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    Entries in Book (8)

    Wednesday
    Jan302013

    'There isn't any more truth in the world than there was before the Internet'

    I've been grinding through Nate Silver's book 'The Signal and the Noise' over the last few weeks and while it can, at times, get perhaps a little too deep into some dark statistical alleys, overall it is a fascinating read, and one I definitely recommend if for no other reason than for an excellent chapter on handicapping NBA basketball games.

    If there is one major theme or takeaway from the book for me, I think it is best articulated in this quote, about two-thirds of the way through the book, in a chapter about how difficult it can often be in making sense of data, a problem only getting worse as the amount and availability of data continues to explode:

    The US Government now publishes data on about 45,000 economic statistics. If you want to test for relationships between all combinations of two pairs of these statistics - is there a causal relationship between the bank prime loan rate and the unemployment rate in Alabama? - that gives you literally one billion hypotheses to test.

    But the number of meaningful relationships in the data - those that speak to causality rather than correlation and testify to how the world really works - is orders of magnitude smaller. Nor is it likely to be increasing at nearly so fast a rate as the information itself; there isn't any more truth in the world than there was before the Internet or the printing press. Most of the data is just noise, as most of the universe is filled with empty space.

    In 2013 I promise that you, as an informed, and opportunistic Talent professional will be hearing, seeing, talking, and thinking about Big Data. Data about job ad posting, data about talent assessment scores, data about compensation and retention, data about engagement, data about performance, and maybe even data about data. 

    As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, most organizations have plenty of data. More than they know what to do with. And the more they collect, as made really clear in the example above, the chances are high that it won't lead to a faster discovery of the truth - it will just unearth more paths to explore.

    Which sometimes, certainly, might be needed, but other times, and maybe most of the time, only results in more ways to get lost.

    Don't get caught up chasing data just to have more data. The truth isn't going anywhere, and once you think you have it figured out, and feel that the data you do have supports your beliefs, then you'd probably be better served acting, rather than collecting even more data. 

    Have you read The Signal and the Noise yet? Better get on it, just in case it becomes the 2013 version of Moneyball, and you won't want to feel left out!

    Wednesday
    Mar072012

    Book Review : The American Way of Eating

    "What would it take for us all to eat well?”

    A simple enough question on the surface. But think a little bit longer about the question and how in America should we go about improving the quality and variety of our diets, expand the access to good, fresh food for people living in decaying inner cities, and somehow begin to understand why and how that the problem of obesity and its associated health concerns continue to escalate, well all of a sudden you will realize that finding an answer is a much larger and more complex proposition.

    "What would it take for us all to eat well? "

    That is the question that author The American Way of Eating author Tracie McMillan sets out to answer when she begins her year-long sojourn along the front lines of the food industy - as a farmworker in the grape vineyards and garlic fields of the Central Valley of California, at two different stops working grocery and later produce in Detroit-area Walmarts, (did you know that Walmart is the nations' largest food retailer?), and finally inside the kitchen at a Brooklyn Applebee's, where in America's most popular sit-down restaurant, meals are more assembled from pre-made components, than actually cooked.

    Along the way, Ms. McMillan alternates the story of her experiences as a bottom of the labor food chain with a deeply researched and revealing look at the rights, (or lack thereof), of the farmworkers, the development of and eventual power over the nation's food supply of the supermarket industry in the United States, and the growing share of restaurant eating that has come to claim in the average American's diet.  And what we learn, via her first-hand experiences and her in-depth reporting makes us uncomfortable. Ms. McMillan plainly states the rights of the typical farmworker coolly and succinctly -

    "Under federal labor laws, I have no rights to days off; I have no right to overtime pay; I have no right to collective bargaining."

    The farmwork is as we'd expect  - exceedingly hard, mundane, dangerous,and incredibly poorly paid. And similar to the Apple/Foxconn situation that has been so widely reported recently, the labor costs of farmworkers contribute a tiny fraction, about 6%, of the product's eventual retail price. But unlike one of the 'protests' consumers can bring to bear over the Apple situation, simply withholding the purchase of new gadgets until Apple improves working conditions, won't work when the product is real apples, (or lettuce or garlic or peaches). 

    From the fields of California and the front lines of production,  Ms. McMillan ventures into the front lines of food retailing, and recounts two separate stints as a stock person at Walmart supercenters. Here we learn about Walmart's incredible power and influence over the local produce supply and quality in markets where it dominates, the lengths to which Walmart will go to save the salability of its produce, (hint, don't buy any lettuce that is visibly smaller than the rest of the lot), and the challenges faced by the generally good-natured and well-intentioned workers.  The key metric about Walmart, stated plainly on p. 138 -

    Walmart's share of our food supply grew at an unparalleled pace; at 22 percent, it now sells more than twice as much as the next three largest stores combined.

