Category Archives: book review

Book Review – The Dead Hand

The Dead Hand is a wonderful historical narrative of the weapons of the Cold War and the negotiations to limit them. The term Dead Hand comes from the Soviet system to potentially automatically launch nuclear weapons in the event of attack. The book covers biological, nuclear and chemical weapons and is most interesting aspect is peeling back the layers of the Cold War negotiations, especially between Reagan and Gorbachev, demonstrating each sides’ perception of the other and what the reality was. The result is very interesting, showing how hard it is to read a negotiating partner accurately and how your own side’s actions and perspectives inevitably color your judgment. Recommended for anyone with an interest in recent history, though learning more about these weapons will likely result in you feeling worse rather than better about them.

Best Books of 2011

Similar to last year, below are the top 5 books I’ve enjoyed most this year. They don’t have much to do with project management, but perhaps that’s a good thing.

Matterhorn/What Is It Like To Go To War – Karl Marlantes is doesn’t pull any punches as a writer. He was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford when he volunteered to go to Vietnam and his two books are essentially different reflections on the same experience. Matterhorn is a hands on book about war in Vietnam, fictional, but obviously drawing on deep personal experiences. What Is It Like To Go To War is part autobiography, part sermon on the same topic, recounting Marlantes’ experiences with brutal honesty (including cowardice, mistakes and prostitution) and once again given a vivid picture of Vietnam whilst also stating his own views on what war does to people and what society should do about it.

Decoded – I wouldn’t have thought I would enjoy Jay-Z’s autobiography nearly as much as I did, his life from dealing to fame is a great story, and he explains the lyrics of his songs in detail, decoding the slang and the meaning behind the lyrics.

In The Garden of Bests: Love, Terror and An American Family In Hilter’s Berlin – A well researched book with a sprinkling of fiction to chart the course of a university professor who President Roosevelt appointed as ambassador to Berlin just as Hitler was on the rise. It makes history real, and clearly shows that evil is not quite as black and white as it appeared in retrospect and how mixed the world’s reaction to it was, at least initially.

Scalper: Inside The World Of A Professional Ticket Tout – This is Kindle only, and part of Amazon’s effort to release shorter books on the platform for $1.99. This is a quick read on the practice of reselling tickets to sporting events told by a former tout. It goes deep into a subject you may not have thought much about and is short enough to retain interest in what is a fairly esoteric topic.

The Hunger Games Series – If you liked the Stig Larsson (Girl Who Played With Fire) series, you might enjoy this too. Like that series it’s coming out as a movie and is easy, but gripping reading. The first book is the best of the trilogy, and the ultimately ending is underwhelming, rushed and bizarre, but it’s a great story up to that point.

Book Review – Mindfire

This is the most provocative book I’ve read in months. The ideas contained in the essays are persuasive and it’s a fun, well focused read. Ideally, I’d like the book to be longer than 30 relatively short essays (hence 4 stars, not 5) but the quality bar is super-high and everything is well written in Scott’s energetic and personal style, and a does a great job of making you take a step back and think/reflect. The essays are short enough that even if one of them isn’t your thing, you’re pretty quickly on to the next one.

To give examples of essays they include topics like “How to give and receive criticism”, which describes how criticism isn’t just about your own views and a perspective and a single correct answer, but also about thinking how different people will interpret the thing that’s being criticized. Many of the essays tend to be motivational such as “The surprise inspiration of death” or “How to be passionate”.

As the author discloses, the essays in this book can also be found on his blog, but either because of the editorial work that’s gone into the book or because of simply reading it on my Kindle rather than a webpage I found it a much more engaging experience than hunting around on the web.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it. If you’re into the writing style of Malcom Gladwell or Michael Lewis then it’s a reasonable bet that you’ll enjoy this, and it’s sufficiently short and focused that it’s a very easy book to get through.

You can find it here on Amazon’s US site.

