My 2016 in Books

This is a look back at the non-fiction books I have read this year. It has been interesting spotting a few themes, and quotes, in multiple books.

10. Triggers: Sparking positive change and making it last (by Marshall Goldsmith)

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Lifting this book from the shelf on a lunch break, I opened on the chapter “The Power of Active Questions”, and was hooked. At its core it challenges you to ask “Did I do my best …”.

I have a strong sense of personal responsibility, and that feeds my perception of the world around me.

An active question, as Marshall Goldsmith discussed here asks what your role is in what is going on. A passive question is less specific. It allows you to give a passive answer. One that does not involve you.

Combined with a discussion on how the environment we place ourselves in shapes our behaviour, and this books is right up my street.

“If we do not create and control our environment, our environment creates and controls us.”

9. People Skills (by Robert Bolton)

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I think back to this book often. I do not always succeed at applying the advice, but that is no fault of the book. Some of what he talks about is really hard to do in practice.

I see glimpses of it working when I do manage to follow the advice. Seeing how quickly it changes the tone of the conversation is proof enough these ideas have merit.

There are two ideas from this books worth highlighting.

The first is paraphrasing, repeating back what you heard as a way to check you listened accurately, and to demonstrate understanding. But wow is this harder to do that it sounds …

The second is the idea that in a given exchange you should deal with the emotion first. Until you respond to the emotion in an exchange there is little to be gained trying to talk in any further detail.

This tendency to react to any emotionally meaningful statement by forming an evaluation of it from our own point of view is, I repeat, the major barrier to interpersonal communication

There is much more to this book. See my posts discussing sections of this book here, here, and here.

8. Ready Player One (by Ernest Cline)

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Ok, strictly a fiction book. But hear me out.

This is the first of two books I read because they were frequently mentioned in passing on podcasts. Interestingly never an answer to the ‘what three books would your recommend’ question. Maybe there is something to that …

It makes this list as it helped me picture what Virtual Reality might become. When it moves beyond the gaming world. Why it is important, and what it might mean for us.

It paints a picture of an interesting and disturbing future, where everyone lives their lives hooked into a virtual world where you can be almost anything you want to be. If you think we are addicted to our phones and Facebook, Twitter etc … you haven’t seen anything yet.

You know you’ve totally screwed up your life when your whole world turns to shit and the only person you have to talk to is your system agent software.

7. No One Understands You and What to Do About It (by Heidi Grant-Halvorson)

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The two quotes here do more than enough justice on why I think you should read this book..

I wish more people would read a book like this. We think everyone is like us. We think we are easily understood. And in all those beliefs are the countless cognitive and perceptual errors science has uncovered. It is harder than we think. But a first step is awareness.

Without realizing it, you—like everyone else—are very likely operating under two very flawed assumptions: first, that other people see you objectively as you are, and, second, that other people see you as you see yourself

This last below is chilling. In the context of 2016 and the US Presidential election, Brexit, and other events around the world, it is chilling to think that you just cannot be the objective, non biased person you want to be. Just being aware of a stereotype means you brain considers it. Because it considered it, it has in some way affected your perceptions and judgment.

Under most circumstances, people use stereotypes about the groups to which you belong (or appear to belong) to interpret everything you do and say. And most of the time, people don’t actually know they are doing it. In fact, they don’t even have to believe a stereotype to be affected by it.

* Emphasis is mine

6. Six Thinking Hats (by Edward de Bono)

51tfnzgqyvl-_sx324_bo1204203200_A birthday present from my sister. Why have I not read this before?

I have known about the Six Thinking Hats for a long time. I think from school but can’t be sure. However, I have never known enough to apply it.

It is a great, short read. As you make your way through it you can get a sense of how powerful the framework is. A challenge in many conversations and meetings is focusing the conversation on a single point of view at a time. This gives you a way to do that. A way to structure your thought process, and to set up your agenda.

I started applying this at work immediately. Not as branded. Most would not know that is how I structured the discussion. It worked a treat immediately.

This is the first theme to emerge. The White Hat is for data and facts. Edward de Bono goes on to talk about separating what we know to be true and objective, from opinion and subjective facts.  Calling these out helps move the conversation along. This attention to what is fact is the subject of a whole book later on (see number 4).

We may have a perfectly adequate way of doing something, but that does not mean there cannot be a better way. So we set out to find an alternative way. This is the basis of any improvement that is not fault correction or problem solving.

5. Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate (by Brian McDonald)

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I used to get frustrated when the actors in a program like CSI would constantly explain what they were doing. I would mutter something along the lines of “they wouldn’t be talking like that in the real world”.

I am probably right. But I completely miss something important in storytelling. A lesson that applies to communication in general.

