roman history (and, of course, I am a major fan of Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar).

During my visit to Stratford, I had a great visitor experience. I made my usual pilgrimage to the Book Vault on Ontario Street. I ended up buying three great books for $10: “The Paradox of Choice” by Barry Schwartz, “Creators” by Paul Johnson and “Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir,” by Natalie Goldberg. Simply put, it is a great deal with a very robust selection. Beyond shopping, I also enjoyed a picnic lunch by the river – one of the unknown pleasures of Stratford that few visitors have discovered. In the evening, I enjoyed dinner at Pazzo, a place that I would happily return to again (perhaps I’ll dine in the wine cellar room at some point). By the time I took the train home to Toronto, I felt happy and tired (though I managed to finish Lord Beaverbrook by David Adams Richards on the way).

King John Directed by Tim Carroll (#sfKingJohn)

King John Production at Stratford Festival 2014Earlier in July, I had the chance to see “King John.” It’s one of the history plays I have rarely seen performed. In terms of story, it’s interesting to note how Shakespeare’s emphasis is quite different from modern culture. You might think of King John and Magna Carta go together for many people. You might also think about the many unfortunate portrayals of King John in films such as Robin Hood: Men In Tights (1993). Shakespeare’s play makes King John a serious figure struggling to maintain his throne and win a war against France.

I very much enjoyed the play’s staging and direction. The decision to open and close the play with music of the Middle Ages, similar to a Gregorian Chant, set the mood just right. Of all the characters, I was most impressed by Philip The Bastard. Shakespeare gives Philip some of the best lines of the play. Broadly speaking, I also enjoyed the gravitas that Tom McCamus brought to the lead role. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that monarchs had unlimited powers and full discretion to do whatever they wish. “King John” shows how the crisis of war and less than supportive nobles put great pressure (and limits) on the monarch’s powers.

When I attend plays, I also enjoy reading the program for added insights. Happily, this performance did not disappoint. Tim Carroll’s essay explaining his approach made a lot of sense to me. It struck me as a thoughtful way to balance honouring Shakespeare’s creation and bringing a 21st century approach. All in all, this was an enjoyable performance! Bravo to the Stratford Festival.

The Summer of Shakespeare

I made a bucket list goal in 2013 to see every one of William Shakespeare’s plays performed.

I realized that I face a challenge. After all, some plays are performed over and over again (“Romeo and Juliet” or “A MidSummer Night’s Dream”) while others (“King John”) are much more difficult to find. Read along in this series as I work through the canon and share some of my observations.

Discovering Shakespeare

I have enjoyed his plays for years. Ever since I saw the first performance of “Julius Caesar” at the Stratford Festival during high school. I had the good fortune of going to Stratford several times to wsee plays during high school and take in a few performances during my university years. Alas, it did not occur to me to make notes on what I’ve seen where (or what I thought about the performance). The sheer volume of what I have forgotten is humbling (and depressing).

With such a broad range of work, many fans tend to focus on certain types of plays – I am no exception. Generally, I tend to prefer the history and tragedy plays the most. In this short post, I’ll lay out some of the plays I’ve seen over the years. The next post in this series will outline my experience seeing “King John” (directed by ) at the Stratford Festival in July 2014.

Where I’ve Seen Shakespeare Performed

  • The Hart House Theatre at the University of Toronto
  • The Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario
  • The Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, England
  • The Globe Theatre in London, England (it was an all female cast playing “The Taming of the Shrew”)
  • Withrow Park in Toronto: Shakespeare in the Ruff
  • Cineplex Cinemas (via the National Theatre Live broadcast)

What’s Coming Up In My Summer of Shakespeare:

  • King John
  • Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2)
  • Cymbeline
  • Anthony and Cleopatra
  • Book: Reading “Shakespeare: The Biography” by Peter Ackroyd

I may yet go to see more plays than those listed above. It’s a great start in any event. It will be interesting to write more about the experience as the summer unfolds. One area for reflection is how the experience – open air, theatre, broadcast – has an impact on the experience. Out of the three options, I find it easiest to focus in a traditional, live action theatre. Broadcast can work well too but the changing camera angles and other movie style aspects of a broadcast sets that apart from a traditional performance.

