The Other Side of Innovation

This Harvard Business Review book describes how to run an "innovation initiative" within the context of a larger organization. In other words, how do you manage something that isn't a product group, which aptly describes how do you manage anything in a research lab. This book was highly recommended by my mentor Bernd Mathiske at Adobe, stating the book is spot on. Since Bernd is such a great manager, I had to read the book.

This idea has also been floating around in the startup realm. If you've been reading anything about YCombinator, Paul Graham consistently says they look more for the right founders than the right idea. Ideas are cheap and change, finding good teams who can execute is hard. YCombinator seems to have even taken it to a further extreme, hiring founders without an idea.

The book examines execution in the context of large organizations. It's an upper management book, clearly delineating the roles between those in the "innovation initiative", and those in the "performance engine" (e.g. product groups). The main thesis is that initiatives should be focused clearly on learning, learning fast and learning cheap. The mantra "fail early and fail fast" from the startup world applies here. Therefore, the management of an innovation initiative is different than a product group. For example, how you determine the performance of your employees? It's different - focus on how much they learned. How do you manage tech transfers? It's a delicate balance of politics. How do you staff your teams? Because the skills required are very different than the ones required in a product team. This book examines those questions.

The fundamental idea that execution is more important than the idea is one I believe in. However, the how of managing a research project have always been swimming in my head, but it was never concise. The book puts it in more concise terms, but I still feel like most of it wasn't very concrete. It was more philosophical / idealogical / abstract. Maybe that's how upper management is or I'm just too used to the compiler saying "error". I also wonder if I'm just too junior of an employee to really absorb and clearly comprehend all the implications of the book. Either way, it is an interesting way of thinking about management and will probably influence my thinking as I learn more about management in the years to come.

Steve Jobs

In many ways, Steve Jobs - the book, like the character it's portraying is complicated, graceful, beautiful, agonizing, inspiring, and enlightening all in one. There are so many professional reviews out there so I'll be short. There are three major things that popped out at me.

First, Walter Isaacson is a phenomenal writer. His style is conversational and engaging enough that you forget you are reading a book. You're pulled into the story as he skillfully interjects real quotes wrapped in detailed context. I have not read such a beautifully crafted book since To Kill a Mockingbird. Steve Jobs represents what English is meant to be.

We all knew Steve Jobs is a pretty mean guy, so I wasn't really surprised about anything regarding his personality. Nor do I feel like he was wrong in being so mean. People naturally lean towards one side of the coin: be liked or be effective. Most people find a healthy mix. The only reason Apple climbed the top of the world is because Steve sacrificed the "be liked" portion of his personality. It worked, it's enlightening, but it clearly brings the issue to light: which one is more important to you? As Steve says: "Polite and velvety leaders, who take care to avoid bruising others, are generally not as effective at forcing change". I'm not advocating being mean, I'm advocating being aware of your choice.

However, the deepest question I kept asking to myself while reading the book was, is it worth it? While on his death bed, Steve kept working at the expense of family and friend time. Walter portrays Steve as a relatively happy guy, deeply proud of his work. But on a personal level, is it all worth it? The hours, the lives hurt by Steve's temper tantrums, the absolute dedication to work at the expense of personal relationships. Is building the iPad more important? Sociologists and happiness reports say that few people wish they spent more time at the office on their death bed. With Steve, it feels like he wished he had more time to work. Alas, one of life's hardest questions with another data point to think about.

I've learned so many things via Steve and I'm an Apple fanboi, yet regardless of how you feel about Steve Jobs and Apple, the biography is a great book that's worth a read. And like the Walter's graceful conclusion, I too shall defer to Steve with my favorite quote: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Delivering Happiness

Delivering Happiness, by the CEO of Zappos Tony Hsiesh, isn't just about Zappos. It's actually a life philosophy thats enshrined and exemplified through Zappos. Tony narrates his life from being an asian kid to the CEO of a billion dollar company.

