Book of the Week 12: Good to Great

An immensely popular business book with over 70,000 ratings on Goodreads. What makes this book so great? Following last week’s review on what makes ideas great, this time I was interested in seeing if there were any similarities between great ideas and great companies.

Using the SUCCESS model explained last week, Jim Collins in this week’s book uses simple (they’re really nothing too groundbreaking), concrete (using examples from the companies themselves), credible (using empirical data from his research among over 80 companies) stories (also using examples from the companies themselves) with some unexpected facts (for example, a CEO of a “great” company being humble instead of having the stereotypical ego) to convince us that these specific traits will make any company great.

The SUCCESS model works. Let’s see how that applies to making riches.

76865Rating: 3/5

Verdict: Content is well worth the read. Heavily researched, but with an arbitrary methodology. Explanations feel verbose.

Jim Collins provides a concrete five-year study of multiple companies who have sustained a stock market value of a given percentage (150%) above the average market. From there, he reverse engineers the remaining companies by discovering commonalities among their practices, given the empirical data he had discovered.

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Book of the Week 11: Made To Stick

Two superheroes, two teams, fighting each other to the death. Each superhero has firm beliefs in what they are fighting for. There is no true villain. Who do you cheer for?

Captain America: Civil War is such a great movie thanks to not only its great writing and humor, but also to the principles in this book.

Every day I’m constantly thinking about ideation. What makes ideas creative? What makes ideas survive for years? What makes ideas bad? After reading through this book, you’ll see not only how Civil War became such a great hit but also just how easy spotting a great idea really is, once you’re exposed to the concepts in this book. Let’s check it out.

Disclaimer: I’ll be using this superhero blockbuster as my example throughout this post, and while I’ll try to hold back on spoilers, some details may spill just enough to ruin it for you. You’ve been warned!

69242Rating: 5/5

Verdict: Clearly the authors took their own advice into making this book such a success.

SUCCESS – if you could only remember one word from this book, it would be this. Chip and Dan Heath establish the six key qualities of ideas that truly last: simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and stories. Add an extra ‘s’ for good luck and you get “success.” Each principle explained below:

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Book of the Week 8: Pour Your Heart Into It

An exciting business memoir yet still an easy read about the origins of Starbucks. Just gonna jump into it.

626601Rating: 5/5

Verdict: Fantastic read for anyone, really: future CEOs, anyone in the business industry, for those who are interested in the history of Starbucks, or for those who simply want to better themselves.

CEO and author Howard Schultz talks about a myriad of life situations that had shaped Starbucks into what it is today. This book is seriously a gold mine; I’ll have to reread this book soon to make sure I truly get everything downloaded.

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Book of the Week 5: Creativity, Inc.

To broaden the employees’ minds and exposing them to new thoughts, my employer had just started a book club this past summer, talking about a new book every two to three months. Those who participate in the book club discussions, online or off, are fortunate enough to get their purchase of the book fully reimbursed, me included with this new book Creativity, Inc. by Pixar Animation and Disney Animation president Ed Catmull. A book I’ve already had on my reading list, as soon as I heard this news I instantly jumped on it and read within a super quick half week! Let’s jump into it!

Rating: 6/5. Yes, six!

Verdict: Absolutely required for any professional, even in a non-creative field.

Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand In The Way Of True Inspiration. A business/company perspective of how one of the most successful creative companies approach innovation and inspiration. What’s the secret to their every single move being a success? From Toy Story, the first ever fully computer-digitized 3D animation film, to Brave, there must have been some secret that Pixar knows that nobody other company is aware of. All the secrets are right here in this book.

Although this book speaks from a company’s perspective, ideally for business managers, the advice in this book is more than applicable to any creative. We just have to keep in mind that the word “creative” is actually quite broad. Not just visually, not even just in coming up with ideas. How to solve engineering problems, how to scale the company from 42 employees to over a thousand, how to recover from an unknown DELETE ALL FILES command in their Linux system. Catmull discusses it all right here.

There is so much valuable content in this book; here are what I believe are the themes he had covered the most.

  1. Expect failure; embrace failure. No matter what you do, no matter how much you plan to prevent it, it’s going to happen. No matter how quickly or how many factors you take into consideration which idea is going to be “more successful,” you’ll always be in for a bumpy ride.

    If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it.

