Posts Categorized: Books

Solving Tough Problems

Solving Tough Problems by Adam Kahane is a short book with a powerful message. It is a series of stories about Kahane’s progress from an analytical researcher with a degree in physics to an internationally-recognized facilitator of participatory problem solving. I picked up this book in Montreal last week and later noticed that Kahane is originally from Montreal. He tells the story of his early work with Shell and the likes of Peter Senge and then the eye-opening Mont Fleur sessions in South Africa just prior to the end of apartheid. A major theme in the book is how to overcome "apartheid" thinking:

My analysis also allowed me to recognize a widespread "apartheid syndrome". By this I mean trying to solve a highly complex problem using a piecemeal, backward-looking, and authoritarian process that is suitable only for solving simple problems. In this syndrome, people at the top of a complex system try to manage its development through a divide-and-conquer strategy: through compartmentalization – the Africaans word apartheid means "apartness" – and command and control. Because the people at the bottom resist these commands, the syndrome either becomes stuck, or ends up becoming unstuck by force.

At just under 150 pages, this is a short book but one that I will read many times over. The main lesson for me so far is that it is necessary to focus on listening, and that many answers are already there; we just have to relax and let them come to us. I see learning in the same way – when the learner is ready, the teacher will appear. As Kahane says, "If we want to help resolve complex situations, we have to get out of the way of situations that are resolving themselves".

This way of approaching complex problems has worked, but requires a shift in approach, much like Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind. This is where we don’t actually let go of our left brain analytical processes, but park them in order to open up our right brain conceptualization and feeling abilities. Here is some advice from Kahane’s colleague at Shell, Alain Wouters:

There is not "a" problem out there that we can react to and fix. There is a "problem situation" of which each of us is a part, the way an organ is part of a body. We can’t see the situation objectively: we can just appreciate it subjectively. We affect the situation and it affects us. The best we can do is to engage with it from multiple persectives, and try, in action-learning mode, to improve it. It’s more like unfolding a marriage than it is like fixing a car."

I strongly recommend this book for anyone working in groups, meetings, committees or any other form of social organisation.

Book Reviews

One of the advantages of owning my own business is that I can buy books from my local bookstore, as part of my business operations. I’ll keep adding to this list, and would appreciate any comments.

Human Performance Technology

Analyzing Performance Problems by R. Mager & P. Pipe (ISBN 1879618176)
This is the classic on how to analyze what people are doing within organizations. It covers the performance analysis and cause analysis portions of the HPT model. Highly recommended.

From Training to Performance Improvement by J. Fuller & J. Farrington (ISBN 0787911208)
A good book for those in the training business who want to move into performance improvement, or HPT.

Learning & Education

e-learning by M. Rosenberg (ISBN 0071362681)
This is a good introduction to elearning which includes general explanations of knowledge management and performance support as well.

The Educated Mind: How cognitive tool shape our understanding by K. Egan (ISBN 0226190366)
This is a wonderful book that proposes a theory on education that no one else has tried to do. Egan says that Western education is based on three conflicting premises which compete for dominance. These three premises are – education as socialization; education as a quest for truth; and education as the realization of individual potential. No one premise can dominate without precluding the others, so we continue to have conflict in our education systems. Egan then goes on to formulate a model of cognitive tool development, which can put this traditional conflict to rest. All educators should read this book.

Making Sense of Adult Learning by D. MacKeracher (ISBN 0921472269)
Everything you want to know about adult learning under one cover. This is not about technology at all. The book covers a wide spectrum including cognitive, physical and spiritual aspects of learning. It’s also well-written and easy to read.

Systems & Technology in Society

Systems Thinking: Managing chaos and complexity by J. Gharajedaghi (ISBN 0750671637)
This book takes a lot of brainpower, and throws you a new concept on almost every page. It is like Einstein’s theory of relativity for business systems. A must read if you design systems that involve people.

The Human Factor: Revolutionizing the way people live with technology by K. Vicente (ISBN 0676974899)
This is a great read, particularly if you are interested in human computer interaction, usability or human centred design. Vicente is a scientist who thinks like an artist, and sees what happens when the mechanistic model goes awry.

Learning in Chaos by J. Hite (ISBN 0884154270)
A heavy and theoretical book that covers classical and technical chaos theories. The best part is Part 4, which you could read without wading through the rest. Borrow this book, unless you are really into chaos theory.

Strategic Planning for Success: Aligning people, performance and payoffs by R. Kaufman et al (ISBN 0787965030)
Based on Kaufman’s Organizational Elements Model (OEM), but I prefer it over a lot of other IT-focused strategic planning models. I don’t know if you would ever follow all of the steps, and stay on budget. A good reference book if you don’t have another strategic planning model that you like.

Business and Organizations

Natural Capitalism: Creating the next industrial revolution by P. Hawken, A. Lovins & L. Hunter Lovins (ISBN 0316353167)
A good read that gives a new macro perspective on how capitalism should take into account the measurement of natural capital. It comes with a lot of concrete suggestions from the Rocky Mountain Institute. This perspective fits in well with Kaufman’s (see previous entry) Macro perspective for Strategic Planning.

McLuhan for Managers by M. Federman & D. deKerkhove (ISBN 0670043710)
Having read most of Marshall McLuhan’s own work, I find this book a good synthesis of these books. The authors provide a a solid methodology for using the Laws of Media to develop scenarios. A must read for anyone interested in McLuhan.

Managing in the Next Society by P. Drucker (ISBN 031232320116)
This book is a series of articles written at different times that look at how changes in knowledge work are changing the corporation as we know it. Drucker even predicts the end of the corporation. Since Peter Drucker is in his 90’s he has seen it all. For instance, he was working for an American firm in Europe during the crash of 1929. The articles are easy to read and provide lots of food for thought.

The E-Myth Revisited by M. Gerber (ISBN 0887307280)
At first I thought that this book was a "how to" on building a franchise. It’s not. Gerber clearly shows how all small businesses have to develop their processes, and what happens if they don’t. This is a must read for all small business owners. The "E" stands for entrepreneur.

Free Agent Nation: The future of working for yourself by D. Pink (ISBN 0446678791)
This book helped me when I stepped out on my own. It’s focused on the US environment, but there is a lot of information for those of us in other countries. I like the idea of the Free Agent Nation (FAN) club so much that I’m starting a similar one here, called the Sackville SOHO Society.

The Cluetrain Manifesto by R. Levin, C. Locke, D. Searls & D. Weinberger (ISBN 0738204315)
After having read the manifesto online, in bits and pieces, over the past few years, I went out and purchased the book. It’s now in paperback, so not too expensive. It was a great read again, and even though the authors state that it is not a business book, it provides a good lens though which to view our networked world. I don’t agree with all that is said, and the rant style can get on your nerves, but the book is still worth it. What I remember most from this book is the first of the 95 theses, that "Markets are conversations."

One of my favourite paragraphs is in the last chapter:
"Fact is, we don’t care about business — per se, per diem, au gratin. Given half a chance, we’d burn the whole constellation of obsolete business concepts to the waterline. Cost of sales and bottom lines and profit margins — if you’re a company, that’s your problem. But if you think of yourself as a company, you’ve got much bigger worries. We strongly suggest you repeat the following mantra as often as possible until you feel better: "I am not a company. I am a human being."