The stories are pretty entertaining and are in a very conversationalist tone. There is one story where Tony's asian parents tell him that he needs to become a doctor (Very True!), but instead Tony wants to grow a worm farm. Reluctantly, Tony's parents fund the venture only to have it fail, but hey he's a ten year old kid. Each venture becomes a little more successful, until he starts LinkExchange.

LinkExchange was an advertising network like Yahoo in the late 90s which sold to Microsoft for $200 some million. The book details a few executive decisions like how to recruit, why he had to lay people off, etc. But the most interesting thing was what happened when he finally sold the company to Microsoft. Tony simply wanted to sell and leave the company. He was sick and tired of working because something was wrong. Unsure what it was, but it was something.

A few years later, Tony figured it out. The culture of the company sucked his soul. He woke up every morning pushing the snooze button on his alarm instead of being excited to go to work. Thus he joined Zappos with the primary goal of building and creating something different. The motivation wasn't money - it didn't bring happiness. Instead, it was to find a purpose. Slowly, over the course of a decade, Zappos has created a culture that is just a joy to even read about. You can read all about their culture here.

The weirdest part is, that while I was reading the book, I had sudden urges to buy everything from Zappos, work for Zappos, and spread the word about how awesome they are. Tony, through his book, made me happier and made me think about what I want not just in a career, but also life in general. It's a fantastic book, get it.

The Kindle 3 - Epicness Everywhere

I'm an Apple FanBoi, but I found another device to replace that almost zealish love: The Kindle 3. I didn't expect it to be the device I'd really love and take everywhere, but it has taken that position. When I go out, I don't take the iPad or a Macbook Air, I take the Kindle. And I absolutely adored the Kindle 2. I love the kindle because you can't browse the web, there is no color, no social networking, it does nothing but get out of the way and lets you read. When rumors started running around the internet that a Kindle 3 was coming out, I was secretly scared that it would no longer be an ereader, but an iPad wannabe.

Thankfully, the Kindle 3 is better than anything I imagined. It's by far the lightest device by weight, even less than the Droid Incredible. I didn't have any idea how much three ounces mattered, but if you read for more than half an hour, the three ounces are a savior for your wrists. The slow creeping wear that the Kindle 2 had on my hands are gone. The thinness of the Kindle 3 is fantastic, instantly making the Kindle 2 seem thick. And the screen is at least twice as good as the Kindle 2. I was really reluctant to buy a Kindle 3 since I didn't think that the screen contrast would matter that much and the Kindle 2's contrast always seemed good enough. But the Kindle 3 makes reading that much more enjoyable.

If you're thinking about whether the upgrade is worth it, I can safely say that the answer is yes. It does everything the Kindle 2 does and improves upon it in all the places that matter. This revision trounces the iPhone as my favorite device of all time. You know that question people ask: What are the three things you would take on a deserted island? The kindle is #1 on my list.

Good To Great

There are a few management books that keep popping up among the blogosphere. Good to great is one that consistently stands near the top of those lists.

Good to Great analyzes hundreds of companies over decades and looks for the companies that outperform the market by wide margins over the course of at least a decade. After all of their research, they dwindled the list of companies that became "great" down to thirteen. Finally, they looked at these thirteen companies and tried to find the common thread that led them to achieve such stellar results. That common thread is distilled into 200 pages of wisdom.

While most of the details and insights are targeted towards those in management, and therefore I am unable to actually verify any of the results, they mostly make sense. In fact, many of the recent "how to run a start up" articles point to or allude to much of the wisdom Collins finds. For example, find the best people first, then worry about where to take them. You constantly hear about "talent talent talent" as the biggest problem for almost any issue, which become non-issues if you have the right people.

While I'm only starting to get into things like interviewing, recruitment, and some management issues at a very small scale, Good to Great gives an excellent starting post on how to run any organization. Highly recommended.