All posts by Smartin

My Favorite Books of 2017

I’ve been remiss in adding my list of reviews. Looking back, it would appear that my reading theme for 2017 was learning how I actually view the world (and how deliberate practice can help shape who you are). To steal a line from Derek Sivers ( “If [more] information was the answer, then we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.” so you are what you practice, not what you know.

At a minimum, I thought that I should at least put together a short post outlining my three favorite / most impactful books from 2017. I failed, but a top 5 gives you more than 10 weeks to read each one!

So Good They Can't Ignore You CoverSo Good they Can’t Ignore You

The title is stolen from a Steve Martin quote – “Become so good they can’t ignore you” and this turns the conventional wisdom (“Follow your passion”) on its head and argues instead for working hard and what you work on will become your passion.  Lots of good material here, including contrasting what Steve Jobs actually did versus what he told people to do. A big chunk of these “creation myths” can probably be chalked up to cognitive bias, which was probably evident to me because I read “Thinking Fast and Slow” (My number 2 choice) less than a month before, and was still thinking about the massive amount of information presented there.

Thinking Fast and Slow coverThinking Fast and Slow

“Thinking Fast and Slow” is a foundational book (I ran into at lease a dozen references to it in other books I read last year) and gets into the wildernesses of how people make decisions as well as going into a lot more detail on the “What and Why” as “Decisive”.

“Thinking Fast and Slow” will help you understand (and recognize) System 1 (how we largely interact with the world – on autopilot) and System 2, which takes effort (and should’t be engaged unless it’s needed – by which time it’s often too late). This blends nicely into the section on “Rationality” and (indirectly) how to game the system: a lot of this is now being used to bias your marketing decisions, so it’s important to be able to understand how your biases are being manipulated.

The last section of “Thinking Fast and Slow” delves into identity – “you are what you remember”. Probably the most critical point in this section is that when we are “remembering” how good a time we had, we are really ranking it on the average experience, and the END of the experience. This (sadly) explains my performance on a job interview that I thought I had knocked out of the park, but fumbled as the interviewers realized that they were late for their next meeting.

Decisive Book Cover Decisive

If you are more interested in a “recipe book” to help you and your organization make better decisions, then decisive is an excellent “How to” book. You can’t eliminate your biases (particularly perceptual biases – they are like “bugs” in the human 1.0 operating system) but you can put strategies in place to counteract them.

This book has a ton of useful tips and tricks like the “Pre-Mortum” (Pretend that you are a year in the future and your project has spectacularly failed – what went wrong?) and includes a number of other tips and tricks targeted at specific perceptual biases. There are whole sections on figuring out if you can have this AND that, as well as the biggest counters for hubris: I’m a big fan of having a formal “Red team review” process for deliberately finding problems with proposals – and then deciding if you are going to fix them, or do something else.

Antifragile coverAntifragile

Antifragile has a lot of information (at times very dense) on risk assessment, and ties into much of the same research that “Thinking Fast and Slow” and “Decisive” are based on. It’s by the same author as “The black Swan” and explains why people are really bad at assessing low probability events (particularly those that also have large consequences) and uses much of the same background at “Thinking Fast and Slow” (above). One of the most interesting things about the book is the argument that we are missing a word: the opposite of “Fragile” isn’t “Robust” (resistant to strain) but “Antifragile” (Becomes stronger with strain), with many biological examples such as strength training: by putting your system under strain you get stronger, versus simply resisting breaking.

The Goal coverThe Goal

This book is an excellent introduction to the theory of constraints (novel when the book was written, now a core part of doctrines like lean manufacturing and six sigma process control. This is an excellent introduction to business process optimization, since it is written more like entertainment than a textbook, and succeeds (much like Aesop’s fables) by being entertaining while incidentally teaching you things.

Agile Methodologies: a Retrospective

Disclaimer – While this may appear to be an article about a software development methodology, I’ve been using many components that are considered “agile” in non-software projects for over a decade. For the software folks out there, this is an article on the pieces of “Agile” that I find value in – your mileage may vary. After exceeding 2,000 words, I decided that I would need to kick out posts outlining details of the Agile components as separate components.

