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Saturday, May 17th, 2014

Time Event
11:42a
Say you're the CEO of a large corporation ...
Excuse me if I start off this review with a particularly convoluted contemplation of stuff, only particularly related to the book at hand. This was another title that came to me via the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program. In this program, publishers make a certain number of copies (often 15-25, sometimes more, occasionally less) available of titles they're promoting, and there are usually a hundred or so titles in play. LT members can click a button to “request” a book, and there isn't any limit (that I'm aware of) to how many requests they can put it … but, generally speaking (there are occasional exceptions), each user can only get one book each month. Matching the books to the readers is done by a computer program, known around LT as “The Almighty Algorithm”, which looks at info on the book, and the requesting member's book collection. Obviously, if one only requested a single book that one really really wanted, one is at the mercy of said algorithm, and if it doesn't consider your library the 15th (or however many copies are available) best match for the book, you're out of luck. So, it “pays” to request a handful of books each month.

Now, as somebody who doesn't read fiction, the plausible options for me in any given month are somewhat thin, so I find myself frequently “requesting” books that only “sound vaguely interesting” and are certainly NOT things that I would have “free range” ever picked up at a bookstore or ordered on-line.

As regular readers of this space will appreciate, I have been reading and reviewing a LOT of “business books” over the past several years, but I really had never touched one before getting a (free) copy of Conor Cunneen's “Why Ireland Never Invaded America” at a lecture he was giving back in 2006. This really didn't open up any floodgates, but it did prime me for doing more business books, which started to come my way when I took over writing The Job Stalker on the Tribune's Chicago Now blogging site in 2009. In developing content for that blog, I read and reviewed dozens of “job search” books, and started building relationships with the promotion departments of several of the business publishers.

So, over those years, the complexion of my library changed, and was more and more “business-oriented” which only intensified with my delving (for professional reasons) into the Social Media and Marketing niches. And … this was data upon which “The Almighty Algorithm” was basing its decisions. In a month that I might have requested a biography, a history book, a philosophical treatise, a pop culture memoir, and a business book, the odds started to seriously skew towards the latter. Since (it seems to me) the vast majority of other LT members participating in the Early Reviewers program were looking for fiction, or less serious subjects, my having all those business books in my library made it almost a given that if I requested one (even if it was my 5th choice – there's no system of ranking preferences), I was pretty much a lock for getting it.

Which brings me (500 words in) to the book in question, which would have been highly unlikely to have ever made it into my “to be read” piles without the invisible hand of LT's “Almighty Algorithm”. Neil Smith's How Excellent Companies Avoid Dumb Things: Breaking the 8 Hidden Barriers that Plague Even the Best Businesses is, despite the extensive caveats above, a reasonably engaging read, but it's one of those books that is really for bigger businesses than I've ever worked in (well, I've had clients like that in my PR days … but he notes his system has been “used in companies that have tens of thousands of employees and many divisions, as well in smaller, less complex organizations with fewer than 3,000 employees” - and that is pretty huge even on the lower end), which made it difficult for me to connect with the info on a truly meaningful level.

A sure sign of this was that I got through the entire book without placing any of the little bookmarks I put in to get back to places with either choice quotes for these reviews, or hot tips that I could personally use, until two right towards the end of the book. Yet, the book did not drag, it was a reasonably easy read, with interesting stuff, that would no doubt be excellent to the bigger-business folks that are the author's clients. Oh, and that was another bit of a sticking point … I've chastised other authors for writing “long-form promotional brochures” for their business, and Neil Smith keeps returning again and again to name-checking his consulting product - “The PGI Promise®” (yes, with the ® every time it's mentioned), which is his company's name, Promontory Growth and Innovation, paired with the acronym for his system: “A Promise”. Regular readers know what I think of most of these acronyms … but here's what his stands for (the “Eight Barriers”) ...

Avoiding Controversy
Poor Use of Time
Reluctance to Change
Organizational Silos
Management Blockers
Incorrect Information and Bad Assumptions
Size Matters
Existing Processes
These are also the subjects of the first eight chapters in the book. What keeps this readable (and even entertaining) is that the author makes this personal, doing set-ups for chapters out of his experience (a story about driving through Nebraska to introduce “Silos”), and tossing out a handful of interesting case studies about how the “Barrier” in question posed problems for a particular company … in the case of “Organizational Silos”, how an insurance company's Sales and Technology departments were working at counter purposes, and costing the company money, how a moving company couldn't figure out why, out of all things they shipped, the dining room tables were getting damaged, and how a food manufacturer ended up using 30 different chocolates in its products, with nearly as many sources, and each product group clutching to their particular recipes (they ended up finding they could do with just eight once things were being looked at across the entire company). In each chapter he then has sections called “Baring the Barrier” where he looks at the “how and why” that situation arises and “Breaking the Barrier” with his general game plan for moving past it. Another interesting piece that's in some chapters (but not all – and I thought this was a mistake, it would have been much better to have this as a piece of the consideration of each “Barrier”) is a psychological look at the nature of that behavior, by a Dr. Richard Levak.

After the 8 “Barriers” are considered, there is a chapter with “The 12 Principles for Breaking Barriers” - which is pretty much the author's “game plan” with very specific action points and rules to follow (you can find them on p.10 of this sample PDF from the publisher), if being very corporate and HR-y. In this he describes how to make these changes happen (which is not always a pretty sight). This is followed by another look at the psychological aspects, including the potentially painful in recognition “Twenty Reasons for Killing Good Ideas”.

The program is then walked through in “A 100-Day Process for Breaking Barriers”, which lays the groundwork for the over-all effort in which “All ideas must be implemented within 36 months; 60 to 70 percent will be implemented within the first year.”. It's Big, it's Corporate, and this chapter is rife with acronyms for various point positions, committees, and work groups. Not my favorite part of the book … but it's where the process is laid out. Smith closes with a look at the results that one (assuming that one is the head of a huge company) can expect from all this … he cites a 25% average increase in profits, and quotes “satisfied customers” who say stuff like “I would have done this process even if there was no significant financial gain.”

Needless to say, How Excellent Companies Avoid Dumb Things isn't for everybody. As interesting a read as it manages to be, it's still targeted to a very narrow market, and most of it isn't particularly “actionable” unless you're in that elevated niche. This didn't stop its hardcover edition from becoming a “New York Times Bestseller”, so there were a lot of people reading it, and I guess the “early” aspect of this being in the “Early Reviewers” program is that it's in paperback now. I suppose that this will be in the business-oriented brick-and-mortar stores, but at the moment the on-line big boys have it at a whopping 60% off of cover … and the new/used guys have “very good” copies of the paperback for as little as a penny (plus the $3.99 shipping, of course). For this being something that I probably wouldn't have picked up at the Dollar Store, it was a good read, but I'm not sure if I (not being the head of a 20,000 employee corporation) got much useable out of it, but maybe you might.


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