 

Buffet: The Long Story (Book Review)

Everyone interested in investing eventually hears about Warren Buffet. Some hear about Buffet through his investing track record while others are simply aware of his wealth. For those interested in reading about Buffet, there are no shortage of options: a search on Amazon for “Warren Buffet” books results in over 1000 results. In searching for a single book to read, I focused in on “The Snowball: Warren Buffet and the Business of Life” by Alice Schroeder. Spanning over 800 pages, the reader is taken on a journey through Buffet’s childhood, many business exploits and personal life. At times, the book’s exhaustive detail proved something of a challenge however, it was well worth reading to get a sense of one of the world’s outstanding investors.

In reading biographies, I am often curious to learn about a person’s early life. The Snowball delivers in spades in that respect. I was fascinated to read about Buffet’s paper routes, running a pinball business and other exploits. It was also interesting to read about Buffet’s father, Howard Buffet, an investor and a politician. Father and son did some work investing together but Buffet mostly established himself on his own. Buffet’s early hobbies – collecting information, understanding numbers and systems – are laid out in detail. For the modern reader looking for a lesson, it is telling to read about Buffet’s success in learning public speaking and people skills from the Dale Carnegie Course. It is also interesting to see that a rejection letter from Harvard changed the course of business history. After being rejected from Harvard, Buffet went to Columbia where he studied with Benjamin Graham, author of The Intelligent Investor and Security Analysis. The interplay between Graham and Buffet, both legendary value investors, is one of the book’s greatest qualities.

Buffet’s success in the world of investing, portrayed in great detail, is simply outstanding in the book. As a young man, Buffet read through publications on stocks constantly – he even took a Moody’s publication with him on his honeymoon! Constant reading on business remains a staple of Buffet’s method. It’s clear Buffet has kept up the habit of learning right up to the present. In a telling story, Schroeder relates Buffet’s delight at discovering the Korean stock market and learning the particularities of Korean accounting practices. It’s easy to think that Buffet’s investing approach has always been popular but this is not the case. Buffet’s avoidance of technology stocks during the dot com boom of the 1990s (and at other times) have led some observers to see him as outmoded. Despite this criticism, Buffet’s methods continue to deliver. It’s an excellent object lesson in patience and keeping Graham’s Mr Market at a wise distance.
Buffet’s family life is described in great detail through the book. It’s telling to see how Buffet’s family relationships changed over time. From my perspective, there is one key point on family life to keep in mind. The first is Buffet’s approach to estate planning: he gives some wealth to his family but the vast majority of his wealth is assigned to charitable organizations such as the Gates Foundation. Buffet is very self aware of his good fortune of living in the United States; he describes this as winning “the Ovarian Lottery.” There are some family hardships and challenges in Buffet’s life certainly, including at least one instance of a Buffet relation who attracted press attention.

In sum, I recommend the book for those with the appeitite to delve deeply into Buffet. There is much to learn here – in a way, the book is a personal history of American business and investing. Buffet started out in the business world where the telephone was the only available piece of technology and only adopted computers where he learned about Internet bridge. This was the last book I read in 2013 and it was well worth the effort.

Thoughts on Thinking for A Change by John C Maxwell (Book Review)

Thinking For A Change by John C. MaxwellJohn Maxwell is widely known as an author and speaker on the topic of leadership. Whether or not you are engaged in leading an organization, there is much to be gained from a Maxwell book. His style tends to be heavy on quotations, stories and inspiration. For readers used to footnotes and data tables, it takes some time to get used to his style. Maxwell has written over fifty books so it can be difficult to know which one to choose. Recently, I read Maxwell’s “Thinking for a Change: 11 Ways Highly Successful People Approach Life and Work” and much enjoyed it. Eleven types of thinking are described: I will cover just a few of them in this review.

Why read a book about thinking? After all, many of us think and write every day as we work on our professional projects. Consider the leverage one can receive from improving one’s thinking process: if you could make your thinking 5% or 10% more effective, what could you accomplish? While the book does offer some insights regarding specific procedures to improve thinking, I don’t see that as the main benefit of the book. Rather, “Thinking for a Change” encourages the reader to give care and attention to the thinking process and self-reflection. It occurs to me that the book’s recommendations can help a reader combat common cognitive biases such as the confirmation bias (per Wikipedia “the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions”).