At a  recent meeting of the folks involved in the  PMI Southern Alberta Chapter (PMI-SAC) mentorship program, a discussion started around “Agile” since one of the people involved had been informed that their team would be using agile. A number of side discussions arose around this, including questions like:

  • What kind of Agile will you be using?
  • That seems like a project better suited to a traditional methodology – why are you using Agile?
  • What sort of projects are suited for Agile methodologies?
  • Why do IT projects continually fail / over-scope / finish late / …

Continue reading Agile Methodologies: a Retrospective

Using the Right Metrics for Project Profitability – an Optimization Fable

The Challenge:

Boardroom Table PhotoIn 2015 I was asked to help with a root cause analysis to investigate the poor performance of some projects in an engineering consulting firm’s portfolio. This article uses “fake” numbers, but they are similar (in the aggregate) to some extracted from an actual accounting database. When I entered the discussion the cause was assumed to be percentage cost of sales. Digging into the data resulted in different conclusions (and remedies) and underscored why using the right metrics for project profitability is critical. Continue reading Using the Right Metrics for Project Profitability – an Optimization Fable

2017 Reading List

Last updated March 25/2017 – “Confessions of an Advertising Man” by Ogilvy and “the Art of Profitability” by Slywotzky should be written up and on the list by early May. Both are worth a read, and both are fairly “light” reads

Upon reflection as 2016 wound down, I realized that I hadn’t been reading anywhere near as much as I had in the past. While I could put this down to many factors (work, kids, commute time) if I am being honest with myself it was really because I had not made reading a high enough priority. To try and catch up with everything I have missed (since I used to read at least a book a month) I’m trying to read a book a week.

This section will outline my 2017 reading list (as it proceeds) with quick reviews similar to those in the mentorship reading list, but with a much wider focus. Categories will appear as I build a system, and books that I think are appropriate for the project management Mentorship program will also appear there. Since I don’t think that anyone will care what my chronological reading list is, I won’t record it, but you can expect book commentary to update at least twice a month (and weekly if I can).

I have now read a book in 2017 that hasn’t made me wish I had read it earlier. As a result there is now a “I will not be re-reading books below this line” entry – with the better material on the top. The vast majority of this list is (in my opinion) exceptionally good Continue reading 2017 Reading List

The Best Time to Start

Mercury LaunchI keep having conversations that boil down to variations of “When is the best time to start?”. Whether this is starting a fitness program or diet, kickoff of a project, or finally fixing that dripping faucet, all of these conversations generally take one of two forms:

  1. This is really late, and we probably can’t finish in time, so it’s pointless and demoralizing and…
  2. We need to catch up, because we were supposed to start (a while ago) and now (another team) is way ahead of us and catching up is going to be really hard or impossible and why didn’t…

There is a lovely anecdote in Waltzing with Bears where a client is explaining to the project manager that the project must be executed on time. After a few iterations, the client agrees that if the project could complete the day it starts, the company would recognize immediate benefits. The conclusion: the project is starting too late! While starting “late” is not an ideal circumstance, it is important to remember that “late” is almost always better than “never”.

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” – Chinese Proverb

There is no way for you to go back in time and start earlier, but you can get in gear and start as quickly as possible. If you are waiting for the perfect time to start, you should either resign yourself to never start, or realize that a good solution now probably beats a perfect one later. Continue reading The Best Time to Start

The Power of Mentorship

2 kids with scienceYou’ve heard about Mentoring, and don’t understand what all of the hype is about – it’s just another way to say “have a conversation with people who know stuff you don’t” right? On the surface that may be all there is to it, but the power of mentoring goes a lot farther than those meetings may seem to indicate, and a successful mentoring relationship can often lead to decades of collaboration.

The Benefits

Mentoring has a lot of benefits, and not just to the person who is looking for a mentor (called the protege or “mentee”). A few of the benefits include:

  • Better engagement
  • More job satisfaction
  • Higher retention (less employee turnover) for both partners in the mentoring relationship
  • Faster promotions
  • Facilitated learning – for both parties
  • Better succession planning
  • Higher overall knowledge base for the business
  • Staff that are more skilled, more engaged and better at working together.

Most of these benefits are difficult to quantify, so many of the companies that specialize in supporting mentorship programs tend to focus on retention. Continue reading The Power of Mentorship