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Everything I read in 2022

“What a blessing it is to love books." -Elizabeth von Arnim. This year I read 20 non-fiction books about leadership, leading change, culture, lifestyle, different perspectives, psychology and science. Here are my key insights & reflections, I hope this inspires you to pick one or two new titles up. I also love recommendations, tell me what I should be reading in 2023 please! This is episode 3 of what is starting to look like a yearly ritual; see my previous year-end reading round-ups here 2021 and 2020 part 1 & 2020 part 2.

My overall top 3 picks

  • Change: how to make big things happen by Damon Centola (2021) - a book about the science of cultural and behavioural change.

  • Atlas of the Heart by Brene Brown (2021) - a dictionary of emotions, a book about how and when we feel.

  • Storytelling with Data by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic (2015) - a book about how to visualise data in order to get your point across with impact.

Part 1: Leadership

Dynamic Reteaming by Heidi Helfand (2018)

Conventional wisdom says that stable teams outperform turbulence. However, Helfand argues that change within teams is inevitable so we may as well get good at it. Further, by redirecting our energies away from striving for the impossible towards intentionally dynamically re-forming teams we can actually outperform the fleeting periods of stability. After setting the scene by presenting the 5 reasons for re-teaming, this book is organised in 3 parts. Part 1 explores tips and case studies of the 5 patterns for dynamic teaming and what problems they solve. Part 2 is about how to adapt your whole organisation. And finally Part 3 contains tactics for mastering dynamic reteaming.

What struck me about this book was how it freed me from feeling I needed to chase stability and instead got me thinking about how I could leverage the chaos. I immediately put several things into practice including overhauling our team’s approach to on and off-boarding people.

Team of Teams by General Stanley McCrystal (2015)

A book about how to lead by uniting people with purpose over procedure. McCrystal recounts his experience arriving to command the US Joint Task Force against Al Qaeda in Iraq. And what tactics he used to move from a sprawling siloed bureaucracy into an agile and adaptive team of teams network.

The book is organised in 5 parts; part 1 describes the old methods used for managing and organising and why they no longer work in today's complex world. Part 2 explains tactics for building purpose and trust and breaking silos that together forge effective teams. Part 3 focussed on how he reinvented the culture within and across Taskforce. Part 4 reflects on the leader's role in creating this team of teams, the move from being the rescuer to the nurturer, all-knowing overlord to the servant-leader. Finally, part 5 rips up the hierarchical org chart and proposes an alternative, more organic, networked model.

I feel like it took me a while to get around to reading this modern classic but I’m glad I did! I now recognise where a lot of management thinking in my organisation originated, but also how we started messing around with organisational structures but never got the core principles down. I am going to start using the following mantras to remind me what ToT is really about:

  • Does everyone have a consistent view of what good looks like?

  • Can our system deal with unexpected inputs and consistently produce high quality outputs?

  • Are we adapting to risk rather than trying to mitigate everything?

  • Does everyone know someone on another team well enough to appreciate their role and call them up for a favour?

Storytelling with Data by Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic (2015)

Do not read this book if you don’t want to be irritated by every single graph you see afterwards. This is a book about how to visualise data in order to get your point across with impact. The book guides you through all the considerations of making an impactful visual. Starting with knowing what you’re trying to say, to whom and why. Then choosing an appropriate format, decluttering, focussing your audience's attention, building in accessibility and appeal by thinking like a designer. After we’ve stepped through the toolkit of tactics for each of these there is a helpful lesson summary section followed by a whole section of case studies where Nussbaumer Knaflic shares her thought processes and decision-making on real examples.

As an Information is Beautiful fan I loved this book and have used so many of the insights and tips straight away. What particularly struck me is how well these techniques are already used for harm, to intentionally twist a point and misrepresent data, but how little they’re used for good, to highlight and communicate important data-led conclusions transparently. Oh, and I can never look at a pie chart the same way again.

The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker (2018)

A book about hosting with heart. Parker covers everything you need to hold meaningful gatherings and events that bring people together and foster connection. The book starts with deciding why you’re gathering, moving onto setting expectations, preparing the physical space, organising logistics and finally ending events. It’s packed with examples, stories and case studies of all kinds of memorable and wonderful gatherings from dinner parties, to meetings and days out.

What stood out to me was Parker’s hosting ethos of generous authority, and the responsibility you take for protecting, equalising and connecting your guests. I was really attracted to the idea that making social rules or expectations clear and explicit boosts inclusivity. I always thought I knew how to throw a good party, from now on they’ll be even better!