Maxwell’s insights on strategic thinking are valuable in their precision. Here are some of the strategy points Maxwell makes: plan on different time horizons (e.g. plan the year, plan the month and plan the week). Strategic plannins is a way to build and maintain leadership credibility – just imagine a leader without a strategy or approach for the future! Ultimately, Maxwell sees strategy as “nothing more than planning on steriods.”

The concept of reflective thinking is appealing but it can be a challenge to implement without the right strategies. One approach to increase one’s reflective thinking is to build the habit of a daily journal – Michael Hyatt has a helpful journal template. How exactly do you get more reflective? Maxwell suggests setting aside time for it (e.g. an annual review) and choosing the right context for reflection – a quiet place free of distractions. If you’re unclear what to reflect on, this chapter of the book offers a variety of excellent prompts on values, relationships, experiences. The breadth of Maxwell’s questions here are very good. Having a checklist for reflection prevents one from simply considering the same points over and over again. In particular, I like Maxwell’s focus on looking for lessons and recording successes.

What comes to mind when you read the word “thinking”? It might be a certain famous sculpture by Rodin or some other kind of solitary figure. While such thinking has great value, it does have certain limitations. The book’s chapter on shared thinking points out that thinking with other people over leads to tremendous results. Maxwell is particularly fortunate to have a circle of people who are keen to provide comments and work with him on ideas. If you don’t have such a group readily at hand, consider adopting a brainstorming protocol (e.g. Manager Tools Brainstorming) as a method to produce more ideas.

In close, give some thought to the quality of your thinking today. Is your thinking effective? Do you have structures in place to give your thoughts form and direction? Even if you’re content with your thinking, there’s so much to be gained by improving one’s thinking. Just taking one or two of the thinking approaches described in “Thinking for A Change” could have a big impact.

Next book review: “The Intelligent Investor” by Benjamin Graham.

Learning the McKinsey Mind (Book Review)

Cover of The McKinsey Mind As one of the most prestiguous management consulting firms, McKinsey & Company is a firm that I have wanted to know more about for some time. McKinsy may not be as large as the Big 4 firms – Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers,  Ernst & Young and KPMG – but it has an excellent reputation. While I may not ever work at the work, I was determined to learn some insights about how the firm approaches work. In that respect, “The McKinsey Mind” by Ethan M. Rasiel and Paul N. Friga was a successful book. Written in a very light and accessible style, this is one of the few business books I’ve read that would be easy to read on a trip (and still gain valuable insights). In this review, I will share a few key insights I learned from the book on framing business problems, gathering data and managing the client. While I found aspects of the book valuable, several people have commented that “The McKinsey Way” is a better book.

Defining the problem, whether in science or business, is absolutely vital – otherwise it is easy to spend energy and resources in the wrong areas. The key concept from this section is “MECE” (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive) helps people think through problems comprehensively. The advice to follow a structure reminds me of  The Checklist Manifesto by  Atul Gawande – it’s great advice. Without a template or checklist to follow, it’s easy to forget important steps as one works toward a goal. While I wouldn’t quite agree with the following statement: “When McKinsey-ites exit the Firm, they are often shocked by the sloppy thinking processes prevalent in many organizations,” I would agree that more attention to the art of problem solving would certainly be worthwhile. Logic trees – systematically mapping out the various factors at play in a given problem – is one way to visualize the different players involved. The advice to develop an initial hypthesis early on the problem solving process also has merits.

Without the right data in hand, there is simply no way to know if one’s proposed solution to a business problem will work. The external data gathering sections (i.e. which resources to use at the library) was nothing new to me and may not be particularly valuable to a professional who is already aware of what is happening in their industry. The most valuable advice the authors share here concerns interviewing as a way to gather data. While it’s easy to focus on data that comes neatly packaged in databases and spreadsheets, many critical details can only be discovered through interviews. The advice to develop an interview guide (i.e. list of questions), listening actively during the interview and following up with a thank you note are excellent ways to use intervieewing to gather data.

