Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Review: Catalonia. A Cultural History

Catalonia: A Cultural HistoryCatalonia: A Cultural History by Michael Eaude
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've read this book before my first travel to Barcelona and Sitges.

I can recommend it to anyone travelling to Catalonia and looking for a deeper historical context behind the great cultural monuments of Catalonia (architecture, paintings, literature, music) compared to a Lonely Planet type of a travel guide. It has definitely given me better understanding of Catalan psyche - reflected in the way Catalonia looks and feels today from a stranger perspective.

When reading, it really felt the author was a fan of Catalonia (which is good), at the same time being quite critical about many of its historical and contemporary developments.

In some places the book might have benefited from a wider historical context (it assumed the reader was rather well aware of general history of Spain), in some places it felt too detailed (like verbal description of some details of buildings). In some places it was too much influenced by author's political views. However, there is a clearly a lot of research behind the book, citations of several other authors - and last but not least - love for this unique region in Europe.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Review: Start with Why

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take ActionStart with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book is what McDonald's is for dining out. If it is the very first time you eat outside and you happen to go to McDonald's, you can be thrilled by all the colours, menus, and efficiency of operations. However if you happen to visit McDonald's after having been to unique restaurants with special styles, menus, interiors and music it feels... well like a fast-food place.

The idea of the book is powerful (define the purpose first, proceed acting based on that - and never lose the sight of it). But that's about the only powerful idea in the book, however repeated over and over again. In addition, the author does not fail to mention 174 or so times how great company is Apple. No research, no interviews, no studies, no first-hand experience, not so original ideas either.

If anyone is looking for very simple leadership lessons, want some well-branded and well-processed fast-food for the brain, this might be a proper book.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Review: The 80/20 Principle

The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Achieving More with LessThe 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Achieving More with Less by Richard Koch
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

80/20 principle (20% of effort gives 80% of success, 20% of problems cause 80% of grief, 20% of clients bring 80% of profit etc) is very powerful in itself. Its power lies in its simplicity and potentially ubiquitous application in business, personal life, investment, studying - anywhere really.

The book brings some thought-provoking examples of 80/20 principle in action. However, it is very repetitive and often quite superficial. Its instructive style (do this in your life and happiness will come) is also quite annoying.

300-350 pages of the book could well be substituted by a longer article.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Review: Managing The Professional Service Firm

Managing The Professional Service FirmManaging The Professional Service Firm by David H. Maister
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was one of best business management books I have ever read so far. Although based on research articles published mainly back in the 1980s-1990s, it is a priceless collection of well-structured thoughts on how to manage people, clients and organisation of a company providing professional services (such as law practice, accounting, management consulting, custom software development, training etc).

There are so many questions discussed that a manager of a professional service firm (or a business unit) faces on an everyday basis. Almost every chapter has some eye-opening observations and conclusions. Here is a selection of some:

How clients choose a service provider?
It is inherently uncomfortable experience – and it is important to be emphatic towards your (potential) clients.

What a buyer looks for in a service provider?
Someone who listens, who is sensitive, helpful and is well prepared.

How to predispose your client towards selecting you as a service provider again and again?
Through building personal relationship, going the extra mile in the assignments you do, constantly investing into own asset building.
"Above all else, what I, the client, am looking for, is that rare professional who has both technical skill and sincere desire to be helpful, to work with both me and my problem.”

What is a good marketing?
It should be a seduction, not an assault. Instead of screaming “Hire me!” it should attract clients by doing something that causes them to want to take the next step (such as telling you about their problems).

How to manage smart professionals?
They are people getting bored easily and they are always seeking out new challenges. One therefore needs to constantly satisfy their drive for the new, the unfamiliar, the challenging.

What kind of a leader is best for a professional service firm?
Someone who is a good coach. The only truly effective way to influence people is an one-on-one, highly individualised counselling.

What is a source of motivation of highly intelligent people one works with?
How highly motivated I am to fulfil some task depends on whether I can see where the challenge in the work lies, and whether or not I feel that piece of work is a “worthy” application of my talents.

How to create strategy for a professional service firm?
Professional marketplaces are too changeable and fluid to “bet the firm” on a single vision of the future. Besides, most analytical exercises on “where the market is going” tend to result in firms reaching the same (obvious) conclusions as their competitors. Rather, the goal is to create the responsive organisation.

What one can learn from the best organisations in its class?
These firms create an atmosphere of a special, private club where people feel that “we do things differently around here, and most of us couldn’t consider working anywhere else.
„While all professional firms will assert that they have the best professionals in town, those firms claim they have the best firm in town, a subtle but important difference.“

How to make a firm truly collaborative?
Groups don’t cooperate, people do. If some person has worked with another person in another unit, there is a greater chance that help with be forthcoming. Hence, firms should create opportunities for individuals to get to know each other and work together.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Review: Kõik on suurepärane. Mälestusi Eesti kolhoosist

Kõik on suurepärane. Mälestusi Eesti kolhoosistKõik on suurepärane. Mälestusi Eesti kolhoosist by Sigrid Rausing
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Huvitav vaade Eesti elule 1990-te alguses Läänest tulnud antropoloogi poolt, kes elas kohalikega Noarootsis umbes aasta aega. Kõige huvitavam oli minu jaoks eestirootslaste ajalugu läbi sajandite, samuti isiklikud autobiograafilised seigad autori elust (nii-öelda seiklused post-sovjetlikus Eestis).