Part 2: Leading Change

What we Owe the Future by William MacAskill (2022)

A book about long-term thinking that asks us to imagine not just what’s best for today but what’s best for the future too. MacAskill argues that, as members of the current generation, we have a moral responsibility to maximise the chances that future generations will live good lives. His formula for prioritising the best decision multiplies three elements; persistence (will it last?), significance (will it make a big difference?), and contingency (is it likely to happen anyway regardless of the present decision?). If it’s safe to delay a decision then your mantra should be; learn more, build options, and do good. He ends with an inspiring message about individual action, and how we all can have disproportionate impact by making strategic decisions about charitable giving, career, and lifestyle.

I particularly liked the formula for options prioritisation as it’s particularly relevant to the kind of innovation around digital culture change I’m interested in right now. The other concept that’s been on my mind since reading is societal or cultural value lock-in (when we pass a point where certain attitudes or values are locked and very difficult- impossible to change), and the dynamic between this and setting out to actively catalyse moral attitude change.

Unlearn by Barry O’Reilly (2018)

A book about what you have to let go of in order to adopt new behaviours. O'Reilly describes two types of change, easy and hard. The easy change is additive, adding something to existing habits and rituals. The hard kind requires taking something away, stopping an entrenched habit or changing a fundamental underlying belief that’s driving certain behaviours; unlearning. O'Reilly presents a three step system to achieving this; unlearn, relearn, breakthrough and gives lots of examples and stories that bring this cycle to life.

What struck me is O'Reilly’s definition of unlearning: letting go of past successes to achieve extraordinary results. This is a more inspiring way of saying what got us here won’t get us there that people say a lot but don’t really embrace. I’ve noticed that continuous learning is an accepted norm, but to face the future effectively, leaders and organisations also need to continuously unlearn.

Change: how to make big things happen by Damon Centola (2021)

A book about the science of cultural and behavioural change. Organised in 4 parts, part 1 starts off by de-bunking three widely accepted explanations of change; influencers, vitality, and stickiness. Part 2 explains Centola’s studies that tested his theory about simple contagion (like viruses) vs complex contagion (like wearing covid face coverings or fist bumping instead of handshakes). He learned that behavioural change requires diffusion via complex contagion. In this situation target individuals adopt new behaviours slowly, only after they see several of their peripheral acquaintances (weak ties) visibly adopt the new behaviour. This is the same as the concept of conspicuous usage used in entrepreneurship theory & the Technology Adoption Curve. If you want to engineer adoption of a new behaviour, you have to get clusters of loosely connected individuals to conspicuously do it. Part 3 explains studies that show how the tipping point for cultural change is 25% & contrasts different ways to achieve this; for example using a ‘snowball’ strategy targeting close clusters. Part 4 goes into how to create environments where innovation thrives, creating networks that (when graphically represented) look more like fishnets than starburst/fireworks. The final chapter summarises the 7 fundamental strategies for change.

The story I’ve repeated most widely since reading is Google Glass. Centola argues that the main reason it failed so spectacularly was going too big too soon paired with the lack of diversity among their very small number of high profile early adopters. The right influencers can make or break adoption, but only at the right time - go too soon and you doom yourself. This book sparked loads of practical ideas that I can use when leading cultural change.

Part 3: Culture

The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle (2018)

A book about what sets high performing creative teams apart from the rest. Coyle presents case studies from surgeons to restaurant owners, Zappos, Pixar, The Spurs, Google and the Navy Seals that each exemplify what leaders do to create thriving cultures. The key components are; building psychological safety through constant small belonging cues, and creating purpose by signalling here is where we are and here is where we want to go.

The things that stood out to me were; the pattern of conversation in highly effective groups being lots of voices speaking in short bursts. I liked the advice to strengthen team bonds by signalling future connection and capitalising on important moments. Embrace catchphrases and the stories that go along with them. Embrace fun! Laughter is the most fundamental sign of safety and connection. Vulnerability doesn’t come after trust, it precedes it. And, be clear whether you’re optimising for proficiency or creativity.

Redesigning Work by Lynda Gratton (2022)

A book about reimagining how we organise & integrate work with the rest of our lives. Gratton describes how the global pandemic has accelerated flexible working trends and provided a unique opportunity to reimagine organisations’ employee offer on where, when and how work gets done. The book is organised around four phases which step through how to go about doing this in your own organisation. 1. Understand the challenges your business is facing. This involves mapping specific jobs, what is it you need to achieve? Which bits require mostly energy, focus, coordination or cooperation? Understanding network & knowledge flows. Understanding what people want from work and the company 2. Reimagine creative, new approaches and processes. 3. Model and test these within your organisation. 4. Act and create based on contemporary, data-led feedback. Each phase is packed with case studies and examples of how organisations have done this before. There is an excellent downloadable guide from Gratton’s website that steps through these phases.

