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Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose
Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose
by Tony Hsieh
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars The story of Tony Hsieh's journey and of Zappos.com, 19 May 2012
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Most non-fiction books I have read recently appear, absent the author's need to write a full-length book, fit to be or have remained a long-form essay. Not this one though although it too could have benefited from some editing. Yet, once one makes peace with the colloquial tone - which is a refreshing change from many "business books", but then again this isn't exactly one - the book is a page-turner. At just over 250 pages - not including the appendices - for the paperback edition I read, it took me just under 5 hours to finish.

The book is above all a story: of the making of Tony Hsieh (now the CEO of Zappos.com), of his entrepreneurial journey starting in his childhood through college and later, of how he came to be involved in Zappos.com first as an investor and then as the CEO, and finally of what made Zappos.com the unique e-commerce success story it is. Organised in three parts, titled "Profits", "Profits and Passion", and "Profits, Passion and Purpose", it appears to map Mr Hsieh's journey of personal and professional growth.

Mr Hsieh is a child of Taiwanese immigrants. The parents feature in the book, but refreshingly not in the holier-than-thou tone, which is the staple of much immigré writing. They have made seminal contribution to his entrepreneurial spirit, mainly by not strangulating it with the burden of parental expectation, although Mr Hsieh himself, as a young person, wasn't above some mischief to get his own way. In many ways, it made me wonder if Mr Hsieh's story could pan out the same way anywhere but in America.

The story slowly morphs from being about Mr Hsieh's entrepreneurial adventures and misadventures - including the lessons he learnt at Link Exchange and the Venture Frogs fund he ran jointly - to being about Zappos.com. It is in the description of the the mechanics at Zappos.com that the tone changes to more business-like, especially the emails he has included. In illustrating what the famous Zappos.com values mean, he has included write-ups from his colleagues and Zappos.com employees. That is a nice touch. The story culminates with the share deal Zappos.com made with Amazon, after which Amazon let Zappos.com continue to operate independently.

The recurrent themes in this story are loyalty, relationships and risk-taking, besides the obvious ones in the title of the book, namely, profits, passion and purpose.

There is intended and perhaps, unintended, humour in the book. For instance, Mr Hsieh writes about how his parents appear to have found "all ten" Asian families in Marin county for regular get-togethers. Michael Moritz of Sequoia doing the Macarena is not an image easily banished from the mind! There are also some notable gaps. Not all key characters in his story are featured, a sometimes deliberate exclusion which Mr Hsieh explains in the foreword. But while Fred Mossler appears prominently, rightly so, Nick Swinmurn, the founder of Zappos.com appears to have been glossed over and his departure doesn't figure in the book. This seems a bit strange seeing as the Zappos.com story is about motivating the team, and engaging and leading them to a higher purpose. Towards the end, the book become a tiny bit tedious and "corporate". Especially in the chapters titled "Taking it to the next level" and "End game".

But if one can get over those quibbles, it is an engaging, hilarious, often moving, thought-provoking and inspiring read about creating a business that many now look to as the exemplar in customer service.

Usefulness note: While reading it, I thought of mentors, friends and young entrepreneurs I know and admire. Many of them appear to have read the book already; others will certainly benefit from reading it.


The Art of Choosing
The Art of Choosing
by Sheena Iyengar
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Reading this book is a wise choice to make, 23 Jan. 2011
This review is from: The Art of Choosing (Hardcover)
With a researcher's and practitioner's interest in decision-making, I did not have to ponder over the choice to buy this book. Nor did I struggle with reading its 268 pages in just over 4 hours. Professor Sheena Iyengar has written an engaging treatise on what choice means to human beings, how we make choices in the face of sometimes confounding contradictions and uncertainties, and how the sheer option and the act of choosing can affect our well-being. The illustrative examples and stories cover a wide range - from the trivial, such as picking between two colours of nail polish, to the serious life-and-death choice of whether to keep a sick neo-nate on life support or to turn it off.

