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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.

Book Review: The Psychology of Selling by Brian Tracy

The Psychology of Selling by Brian TracyI have been interested in understanding sales better for some time. In accounting and finance contexts, sales are often assumed to occur by “the sales force.” I think that understates the key role of sales in any organization (getting a donation for a non-profit is just as much a sale as selling a mortgage loan or selling a computer). Why did I pick Brian Tracy‘s book? Josh Kaufman, of Personal MBA fame, recommends the book on his list of top 100 best business books of all time. Even if the word “sales” is not in your job title, stay tuned – we can all benefit from learning ways to sell our ideas better.


True to the title of the book, Tracy opens with a motivational chapter on the mindset, attitude and “inner game” of sales. While certainly motivational to read, Tracy has a habit of citing statistics without providing a source (e.g. “Some years ago, Harvard University did a study of sixteen thousand salespeople and found that the basic qualities that determine success or failure in selling were all mental.” – pg 8). If you are looking for motivation to develop your sales skills (or really, any professional skills), this chapter is a good read.

The strongest chapter of the book for me was “Why People Buy.” Delving into buyer motivation is complex and the subject of more than a few books (e.g. “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping” by Paco Underhill). However, Tracy does well to provide a fast introduction to the topic that can be applied. For example, one of the Action Exercises from this chapter is: “conduct regular market research among satisfied customers; find out what benefit your product offered that caused them to buy from you rather than someone else.” Tracy also makes another point in this chapter about positioning a good or service as an improvement rather than something entirely new. Aside from a minority of people who are early adopters, novelty is often perceived as risky in the minds of many people.

Some of the book’s most practical and direct recommendations concern appearance and making a good impression on prospects. Tracy tells a story of one business that significantly improved its sales simply by upgrading its office furniture and furnishings – an improved environment conveyed an image of success.Tracy also makes a similar argument about the importance of haircuts: “I told him [a student at one of Tracy's sales training seminars] that if he wanted to be more successful in selling to businesspeople, he would have to cut his hair.” (pg 140). As soon as I read that, I was reminded of a Swiss bank that directed its male staff to get a monthly haircut. This is part of Tracy’s more general argument that everything counts in sales – appearance, environment, delivery of the sales message and so forth.

If you’re looking for a highly readable introduction to sales and ways to improve sales techniques, The Psychology of Selling is a good read. I have not tested all of the recommendations but many of them struck me as plausible and worthy of consideration. Tracy has a whole sales and business training suite of products so there is much more to consider if you particularly enjoy his writing style and approach to business.

Manufacturing In 2012

On the commute home today, I experienced a moment of podcast heaven. Not only did I learn about a field that I know relatively little about (American manufacturing), but I learned about on an episode of EconTalk (Adam Davidson on Manufacturing) where the guest was Adam Davidson, one of the main reporters from NPR’s Planet Money. If you’re interested in getting some genuinely well informed perspective on the current state of manufacturing, it is well worth a listen. However, I was not content merely to listen to the podcast. I wanted to get some context for the state of manufacturing in Canada.

There’s a well known story in the media that manufacturing (especially manufacturing employment) is disappearing in North America. That story is even more pronounced in Ontario which was historically a major centre of manufacturing activity. If you focus on the percentage of jobs in manufacturing, the trend is clearly going down. Consider the following graph from Statistics Canada from a 2009 report called, Trends in manufacturing employment

Chart B Manufacturing’s share of employment has fallen sharply since the turn of the century

Even as the quantity of manufacturing jobs continue to drop, there are significant opportunities. For example, skilled machinists and technicians who understand CNC programming and other high end manufacturing techniques can find good jobs. Adam Davidson, rapidly becoming one of my favourite economics reporters, has reported on manufacturing jobs that pay “$30/hour” (roughly $60,000 per year) in his excellent article in the Atlantic Making It in America. Davidson comments on one American factory that still has classic lower skilled manufacturing jobs (i.e. annual pay around $27,000 a year). The only reason that category of job continues to exist is the cost of switching to machines is still too high. Manufacturing employment isn’t quite gone but it is rapidly splintering into two categories: higher skilled positions (require several years of technical training, specialized knowledge, etc) and lower skilled positions that will likely continue to decline.

Professional Development Reflections

Notes: I’ve been away from this blog for several months but I am hoping to get back into it from time to time.

I’ve been thinking about professional development lately and my views have changed in some ways. My understanding of professional development is now broader and more nuanced than before. For example, I think the professional development needs and interests of people vary depending on their organizational context and where they stand in their careers. I now also think of professional development in broader terms – improving one’s technical skills further, for example. One area where I am looking to develop my skills further is Excel and Access (e.g. I’m working on learning “Visual Basic for Applications” (VBA). Beyond that, I’m keenly working on developing my understanding of the financial industry. There is much more to learn but this is where I am focusing on these days.

2010 Year in Review

As promised, I am writing a 2010 Year in Review to reflect on my accomplishments and projects of 2010. For the sake of balance (and to inspire me to move forward), I will also mention some projects where I didn’t make much progress. As I mentioned in my rushed post, I am once again inspired by Seth Godin who has written up his 2010 Year in Review post some time ago.

  • Completed two consulting contracts for an investment management firm in Toronto: DONE (this work focused on classification and taxonomy): DONE
  • Delivered conference presentation on Net Neutrality at the Canadian Library Association Conference in Edmonton, Alberta: DONE
  • Applied for many, many, many jobs (+90): DONE
  • Started an interesting full time position at a Big 5 Canadian Bank in September: DONE
  • Learned the basics of the Canadian securities / investment industry by taking a CSI prep course through the University of Toronto (my blog post on the CSI course is the most popular on this blog!): DONE
  • Started several paid freelance writing projects: IN PROGRESS

The Not Done Category includes:

  • Finish novel started in November 2008: NOT DONE
  • Wrote the CSI exam (Volume I and II): NOT DONE
  • Write at least 100 blog posts in 2010: NOT DONE (not even close!)