    McMillan accurately compares Walmart's rise as a mega-retailer is analogous to the rise of the mega-farms. As in retail where many towns have few choices about where to shop for fresh produce, chances are good that produce was grown on one of the 6% of farms that supply 75% of farm sales in the United States. Larger farms, feeding larger distribution networks, stocking supercenter stores, most located in the suburbs, where space for stores, parking, and affluent shoppers determine retail location choices.

    From Walmart, Ms. McMillan joins the kitchen staff as a food expediter at a busy Applebee's location in Brooklyn. Here we learn that 'cooking' is not what really happens at Applebee's, rather it's a controlled chaos of food assembly, from mostly pre-cooked, pre-measured, and frozen component parts. And while the staff and management come off as mostly friendly and supportive an end of the book McMillan is sexually assaulted while sleeping and after being drugged during a farewell party with fellow Applebee’s workers.

    The American Way of Eating is certainly a book about food, but just as much it is a book about economics, corporate America, and the kind of work that millions of people do every day, and that many of us are more comfortable not thinking about too much. Farmwork, life as a minimum wage, part-time, no benefits retail worker, as an exhausted and overworked kitchen assistant - these jobs are not only hard to do, they are hard to survive doing. McMillan repeatedly faces struggles making ends meet, and often it is only the kindness of newly made friends on the food front lines that help see her through.

    By the end of the book, you are forced to think about all the ways we need to do better. Farmworkers should be treated better. Walmart and other mega-stores should open locations in the food deserts of places like Detroit, and we should do more as a society to think of food like we think about electricity or clean water - as a social good, not a luxury item.

    "What would it take for us all to eat well?”

    The determination and commitment to re-think how food is grown, harvested, marketed, and sold.

    Easy and incredibly hard at the same time.

    The American Way of Eating is a fascinating, challenging, and important book, that I strongly recommend.


    THE AMERICAN WAY OF EATING

    Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table

    By Tracie McMillan

    319 pages. Scribner. $25

    Monday
    Jul252011

    A Pocketful of Zen Lessons

    Many years ago a former colleague gave me the book you see in the picture on the right, it is called 'Zen Lessons: The Art of Leadership', a small (so small fits in your pocket), book of Zen stories and tales meant to be a guide to 'enlightened conduct for people in positions of authority, based on the teachings of several great Zen masters of China.' It is kind of an interesting little book, and while I don't claim to understand all that much about Zen, seeing as my entire education in Zen has been this pocket book and close and repeated examinations of the 'putting lesson' scene in Caddyshack, I have managed to keep this book with me through several moves, jobs, and life changes.

    To get an idea of the kinds of Leadership Lessons encompassed in the tiny book, check out some of the wise sayings from the Zen lessons:

    On not ignoring small problems in hopes they will just disappear or remedy themselves: 'Even dripping water, if it does not stop, can turn an orchard into a lake'.

    On selecting a mentor : 'You should always follow a leader that is a little better than you, to be alerted to what you have not yet reached.'

    And lastly, on seeking and accepting feedback from peer and from followers: 'Only the foolish dislike to hear how they are wrong and only expect unquestioning obedience from their communities.'

    I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. Actually I couldn't go on and on very long, it is only a pocket book of Zen Leadership Lessons after all, certainly not meant to serve as anything more than reminders or examples of more universal kinds of truths that I imagine would take years and years to master. Which takes us to another question entirely - how much of something do you need to know in order to know enough of what you need to know?

    But regardless for some reason this little pocket book has stuck with me though the years, and while I can't necessarily point to any specific occasions where I have applied the lessons in business or leadership situations, I can be sure the lessons have served me well. Simply having the book around is kind of comforting in a way. I suppose it is the equivalent of a good luck charm or even my version of the 'red stapler' from Office Space. No matter what jobs, projects, challenges that have come the Zen Lessons have always been there, available to assist if needed.

    What about you guys? Do you have your own version of the pocket book of Zen? What little guides or good luck charms do you make sure travel with you as you move through your careers? 

    I can't be the only weird one.

    Right?

     

    Friday
    May202011

    The Corner Office and Curiosity

    This past week on my travels to and from the Lumesse Customer Conference in Austin, Texas, and the MRA HR Event in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, (with an unexpected night in a motel near the Detroit airport tossed in for good measure), I had the chance to catch up on some reading I had been meaning to get to.