If the actors are not explaining what they are doing, how do the audience have a clue what is going on? Dialogue can be overdone, but it is necessary. Every line of dialogue, every supporting character, is there for a reason, to support the story. To help take the audience on the journey and understand what is going on. Maybe we should all be explaining ourselves more during the day?

Respect your audience. It’s not their job to “get it”; it’s your job to communicate it to them.

This is a book for screenwriters. Yet there is so much in there for all of us. It helped me understand the dialogue in CSI better. It helped me think about how a movie is set up and structured. And it helps me think about my own work environment. As one example, do we create the environment or context (Act 1) for a successful delivery (Act 3).

Let’s look at what legendary filmmaker Billy Wilder says about the importance of a good first act: “If there is something wrong with the third act, it’s really in the first act.” Most of us have no problem understanding the importance of the first act of a joke. When someone tells a joke poorly it is more likely than not that they have forgotten to convey an important piece of information in the set up that makes the punch line funny. So it seems the joke is in the set up and not the punch line.

4. Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life (by Amy E. Herman)

41gdrlyww2blI want to go on her course!

Using artwork Amy Herman does a fantastic job exposing our laziness at observing the world around us. This could be the book that Sherlock Holmes read. As I read this, I could understand more of what is going on in a Sherlock story.

There are exercises to test your observation skills, and to help you realise how often you overlook things. It is really hard to see everything. Even harder to communicate clearly what you see. There is a structure in here as well that you can apply in your life.

Here are three videos on Big Think worth a watch if you that will whet your appetite.

Observation is a study of facts. We know that we have perceptual filters that can color or cloud what we see, and we know that others have their own filters, but what we want to cull are facts. Sometimes our perceptual filters disguise opinions as facts, such as with Matelli’s half-naked man sculpture. A viewer who had experienced trauma might see the statue’s raised hands as aggressive. A Walking Dead fan might describe the statue as a zombie. Neither is a fact. A correct description: the statue’s hands are raised, arms outstretched.

* Emphasis is mine

This book links with No One understands You and What to Do about it. Opinions are not facts, and what we perceive is not the truth. It also links to the Six Thinking Hats, in particular the White Hat that call attention to the difference between facts and assumptions.

While our sense of sight is most often associated with the spherical organs that occupy the orbits of the skull, the brain is really the workhorse of the visual processing system. Not only does processing what we see engage a full 25 percent of our brain and over 65 percent of all our brain pathways—more than any of our other senses—it begins in a part of the eye that is really the brain

* Emphasis is mine

3. The Lean Startup: How Constant Innovation Creates Radically Successful Businesses (by Eric Reis)

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These next three books could all have been number one. This is another book that had been on my reading list of a while. Friends had read it and referred to it, so much so that I finally made it a priority.

Two words sum up this book for me: Hypotheses and Learning.

This is a book about the art of discovering what works and what doesn’t and about raising the importance of learning in an organisational context.

Yet if the fundamental goal of entrepreneurship is to engage in organization building under conditions of extreme uncertainty, its most vital function is learning.

* Emphasis is mine

The hypotheses help you target your learning. Thinking in terms of  hypotheses helps orientate your view of what you are doing to learning. To testing whether what you think will work, works. Test it.

The two most important assumptions entrepreneurs make are what I call the value hypothesis and the growth hypothesis.

The value hypothesis tests whether a product or service really delivers value to customers once they are using it.

For the growth hypothesis, which tests how new customers will discover a product or service, we can do a similar analysis

I have to leave with this story below as I love the counter-intuitive. The concepts of Lean permeate this whole book (its in the title even). Linked to the idea of learning is the idea of focusing on value. Are you doing the things that matter? Some of the concepts Lean can be a difficult concept to grasp.

In the book Lean Thinking, James Womack and Daniel Jones recount a story of stuffing newsletters into envelopes with the assistance of one of the author’s two young children. Every envelope had to be addressed, stamped, filled with a letter, and sealed. The daughters, age six and nine, knew how they should go about completing the project: “Daddy, first you should fold all of the newsletters. Then you should attach the seal. Then you should put on the stamps.” Their father wanted to do it the counterintuitive way: complete each envelope one at a time. They—like most of us—thought that was backward, explaining to him “that wouldn’t be efficient!” He and his daughters each took half the envelopes and competed to see who would finish first. The father won the race, and not just because he is an adult. It happened because the one envelope at a time approach is a faster way of getting the job done even though it seems inefficient. This has been confirmed in many studies, including one that was recorded on video.

Why does stuffing one envelope at a time get the job done faster even though it seems like it would be slower? Because our intuition doesn’t take into account the extra time required to sort, stack, and move around the large piles of half-complete envelopes when it’s done the other way.

* Emphasis is mine

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2. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (by Yuval Noah Harari)

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The second book that got mentioned too many times to ignore, yet still needed an element of randomness to get selected.

