50 books in 52 weeks – not this year

I enjoy reading, so like many people I have set a goal for myself to read at least 50 books a year for the last couple of years. I read 45 last year, you can see my list on GoodReads.  As I was getting ready to publicly commit to another year of 50-in-52, though, I realized that I’m not really ready to move on from the books I read in 2011 2010.

It’s not that I don’t want to read anything new, I do. I’ve got several new books on my list, including David Siteman Garland’s Smarter, Faster, Cheaper, Neal Bascomb’s story of FIRST Robotics, The New Cool, and Hal Needham’s Stuntman! I’m also looking at some older books that I’ve never read.

But well over half of the books I read last year are still bouncing around inside my head.

In a blog post last October, Harold Jarche  expressed a similar sentiment in the context of conferences that he attends:

One thing missing in these discrete time-based events is that there is little time for reflection. … This presentation is followed by some immediate questions & discussions and a coffee break. Then it’s off to see the next presentation. Reflection, if it occurs, comes much later, and usually after the participants have gone home.

Replace “presentation” with “book”, and that his how I am feeling about the books I read last year.

During a pre-launch webinar for his new book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson also talked about the state of reading.

Bill Gates takes a “reading vacation” to read. Ray Ozzie does the same thing. A very interesting strategy; usually when we read it is at night, when we are tired and have 20-30 minutes before we go to bed. Takes a couple of weeks to read, you lose the possible connections between the books you read.

All of this is my overly long way of saying that I’m not committing to 50-in-52 this year. Instead of moving on to the next conference, in my case a new year of reading only new books, I’m also going to spend some time quality time reflecting on the books I read last year.

What are your reading plans for 2011?

Update: Check out my  2010 Reading List lens on Squidoo.

On the path of knowledge creation

ThiagiIn his foreword to Marc Prensky‘s book Digital Game-Based Learning, Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan (@thiagi) recounts the following (emphasis is mine):

Early in my life, my mentor explained to me the three paths that lead to the creation of knowledge. The analytical path, where philosophers reflect, meditate, and make sense of objects and events; the empirical path, where scientists manipulate variables and conduct controlled experiments to validate reliable principles; and the pragmatic path where practitioners struggle with real-world challenges and come up with strategies for effective and efficient performance.

Each of these paths can be taken in isolation from the others, we see that every day. It is also common to see these paths taken one after the other: analyze -> experiment -> implement.

More challenging, and much more powerful, is to integrate these three trails into a single path that allows you to go from trail to trail as needed to get you where you want to go.

What if your organization functioned like a video game

My earlier post on games got me digging through my archives (yet again), where I found two posts looking at knowledge management and knowledge work through the lens of games. Both of these posts are based on James Paul Gee’s book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy.

This second post looks at the role affinity groups play in learning through video games, and compares this to how many organizations work.

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Although James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy is primarily about how individuals, especially kids, learn, there is a lot in the book that can be applied to how organizations learn. This list describes what Gee sees as common features of what he calls affinity groups and their implications. Those familiar with knowledge management concepts will recognize these as traits of a good community of practice.

  1. Members of an affinity group bond to each other primarily through a common endeavor and only secondarily through affective ties, which are, in turn, leveraged to further the common endeavor. Implication: Affective ties and sociocultural diversity can be dangerous, because they divide people if they transcend the endeavor, good otherwise.
  2. The common endeavor is organized around a whole process (involving multiple but integrated functions), not single, discrete, or decontexualized tasks. Implication: No rigid departments, borders, or boundaries.
  3. Members of the affinity group have extensive knowledge, not just intensive knowledge. By “extensive” I mean that members must be involved with many or all stages of the endeavor; able to carry out multiple, partly overlapping, functions; and able to reflect on the endeavor as a whole system, not just their part in it. Implication: No narrow specialists, no rigid roles.
  4. In addition to extensive knowledge, members each have intensive knowledge – deep and specialist knowledge in one or more areas. Members may well also bring special intensive knowledge gained from their outside experiences and various sociocultural affiliations (e.g. their ethnic affiliations) to the affinity group’s endeavors. Implication: Non-narrow specialists are good.
  5. Much of the knowledge in an affinity group is tacit (embodied in members’ mental, social, and physical coordinations with other members and with various tools, and technologies), and distributed (spread across various members, their shared sociotechnical practices, and their tools and technologies), anddispersed (not all on site, but networked across different sites and institutions). Implication: Knowledge is not first and foremost in heads, discrete individuals, or books but in networks of relationships.
  6. The role of leaders in affinity groups is to design the groups, to continually resource them, and to help members turn their tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge, while realizing that much knowledge will always remain tacit and situated in practice. Implications: Leaders are not “bosses,” and only knowledge that is made explicit can be spread and used outside the original affinity group.