This is the book I needed 2 years ago! It is far broader than post-pandemic hybrid working, it’s more about reimagining jobs and roles at scale across an organisation. It’s also useful on a micro scale to think through your own personal or team-level goals and roles. I could see this working really well in a small-medium sized company, but to do this at massive multi national scale seems like a colossal task and honestly a bit mind boggling to me - but I don’t have much experience of workforce planning at this scale, so maybe to a HR professional this approach would look a lot more realistic.

Part 4: Lifestyle

The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander (2000)

A book about optimism and positivity as a way of life. Wife & Husband team, therapist Rosamund and conductor Benjamin, share 12 lessons for how to live a life full of possibility. Each chapter is organised around a core lesson or ethos summed up by a short memorable mantra and expanded with stories and examples.

The thing that stuck with me longest was the third lesson story about a Professor who gave all their students an A at the start of the course on one condition, that they turn in a short paper called ‘Why I Got my A’ about what they learned and why they deserve the A grade. I haven’t tried this yet but I love the idea and definitely will find somewhere to do it!

The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck by Sarah Knight (2015)

A book about liberating yourself from expectation, confidently and with grace. I read this book after a friend told me that while it’s lesser known it was published before Mark Mansion’s 2016 book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. Knight advocates a mindful and intentional approach to decision-making in everyday life focusing on what truly matters, and letting go of things that don't. The title is a direct quote of Marie Kondo’s Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Knight has the same goal, making space in your life for more joy and meaning, ultimately being happier and living a more fulfilling life. There are practical ‘how to’ steps to follow on prioritising and managing your time, attention and effort, and also for disentangling whether you give a f*** because you really do or because societal pressure expects you to. This all involves spending time evaluating your goals, values and desires.

I particularly appreciated the radical candor style 2x2s (honest x polite) to help you work out how to say no or set boundaries with the things that are on your ‘do not give a fuck’ list. There are definitely things I’ve had confidence to give less of a fuck about since reading! And in writing this summary I have just remembered a conversation I need to have this week where that 2x2 will be very helpful indeed!

The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan W. Watts (1951)

A book about mindful living, embracing the now and rejecting the search for safety and stability. Watts argues that what keeps us from happiness is our drive for servitude and stability and inability to be fully in the present. Instead we should embrace our inherent insecurity, and accept the impermanence and uncertainty of life, that the past and future don’t exist, only the present. The tone is at the same time philosophical, spiritual and scientific.

This is a much older book than my usual reads and the old-fashioned sexist attitudes were a shock. The very male and very privileged perspective was uncompromising, unaware and basically made me feel condescended and mansplained to the whole time. Sadly it definitely made it a hard task to look past to find the nuggets of wisdom. Overall I wouldn’t read again or recommend for this reason. If the philosophy appeals, read some Buddhist or Daoist work instead.

Part 5: Different Perspectives

Strong Female Lead by Arwa Mahdawi (2021)

A book about how perceptions of women in power have been shaped by a long history of misrepresentation. Mahdawi demonstrates using studies, science and stories how women have been underrepresented and misrepresented in the media for far too long, and that this has contributed to persistent gender inequalities. The book is organised in 10 chapters that examine different aspects of misrepresentations and the negative impacts these have for everyone. It calls for action from media creators, executives, and consumers to demand and create more accurate, diverse, and empowering representations of women.

The parallels with Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez stood out to me. While Perez shows the myriad ways in which we collectively presume the default human to be male, Mahdawi shows how our ideas about leadership and power are driven by male traits and tendencies at the expense of the female. I see this play out everyday and feel viscerally the lack of feminine leadership representation. This is yet another reason I’m basically in love with Jacinda Arden #goals.

Trans Like Me by C N Lester (2017)

A book about the trans experience, covering the author's personal journey and the pressing challenges faced by the wider trans community. Lester shares their own story as a way to provide insight into broader issues faced by trans people, such as stigma, discrimination, and access to healthcare. The book moves from contemporary gender discourse to the history of trans representation and back. Lester tackles hard questions, intersectionality and common critiques head-on and makes specific calls for action on trans rights. All in support of the ideal that trans people deserve to live full and happy lives, free from discrimination and violence.

I learned a lot about a topic I feel under-educated in. The thing that stayed with me most was the chapter on beyond binary. I was reminded of some of my favourite sci-fi worlds where gender is no longer seen as binary but a wonderful and wide spectrum and just how different (and probably much better) a lot of things would be if we lived this way. Lester wasn’t necessarily advocating this but rather spoke of a world where we embrace more than the traditional two genders; male and female. I think Lester’s vision is probably a necessary interim step in moving from today to a much more radical and inclusive future.