Aside from the above I also completed some significant personal and financial goals but those fall outside the scope of this blog. I am also disappointed that I blogged so little in 2010 (either here or in other places). I find blogging and the process of writing to be a rewarding practice but it often seems daunting. I am also thinking of reorienting my blog away from libraries (which I still admire and value, but I don’t work in a library and I have limited day to day contact with the library world per se) and toward the world of banking, finance and economics. I am also considering adding some additional elements to this blog such as book reviews.

How was your 2010? Did you achieve what you wanted to achieve? Will 2011 be different?

Happy 2011 and notes on 2010

With the start of a brand new year, I feel inspired to blog once more. This blog post comes to you from an Internet cafe in New York City operated by “New York Industries, Inc” and I’m in a great mood. Being in this great American metropolis never fails to inspire me.

As it has been several months since I have blogged, I am considering this blog’s direction and purpose. I am inspired by the “year in review” posts that Chris Guillebeau (Guillebeau actually has this interesting process of doing a personal/travel/business annual review that is well worth reading) and Seth Godin put up about 2010. I don’t have time to write up my thoughts in much detail right now but I feel that 2010 ended on a high note after months of struggle and difficulty.

And with that, I shall conclude.

Information as Risk

In a complex organization, information has many different qualities and poses different problems. For traditional librarians or researchers, it is traditional to think of information positively. Better information and better organized information helps people think through problems, feel less stress and otherwise work more effectively. However, risk presents another way to think about information. Information risks are varied including managing privacy issues, complying with legal requirements and managing internal controls. The risk approach to information is something of a new concept to me and I am still thinking my way through its implications. What kinds of risks can be eliminated? What sort of risks can only be monitored? What kinds of methods exist for measuring information risks? These are some of the questions I have been thinking about lately and which I may explore in this blog later on.

Early August Update

It has been over two months since my last post so I thought I would briefly write once again. The summer has seen me work on a number of projects, undertake some travel and read quite a few books. I’m thinking that I may review the direction and emphasis of this blog as a matter of fact. Before I alter course, I think I will post reviews of some of the books I’ve been reading. Stay tuned for more posts as August progresses.

The Hot Docs Doc Library

For four or five years, I have been an avid attendee of the Hot Docs Documentary Film Festival held annually in Toronto in late April and early May. Their sheer variety of films and topics available at the event can feel overwhelming but I usually walk away having learned something new and seeing interesting techniques in film making. As with many other film festivals, some fraction of films shown will become more wildly available on either television or cinemas but it is hard to know which ones are “see it here or never!” versus “see it here or in theatres in a few months.” During this year’s festival, I learned about a new project called the Hot Docs Doc Library where you can see a wide variety of Canadian documentary films for free.

According to the site, this project was supported partially through the federal government’s Canadian Culture Online Strategy program. The leadership of the Department of Canadian Heritage in supporting films like this deserves to be supported. As a librarian, I would like to see the library have better organization. It is difficult to search the films or even easily figure out how many there are (my guess is close to three hundred films, including shorts). In the future, I look forward to seeing more Canadian films posted here and seeing how the site evolves over time. Perhaps the administrators of the service will consider taking on librarians and educators to further develop and expand the site.

Launch of the iSchool Institute

The iSchool Institute

In the knowledge economy everyone is a volunteer, but we have trained our managers to manage conscripts.” – Peter Drucker

I had the pleasure to attend the launch of the iSchool Institute tonight and take in Euan Semple‘s stimulating lecture. As I understand it, the Institute is part of a broader effort to change the role of the Faculty of Information and increase its impact on the public. The Institute will continue providing continuing education courses that formed the core operation of its predecessor, the Professional Learning Centre, but it will also deliver periodic public lectures such as the one I attended this evening. It was also mentioned that the Institute may develop a consulting service to provide expert advice on information issues to the broader Toronto community and beyond. These are exciting changes – I wonder if these plans were inspired by the Rotman School of Management (which is across the street from the Faculty of Information) which has had a consulting arm called Impact Consulting Group.

Public lectures by leading experts in information work is one part of the Institute’s work that I am particularly excited about. Tonight’s lecture was given by Euan Semple, formerly head of knowledge management at the BBC, on the topic, “Organised Chaos: Social Networks and Enterprise Change.” This was a wide ranging talk about how to use social media in the enterprise/business/organizational setting. As an Anglophile, I was particularly interested in Semple’s metaphor for the tension that IT policies experience when faced with social media tools; at one extreme is the highly managed traditional approach (aka the Milton Keynes style, the UK’s most infamous planned town) versus the organic and open ended approach (aka theĀ  Cotswolds village style). One case study from the BBC was particularly interesting to me. When faced with staff blogging and other social media experimentation, the response was to create an internal wiki where interested staff collaborated and wrote the policy, BBC Guidelines on Employee Weblogs and Websites. I get the impression that engaging staff in the process ultimately made this a more relevant and successful policy. Engaging staff in the creation of an internal policy document underscores why social media and tools matter. Ultimately, social media is not about technology, it is about changing (hopefully for the better!) how people work.

Near the end of his talk, he referred to two recent articles in the British press that really underscore the fact that social media has arrived in every sense of the word. The BBC has mandated all new staff be literate and skilled in using social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter (BBC tells news staff to embrace social media). Likewise, there is a similar directive for the British spy agency MI5: MI5 dumps spies who can’t use Facebook and Twitter.