A year in books – my 2017 reading list

I have started on my 2018 reading adventure with Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Leonardo da Vinci (who, as readers of this blog will know, is a bit of a role model for me). I hope to do better this year at sharing my thoughts as I go. Because last year I barely did that at all, I thought I would go ahead and just share my list from 2017. It is a shorter list than some years, longer than others, surprisingly light on fiction this year. This does not, of course, include any of my “short form” readings online and elsewhere.

Would love to hear your thoughts on any of these books, and any recommendations from your own 2017 list that you think I should add to my 2018 list.

Non-Fiction

George Lucas: A Life by Brian Jay Jones

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures by Library of Congress

Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 by Carlos M.N. Eire

Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writings by Neal Stephenson

The Glass Cage: Automation and Us by Nicholas Carr

Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field by Nancy Forbes

Alone on the Wall by Alex Honnold, with David Roberts

Reinventing the Sacred: A new view of science, reason, and religion by Stuart Kauffman

The Employee Experience Advantage: How to Win the War for Talent by Giving Employees the Workspace They Want, the Tools They Need, and a Culture They Can Celebrate by Jacob Morgan

Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland

Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Live in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies by Geoffrey West

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People : Power Lessons in Personal Change by Steven R. Covey

Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing through other patterns by Nora Bateson

Hymns for the Fallen: Combat Movie Music and Sound after Vietnam by Todd R. Decker

Exponential Organizations: Why new organizations are ten times better, faster, and cheaper than yours by Salim Ismail

Fiction

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Returning to Zero (Mick O’Malley #2) by Alan B. Johnston

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carre

The Tomorrow Code by Brian Falkner

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O by Neal Stephenson, Nicole Galland

(Note: the links to books on this page point to Amazon so that you can buy them if you’d like; if you do purchase a book by following one of these links, I will get a small percentage of the transaction. This will not increase your cost for the book, but will let me take Julie out for a nice meal once in a while.)

Invisible history

Some terrific insights here.

“A lot of the time, when autistic people complain that autistic characters are unrealistic, it’s presumed to be an issue of a character not representing the traits or experiences of a certain faction of the autistic community, and we get responses like “But one character can never represent all autistic people.”

But that isn’t the problem. It’s not that they’re not exactly like ourselves; it’s that they have no depth or complexity because they have no lived experience, because their creators didn’t know how to give them one.”

Shared understanding – two stories

Here are a couple of stories I’d like to share on the idea of shared understanding. The first, a conversation between me and my son, Zeke, highlights the importance of being aware of and understanding the context of a situation from different people’s perspective. The second, a story about a friend of mine, shows the importance of ensuring shared understanding in a shared context and how easy it can be to not have it.

You know the way home, right?

My son, Zeke, and I were in Milwaukee for the Midwest Gaming Classic. As we were walking from the hotel to the car getting ready to head home on Sunday morning, Zeke asked me, “You know the way home, right?” A reasonable question, and one that I could honestly answer with yes. Which was the right answer, though as it turns out that was not the question he was actually asking.  What Zeke was really asking was, “Can we listen to the radio on the way home?”  A little background may be in order.

map

On the drive up to Milwaukee I used Google maps on my phone, connected to the car audio system, as a navigator to get us from home to the hotel. Because I wanted the navigation to come through the audio system, we were limited to listening to music or podcasts (or other apps) from my phone and couldn’t listen to the radio. So when Zeke asked if I knew the way home, he was really wondering if I needed to use Google maps to get us home. If I had said, “No, I don’t know the way”, then he would have known that we wouldn’t be able to listen to the radio, and if I said “Yes” then we could listen to the radio. (If you’re wondering, we listened to a couple Premier League soccer matches and the first half of the Cardinals / Braves game.)

Because of our long history (nearly 25 years) together, I knew that he didn’t care whether or not I knew the way home. He knew that if I didn’t, I would simply use Google maps as my navigator. I did know that he cares about what we listen to in the car, that he prefers to listen to talk (usually NPR) or sports over music, and that he usually watches Premier League soccer on TV on Sunday mornings. So understanding where he was coming from allowed me to answer the question he was actually wanting an answer for. It’s probably worth noting at this point that Zeke is autistic and, while able to communicate verbally, has some unique challenges and methods in his communications. Developing this shared understanding has been critical for both of us to understand each other.

DO NOT LET GO, YOU ARE NOT ON BELAY!

Some friends were out rock climbing. It was an especially nice weekend, so there were a lot of people out taking advantage. There was one route my friends wanted to attempt so they waited while another pair were climbing. While most of my group of friends were relaxing and just generally hanging out, one friend – we’ll call him Dave – was watching the other pair climb. And good thing he was.

nwaHCR

When a climber reaches the top of a route on lead, he will typically clip directly into the anchors and go off belay so that he can fix a rappel to get back down. Sometimes, though, he will set some gear and run the rope through the gear so he can be lowered down and the next climber can then top rope the route. In this case, the climber did neither; instead, he down climbed to the last piece of protection he had placed on the way up, apparently with the expectation that his belayer would then lower him from that point. The belayer, however, was not aware of any of this, having expected that the climber had gone off belay at the anchor. (I think you can see where this is going.)