Even if you don’t work in a consulting firm, you have clients to manage. For example, if you work in a corporate function like IT that provides services to others in your company, this chapter of the book has some interesting ideas. For example, the recommendation to “make the client a hero” strikes me as interesting but challenging to implement. In some cases, a line of business requesting software or some other support simply wants the goods and they are not really interested in this kind of engagement. On the other hand, for large projects that require extensive change management effort, the book has plenty of good ideas on implementation.

Transferring insights developed at a consulting firm to a broader audience is a challenging task. Rasiel and Friga succeeded on several points – especially the early chapters on Framing the Problem, Designing the Analysis and Gathering the Data. At times, the authors came across as unreasonably confident that McKinsey practices can be implemented universally. For example, a professional who has been at their firm several years versus a consultant brought in for a 90 day engagement are likely to approach problems differently. The consultant approach outlined in the book will not be appropriate in all cases, but specific practices in the book such as Prewiring A Meeting do have near universal value. I recommend the first half of the book but seeing as the whole book is approximately 200 pages, it is just as easy to read the entire volume.

Beyond 2008: What’s Behind “The Great Degeneration” (Book Review)

The financial crisis of 2008 was the first time I paid very close attention to the world’s financial industry. A crisis demands attention, decisions and, last but not least, explanations. I’ve read several books on the financial crisis since 2008 but “The Great Degeneration: How Institutions and Economies Die” by Niall Ferguson stands apart. Ferguson is not concerned with the fate of particular firms or seeking to establish a blow by blow account of when decisions were made. Rather, Ferguson sees the crisis as simply one more chapter in a longer story of socio-economic dysfunction. Based on his BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures 2012, the book covers a lot of ground in less than 200 pages.

Building on his argument from “Civilization: The West and the Rest,” Ferguson argues that institutional problems account for much of the problems in the Western world. In his view “excessive debt, mismanaged banks and widening inequality” are little but symptoms of an “underlying institutional malaise.” So what institution is breaking down? Ferguson’s analysis of the excessive debt as violating a longstanding informal pact between the generations – running up large debts today largely amounts to transferring resources from future generations to the present. As firms and financial markets tend to be forward looking, this negative view of the future may be slowing growth in the here and now. Viewed through the lens of intergenerational relations, debt takes on a much more sinister aspect.

With allusions to Bleak House, “The Great Degeneration” makes a case against our era’s penchant for complex laws and regulation. In fact, Ferguson makes the claim: “The financial crisis that began in 2007 had its origins precisely in over-complex regulation.” There’s certainly a case to be made for the impact of unintended consequences of laws and regulations. For example, placing a high value on AAA rated securities creates incentives for rating agencies and banks to produce more products with that rating. To reduce such problems in the future, Ferguson recommends emphasizing regulatory discretion and increasing punishments:

Voltaire famously said that the British periodically executed an admiral pour encourager les autres. All the detailed regulation in the world will do less to avert a future financial crisis than the clear and present danger in the minds of today’s bankers that, if they transgress in the eyes of the authority on whom their business ultimately depends, then they could go to prison.

One of the key ways that banks measure risk is based on loss events with a dollar sign – e.g. fines, court judgements etc – so such regulator actions would certainly command much attention. Absent clear enforcement actions, it is difficult for risk managers to quantify the impact of regulations and factor them into models.

The decline of civil society organizations is Ferguson’s last main argument. While the chapter came across as an updated Bowling Alone with a British slant, it was interesting to see this point made as an explanation for economic decline. Dramatically increased state spending on welfare programs including health care and pensions explains part of the decline of associations. However, voluntary associations – rather than the loose networks of people from the Internet – are often the best place to solve certain kinds of practical problems such as cleaning up a beach. While I am certainly sympathetic to Ferguson’s argument that the decline of voluntary associations is lamentable, I don’t agree with his view that the state should significantly alter the education system (though the success of American charter schools bears closer study).

As an economic historian, Ferguson brings a fresh perspective to the financial crisis. Though parts of his argument will be familiar to students of the financial crisis, his long term view has me thinking more deeply about the issues. In the criminal justice system, mandatory minimum sentences have been promoted as a way to stop crime but I have yet to see any compelling evidence to support that view (indeed, the evidence suggests that they are harmful for the individual and wasteful for society). In the same vein, Ferguson makes a good case for simplifying regulation and increasing enforcement – essentially increasing the discretion of regulatory organizations to make decisions. For readers looking for a more in depth financial history, I would strongly recommend The Ascent of Money also by Ferguson.