Book Review – The Lords of Strategy

Walter Kiechel III in the Lords of Strategy writes about two topics one narrow and uninteresting the second engaging. The first topic is a history of management consulting and the people involved in it. It’s not terribly interesting. Firstly the people aren’t explored in much depth beyond their educational backgrounds and mentors and the history of McKinsey, Bain and BCG is a rather esoteric subject anyway, unless perhaps you happen to work for one of those firms. The goal is to paint consultants as pioneering thought leaders in crafting the discipline of strategy, but it feels forced and the case is hard to defend anyway, as the formative years of BCG seem the only evidence of a consultancy truly advancing academic thought around business, and in fact, later in the book those ideas are shown to be fairly simplistic, bankrupting many of the clients who used them.

Fortunately the second topic the salvages the book. It is a history of the evolution of thinking on corporate strategy and this is interesting, obejctive and well charted. Starting with the experience curve and the portfolio strategy and moving on through Porter’s models, core competencies and change management. Also, fortunately, though the focus on management consultants is overdone, the ideas they propose are analyzed objectively. Even here the premise of the book is little off – the claim is corporate strategy originated with the rise of management consultants, yet the ideas of Adam Smith (late 1700s) , Frederick Winslow Taylor (late 1800s), Peter Drucker (1940s) Alfred Chandler (1960s) are all identified as key tenets of the thinking so the claim is hard to defend even with the book’s own reasoning.

Net if you’re looking for a good summary of the history of thinking on corporate strategy, this is not a bad place to look, especially since, as the book itself argues, academic synthesis on the topic is uncommon. You do have to put up with the repeated and painful insertion of the history of McKinsey, Bain and BCG throughout which takes up space rather than contributing, but seeing the progression of thinking on corporate strategy will likely further your understanding of the overall topic.

Read This Before Our Next Meeting (If You Have a Kindle)

Along with incessant checking of email, inefficient meetings are one of the major wastes of corporate time.

Read This Before Our Next Meeting is a very short read (75 pages/20 minutes) but gets to the heart of meeting efficiency, with a fairly abrasive, but focused tone throughout. The ideas are similar to what I’ve written about better meetings or you can read in 37 Signal’s Rework, but this book is worth mentioning as it’s free on the Amazon Kindle until August 8, 2011 (next Monday). And though I wounldn’t recommend paying for a book that’s the length of a chapter, the content is rich enough to merit downloading it to your Kindle during the free offer period.

Now, if only people would actually do what everyone advises on the topic of meetings.

Book Review – Brain Rules

Brain Rules attempts to explain the complexity of the human brain in simple terms. Not an easy task, given that consciousness is far from fully understood, but the rule based framework leads to a clear book.

Unexpectedly, the book helps with delivering better presentations, a lot of the rules regarding attention span, memory and visual input will be very useful to those who give presentations frequently.

Another key takeaway for me was how unique everyone’s brains are, we don’t all store the same things in the same place and the uniqueness of brain layouts can explain differences between people.

If you have any interest in psychology, then Brain Rules is a useful book to further your understanding of the subject.

Agile – Adapt And Little Bets

The current Zeitgeist in a lot of business writing seems essentially to favor agile thinking. Peter Sims recent book Little Bets and Tim Harford’s book Adapt both go in this direction.

Both authors follow largely similar logic:

  • The future is hard (sometimes impossible) to predict
  • The best way to test something is to try it
  • The more you test the more likely you’ll hit on something good
The result is a rejection of top-down planning and an endorsement of decentralized creative processes, with clear success metrics in place to pick winners and a framework to make sure you don’t lose so much in the iterative testing that the gains of a win are erased.
This is all good, the logic can’t be faulted and the process is appropriate in many situations. But crucially not all situations and that’s where I take issue with both books.
If things are as complex as they both argue they are, then isn’t a one-size-fits all answer a little too easy? The examples too, are very similar between the books. For example, the Iraqi War and defeating the insurgents shows that troops on the ground pioneered smart ideas that worked in building local trust and were then used broadly across the military. The Soviet Union showed top down planning was a non-starter, and Pixar demonstrates iteration from demo shorts of jumping lamps, to computer generated adverts to ultimately the pioneering success of Toy Story.
That’s all great, but what about the fact that the initial ‘shock and awe’ invasion of Iraq (if politically misguided) was an overnight triumph of top down planning? The Soviet Union failed, but China thus far could teach many other economies some tricks with a pretty high degree of command and control. Thirdly, whilst Pixar showed the success of incremental steps. Titanic and Avatar both show that James Cameron’s big bangs can be more successful than even Toy Story 3.
Finally, didn’t Karl Popper make these very persuasive arguments about iteration and testing back in 1962? Though, I admit his text is a little harder to read.
It’s great to see the tidal wave of support for agile processes, but let’s not forget that planning is needed in many circumstances. Indeed as Napoleon said “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensible.”
In summary, both Little Bets and Adapt are well written books, but let’s not swing the pendulum over to agile processes too far and be careful about balance in the examples we pick for support.