Dave, my friend, was watching all of this and saw that 1) the belayer had taken the climber off belay and 2) the climber was getting ready to let go of the rock and lean back to be lowered to the ground, which meant that 3) the climber was just about to plunge to his death. At which point Dave shouted at the top of his lungs, “DO NOT LET GO, YOU ARE NOT ON BELAY!

The route this pair was climbing was an overhanging 5.11c, meaning that this was an experienced pair of climbers (5.11c is hard) and that when the climber is on the top half of the route the climber and belayer cannot see each other. The typical exchange when the climber gets to the top and clips into the anchor would be for the climber to shout down, “Off belay” (to let the belayer know that they can take him off belay) and the belayer shouting back up, “Belay is off” to make sure that the climber knows he is on his own. In this case, the climber shouted something down, the belayer thought it was “Off belay”.  The pair thought they had a shared understanding of the situation, but they obviously did not. The climber had broken from the routine, while the belayer was following the routine because she didn’t know of the climber’s change.

Fortunately for this pair, and everyone at the crag that day, Dave’s warning was in time and successful in stopping the climber from letting go and leaning back.

The point?

There is no real definition of what “shared understanding” entails; it’s more of a “know it when you see it” kind of thing. These two stories, hopefully, show what shared understanding might mean in different situations; one being a situation where two people are coming from a different context and one where they are coming from the same context.

Would love to hear some of your stories about shared understanding, or the lack thereof.

 

Top-down vs. Bottom-up KM: Insights from the Katrina response

“The messiness of the web often deals with the messiness of disasters better than centralised systems which can fall over under pressure!”

A Facebook friend posted this today, reminded me of these early thoughts I had back in the aftermath of Katrina along similar lines. But back then we didn’t have Twitter, we didn’t have Facebook and Instagram and … and … and….

And just now on the TV news feed: “People are resorting to Twitter and Facebook because the 911 system is overwhelmed.” Not just to connect with the centralized authorities, but to connect with – and help – each other.

The Standard You Walk Past

This was one of the very first lessons I was taught as a young Army officer, many year ago, and I’ve never forgotten it.

“No tired eyes in this unit, Lieutentant. If you see someone doing something wrong, correct them. If you see something out of place or improper, fix it or tell someone who can. If you see a piece of trash on the ground in the parking lot at the Commissary, pick it up and put it in the trash can.”

Over time I learned that it was the smallest things, the things that no one would ever know you did, that had the most impact when someone did see you doing it.

Companies and superlinear scaling

I am about 100 pages into Geoffrey West’s book, Scale, and am having a hard time not just skipping ahead to the parts about cities and companies.

scale

Cities, West says, scale superlinearly (aka increasing returns to scale) whereas companies scale sublinearly (aka economy of scale). Which is why cities typically last a long time, and companies (and animals, for that matter) typically die young.

What if you could structure your company to scale superlinearly? Is it possible? If so, how would you go about making that happen? Would you even want it to happen, or is it a good thing that companies “die” young?

Back to the book….

 

Labels, standardization, and missing the point

The problem with putting a label on something is that it becomes all too tempting to commoditize anything that uses the label, to standardize until everything in that label can be turned into a checklist or piece of software. My first real experience with this was with Knowledge Management. So much promise when I first came across the concept and started practicing it in the late ’90s, it wasn’t long (early ’00s) before KM was mostly synonymous with document/content/information management. An inherently complex endeavor well suited to navigating uncertainty was turned into an attempt to capture knowledge as if it were some static thing, to turn every situation into something that can be solved with a past best practice.

I also saw this in my personal life, as I learned more and more about autism and the lives of autistic people. As the parent of an autistic son, I had a lot to learn. The most important lesson I learned was, “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.” And yet, it seemed as if everyone was trying to make me believe that all autistic children were the same, that the “cause” of their autism was the same, and that if I would only do [insert some craziness here] then they would no longer be autistic, or they would be better able to cope, or whatever. Ooh, look, there’s a label, let’s come up with a way to standardize that and get people to use (aka buy) our method to do something with it. Though there may have been some sincere interest in help parents help their kids, mostly it seemed to be about profiting from the situation without worrying about actually understanding the situation.

More recently I’ve been learning about Agile. When I read the original Agile Manifesto I couldn’t help thinking, “Exactly.” This is how I’ve approached most things throughout my career, even though I’m not a developer and don’t work in an “agile shop”. But then I dig deeper and realize that Agile is apparently no different from that early experience with KM. A great idea corrupted by people interested not in the ideas themselves, but in somehow profiting from those ideas. Methodologies and frameworks and do it this way exactly you can’t mix and match because if you do then it is not [insert framework]. And oh by the way you need to take this certification course and take the test because if you don’t then no one will hire you.

OK OK, probably a bit harsh.

All is not lost when it comes to Agile, at least from this beginner’s mind. (I’ve kind of given up on KM.) Ideas such as Modern AgileAgility Scales, and others give me hope that I’m not the only one that thinks this might be the case. I don’t know nearly enough about all of the hundreds (thousands?) of frameworks out there to say that I can use any of them, but I do understand and apply an agile mindset.

I’m still working through these ideas. Would love to hear your thoughts.