Using many such stories from research, Professor Iyengar shows how the desire for choice, as a way to exercise control, is universal. She demonstrates how our "framing" of choices depends upon the stories we have been told, and our beliefs that may arise from our culture, religion, ethnicity etc. A freedom to choose may be a "freedom to" or "freedom from", as Erich Fromm has written so how in an increasingly globalised world do we reconcile all these differences in perspective? Professor Iyengar proposes a sort of "metaphorical multilingualism", using her own example of how she uses the language of sighted people although she is functionally blind.

Professor Iyengar takes us on a fascinating exploration of American history to show how choice relates to identity, and yet how many more people are alike than not although they prefer to think otherwise. Such contradictions contained within us in Walt Whitman-esque multitudes, she argues that we constantly rearrange our identities to appear independent-thinking, identity being a dynamic process not a static object. We adjust our behaviours and lives to reinforce that identity seeking, she writes, common ground without being copycats. If you pick only one chapter to read from this book, I would recommend Chapter 3.

Further we learn how choices are not just about possibility, but also responsibility and consequences, foreseeable or otherwise. Professor Iyengar discusses our automatic (subconscious) and our reflective (conscious) brain, and how trouble arises when they are in disagreement. What follows is a thought-provoking discourse on how we use heuristics and employ our preferences and biases, sometimes using them to colour our search for information, which ends with a soft suggestion that sometimes it may be better to throw in our lot with others or their experience.

Is there such a thing as too much choice? Research suggests that to be the case. Choice, as we see, is not an unconditional good. There are limits to human cognition and we may need to cultivate expertise to deal with the surfeit on offer. And then there are complex choices, such as in medically serious situations, which require us to put a "value" on things which have "worth" for us, exacting a mental cost which we are unable to assess fully at the time of making the choice. Choice, Professor Iyengar concludes, is an art with its uncertainties and contradictions, and in its mystery lies its puissance: a conclusion most readers of this book may choose to agree with.

It was difficult for me to give the book 4 stars instead of 5. Here is why I struggled. While the stories are fascinating, some sections meander and one can lose the thread pretty quickly. Having read the book, I can empathise with how difficult the editorial choices might have been: which of the research references to keep, and which to edit away. It was a choice and the editor chose to keep them all in. A research described in Chapter 3 discusses using a scale where research subjects had to determine if something was "moderately unique" or "very unique". This was mildly irritating. These phrases may be colloquial usage but that does not make them correct.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: A thought-provoking book which most will benefit from reading. However as Professor Iyengar warns, introspection or self-examination is not everyone's cup of tea, so it is unlikely to be a comforting read for all. It does however offer several points of departure for thinking about things around us. From brand marketing to politics, to how various nations are dealing with the recession.


Do More Faster: TechStars Lessons to Accelerate Your Startup
Do More Faster: TechStars Lessons to Accelerate Your Startup
by Brad Feld
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £23.99

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars For entrepreneurs and their mentors alike, 20 Jan. 2011
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The "entrepreneur" is, to many, a mysterious beast surrounded by myths and legends. This book, edited by Techstars founders David Cohen and Brad Feld, seeks to share some of the secret juice that makes for a successful entrepreneur. If, like me, you expect this book to be like Founders At Work, edited by Y-Combinator's Jessica Livinsgton, it would be only partially true. FAW contains interviews with the creators of some of the hottest tech products such as Gmail and Hotmail. DMF on the other hand is a collection of short essays of 1-2 pages, where entrepreneurs seek to distill the most important lesson in taking their idea to execution often with mentoring from Techstars. These essays are organised along seven themes: Idea & Vision, People, Execution, Product, Fund-raising, Legal & Structure, Work-life Balance. The titles are a testament to good editing. The book can almost become a reference point for those scratching their heads about something specific.