Where We Are and other Geographical Insights from “Maphead” by Ken Jennings

Cover of Maphead by Ken Jennings In our time, we enjoy an abundance of maps and geographical knowledge. Whether you are a smart phone user with a map app or if you prefer the texture of road maps, it’s easy to find maps that show you how to travel from point A to point B. In Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks, Ken Jennings shows that the world of map enthusiasts – and the map industry – is far richer than simple navigation. I do find maps of some interest (I have an enduring fondness for maps as I received a Canadian atlas as a prize in high school for academic achievement) but I never thought the field could be quite so deep as Jennings puts it.

Unlike the world of rare book collectors, map collecting remains a fairly accessible hobby but one wrought with its own pitfalls. Like the world of stamp collecting, many of the world’s most valuable maps contain errors (e.g. there is a small mania for maps depicting California as an island). Unfortunately, maps are also relatively portable relative to books – tales of map theft from libraries and other owners are far from unknown. The world of map collectors is slowly aging and Jennings points out that the group may cease to exist if younger people do not take up the cause.

Lest one think this book is only concerned with the past, rest assured that there is a lively discussion of geo-caching and the National Geographic map challenge for school children. I had heard of geo-caching before but had never looked into it. Imagine a treasure hunt that is solely focused on the hunt – the only prize is the glory and recognition one wins from other geo-cache hunters. In my view, geo-caching is a rare case of technology actually encouraging people to explore the outdoors while encouraging them to build problem solving skills at the same time.

As fantasy fiction fans know, maps can play a vital role in fiction. Jennings discusses at some length how maps have been an indispensable component in fantasy ever since JRR Tolkien penned “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” For those familiar with the opening sequence of HBO’s Game of Thrones series, they will appreciate that maps are essential in helping the reader to understanding and visualizing the fictional worlds that authors create. I have no doubt that academics and critics have explored the role of maps in fiction at length but this was the first time I came across a compelling explanation:

If nothing else, talking to mappers of imaginary worlds has taught me that there’s a greater pleasure in maps than mere way-finding… If you never open a map until you’re lost, you’re missing out on all the fun. As Robert Harbison once wrote, “Nothing seems crasser to a lover of maps than being interested in them only when you travel, like saving poetry for bus rides.”

Whether you are interested in the history of maps, the state of geographical knowledge, map technology or the world of map enthusiasts, “Maphead” is an enjoyable read. The book also makes me wonder what is being lost with the increasing adoption of GPS and computer enabled way-finding. Is this like the slow transition from manuscript books to printing – a change that ended up putting low cost books in many hands and encouraging the sharing of knowledge? Or does the decline of geographical knowledge suggest we are losing ready access to a kind of literacy that helps us imagine and understand our world? The question remains open but I don’t think I’ll ever look at maps quite the same way again.

Long Term Wisdom from “Built To Last” (Book Review)

In the business world, there’s a cliche that executives only look at their careers in 90 day increments since the pressure to deliver impressive earnings in the stock market is ever present. While some pressure can be helpful, this short term perspective can drive companies into unfortunate decisions such as failing to take an interest in values and succession planning. Reading “Built To Last” Successful Habits of Visionary Companies” by Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras is an excellent corrective to the short term philosophy that is popular in much of the business world. By citing carefully researched case studies from companies such as Proctor & Gamble, Merck and Walt Disney, the book shares several key lessons on how to build an organization that lasts for decades if not centuries.

Past readings of Jim Collins will know that he prides himself on his robust, social science approach to business research. Just like “Good To Great” and “Great By Choice,” Collins focuses on publicly traded companies though he argues that these lessons apply in other contexts as well. The claim that principles from the business world can be applied elsewhere is not unique to Collins (e.g. this Wall Street Journal article Family Inc suggesting the merits of a weekly family status meeting). However, Collins has made efforts to explore how his ideas can apply in other contexts in the book, Good to Great and the Social Sectors.

