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Book Reviews

Life-long learning is important and reading good books helps keep minds young and ideas fresh.  Here are my book reviews for the books that have shaped me.

Made to Stick:  Why some ideas survive and other die – Chip & Dan Heath

We live in a constantly changing world with vast amounts of new ideas coming forward each day.  Have you ever stopped and asked yourself what separates the good ideas from the bad ideas, and why do some good ideas really catch on while others don’t?  In this book the Heath brothers examine those questions and reveal their discovery of the six basic principles of what makes ideas stick.

Each of the principles outlined below is highlighted with stories providing context and clarification on the point of the characteristic.  These examples do a great job of illustrating the point and making it applicable in everyday circumstances.  The six points are:

  1. Simplicity – the ability to strip an idea down to its very core.  The Golden Rule is a good example of this principle.
  2. Unexpectedness – be counterintuitive, violate people’s expectations.  Seek for ways to open expose knowledge gaps, then fill the void.
  3. Concreteness – our brains are wired to remember concrete data, so provide it.  “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, is an example of vivid, concrete language.
  4. Credibility – Provide numbers that build a case, and then put them in a format people can relate to.  The authors use the example of, “If hospitals were 747’s, pilot error would be accountable for 2 plane crashes a month”.
  5. Emotions – give people the power to feel strongly about the idea.  Follow Mother Teresa’s words: “If I look at the mass, I will never act, if I look at the one, I will.”
  6. Stories – everyone loves a good story, so tying your idea to a story will give it meaning and help form a connection to make it stick.

The Heath brothers have developed a solid methodology of helping you inspire, motivate and move people around your ideas.  By examining the case studies presented and applying the lessons learned, you will be able to make your ideas stick and make the world a better place.


Drive:  The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us – Dan Pink

Many leaders use the carrot and stick approach when attempting to motivate their people.  According the Pink, that is a mistake that may produce short-term gains, but is actually detrimental in the long run.

Pink identifies the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivators and why intrinsic motivators are more powerful. He identifies the three elements of true motivation: Autonomy, Master and Purpose and provides examples of companies successfully using motivational techniques that address those motivators.

This book will make you examine your approach to motivation and provide a base of ideas for you to try.


Purple Cow, Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable – By Seth Godin

I am a huge Seth Godin fan and will unabashedly recommend everything he writes.  I find his ideas refreshing, insightful and inspiring. He provides many hours of reflection and contemplation.

This is a book about marketing, but the lessons apply in many areas of business for entire companies and individuals.  The premise for the book is this:  The old rule of creating safe products and combining them with great marketing is broken; the new rule is that you create remarkable products that the right people seek out.

The purple cow concept originated in France while Godin was driving through scenic countryside looking at storybook cows grazing in pastures next to the road.  After a few miles of looking at the picturesque scene, he started ignoring the cows because they had become common and possibly even boring.  Godin realized what had happened and began to wonder what would happen if there were a purple cow thrown in the mix, how interesting that would be.  It would be interesting because it was remarkable, worth discussing and noticing.

The book follows that train of thought through numerous examples of remarkable products brought to light by seemingly unremarkable people.  It also compares the success of seemingly opposite companies like Neiman Marcus and Wal-Mart by highlighting that it was their differences from the competition that made them what they are today.  They were purple cows in the beginning!

Today’s marketplace is crowded and fiercely competitive, but the ideas and concepts covered in this book will help your business create something remarkable that will cause people to seek you out and buy your product.  Go ahead, be a purple cow and change the world.  Steve Jobs did it, so can you!

Our Iceberg Is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions – By John Kotter

Through the ages man has used stories to teach, train and entertain.  Aesop’s fables have been passed from generation to generation because of the lessons they teach. This book follows the fable pattern of teaching.  Building on his seminal work Leading Change, Kotter follows the lessons taught in that book with a “business fable” to illustrate the points.