    Which is actually similar to one of the most resonating quotes in my mind from another creative, J.K. Rowling in her book Very Good Lives (the text of her speech to Harvard’s graduating class of 2008):

    It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

    From this, he lets his team have full creative freedom. Try anything and everything. New ideas are expected to be unpolished; don’t attack the idea just because it’s not perfectly refined; critique its potential. The 80-20 Paretal Principle comes in mind here; spend 20% of your time exploring, and 80% of all the work you do will originate from your creative exploration.

    Pixar has been creating shorts – those five to ten minute films before the actual movie starts – for the sheer sake of exploration (he classifies this as “research and development” in the financial reports). While they’re still releasing work, these shorts have much fewer risks, both creative and financial. Does this film ring a bell?

  2. Candor, not honesty. Candor. With honesty, Catmull claims that people will often choose not to say what they think, remaining in silence. That’s what comes with honesty – the fear of judgment, of demotion. He explains that candor is basically honesty, but without that extra baggage, without reserve. He had come up with the idea of the Braintrust, a monthly activity in which the entire company spends an entire day discussing what is working, what isn’t, attacking any and every idea pondering around within Pixar. It enforces the motivation of bettering ideas, not belittling the people who have come up with them.

    Candor isn’t cruel. It does not destroy. On the contrary, any successful feedback system is built on empathy, on the idea that we are all in this together, that we understand your pain because we’ve experienced it ourselves. The need to stroke one’s own ego, to get the credit we feel we deserve – we strive to chuck those impulses at the door. The Braintrust is fueled by the idea that every note we give is in the service of a common goal: supporting and helping each other as we try to make better movies.

    Catmull’s career goal is currently to strive to create the greatest environment to innovative success, now that he had reached his initial goal of creating the first computer animation after over twenty years of his life’s endeavors. He’s constantly searching ways for employees to be more candid. This has been ranging from anyone and everyone having equal importance, trusting in all of them (that is why they were hired!), to “good notes” which concisely addresses problems in a timely matter and without demands.

  3. Expect change. Expect randomness. Ideas. Software. People. They all change. Without change, there cannot be any improvement. Pixar would eventually die. Fortunately or unfortunately, change also comes with problems, novel problems which nobody will have the solution to. Instead of choking up on these problems, blaming whomever or whichever team caused it (if any), the team should approach the problem with confidence, even with gratitude, as it’s another learning lesson along the road.

    The deleting all files I mentioned earlier? Catmull discusses this incident where this Linux command (for those who are the least bit Linux savvy) was invoked: /bin/rm -r -f *. This command basically deletes anything and everything in the /bin folder, which contained all their work: artwork, code, characters, objects, backgrounds, lighting. The -f in the command means to call the command without asking to confirm (‘f’ for force). When they unplugged the computer system calling this command, they had lost 90% of the entire film’s work. There’s no undo command for this. How did they solve this problem? An employee had just recalled having to work from home several months ago, having to back up all the files onto her local computer on a weekly basis. Although a few months of work were lost, that is much better than 90% of the film! This could not have been possible if Pixar were to jump into the blame game, asking who in the world would pull out that command (and why it was so easily accessible in the first place). Focus on the solution. Focus on excellence. Focus on the product.

  4. Excellent, not easy. Do everything it takes to create excellent work. This company does everything from research trips to France for Ratatouille to get a feel and all the minute details they need, to rendering an entire stack of CD’s in Monsters, Inc. being on screen just to fall and shatter in mere seconds, to merging with Disney, a large company that had been on a constant downfall with animation but was much more successful than Pixar in business and sales. Easy shuts out potential, shuts out ideas, shuts out creativity (and for those in software, I’m sure you’ve heard of the term technical debt).  Do all the research you can, otherwise you’re just “creating” work based on what’s in your mind. Expose yourself to new things, every day, with an open and analyzing mind.

Catmull’s anecdotes are personal and emotional, yet perfectly back up the arguments he claim in this book. His adventures from working with George Lucas thanks to a random phone call to working side by side with “the relentless” Steve Jobs make this an exciting read, almost like an autobiography but not intentionally so. Embrace failure. Embrace candor. Expect change. Expect excellence. Next time someone brings up Toy Story, Finding Nemo, or A Bug’s Life, you’ll know exactly why and how it’s a success, and you’ll be able to say that Ed Catmull himself told you his life story on how Pixar is what it is today.