Book Review – Exploring Requirements – Quality Before Design

Exploring Requirements by Donald C. Gause and Gerald M. Weinberg is a very good basic text on the requirements process. It’s been available for some time, but only came out in paperback earlier this year. Although the ideas in the book are simple they are also very powerful and are the sort of things that seem obvious once you read them, but are not practiced as widely as they should be. The book shares ideas in an engaging, friendly tone, making use of some pretty frivolous examples that make it a more interesting read than your average project management book.

Much of the book is focused on the insight that the requirements process can be greatly improved by clearer communication and the removal of all ambiguity, and the authors use some clever examples that illustrate their points, and offer clear steps for communicating better and removing the typical barriers to collecting requirements. As with many books related to project management the book leans more towards software projects than other types of project, but this doesn’t harm the broad applicability of most concepts. The book is strongest on requirements gathering, but also has some tips for other areas like meeting management or brainstorming. If you’re feel a bit rusty on your requirements gathering skills this text is a quick way to sharpen your technique and broaden your perspective.

Book Review – The Memory Chalet

This is a compact collection of essays from a post war historian. Most impressive about the book is the tragic context in which it was written, the author was “effectively quadriplegic at the time of writing” .  Tony Judt, who died on in August last year, had a motor neuron disorder (Lou Gehrig’s disease) which he described as “progressive imprisonment without parole” and wrote the book via dictation arranging his thoughts using a chalet as a mnemonic device to organize his ideas, initially the work was just something occupy the author’s mind rather than a text for publication. Nonetheless, the book stands in its own right as a solid collection of autobiographical reflections and insights into the twentieth century. In addition, perhaps because the author is dying the text contains brutal honesty throughout.

The topics range eclectically from New York to Midlife Crises to Intellectualism, but the essays are connected by Judt’s crisp writing style and most contain interesting insight. For example, “Just because you grew up on bad food, doesn’t mean you lack nostalgia for it.” and “Love… is that condition in which one is most contentedly oneself.”

It’s a short book but those with an interest in post-war Britain, the evolution of capital cities or intellectual thought will likely enjoy it.

Book Review – Decision Points

Decision Points is the memoirs of former President George Bush, it’s topped the nonfiction best sellers for the past couple of months. The memoirs aim to be decision-based rather than chronological, so each chapter focuses on a particular decision, though there isn’t any real analysis of decision making processes, just the context around each decision on a standalone basis.

It doesn’t just cover the Presidency, arguably the coverage of his earlier life is more interesting, mainly because there is little new information in the coverage of most of the more recent events. It is clear what a central role faith and strong personal relationships play in George Bush’s thinking – for example his dismissal of Gerhard Schroeder, the German leader who backed down from supporting him on a decision, is pretty cutting by the polite standards of these sorts of recent political memoirs.

As you might expect, the analysis of his decisions tends toward the defensive though, on Katrina, he accepts the need for a quicker reaction but also wanted to respect the autonomy of the New Orleans authorities, he accepts he misread Putin, but beyond that there’s not much deep thinking and reflection going on, though it’s a crisp summary of his years in office. I was hoping the book would serve a transition from the partisan politics of being President into a richer, more historical analysis of 8 years of American history but the book doesn’t really do that. This is one where unless you have a deep interest in US politics, I’d either skip completely or wait for the paperback.