The narrative follows a colony of penguins that discover their iceberg is melting and that they will have to relocate or perish.   Using the eight principles for change Kotter outlined in Leading Change, the penguin leader begins the difficult process of change.  The story unfolds as the leadership team works their way through the problem, using situations and activities to illustrate each principle.  Kotter’s principles are:

  1. Create urgency
  2. Form a powerful coalition
  3. Create a vision for change
  4. Communicate the vision
  5. Remove obstacles
  6. Create short-term wins
  7. Build on the change
  8. Anchor the changes in your culture

If you feel like your organization is stuck in a rut and needs to change, this book is an excellent primer for you.  The story is written in such a way that is easy to find application to your situation and create a platform for formulating your own plan for change.

Change is never easy and the story’s focus on the relationship-building aspect of creating change is important in making the change permanent.  Before beginning any change process, buy a copy of this book for your leadership team and use it as a springboard for discussion during your planning sessions.


Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting out of the Box – The Arbinger Institute

Rarely does a book come along that strikes a chord in the reader so deeply that the author and reader feel as if they are speaking directly to each other.  This is one of those books.  The application of this book affects both the personal and professional sides of life.

The book begins with the story of a new senior executive who is called into the boss’s office to learn the secrets behind the company’s success.  The reason for the success doesn’t lie in a clever business strategy, but rather in a unique approach to leadership which requires participants to look closely at who they are.

The book is divided into three sections: Part I – Self-Deception and the Box; Part II – How We Get In the Box; Part III – How We Get Out of the Box.  The premise behind the philosophy is that leaders who are in the box see people as objects, while those outside the box see them as people.

The story weaves between the executive’s personal and professional lives and points out the solution to both problems using the same process.  The book is full of moments that resonate with the reader and cause deep reflection.  I so liked the concepts taught, that I bought a copy for everyone in my office and had several discussions about its application with our team.


Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In – By Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton

Originally published in 1981, this book has since been the standard for solid negotiating skills.  It is relevant for all walks of life and in all aspects of life, from business to personal.  Its premise is that we are constantly negotiating and the outcome of those negotiations affects the paths of our lives.  While a fairly short read of only 200 pages, it is filled with information that is readily applicable in everyday life.

The book focuses on changing negotiations from “positional” negotiations to a “Principled/Interest-Based” negotiation.  Positional negotiations are those in which the parties take separate sides on the issue and argue based on that position, i.e., A vendor wanting to sell an item for a specific price and a customer offering a lower price.  Principled/Interest based negotiations occur when both parties collaborate to find a mutually beneficial agreement.  Both parties share their interests in creating a solution that adds value to both sides.

The book introduces four principles that are essential to principled negotiations.

  1. Separate the people from the problem.
  2. Focus on interests, not gains.
  3. Find options that benefit both parties.
  4. Use measurable, objective criteria.

The book finishes up with solutions to common scenarios in negotiations.  Answering questions like, “what if the other side has more power” or “what if the other side uses dirty tricks” and numerous others, provides readers with tools to handle any negotiation they may encounter.



Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work – by Chip & Dan Heath –

The following is an excerpt from the book.

“Shannon, the head of a small consulting firm, is agonizing about whether to fire Clive, her IT director. Over the past year, Clive has consistently failed to do more than the minimum required of him. He’s not without his talents—he’s intelligent and has a knack for improvising cheap solutions to technical problems—but he rarely takes any initiative. Worse, his attitude is poor. In meetings, he is often critical of other people’s ideas, sometimes caustically so.  Unfortunately, losing Clive would cause problems in the short-term. He understands how to maintain the company’s database of clients better than anyone else.”

What would you advise her to do? Should she fire him or not?”

Many leaders are faced with a similar quandary and can relate to the difficulty of making the decision.  Additionally, each of us is faced with a myriad of challenging decisions each day.  A study on executive decision making found that 60% of the executives interviewed reported that bad decisions were about as frequent as good ones. This book focuses on improving your decision making ability when facing difficult decisions in your public and personal life.

