My 2021 Reading Roundup

I like books. Here’s what’s been on my shelf this last year. Do you agree with my top 5? What was your top read of 2021? Leave a comment & give me some inspiration for 2022!



My Top 5

  • The Promises of Giants by John Amaechi - A book about stepping into your power, with humility and humanity

  • Lost Connections by Johann Hari - A book about the 9 causes of depression and anxiety that all boil down to some form of disconnection

  • The Fearless Organisation by Amy Edmondson - A book about how & why to improve psychological safety in your organisation

  • Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell - A book about why we’re wired to rationalise away early signs somethings not right

  • Humour Seriously by Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas - A book about embracing and cultivating the levity in everyday life


Leadership

  • The Promises of Giants by John Amaechi OBE (2021) - this is a book about stepping into your power, owning your privilege, and becoming the best leader you can be; “Denying your power is a way of making an excuse to avoid the inconvenience of using that power and that time to good effect”. The book is structured around 14 promises, pledges to make as a leader. Amaechi shares personal stories, hard won insights and advice to people who are leaders in all aspects of life & work, both experienced and novice. Each chapter ends with a self reflection that challenges you to consider how you’re living up to that chapter's promise. Reading it was equal parts a kick up the butt and a big supportive bear hug. Having attended an online course led by Amaechi earlier in the year I was already sold on his expertise and personal style. This is an excellent handbook for the modern leader. The thing i've thought about the most since reading this was the powerful self-reflection prompt ‘would you recognise your soul in the dark?’.

  • You Do Have Authority Here by Jackie Weaver (2021) - My 2021 hero Jackie Weaver, who shot to fame after a recording of a local parish council meeting went viral. Weaver, who had been invited to chair the meeting, was faced with several angry shouty men and dealt with them beautifully. Along with every woman I know, I’ve been Jackie Weaver before and watching the way she dealt with it was an inspiration. This book gives us a better insight into who Jackie is and how she deals with difficult situations. There was lots of great advice in here, a couple of things that stood out to me were; 1. Don’t get distracted responding to attacks that are clearly there not for the merits of the argument but to undermine and bully, for example ‘you have no authority here’ and ‘read the standing orders’. And 2. Stick on topic; If you find yourself saying ‘and another thing’, you’ve lost the plot, pick a core message and stick to it or it won’t be heard.

  • The Advice Trap by Michael Bungay Stanier (2020) - The sequel to The Coaching Habit, this book is all about the hardest bit of coaching for many people: giving too much advice too soon. It’s in three parts: Part 1 taming your advice monster; Part 2, staying curious longer; Part 3 mastering your coaching habit. Stanier steps through some self reflection to get to the crux of when and why you get into advice mode. I liked the differentiation between easy change which is adding a new behaviour, and hard change that requires you to unlearn or change a behaviour. Coaching might be an easy change but not falling into the advice trap is definitely hard change! Interspersed with the theory are 5 practise masterclasses with tips on how to do it for real. I loved the first one of these about priming and I now tell myself ‘I’m curious’ before going into coaching conversations.

Innovation, Digital & Technology

  • Pirates in the Navy by Tendayi Viki (2020) - The central premise of this book is it’s better to be a pirate in the navy than go it alone; corporate innovators need to be to some extent integrated with the mothership, rather than operate independently in an arms-length lab. Viki has worked with lots of corporate innovation leaders and this book is packed with his insight and experiences described in his trademark cuttingly straightforward and hilarious style. This is the book I wish I'd had 5 years ago when I started out leading corporate innovation, it reads like one of those solid gold chats with a wise mentor that just galvanise everything you’ve been grappling with. Reading it now really validated the experiences I’ve had in the area & gave me an energy boost and a handful of new tips to keep going.

  • Human Compatible by Stuart Russell (2019) - This book examines the risks of creating sophisticated artificial intelligence without first addressing issues of safeguarding and moral philosophy. Russell proposes a solution to the ‘Skynet problem’ by ensuring future AI’s are both humble (believe they don’t and can never know everything), and curious (learn about progress towards their goals and consequences of actions by asking questions). A little too long and too much introductory and context for me but I do appreciate the comprehensive presentation of the different perspectives in AI philosophy. I found it particularly interesting that the core principles of humbleness and curiosity and just as applicable for modern leaders as they are to taming rogue AI’s!