As most of us know all too well, most organizations today operate in ways very different from how these, often self-forming, groups operate. Some thoughts, item by item:

  1. The common endeavor in most organizations is dictated from the top down. Members of the organization don’t usually join the organization because of the ‘endeavor,’ rather they accept the endeavor because they have joined the organization.
  2. In most organizations (in my experience), specific functions are highly structured into departments and sub-departments. Successful cross-functional activity is the exception rather than the rule.
  3. Because of the highly structured nature of organizations, most people know only their area. Because the ‘endeavor’ is not their own, there is very little incentive to understand the ‘big picture.’ Those who do try to understand the big picture are often seen as ’stepping out of their lane’ and put back in their place. After all, how can they be doing their job if they are worrying about what someone else is doing.
  4. This is what most organizations expect of their members – a high skill level in their specific area.
  5. More and more organizations are recognizing the tacit nature of knowledge and the value of network relationships is sharing information. More than any of the other items in this list, it is this area that is receiving much of the attention in the field of knowledge management. It is hard, though, for individuals and organizations to get over the cultural expectation of knowing everything yourself, the ‘not-invented-here’ syndrome, and the sharing – freely – of what you know with others so they can be successful.
  6. Most ‘leaders’ are still just bosses.

Looking back over my list, I think I may be a bit pessimistic, but I’ve been involved with knowledge management, social networking, etc. for almost 10 years now and am still amazed, and frustrated, at how many organizations still don’t get it. Those who know me know that I’m really a glass-half-full kind of guy, and I must admit that I do hold out hope that things will change.

Maybe it will just take the current generation of young gamers, Marc Prensky’s digital natives, to finally get us there.

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Chance favors the connected mind (Where Good Ideas Come From)

I’ve read the reviews, I’ve seen the video (also embedded below), and I’ve listened in on the webinar. And now that the UPS guy has made his afternoon delivery, I can finally read Steven Johnson‘s (@stevenbjohnson) latest book Where Good Ideas Come From – The Natural History of Innovation. (Though it is going to have to wait a day or two until I finish The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing.)

Having read many of Johnson’s previous books, I know that I like his writing style and approach and fully expect to enjoy reading this book. More than anything, though, I’m looking forward to his ideas on ideas, especially the idea that chance favors the connected mind. If this isn’t enough to convince you that you should probably go out and get the book, please read on.

A couple of tidbits from reviews:

  • In “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation,” Steven Johnson, an author and Internet entrepreneur, draws on natural science, intellectual history and 21st-century technology to identify the environments that are conductive to innovation. Johnson doesn’t define “good ideas” — or indicate whether their pathways to implementation differ from those of “bad ideas.”  – The Oregonian
  • Where do good ideas come from? That is the question posed by Steven Johnson, a writer known for the agility with which he makes interdisciplinary analogies, in his latest book. His “natural history of innovation” provides a taxonomy of seven ways in which new ideas can sprout from old ones. But this is no management text: for each of his seven patterns of innovation, Mr Johnson provides wide-ranging examples from technology, the natural world and culture. – The Economist

Luis Suarez (@elsua) has some excellent thoughts on Johnson’s TED talk on the subject, along with this ringing endorsement:

Do you happen to have about 18 minutes of your precious busy time … to spare to go ahead and watch one of those TED Talks that will surely keep you thinking for a while on what true innovation is all about? You do? Then you have got to go and watch Steven Johnson‘s Talk on Where Good Ideas Come From. It’s worth the 18 minutes and so much more!