Strong points are made including that if you have an idea, you can be sure half a dozen people around the world are already working on it, and that most start-ups started out doing something totally different from what they do now. Myths are busted including the belief some entrepreneurs have that they need to raise external cash to find validation. Remarkable honesty is on offer such as in Issac Saldana's essay on how he much preferred writing code over talking to people, but how the latter helped him create a valuable and valued product. The value of pragmatic over perfect is demonstrated such as by Matt Mullenweg in how 2006 became Wordpress's lost year, not in a bad way but in a way that brought a valuable lesson regarding product releases and discipline to Automattic. And good advice too such as the essay titled "stay healthy", which I have often said to young entrepreneurs I know including one who had to be hospitalised for a few days to accept the value of good health above all else. Brad Feld's punchy essay "The plural of anecdote is not data" but establishes a home-truth about the need to question and validate any data, especially anecdotes often peddled as truths. I marked out several essays as my favourite by folding pages. No points for guessing more than three-quarters of the book was folded over by the time I finished reading it.

However the definition of "tech" used here is relatively narrow. If you somehow miss paying attention to iRobot (Why would you do that anyway? They make Roomba!) you might think "tech" is all about the web and services. But on some reflection, it is easy to see the broader applicability of the lessons to successful commercialisation of innovation in other sectors too.

Usefulness note: The saying goes: "Ordinary people learn from their mistakes; smart ones learn from others' mistakes". If you think you have a world-changing idea (or if you know someone who thinks so), you - or that person - may want to learn from some of the most successful entrepreneurs featured in the book. If you don't think you can learn anything from this book, then you perhaps need to make your own mistakes in executing that idea, in which case, refer to the saying above. If you are a mentor to start-ups, you will equally enjoy this book and the thoughts it provokes.


The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind
The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind
by Barbara Strauch
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good news, but could have used better editing, 19 Jan. 2011
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What is middle age? As human life expectancy changes, so does this marker. I did wonder about those in today's world who are born with a life expectancy in the 30s or 40s. Surely their teenage years can't be called their "middle age". Luckily for the purposes of containing such definitional wild goose chases, Ms Strauch points out quickly that most researchers consider middle age to be between 40 and 68.

Both our body and brain change with age but few of us know that our brain doesn't decline, if that is the word for what happens to our skin and fitness with age, at the same rate as our body does. In fact, this book aims to show that the change that occurs in the brain isn't a decline at all but that the brain continues to remain at its peak for longer than we imagine. While our ability to retain bits of data such as people's names may suffer, our judgment - our knowledge combined with our ability to make connections - improves and we generally start becoming happier. She also explains why the soi-disant midlife crisis really doesn't exist.

Organised in three parts addressing what changes, why the change and how to improve our brain, the book presents a simplified overview of existing research on the aging of the brain. In the process, Ms Strauch uncovers phenomena such as how the use of both of the brain's halves - bilateralisation - helps the brain adapt to the changes brought by age, and how myelin (the white matter) continues to grow with age aiding the brain's processing abilities.

I found the third section "Healthier Brains" particularly interesting. Ms Strauch casts a wide net here, discussing evidence of how aerobic or heart-rate raising exercise helps brain cell growth; and how the beliefs regarding anti-oxidant rich foods, low-calorie diets and ORAC etc have never had a clinical trial; and how low distress and rich social connections can help the brain cope and remain high-functioning.

If you are the sort of reader, who likes to read the bibliography as much as you do the book, then you may be a bit disappointed. This book is not of the calibre of, say, Dr Louann Brizendine's books on the female and the male brains. Unlike Dr Brizendine, Ms Strauch is not a specialist in the subject of brain science. And that is also why she has succeeded in writing an accessible and simple book on a timely topic.

That said, I agree with the reviewer Jill Meyer that the book could have been much shorter that the 230 pages (including references) or 198 pages (including Epilogue). I sometimes found myself nodding off because the argument appears to be being made a bit too slowly. Good editing would have made this book a quicker read. The time we saved could have been spent enjoying some time doing a brain gym puzzle perhaps, or eating blueberries and nattering with a friend, all of which apparently would help our brains.