  • Driving Digital by Isaac Sacolick (2017) - I read this because in innovation circles I’d seen an increasing cross-over with people working on ‘digital transformations’ and I wanted to understand what this digital thing was all about. In this book Sacolick sets out a roadmap for leading a business through a digital transformation. There were three main themes; 1. Go agile - start with transforming your current IT organisation into a fully agile enterprise including at the portfolio management level, 2. Exploit your organisation's data - digital organisations know what data they have and exploit it to make better decisions; 3. Digitise customer-facing products and services - find ways to drive reinvention and growth through new digital services. The book was definitely skewed towards 1 at the expense of 2 & 3 so works as a fantastic primer for leaders less familiar with agile practises. The section on agile portfolio management was excellent, as were some of the prompts for creating great digital product strategy that have been on my mind ever since reading.

Strategy

  • Good Strategy Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt (2011)- Most organisations don’t really do strategy, they do visions and goals, but not strategy. Good strategy is simple and insightful and has three characteristics: 1. Diagnosis 2. Guiding Policy, 3. Coherent Actions. Rumelt argues against big inspirational visionary leadership and for leaders as designers rather than decision-makers. This book is in 3 parts: Part 1 contrasts good and bad strategy; Part 2 dives deeper into sources of power i.e. lenses you might use to evaluate possible strategies for your context; Part 3 covers what it takes to think like a strategist. I found the first section most impactful (and spent a fair amount of my time with my head in my hands as I recognised so many signals of bad strategy). The second section less so and the third section less so again. It's worth reading for just the first section and the next time I'm writing strategy I'll revisit part 2.

  • Storybrand by Donald Millar (2017) - Stop wasting your customers' time asking them to understand your message. In this book Millar guides us through a 7-step method for creating your Storybrand - the script that acts as the anchor for your website copy, marketing material, presentations and messaging, and shows you how to use it to connect with your customers. The book takes you through each step of this universal story arc, defining a character who wants something but has a problem. They meet a guide who gives them a plan and calls them to action. This action helps them avoid failure and ends in success. I read this on a fanatical recommendation and I now completely understand the hype. Ever since reading I see this story arc EVERYWHERE and have already started putting the framework into practise.

Execution / OKRs

  • Radical Focus 2nd Edition by Christina Wodtke (2021) - Radical Focus is the definitive guidebook for using Objectives Key Results (OKRs). Since reading the first edition of this book I have been using OKRs with Christina’s 4-Square dashboard and weekly setting & celebrating rituals. It completely transformed how our team work -making us so much more focussed and effective. The book is organised in three parts; Part 1 is a fable of a startup team as they use OKRs for the first time, you follow them through an initial not-so-great implementation and what they do to improve next time; Part 2 covers the basic theory of OKRs, what they are and what they’re not; Part 3 covers common queries, questions & issues people have when using OKRs. Part 3 in particular is packed with new content about OKRs in large companies which I found especially relevant. The first time I read this, the simplicity of the approach stood out to me, and how setting an OKR is really only the first step, using regular confidence check-ins, and end of term evaluation is required as well to really make them work. Reading the second edition after 18 months of practice, the things that stood out to me most were the description of end-Q grading and the differentiation between roadmaps (activity-based plans) and pipelines (lists of candidate hypotheses). This book is packed with insights about team dynamics as well as organising work, all centred around the brilliantly simple but hugely powerful Objective and Key Result system. It is one of the most practical management books I’ve ever read and the one I use the most often to drive how I lead teams on a day-to-day basis.

  • The Four Disciplines of Execution by Chris McChesney & Sean Covey (2012) - If you can tolerate the comically macho Navy Seals trope vibe the core lessons here are flawless. The four disciplines are: focus, leverage, engagement, and accountability. In practice, these look like WIG or Wildly Important Goal, acting on lead measures (not lag), use of a compelling scoreboard, and creating a cadence of accountability with weekly WIG meetings. I loved the acknowledgment of the tension between the daily BAU which the authors call the ‘whirlwind’, and while commitments teammates made to achieving the WIG each week are essential, they are also only a small proportion of their effort. Asking ‘what’s the one thing you will do this week that will move the lead measures of our WIG?’ is something I started using immediately and has been super effective.

  • Measure What Matters by John Dooer (2017) - This book is about all the different contexts and formats where OKRs can be useful. It’s in two parts. Part 1 is packed with case studies and examples of how OKRs have been implemented in different organisations and is organised around four superpowers OKR discipline gives you: 1. Focus and commit to priorities, 2. Align and connect for teamwork, 3. Track for accountability, 4. Stretch for amazing. Part 2 explains how OKRs, and CFRs (Conversations, Feedback & Recognition) combine to create a continuous performance management process. The website of the book is a similarly excellent resource for examples and practical tips. The thing I love about this take on OKRs is how diverse the examples are which really demonstrate how OKRs can be useful for, well, almost anything!