The Heath’s point to four ‘enemies’ for making good decisions:

  1. Narrow focus
  2. Confirmation bias
  3. Short-term emotion
  4. Outcome overconfidence

They then outline the process for overcoming these barriers using the acronym WRAP:

  • Widen your options – do not immediately turn your decisions into either/or choices.  Adding alternatives to your options increases your ability to make a better choice.
  • Reality-test your assumptions – for example, when considering to purchase a book, read multiple reviews–both positive and negative reviews–to gain some perspective on your pre-conceived notions.
  • Attain Distance before deciding – put some time and distance between the stimulus and the response to allow for the emotion of the moment to subside.  Compare sitting in the car dealership negotiating on a car to sitting at home researching available vehicles.
  • Prepare to be wrong – create a ‘bookend’ of scenarios from best to worst case and gauge where on the spectrum your decision lies.  By objectively analyzing the riskiness of a decision you can better prepare for eventual success or failure.

I really enjoyed reading this book and have been working on applying the principles it teaches.  I can honestly say that it has been interesting and beneficial as I work my way through some of the mental changes that have occurred.  If you struggle with any facet of decision making–don’t think about it–get this book and your favorite highlighter and read this book, you will be glad you did.

All Marketers Are Liars – by Seth Godin

I admit it; I am a Seth Godin fan!  I follow his blog, listen to his podcasts and try to read most everything he writes.  I like Seth because of his no-nonsense approach to all things marketing and his constant challenging of conventional thinking.

While this book is not about how marketers deceive the masses by telling lies and showing photoshopped images, but rather an expose` of consumer behaviors and how they are affected by the right story.  Godin makes the case that the best marketers are the best storytellers and that truly great stories “succeed because they are able to capture the imagination of large audiences.”

According to Seth, our worldview affects our attention, our bias and our vernacular or manner of expression. The story told by a savvy marketer much match all of these elements to be believable and accepted.

There are five key points that Seth illustrates throughout the book.

  1. Customers worldviews got there before you did
  2. People only notice new and guess
  3. First impressions start the story
  4. Great marketers tell the story they believe
  5. Marketers with authenticity survive

Godin also answers the following questions:

  • What is a great story?
  • How should a great story be told?
  • To whom should the story be told?
  • Where should the story be told?

Godin’s books are a fun read because of the stories used and analysis shared.  If your companies sales are lagging or you are looking for some inspiration for your next marketing project, I encourage you to read All Marketers are Liars–you won’t be disappointed.


A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future – By Daniel Pink

This is one of those books that dramatically alter one’s perception of what it will take to be successful in the future.  Based on research from around the world, Pink puts forth the notion that those who can think creatively and strategically will prosper in a future that is already upon us.  To support this claim, he outlines six abilities that are the building blocks of success.

A left-brain thinker focuses on logical thinking, analysis and accuracy and likes to color inside the lines.  Right-brain thinkers focus on aesthetics, feeling and creativity and coloring outside the lines.  Pink argues that the world has moved through the linearly thinking, logic filled Information Age and entered a Conceptual Age.  He hypothesizes that success in the Conceptual Age will be achieved by the creative, innovative, big-picture thinkers because outsourcing, automation and abundance have changed the way we live dramatically.

The six right-brained aptitudes Pink finds essential are:  Design–the differentiation of products, Story– the ability to put facts in context, Symphony–the connection of seemingly unrelated points, Empathy–the ability to form connections with people, Play–the use of games to enhance performance, Meaning–the pursuit of that which gives you purpose.

The book is entertaining and filled with thought provoking stories and ideas.  One may or may not agree with all of his premises, but it will challenge ones perceptions of the world.


Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything – Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dunbar (P.S.)

I stumbled across this book by accident and fell in love with it in the first few pages.  This is not a normal dry economics book, written without considering reader enjoyment.  It is a well-crafted, opens one’s mind to the unintended consequences of everyday life, and looks at mountains of data in new and often humorous ways.

What transforms this book from a mundane discussion of economics to an enlightening experience, is the look behind the curtain of clutter that conceals many intriguing things about the world.  While questions like, “Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool?” or “Why do drug dealers still live with their moms?” are not the normal questions you would expect from economists, the authors manage to show how economics (or incentives) is at the root of everything.

The authors claim that, “Freakonomics establishes this unconventional premise:  If morality represents how we would like the world to work, then economics represents how it actually does work.”  They have hit their mark; reading the book will redefine your view of the world.