Mother Pious Lady: Making Sense of Everyday India
Mother Pious Lady: Making Sense of Everyday India
by Santosh Desai
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A cheat-sheet on a certain generation of Indians, 19 Jan. 2011
This is an amusing yet thought-provoking, insightful yet confounding, and relentlessly introspective, with hints of self-flagellation, book. The title is a nod to the specialised language used in the very specialised Indian area of matrimonial ads that appear in the Sunday papers. Over the years, these ads have enabled millions of marriages. A typical ad encapsulates the marital ambition of an average Indian man seeking his own version of Miss World, under the watchful gaze of his mother, often described as a pious lady, who as Santosh Desai points out in the book is probably keener on burning incense than burning brides.

Mr Desai, a man of brands and advertising, has much insight into his generation - my generation - of Indians, into what shaped us, how we are changing and the inevitable what-next. Accordingly, the book is organised in 3 major sections: Where Do We Come From?, New Adventures Into Modernity and Dilemmas Of Change.

Each section features individual chapters that contain several short essays on Indian behavioural quirks as a means to demonstrating what drives Indians. Where Do We Come From? focuses on our need to get value for money ("the Dhania factor"), relationships without the overt need for an immediate gain ("in praise of the unannounced visit"), the need to save and let save face ("the meaning of the slap"), the Indian interpretation of time as a transience ("Indian traffic as metaphor") and ingenuity in problem-solving ("the power of the imperfect solution").

It is worth a mention that as is true of much in India, every behavioural peculiarity can be read in more ways than one. My view on the slapping business in India, for instance, is quite different from Mr Desai's. In their quotidian lives, every Indian deals in multiplicities and contradictions, of meaning and reality, a theme that is implicit in Indian lives but not quite in this book.

The second section, New Adventures In Modernity, addresses a range of themes such as the Indian view of the family as a unit ("terms of endearment"), the redefining of masculinity ("Salman Khan and the rise of male cleavage"), the emergence of the new Indian woman ("in gentle praise of the saas-bahu sagas" and "the woman, exteriorized"), the phenomenon of celebrity ("of genuine fakes and fake genuines"), the idea of Family as emotional headquarters ("the joint stock family"), continued hyper-competitiveness ("the paranoid parent") and the negotiation with the old ("retrieving space slyly").

All along Mr Desai maintains a raconteur's tone, sometimes with hints of understated humour and sarcasm. The tone changes in the last section, titled Dreams Of Grandeur, where his frustration at the behavioural dissonances of his compatriots becomes evident. He touches upon sensitive themes such as the Indian tendency to claim people of Indian origin around the world, craving western approval but getting offended easily, the growing desire to protect the interests of the few. This section sadly for its promise feels rushed. It could have been used to set an agenda or at least set forth a dialogue but perhaps that wasn't Mr Desai's intention.

At 380 pages, it may be difficult to describe it as a breezy read but it really is, even despite its awkward organisation in themes, chapters and then short essays. For my part, I found myself laughing throughout the book. I recognised some things, I cringed at others and yet other things I sneered at, thus confirming what my terribly English mentor in the UK calls my "bourgeoisie credentials".

For non-Indians, the liberal dose of Hinglish, Hindi and Indian in-jokes may become jarring after a while. As it happens, some of the in-jokes are already being lost as a new generation in their 20s grows up. In fact, my only peeve against this book is that it is aimed for no audience in particular. An irony considering Mr Desai's strong credentials as a marketing professional. Indians of my generation are reading it for amusement but we hardly are incapable, on reflection, of determining what shaped us through our childhood and teen and early adult years. Those, who are not Indian, may feel a bit alienated while reading the book as it sometimes reads like a swathe of in-jokes. One can argue that amusement is as important a utilitarian function as any other. However I feel it is a missed opportunity to bring this book to wider audiences interested in India and Indians.

Even so the book would be a great cheat-sheet for dealing with a sliver of educated, middle-class Indians of a particular generation - Generation X, if you will. India however is a country in the midst of change, occurring at a pace one can blink and miss. In that respect this book is a balance sheet, not a P&L account. Perhaps a second edition, or an entirely new book, will be in order in a few years, when Generation X ceases to be the generation at the helm of India.


Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World (Bradford Books)
Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World (Bradford Books)
by Alex Pentland
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.95

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good premise, unfulfilled promise, 7 May 2010
This book belongs - very, very broadly - in the same space as Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational and to some extent, from an application point of view, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's Nudges. The common thread that binds them is an exposition of what lies behind human decisions and how those decisions can be better understood and possibly influenced.