Samas aga jäi minu arvates osa tema kui antropoloogi tööst tegemata - ta ei mõistnudki lõpuni kohalike inimeste ideaale, rõõme ja unistusi. Ta jäi natuke pinnapealsele tasandile - kirjeldatud ja läbi mõtestatud sai ennekõike see, mis jäi silma ehk materiaalne vaesus, alkoholism, abiorganisatsioonide töö, Lääne kaupade järk-järguline tulek ja muud nähtused, mis olid 1990-ndatel üle Eesti hästi nähtavad.

Raamatu suur voorus on ausus ja kirjelduste täpsus.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Review: Persuasion

PersuasionPersuasion by Jane Austen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A classical novel featuring some aspects of life of the English aristocracy in the beginning of the 1800s. The main character, Anne Elliot, got persuaded that she should not marry a young man called Frederick when she was in her early 20s. Then she persuaded herself that she still should - 8,5 years later.

It is essentially a love story, and a good one. It is especially noteworthy that it was written by a woman - can't think of any other more or less famous (and good / readable) female writer before Jane Austen. The characters are interesting, although, typically for the classical books of that time, archetypal to the degree of a good-guys-and-bad-guys-fairy-tale (one sister beautiful but stupid, another one hyperemotional and egoistical, the third one proper and smart)

I, however, kept on thinking while reading this novel how enormous the society inequality was in the England of the 1800s (like anywhere in the world back then, really). The aristocracy had all the time in the world for having long romantic walks, sporting, hunting, dining, attending concerts and private parties, shopping and visiting each other - while the rest 95% of society was there to labour for the privileged ones. This 95% rest does not exist in the books of Austen - like they did not exist in the mental world of the aristocracy that one reads about.

It was enjoyable to read the book in beautiful English of 200 years ago. And this was one of the most elegant and charming love confessions I have ever read (Frederick to Anne):

“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. [...] For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? [...] A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father's house this evening or never.”

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Review: The Everything Store. Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of AmazonThe Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book. Well-researched, well-written, has both interesting business and technology lessons as well as interpersonal drama to spice it up. Brad Stone seems to be a skillful writer and journalist.

The book is both about Jeff Bezos and Amazon - difficult to decide which one is more prominent. What I particularly liked about the book that it leaves you with both admiration for and cautiousness againast the type of the leader as Bezos and the type of the company as Amazon. A focused, extremely smart, visionary leader - yet, as the it was said in the book "You do not work with Bezos, you work for Bezos".

A single-minded, perhaps obsessive focus on customer, delivering maximum value for customer (for minimum money) stands out as one of the reasons for tremendous success of Amazon. On the other hand, Amazon as an employer? - not the company I would like to join.

It was gratifying to read the story behind the numerous innovations which Amazon has disrupted markets with: 1-Click buying, Amazon Prime, Kindle, AWS - several of which I have been direct or indirect customer of.

The book was written in 2013. While reading it in 2018, it felt very much up-to-date. I will only wait for the vol.2 of the book to be written in 5-10-15 years from now, when the story of Amazon and Bezos will evolve further.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Review: Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder

Antifragile: Things That Gain from DisorderAntifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is a book that is probably being either loved or hated - (over)intellectual, controversial, presenting extremely broad view on matters.

Taleb introduces the concept of Antifragile (= adaptive / agile) which, according to him, defines the reason why some societies or companies fail and some win, why some people get successful and rich, while others don't, why some concepts survive for millennia, while others die away after being a hype for a while.

Rigidity, layers of rules, overzealous care - all make organisms, children, economies, corporations, markets and states fragile. "A complex system does not require complicated systems and regulations and intricate policies. The simpler, the better. Complications lead to multiplicative chains of unanticipated effects."

Having been a financial markets trader specializing on financial options, Taleb elegantly introduces theory of optionality into virtually every corner of life. The more options we have, the more antifragile we are. Venture capitalists have utilised this concept for decades: they don't need to pick too many winners - as long as they have many (good) options, they only need one or two winners to get rich.

But there are so many more ideas and concepts that this book discusses.

For example, Black Swans - events of large magnitude that we cannot forecast nor compute. Events that we don't know the potential existence of - until they happen. How to be prepared for such events? Drop corporate planning or risk calculating - says Mr. Taleb - acquire optionality to make you antifragile against such events.

Or undercompensation of stressors - an organism, a company, a team not receiving any stressors for a while - becomes complacent, stops innovating, stops "being hungry, being foolish" in Steve Jobs' famous words. Therefore, Taleb praises market economy and entrepreneurship - many try, most fail, while some succeed and bring humanity forward (an analogy with natural selection and genetics).

Or take a value of procrastination. "It’s much easier to sell “Look what I did for you” than “Look what I avoided for you.".... The doctor who refrains from operating on a back (a very expensive surgery), instead giving it a chance to heal itself, will not be rewarded and judged as favorably as the doctor who makes the surgery look indispensable, then brings relief to the patient while exposing him to operating risks, while accruing great financial rewards to himself... The corporate manager who avoids a loss will not often be rewarded."

On importance of having skin in the game: "It is profoundly unethical to talk without doing, without exposure to harm, without having one’s skin in the game, without having something at risk." Taleb brings examples of what the French call “the caviar left” or what Anglo-Saxons call champagne socialists - people who advocate socialism, sometimes even communism, while overtly leading a lavish lifestyle, often financed by inheritance—not realizing the contradiction that they want others to avoid just such a lifestyle. The same goes for the pension fund managers, not having downside.

Taleb is deliberately provocative, sometimes to the point of being simplistic in his attacks against economists, academia, healthcare professionals - there were too many of those to my taste. The book is also deliberately not structured around clearly focused chapters - like good old philosophical books, it is rather read as an essay with various intervening (and repeating) thoughts - not the easiest read at times.

All in all, I found this a very rewarding read - many ideas that challenge regular way of thinking in areas of leadership, corporate management, parenthood, democracy participation.

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