Johnson is currently touring for the book, and will be in St. Louis on 14 October. (I must now make a choice: stick around at the Strange Loop Conference for theStrange Passions party or duck out to see Johnson. Decisions, decisions.)

The blog of Samuel Pepys

Much of what we know about the events of history comes from the personal writings – journals, diaries, letters – of the people that lived those events. Reading these diaries is simple enough – assuming they are in a language you can read – but understanding them in their original context can be a bit daunting. That’s why we have historians to help us make sense.

An excellent example comes in the form of the diaries of Samuel Pepys. Written over nearly 10 years beginning on the first day of 1660, Pepys’ diaries give an incredible insight into life and politics in London during this exciting period in history. If, that is, you understand what it is he is talking about.

Enter Phil Gyford and The Diary of Samuel Pepys. In addition to turning the diary into a blog (the first entry was published on 1 Jan 2003), Phil has provided extensive contextual detail about people, places, and events to help readers better understand the significance of individual entries and – perhaps more importantly – be able to follow the story line.

If you are even remotely interested in what was going on in London in the 1660’s, this is one site you don’t want to miss.

It’s hard not to wonder how these diaries might have been different had they been written as a blog, or if he had Twitter to post his thoughts. (I’ve asked this question before, about Benjamin Franklin and Leonardo da Vinci). More interestingly, would we think about our history differently if we were reading of it in blogs and tweets instead of personal – and often private – journals and diaries?

Much of what future historians will know of us will come from our online writings. Will they get an accurate picture of our lives? Are we, and future generations, losing something by having so much out there for everyone to see? Or will future generations have a better understanding of why the world is as it is because of all this openness and discussion?

(photo: painting of Samuel Pepys by John Hayls, 1666)

Good ideas from Steven Johnson

As a thank you for pre-ordering Steven Johnson‘s new book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, I was invited to listen in on a special webinar where he spoke about the book and some of its ideas. Here are my (raw) notes from the webinar. Lots of good nuggets to be mined, lots of things to think and talk about.

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Started off talking about how his book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software came about. He was working on a book about brains, then received as birthday gift a book of old maps. He noticed that the map of Hamburg looks like cutaway of the human brain. What if it’s not a book about cities or brains, but a book about cities AND brains? The hunch was there, but he had no idea what to make of it. Vague sense that there was something promising. Kept the hunch alive, explored the connections between the two. Several drafts where the connections weren’t well formed, he finally came up with it after quite a bit of research.

The key thing is that he was able to keep the hunch alive and work through it.

We all have hunches like that, we think it might be promising but we don’t know what to do with it. We need a way in our organizations for these hunches to be kept alive and cultivated.

For the past six years he has kept a “sparks file”. A single Word document (now Google Doc, so he can access from anywhere), he puts every half-baked (or less) idea he has about a book or story in it. No organization, no sorting at all. If you spend too much time putting it in order – folders, etc – you will miss the connections. Reread it every couple of months. [A lot like how I use my own notebooks, which reminds me it is time to go through them again.] The document is 6 years old, some ideas have grown into books, some are not so interesting.

When you reread the document you come across a snippet that you had forgotten about, or that didn’t make sense at the time, that now makes some sense. Allows you to network with your past ideas.

Do it with other people’s ideas, too. Talked about the idea of the Commonplace Book from the Enlightenment. People would copy bits and pieces from influential works that they’ve read. “Commonplacing”. Same function as your own sparks file, except it has other people’s ideas and writing in it.

It is not enough to just take notes, you have to revisit them. Getting easier now with technology – Kindle, blogs, social bookmarks. Revisiting is important, so you can renew old thoughts and find new connections.