The core thesis of Honest Signals, by MIT Professor Alex Pentland, is that much human communication and decision making is about signals. Signals such as clothes and cars can be deliberate and planned, or influenced by emotion or culture. But not the unconscious or uncontrollable biologically based "honest signalling" which has evolved from ancient primate signalling mechanisms. The stories quoted are from the data collected by the author and his team using a device called a "sociometer" which is described in some detail in Appendix A in the book.

In the first four chapters, Professor Pentland describes: main kinds of social signals; how they can be combined for signalling social roles; how an understanding of the signals and social roles can help read people better; and how group dynamics works and evolves. In the following three chapters, he focuses on how networks, organisations and societies could be explained or could use the proposed thesis.

Books based on science and research are now commonly organised such that a good half of the book comprises explanatory or technical appendices and a bibliography. This book is no exception. The 98 pages of main text, including an epilogue that makes an important point that much current technology is socially ignorant, are followed by 52 pages of appendices rich in research context, 13 pages of notes to appendices, and 14 pages of bibliography. All in all it took about an hour and half to read the book.

One of the limitations of the book is due to the compact treatment. The description of the theoretical premise pitched in the book is interesting enough but the stories felt incomplete, half-told. Quite reminiscent of how an academic thesis includes a section that describes future research possibilities; that section really is an admission of the limitations of the thesis, whether imposed by time or scope definition or something else. The author of a book for popular consumption really doesn't face these limitations hence the dissatisfying experience. There is also not enough time spent on what in real life could be done with a sociometer or the findings of Professor Pentland's research with it.

Usefulness note: The book successfully articulates the concept of primate signalling and provides a quasi-framework that can be put to use in some situations. For instance, it may be handy in several situations including watching politicians and businessmen, and as the author points out, in social and work situations such as negotiation and dating. However if someone then tries too hard to "implement" the framework, it is hardly "honest" signalling and it can all potentially backfire. Recommended for a quick read on a rainy Sunday afternoon.


Offence: The Hindu Case (Manifestos for the Twenty-first Century)
Offence: The Hindu Case (Manifestos for the Twenty-first Century)
by Salil Tripathi
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.00

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A book about India's present, 22 April 2010
This book is one in the series, Manifestos for the 21st Century Series, published in collaboration with the Index on Censorship, where other books argue the Muslim case, the Jewish case and the Christian case. The books in this series have upset many, who feel the books are blasphemous or even seditious. To that extent, only free speech purists will be able to read the book without getting agitated or angry. I have had the opportunity to attend a Free Word event in London in October 2009 where Mr Tripathi and Ms Shamsie, author of the Muslim case, were speaking and faced much cross-questioning from the audience, not all of it laudatory or unabashedly appreciative.

At 116 pages, including references, the book is a quick read. But it has not been so easy to review it. I read the book about three months ago. Since then much water has flown in the Ganges, so to speak. The artist, MF Husain, the story of whose persecution in India runs through the book, has renounced his Indian citizenship and taken Qatari citizenship. The book opens with Husain's story, then proceeds to demonstrate how Hindu nationalists are systematically catalysing censorship and bans, and revising history to suit a narrative, which is entirely at odds with India's constitution (which creates India as a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic Republic) and with India's and indeed Hinduism's history as an inclusive philosophical movement. By focusing on Rama as a deity, Hindutva seems to be constructing a discourse on "offence" which is inspired, for want of a better word, by monotheistic religions such as Islam, shunning the richness and plurality of the religion's mythology and traditions. Mr Tripathi constructs his argument using references and conversations with some of India's leading contemporary thinkers and historians, as well as influential cultural icons such as Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindra Nath Tagore. Indeed Mr Tripathi also cites Wendy Doniger, who is not the most popular western commentator on Hinduism but to be fair, Hindu nationalism revivalists in India also have help from native Belgian and American commentators so I say, fair play to Doniger.