In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park (2015)

A book about one woman’s tenacity to survive through her journey to escape from North Korea. Harrowing, devastating, inspiring and life-affirming. Park’s memoir is a first-hand account of the brutal reality of life under the North Korean regime, and the lengths that people will go to to escape it. Park overcomes crisis after crisis having faced relentless abuse, fear, and poverty. Her unshakeable resilience and determination is nothing short of super human.

Honestly, I found it difficult to read and found I avoided thinking about it too much after I finished it because it’s just so dark in places. Park’s struggle and triumph is incredibly inspiring and a stark reminder that the human rights many of us are privileged to enjoy so unconsciously are not yet universal.

This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay (2017)

A hilarious and hard-hitting book about what it’s really like as a junior doctor in the UK. The book is hundreds of short diary entries organised into sections that span Kay’s job placements. Kay specialised in obstetrics and gynaecology (childbirth) so there are a lot of messy birthing stories, some lovely and heartwarming, some tragic and heartbreaking. Kay recounts the long hours and intense pressure of the job and ends with a forthright response to British politicians who have not only systematically failed our national healthcare system but publicly misrepresented and undermined junior doctors Kay and his colleagues. The final chapter left me equal parts in awe of people who do jobs like this everyday and angry at how much we’ve collectively failed them.

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev (2014)

A book about Russia’s systematically weaponised misinformation, and the impact on its people and society. Pomerantsev explored the subject from a first hand perspective, detailing his experiences working in Russia's media industry. He reveals the ways in which Putin’s regime uses the media to shape public opinion and control narratives. The author charts Russia's recent history and concludes that contemporary Russia is a world where anything is possible, but where nothing is truly real. This has created a surreal and dangerous reality that threatens not just Russia's citizens but the rest of the world as well.

I didn’t get on with the heavily autobiographical style as it seemed at times a bit too much about self promotion than the more interesting titular themes. There was enough substance to utterly terrify me; this book is basically Orwell’s 1984, except it’s real and happening right now.

Part 6: Psychology & Science

Atlas of the Heart by Brene Brown (2021)

A dictionary of emotions, a book about how and when we feel. Brown describes what 87 different emotions feel like alongside common triggers and consequences, in her trademark straightforward and heartfelt way. The book is organised in 14 sections, the first 13 covers a collection of feelings we have when for example things don’t go as planned, we’re hurting, or when life is good. The final 14th section wraps everything up into the theory that emerged from Brown’s research for her book; how to cultivate meaningful connection.

I am a huge Brown fan so noticed this was really different in style to her other books and despite being a dictionary still managed to be very engaging and personal. I loved how the emotions were grouped by theme because it really helped delve into the nuances between similar experiences like awe, wonder, curiosity and surprise. Personally (and I gather like many people around my age), I don’t feel like I ever had much of an education in emotional literacy. So this book triggered so many lightbulb moments it was actually hard to keep up! It’s basically Pixar’s Inside Out for grown-ups and like the movie, I will definitely return to it often.

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel A. van der Kolk (2014)

A book about trauma and how it lives in the whole body. Organised in 5 parts. Part 1 sets out what trauma is, how common it is and how the prevailing drugs-centric treatment only addresses the symptoms not the causes. Part 2 covers how experiencing trauma alters your brain. Part 3 is about traumatic childhood experiences and Part 4 is about forgetting and remembering. Part 5 describes several different evidence-based treatments like EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) that have had incredible healing impacts for trauma survivors. Van der Kolk makes a convincing plea for greater attention on trauma as a National crisis and a move away from drugs-only treatment towards evidence-based therapies that treat the causes rather than the symptoms.

This was such a different and refreshing perspective on the impact of all kinds of traumatic experiences on people’s mental and also physical health. It reminded me of the major themes in John Hari’s Lost Connections and opened my eyes further to all kinds of drug-alternative therapies.

What If by Randall Munroe (2014)

A book that gives serious scientific answers to a whole lot of absurd questions. Questions like what would happen if everyone on earth stood as close to each other as possible, if the moon went away, or if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light? The weird and wonderful scenarios that result are described in an easily understandable and accessible way.

It was funny and interesting but I’ve instantly forgotten most of the answers! The bits I enjoyed the most were actually the short interludes where Munroe shares a selection of the user-submitted questions he refused to answer!

Part 7: Fiction Highlights

I also love fiction, here were my top 5 fiction reads this year:

Tell me about your favourite dystopian sci-fi, fantasy & feminist adventure stories <3

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