DevonThink is the tool that he uses. I remember seeing him talking about this many years ago when I first read one of his books. Allows you to dump just about anything into it as an open database. Mac only still? [Yes] Looks at a snippet of text and finds other snippets that are related. It’s smart, but not too smart. It is a bit fuzzy, and it is this noise that really helps make connections. “My outboard memory of all the things I’ve read.” Sometimes, types in something that he wrote to see what it returns.

Who had the idea, me or the software? A little bit of both. It took him to curate the tidbits, the software to make the connections, and him to put together the final thought.

Bill Gates takes a “reading vacation” to read. Ray Ozzie does the same thing. A very interesting strategy; usually when we read it is at night, when we are tired and have 20-30 minutes before we go to bed. Takes a couple of weeks to read, you lose the possible connections between the books you read.

[This is why 52 in 52 is so important, read in rapid succession. This explains why ideas come so fast and furious when I am reading a lot.]

Could be a great value to companies to give their employees a week of reading vacation every year. Need to make sure that the suggested reading list has some diversity, and is not just focused in one new area.

Diversity of ideas is key to innovation. An idea from one area provides the insight that creates innovation in another. In nature this is called exaptation.

A look at the extended social networks of innovative people. Unusually innovative people have very diverse weak-tie networks; not just a lot of weak-ties, but very diverse weak-ties. An exceptionally powerful idea and tool.

Have to be open and fluent in those different fields, catholic in your tastes. [I think this is the first time I have ever heard someone use “catholic” in this generic, non-church sense.]

Discussed the importance of coffee shops as multi-disciplinary hubs in the 18th century, which he talked about in The Invention of Air. Social network software is helping serve this function. He uses Twitter as a way to get recommended reading items, his daily digest of things to read. Set up your social network life to follow a diverse group of people, you can get a very interesting reading list curated for you every morning. A serendipity engine.

Unusually innovative people have a lot of hobbies, always working on a bunch of different things. Used Darwin as an example; his side projects allowed him to create an “internal coffee house”.

Where Good Ideas Come From is intended to provide an interdisciplinary look at things.

Questions from the audience:

Public education – positive, negative, neutral? Historically, it has not been an environment particularly open to innovation. But I think we are at an inflection point where we can rething how things should work. A lot of innovation happening in that area right now. Let’s not break it into different subjects, but use topics to include all of the subjects. Games and simulations, as he mentioned in Everything Bad is Good for You, also have a lot of promise.

How will innovation change because of the internet, and being so spread out? The web is a huge innovation hub. Exploring the idea of a social commonplace book. [I have to wonder how this is different from social bookmarking?]

How do small organizations cultivate hunch-making? By definition, a startup is kind of experimental anyway, so you don’t really have to cultivate the hunches. In some ways, it’s 100% hunch. Along these lines, he mentioned the growing idea of coworking:

One of the most interesting things that has developed recently is coworking spaces. Small startups, freelancers, people between jobs, or people that just don’t want to go into the main office. It gives you infrastructure, gives you other people. A “liquid network” that I talk about in the book. Interesting related ideas but not too much structure. For a young business to share a physical space with another young business, that’s a great opportunity.

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Which do you fear more, failure or mediocrity?

What motivational methods make some of you cringe (or worse)?

This is one of the questions that Dan Pink posed to the group participating in his live chat at The Book Club on the New Yorker. In response to the “Don’t make mistakes because I (mgr,owner, boss) will think less of you” motivational method, he said:

That’s one of the most insidious, imho. To me, it’s one of the greatest flaws in organizations. People are more scared of failure than of mediocrity. It should be the reverse. (emphasis mine)

Making a mistake is like breaking a leg. It happens and you fix it. Mediocrity is like a chronic, cancerous disease that gradually destroys you and from which recovery is far more difficult.

In the short term, mediocrity is “safe” and “going for it” is not. Or at least it doesn’t seem to be. (I can’t go for it, what if I make a mistake?)

Personally, I’d rather get a few broken bones along the way than spend my life trying to avoid those things that might cause them.

How about you?