The pursuit of grand goals – Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) – is one of the most inspiring aspects of the book and a way to bring people together. As a mechanism to stimulate progress, BHAGs are quite appealing, especially when it is a concrete goal. For example, Boeing committed to build the 727, the first in a long series of successful commercial jets. Developing a prototype aircraft required “roughly a quarter of [Boeing's] corporate net worth.” Committing to such a daring project is hard to imagine now – few companies in the 21st century appear interested in taking such risks. Yet, that sense of daring and committment to nearly impossible goals is quality that “Built To Last” associates with visionary, long lasting companies.

Beyond earnings and goals, what is it actually like to work at the visionary companies described in “Built To Last”? Such companies take their people very seriously and tend to invest heavily in home grown management skills and build “cult-like cultures.” At first, the “cult-like cultures” point struck me as extreme. However, “Built to Last” argues that a belief in a company’s elite status is a key reason that IBM grew from a small seller of business machines in the 1920s to one of the world’s most successful companies. The belief in IBM’s self-concept predated the company’s success by decades – that belief helped the company keep going through its tough years. Companies profiled in the book also put their money into culture building: “In 1887, P&G introduced a profit-sharing plan for workers, making it the oldest profit-sharing plan in continuous operation in American industry.” Why build culture? Collins and Porras argue that such culture building activities are an essential way to “preserve the core” of a company over time.

The greatest lessons I’ll take from “Built To Last” is the long term perspective. It’s possible to build organizations that thrive long after the founder is gone. In a time when many people focus on selling companies fast to maximize profits, let’s remember that’s not the only way to run a business. You can build a firm that actually stands for principles like technical innovation (HP), outstanding customer service (Nordstrom) or advancing health (Merck).

 

Are You Decisive? “Decisive: How To Make Better Choices in Life and Work”

We make decisions every day but how often do we reflect on the quality of our decision making? Are we following a robust process or simply acting on the first appealing option that comes along? These questions are some of the points covered in DECISIVE: How To Make Better Choices in Life and Work” by Chip Heath & Dan Heath. The Heath brothers have a highly readable style that weaves together stories and principles. At times, the book reads like a business school case study and I mean that in the best possible way. While I very much enjoyed the book, there were times when it felt almost too readable to qualify as a business book.

The Decisive model has four components which the Dan and Chip summarize with the acronym WRAP. W (Widen Your Options), R (Reality-Test Your Assumptions), A (Attain Distance Before Deciding) and P (Prepare To Be Wrong). While the Decisive model has a less than elegant name, it guides people through some of the standard weaknesses that tend to undermine decisions. The Widen Your Options section makes an excellent point about the value of adding options, especially in cases where a person or group is considering a binary decision (“Should I Do X or Not?”).

In my opening comment, I observed that the book is highly readable. It’s more than a question of style though. Chip and Dan use stories – from social science, from companies like Intel and other environments – throughout. There’s not a single financial statement or equation that in the book. Beyond that, each chapter ends with a “Chapter in One Page” summary that reviews the key principles of the book (e.g. “How do we escape a narrow frame? Think about opportunity cost.”). The book encourages action and the Decisive website includes workbooks, summaries and more.

A few specific tips from the book struck me as particularly helpful. One of the best ways to attain distance before making decision is to imagine you are advising your best friend in the same situation. DECISIVE also makes a great observation on how to make effective use of experts: ask for base rates rather than predictions. For example, instead of asking a lawyer for a prediction on how a given lawsuit will turn out, ask for an average (e.g. “What percentage of cases get settled before trial?”). Data is important but it is not the only consideration – the book also has advice for managing emotions in decisions: the 10/10/10 principle. This principle ensures that you consider your feelings 10 minutes, 10 months or 10 years from now – those future feelings should count just as much as current feelings (the Heath brothers illustrate this tip by suggesting an individual struggling with whether or not to say “I love you”: 10/10/10 suggests there’s not much downside here and much to be gained).

For the curious reader, DECISIVE is only the most recent entry to a growing list of books that explores thinking, psychology and decisions. Two other books in this growing sub-genre that are well worth a read are “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” by Richard H. Thaler and Prof. Cass R. Sunstein (makes good points about the merits of setting “default” choices) and “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman (which covers several aspects of psychology and thinking).