This book is a snapshot of India's recent events. It is a book about India's present, not India's past but there is also a disturbing prospect of a future trajectory that is potentially reductive, exclusive and revisionist.

As I mention earlier, some readers, especially of the Hindu persuasion, may feel agitated, frustrated or confused while reading the book. Others will find it thought-provoking and may take on the opportunity to explore Hindu scholarship in detail. Mr Tripathi's is a perspective that needs to be shared widely. India cannot remain India Shining by excluding from its future narrative a good 20% of its people. I rate the book 4 stars because it will not be to everyone's taste and many are bound to take offence.


The Tiger That Isn't: Seeing Through a World of Numbers
The Tiger That Isn't: Seeing Through a World of Numbers
by Andrew Dilnot
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Everything about parsing numbers you want to know but were afraid to ask.., 21 April 2010
"I think numbers are the best way to represent the world's uncertainties", "I see numbers, I question them and I can interpret them for the less numerate", "I see numbers and I freeze". These three possible options are based on a rough categorisation of the attitudes I have seen towards numbers. Depending on my mood, they can amuse me or cause me despair.

In fact, I believe that, with the right degree of scepticism, and a willingness and an ability to question numbers both in absolute and relative terms, it is possible for everyone to make sense of numbers thrown at us every day. That is pretty much the premise - and the promise - of The Tiger That Isn't: Seeing Through A World of Numbers, by the journalist Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot, an Oxford Don. The book delivers brilliantly on the premise and the promise.

The introduction of the book says, rightly, that it is written from the point of view of the consumers of numbers; in fact, it is written for the consumers of numbers, which means people like you and me. Each chapter presents some examples that illustrate a typical problem with comprehending numbers, and then proceeds to demonstrate how to see those numbers in context and how to make sense of them. There are, in addition to the introduction, eleven chapters dealing with numbers-related issues including Size, Chance, Averages, Risk (my personal favourite), Data (my favourite heading in this book "Know the Unknowns") and Causation. While most of the examples are British - understandably because both authors are British - it is not difficult for the reader to apply the 'lessons' to numbers being bandied about in his or her own country.

Aimed at the non-numerate reader, the tone of the book is easy, the language accessible, the explanations lucid. Yet the book is not patronising in the least, which, in my book, is a considerable achievement in explaining apparently complex things. At 184 pages in all, it is not a hugely difficult read; the section on Further Reading will serve those, whose curiosities are piqued and whose courage with numbers restored on reading this book.

Reviewing this book is not easy. I could summarise all chapters for you, but it would be pointless. Yet not saying much about the contents of the individual chapters may make the review meaningless. It is worth every bit of the 90 minutes or so you will spend on it.

Usefulness note: I am known for buying books as presents for friends of all ages. This book would make an ideal present for a curious teenager, as well as those adults who have let 10 simple symbols terrify them for years. For younger readers, I would suggest conversations around the themes of the chapters so that they can get a feel for the numbers being bandied about.


Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly
Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly
by John Kay
Edition: Hardcover

72 of 80 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A valiant but ultimately failed attempt to do a Gladwell, 15 April 2010
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On the cover of John Kay's new book (hardback edition), Tim Harford pronounces it "persuasive". Yet Harford's approach and argument in his subsequent column in the FT on March the 18th, 2010, titled "Political Ideas Need Proper Testing" suggested that he is far from persuaded by Mr Kay's argument. That wasn't a good start to reading this book.

John Kay's core thesis is that in any setting, there are multiple, often conflicting, goals; and that instead of a linear rational model, the best approach to problem-solving is oblique, an approach for which he coins the neologism `obliquity'.

The book is organised in three parts. Part one explains how the world abounds in obliquity, citing specifically how success in finding happiness and profits (in a business setting) does not come from direct pursuits, and how the rich people are not the most materialistic. There are amusing stories but Mr Kay cherry-picks the arguments, that bolster his thesis, and ignores how some of the least materialistic rich men cited were also single-minded in their pursuit of money.