The sheer span of this book is impressive. Too hard to describe. You start and end it two completely different places. So much so it is hard to believe you are reading the same book.

This is a story about us, Homo Sapiens. It is part biology, part history, and part philosophy. You will find something in here that appeals to you.

It is a book we should all read. This is the history of us. Of you. Of me. Of our species. This isn’t about the Renaissance or French Revolution. This is about how Homo Sapiens came to dominate our planet, and the various changes along the way, and ultimately thinking about where we are going.

It is hard to choose one quote. I highlighted most of the book. But here goes.

What we should take seriously is the idea that the next stage of history will include not only technological and organisational transformations, but also fundamental transformations in human consciousness and identity. And these could be transformations so fundamental that they will call the very term ‘human’ into question. How long do we have? No one really knows. As already mentioned, some say that by 2050 a few humans will already be a-mortal. Less radical forecasts speak of the next century, or the next millennium. Yet from the perspective of 70,000 years of Sapiens history, what are a few millennia?

* Emphasis is mine

1. The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right (by Atual Gawande)

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I had to single this one out as I have thought about it more than any other book.

As our world gets more complex, we specialise in smaller and smaller subject areas. We acquire deep, highly specific, knowledge. And we lose our general knowledge. Yet … yet we expect the expert to know the specific and the general, and to do the right thing all the time. And these experts fail. Often. Frighteningly often. Because they, like us, are human.

It simply is not possible anymore for the expert to have all the information. As we specialise our areas of focus get deeper. Our awareness of the surrounding subjects diminished. As a result we have to work in more teams. The level of communication rises. And the risk that we miss something increases.

We need a way to make sure we have not forgotten a step, or to ask a question.

Checklists seem to provide protection against such failures. They remind us of the minimum necessary steps and make them explicit. They not only offer the possibility of verification but also instill a kind of discipline of higher performance.

* Emphasis is mine

What makes this book great is that the author is living his own advice. This is his story, as a Doctor realising he had to do better, and then searching for an answer. Where else do we worship the hero as much as in medicine?

We don’t like checklists. They can be painstaking. They’re not much fun. But I don’t think the issue here is mere laziness. There’s something deeper, more visceral going on when people walk away not only from saving lives but from making money. It somehow feels beneath us to use a checklist, an embarrassment. It runs counter to deeply held beliefs about how the truly great among us—those we aspire to be—handle situations of high stakes and complexity. The truly great are daring. They improvise. They do not have protocols and checklists

This mix of the hero expert with the greater dependence on interconnected systems means we need to think differently.

We’re obsessed in medicine with having great components—the best drugs, the best devices, the best specialists—but pay little attention to how to make them fit together well. Berwick notes how wrongheaded this approach is. “Anyone who understands systems will know immediately that optimizing parts is not a good route to system excellence,” he says. He gives the example of a famous thought experiment of trying to build the world’s greatest car by assembling the world’s greatest car parts. We connect the engine of a Ferrari, the brakes of a Porsche, the suspension of a BMW, the body of a Volvo. “What we get, of course, is nothing close to a great car; we get a pile of very expensive junk.


Those are my top 10 books of 2016. I don’t read fast, but I read more than I remembered.

This has been an interesting exercise. My reading seems to centre on understanding our perceptions, how we communicate and analyse effectively, ultimately with the intention of making better decisions.

Have a great Christmas and New Year. All the best for 2017!

Honourable Mentions

Mastermind Dinners: Build Lifelong Relationships by Connecting Experts, Influencers, and Linchpins (by Jayson Gaignard)

If I could boil my success down to one thing it’s that I have always surrounded myself with people who were one or two steps ahead of me. My model has always been that if you’re the smartest person in the room you’re in the wrong room. Surrounding yourself with people who make you feel uncomfortable (on some level) forces you to grow as quickly as possible to bridge the gap between where you are and where they are.

Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives That Captivate, Convince, and Inspire (by Paul Smith)

Experience is the best teacher. A compelling story is a close second.

The Secrets of Consulting: A Guide to Giving and Getting Advice Successfully by Gerry Weinberg)

Repeatedly curing a system that can cure itself will eventually create a system that can’t.

Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling (by Edgar H. Schein)

The other day I was admiring an unusual bunch of mushrooms that had grown after a heavy rain when a lady walking her dog chose to stop and tell me in a loud voice, “Some of those are poisonous, you know.” I replied, “I know,” to which she added, “Some of them can kill you, you know.” What struck me was how her need to tell not only made it difficult to respond in a positive manner, but it also offended me. I realized that her tone and her telling approach prevented the building of a positive relationship and made further communication awkward. Her motivation might have been to help me, yet I found it unhelpful and wished that she had asked me a question, either at the beginning or after I said “I know,” instead of trying to tell me something more.

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