Culture

  • Humour Seriously by Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas (2020) - A book about humour at work. No really. It’s not about everyone trying to be some kind of cringe comedian and subjecting employees everywhere to live through The Office live. It is about actively looking for and cultivating opportunities for levity in everyday life. Laughing together improves resilience, creativity and general enjoyment in work and life. There's no downside when you get it right. This book also covers what to do when you get it wrong, and how to calibrate your instincts to be respectful and culturally sensitive, finding spaces for lightness and levity out of the humorous shared experiences of everyday rather than by taking shots at other people. I truly believe work is can (and is a lot of situations, should) be fun. This book gave me a confidence boost to find & make space the funny moments that lift your day.

  • The Fearless Organisation by Amy Edmondson (2018) - Psychological safety is essential for effective organisations. Where it’s absent a myriad of failures occur. Edmondson recounts how Nokia’s Engineers tried to raise issues with their mobile operating system but were repeatedly silenced. Live this long enough and silence is easier than speaking up with bad news or opposition. It’s the responsibility of leaders in organisations to create a culture of psychological safety and you can do that by doing these three things: 1. Setting the stage e.g. Acknowledging failure is not a bug of learning, it’s a feature. 2. Inviting participation, e.g. asking genuine, curious, direct questions: ‘Was everything as safe as you’d like it to be for your patients?’. 3. Responding productively. The best overall tip I picked up from this book is: the best way to create psychological safety is to act as if you already have it. Even if you’re not there yet, sometimes you have to take a personal risk to lower personal risk for others. If you’re a leader, it’s your responsibility to make the first move.

  • The Four Stages of Psychological Safety by Timothy R. Clark (2020) - Clark explains there are 4 aspects of psychological safety and they are built as layers, the existence of higher levels depending on the preceding ones. The 4 levels are: inclusion, learning, contribution and challenge. You have psychological safety when you feel included, safe to learn, safe to contribute, and safe to challenge the status quo. I found this a really simple and useful framework to shape what questions I ask as a leader and what behaviour I look out for. I especially appreciated the conditions for some of the levels. You get inclusion when you are human and harmless. You get contribution rights when you demonstrate performance. You get to challenge the status quo when you’re being constructive, not destructive. A very simple and practical framework to help grapple with a complex & sensitive topic.

Psychology

  • Lost Connections by Johann Hari (2018) - Hari spent the first 18 years of his life believing that his depression was ‘all in his head’, he was experiencing it because he was weak, worthless, wrong. He spent the next 18, believing his depression was down to a chemical imbalance in his brain that was being solved with anti-depressant pills. Now he doesn’t believe either of these stories about himself. After years of research and a deeply personal journey he now believes we’ve all been utterly misled about the causes of depression and anxiety. The evidence shows the drugs don’t work; the majority of their effect is actually placebo. What the data actually shows is there are 9 causes of depression and anxiety and they’re all about disconnection. Specifically disconnection from: 1. Meaningful work, 2. Other people, 3. Meaningful values, 4. Childhood trauma, 5. Status and respect, 6. The natural world, 7. A hopeful or secure future, 8-9. Genes & brain changes. Hari goes on to describe several evidence-based drug-alternative antidepressants. Another key insight that stood out to me was that technically depression and anxiety are not independent things, they’re both symptoms of the same underlying issues, the differences being down to individual differences. My biggest take-away was that when your body is sick, you need to notice nausea because it tell you something is wrong, and similarly when your mind is sick you need the symptoms in order to notice all is not right.

  • Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell (2019) - I almost didn’t read this book when it seemed in the first chapter that Gladwell was justifying rape & racism as products of just ‘a different point of view’. I liked Gladwell’s previous work and so persevered in the hope I was proved wrong. Thankfully I was. Gladwell introduces three key theories; 1. Default to truth (tendency to believe until the evidence of deception is overwhelming), 2. Transparency (tendency to assume we can accurately discern people’s thoughts, intentions & emotional states from their outward behaviour), and 3. Coupling (tendency to overlook the context that influence other people’s actions). Gladwell explains, through the lenses of these three theories, the tragic case of Sandra Bland who was stopped by a policeman for a very minor and inconsequential infraction, but that escalated quickly and ultimately resulted in her suicide whilst in custody several days later. Gladwell doesn’t use these theories to justify the action of the police, he uses it to explain how the whole system messed up, and how we can fix it. Not an easy read due to the nature of some of the examples Gladwell covers, but an essential one for anyone involved in policing reform, or evidence-based policy in any context.

  • Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B Cialdini PhD (1984) - This book is about how professional influencers do it. By studying theory and practise out in fields as diverse as car sales to charity fundraising, Ciadini presents six techniques that consistently get results; 1. Generate reciprocity (feeling obligated to return a favour), 2. Create scarcity (desire to keep hold of scarce resources) , 3. Appeal to authority (desire to obey experts/figures of authority), 4. Establish internal consistency (desire to be consistent with what we’ve said/done before), 5. Be likeable (desire to do business with people we like), and 6. Create consensus among peers (desire to follow similar others). While all these tactics can be used for evil, I found myself reflecting on what I can ethically deploy to increase my chances of success landing critical business change, or positive behavioural change.


Feminist + Anti-racism

  • The Problem with Men by Richard Herring (2020) - For the last few years the comedian Richard Herring has spent the 24 hours of International Women’s Day each year responding to men who tweet ‘but when’s international men’s day?’, with the answer, it’s November 19th. In each chapter he addresses one of the main questions or critiques around IWD & IMD. He includes lots of actual tweets and is just as cutting and hilarious as his annual Twitter campaign is. A key nugget of wisdom from the interview included at the end of the audiobook are two questions to ask when bridge building: “In what ways are you most misunderstood?” and “What are you most frightened of if your worldview fails?”.

  • Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri (2019) - I read this because I know that black people have suffered discrimination and prejudice because of afro-textured hair. Beyond this simple fact I didn’t really understand why or how this happens and wanted to learn more. This book describes how slavers and racists used the unique texture of afro hair as an identifier and discriminating feature on which to base racist policies and practises. Dabiri also talks about the African culture and intimacy around hair grooming, how complex intricate hairstyles contained maps which helped slaves to liberation and why the recent cultural appropriation of traditional black Afro hair is such a raw and hurtful issue for people who have grown up being told that their natural hair is ‘unprofessional’ and ‘untidy’. I had no idea how deep this ran and feel better informed about an important issue after reading this book.

  • How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran (2011) - This bestselling classic of modern feminism has been recomended to me so many times! In each chapter Moran shares a formative experience in her life, from her first period to het first love, going to a lap-dancing club, having children, to having an abortion. Through each story we discover what she learned about herself and what she learned about being feminist. I absolutely love her thought experiment for detecting sexism, ‘are the men doing/dealing with this?’ - I will never stop using that one. Her straight-talking hilariously relatable style made this at times a laugh out loud read, and at times deeply emotional.

  • Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (2014) - Roxane Gay is a feminist, but a bad one. She likes trashy tv, shaves her legs, loves pink and a good maxi-dress. This book is a series of essays addressing different aspects of feminism today. She makes very compelling, evidence-based, funny, as well as emotive and personal critiques of feminist theory and perspectives. This book made me re-evaluate my stance on a number of things, and opened my eyes to the hypocrisy and double standards when feminist TV shows aren’t perfect in terms of representation or intersectionality, even though all the other shows who barely afford a female character don’t cop the same critique. I loved how clear she is about what feminism means to her and how she focussed on remaining true to herself, not someone else’s definition of what she ‘should’ think and believe. An inspiring and informative read that made me both cry and laugh out loud.

Politics

  • A Promised Land by Barack Obama (2020) - Obama’s memoir covering his political career and first term in office as POTUS. He says his intention was for this book to represent a record of his perspective on his administration's achievements and challenges and it definitely does that. The deep dives into what it took to get key healthcare policy passed into law and the struggles of bi-partisanship were fascinating. As was his candid, humble, and insightful reflections on the challenges, compromises and camaraderie he experienced in office. It prompted me to reflect on whether I’m striking the right balance between making things happen & bringing people along with me. I’m looking forward to part 2 covering his second presidential term.

  • Who Gets What and Why: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design by Alvin Roth (2015) - A book about the economic & social dynamics of markets. Roth focuses on the dynamics of matching markets like dating, kidney transplants and school, college and medical residency placements. Matching markets are more complex than commodity markets like grain, sugar and coffee, and Roth explains how they can end up dysfunctional if they are too thin, have too much congestion and are unstable. He also demonstrates how market designers have found ways to address these issues, improving market designs so everyone gets optimum outcomes. I thought this book would be an anti neoliberal argument, which I suppose it essentially was, although that didn't feel like the main thrust of it. Roth went beyond pointing out the bad things that happen when some markets are left completely ‘free’, and highlighted how good market design and regulation can help everyone to get what they want fairer more equitably. It made me think about the ecosystems I’m part of and have influence over, and how I could view parts of them as markets with market forces in the way Roth describes.


Have a look at my 2020 reading summary here Part 1: Business Innovation and Leadership & Part 2: Black Lives Matter, Feminist and Politics

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