Part two explains why problems cannot be solved directly. Here he dwells upon how rational models fail to capture the real dynamics of political decision making. He devotes time to demonstrating why this is the case where plural outcomes may exist, and where complexity and incompleteness mar our understanding of the problem. He also proposes that obliquity is a better term for Charles Lindblom's coinage,"muddling through", as an explanation of political decision making. Further he makes the case that the more one participates in or studies something, the better one understands and abstracts its complexity, its essence. Having spent several years in my doctoral research on political decision making, I felt he once again picked Lindblom because his point is most amenable to his thesis. Several better explanations of political decision-making have followed Lindblom's and they cover more ground and do so in a more granular fashion than Mr Kay does in this section of the book.

The third section, comprising shorter chapters, explains problem-solving in a complex world using stories from the real world. This was the quickest read in the book yet I found myself feeling dragged through it. Stories from several unconnected walks of life are great for anecdotes and dinner party conversation, but make a book feel like a jigsaw being forced together.

To those given to seeking single labels for people, it is seductive to see Mr Kay as an economist. His wider philosophical grounding and interest is visible in the book as he illustrates his points using examples from history, urban design, football and evolutionary theory amongst others. Yet despite such ambition and possibility, the book is perhaps best described as a "light" read. One gets the feeling that Mr Kay tried to do a Gladwell on the topics of complexity and decision making but did not get far enough.

Usefulness note: The book's length and organisation would make it a good read in a long-haul flight. I'd not recommend it strongly though.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 16, 2010 10:14 AM BST


The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right
The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right
by Atul Gawande
Edition: Hardcover

90 of 94 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A defence of rational, systems-thinking approach to handling complex problems, 1 Feb. 2010
Atul Gawande's The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right has come close on the heels of Umberto Eco's The Infinity of Lists. Both are about lists and both admit to the ability of lists to bring about order and control. Both books attracted me because I am a consummate checklist-maker. Despite my prejudicial preference for lists and reading about lists, it is a credit to the quality of Atul Gawande's writing that the book kept me absorbed for the 3 hours it took to read all 193 pages of it.

The author proposes "checklists" as a functional tool to deal with the limitations of human knowledge and the possibility of making mistakes in the face of complex problems. Using stories from construction management, airline piloting and disaster management, and surgery, he shows how checklists can be used to break down complex tasks into simpler steps, thus helping prevent expensive mistakes. The author delves further into two kinds of lists (Do-Confirm or Read-Do) using a story from how the airline manufacturing industry writes their "user manuals".

Early on, he points out that checklists are not some silver bullet, and that there is judgement involved. Some situations may benefit from checklists, while others may not need any. Later in the book, he also admits that to many, lists are protocols and embody rigidity. He then proceeds to illustrate why this needn't be so and to demonstrate the importance of team work and how checklists enable that discipline, especially in disasters.

I found Chapters 7 and 8 most fascinating. The stories told so far describe the complexity of the work/ task itself but these two chapters introduce another layer, that of institutional complexity.

Chapter 7 details the WHO sponsored study to examine if checklists made any difference to safety, infections, post-surgery deaths in 8 quite disparate hospitals around the world. The results, from using the checklist, regarding reduction in technical problems, complications, infections and deaths were encouraging, for all cultural settings and even allowing for the Hawthorne Effect.

In Chapter 8, much mainstream media coverage of Jan 2009's "Miracle on the Hudson River" is debunked while the author tells the story of the pilots Sullenberger and Stiles and their calm use of appropriate procedures, while their cabin crew prepared passengers for and then monitored safe evacuation, to strengthen his thesis. The other half of Chapter 8 particularly resonated with me because I work with investors and entrepreneurs. I was fascinated by the stories of the 3 investors who have incorporated checklists into their investment decisions, favouring dispassionate analysis over irrational exuberance, so to speak.

The title is deceptively simple for this is a profound book, written accessibly and clearly. It is a defence of rational, systems-thinking approach to solving complex problems, to creating team work and collegiality amongst narrow specialists while ensuring desirable outcomes, no matter what the setting. Managers, entrepreneurs, investors as well as professional project managers such as event planners would do well to read, ponder and practise the idea proposed by the book.


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