    I managed to make it through the entire contents of 'The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOS on How To Lead and Succeed', by Adam Bryant; and about the first half of 'Idea Man', Microsoft Co-founder Paul Allen's memoir.

    Both books are interesting and entertaining reads. In 'The Corner Office' Adam Bryant, the author of the New York Times's series of "Corner Office" columns, frames and shares lessons in achieving success, leadership,and management, taken from his interviews with over 70 CEOs in firms of all sizes, industries and geographies. 'Idea Man' by Paul Allen, is a much more personal story about Allen, his childhood, the early days of Microsoft, and Allen's later ventures after leaving the company he co-founded with Bill Gates.

    I started 'Idea Man' after finishing 'The Corner Office', and almost immediately the most imporant similarity between the two books, and the stories being shared in each, was the idea of the importance of curiousity. Bryant devotes the entire first chapter to his book to the concept of 'Passionate Curiosity', which is filled with different CEOs talking about how curiosity, an almost insatiable need to seek, learn, and understand more about the world, macro-trends, culture, and even hobbies like sports or cooking, is seen as a common trait and predictor of executive success.

    Paul Allen, in describing his earliest experiments with first generation computing technology and programming languages paints a clear portrait of a really energetic and bright mind, not necessarily the most intelligent kid in the class, but one that had a relentless curiosity to figure out how machines and computers worked, and how this understanding could be applied to solve new problems and create new software. That pursuit of understanding, driven by his personal form of 'passionate curiousity', is the foundation for the later success that Allen, Gates and the rest of Microsoft enjoyed later in his career.

    Neither author makes the case that 'passionate curiosity' alone is enough to ensure success; but both make it really clear that a deep desire to seek, explore, and understand more than the immediate, the day-to-day, and the 'what's in my job description' set of tasks and topics is an essential part of both personal and organizational achievement.

    In 'The Corner Office', Bryant quotes Disney CEO Robert Iger:

    "I love curiosity, particularly in our business - being curious about the world, but also being curious about your business, new business models, new technology. If you are not curious about technology and its potential on your life, then you'll have no clue what its impact might be on someone else's life."

    David Novak, CEO of Yum Brands offers this observation:

    "(the best leaders) want to get better. Are they continually trying to better themselves? Are they looking outside for ideas that will help them grow the business? They soak up everything they can possibly soak up so that they can become the best leaders they can be."

    Curiosity. Exploration. Interest.  Looking outside your typical environment and viewing and questioning the world using a different set of eyes.

    All really important. All kind of hard.

    But a trait seen by Bryant in his discussions with 70 CEOs, and lived by Allen, one of the most successful innovators ever, that is really essential to make a mark on your organization, your profession, and possibly the world.

    Have a great weekend!

    Friday
    Feb252011

    'If you double-cross me, I will destroy you'

    Remember Atlas Shrugged?

    It is Ayn Rand's 1957 novel about capitalism, her theory of objectivism, and the role of the innovator in business and society.  For a novel published over 50 years ago, it remains a consistent seller, still appearing in the Top 50 of Amazon.com sales rankings at times as recently as 2009.

    'Shrugged' enjoys enduring popularity with college students, I think I read the book in college myself, and for many young readers it provides their first (made up) look behind the scenes of big business, government regulation, money and societal pressures, and the role of the innovator.

    Whether or not you believe in Atlas Shrugged's Objectivist positions and Rand's political views is entirely up to you, and I don't really recall enough about the ridiculously long book (almost 1400 pages) to have much of a take, other than to observe that world of high stakes big-business, ultra-rich society, and global corporate domination that the book focuses on come off as WAY more exciting that what most of us do on a day-to-day basis.

    And now in a move that is likely simultaneously absurd, and the smartest thing ever, a movie adaptation, 'Atlas Shrugged Part I', is slated for an April 2011 release.  As a novel, the artistic achievement of Atlas Shrugged is certainly debatable, but as a movie, if the trailer (embedded below, RSS and email subscribers click through), is any indication, 'Shrugged' is going to be an instant classic.

    We love sci-fi and action adventure movies because for a couple of hours we suspend our disbelief and imagine ourselves battling super-villains, having insane car chases in crowded cities, and blowing up stuff, (while accompanied by Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt).  But obviously those are all fantasies that can never come true. Great fun for two hours, but then it's back to the minivan for the ride home.

    But in the fake business world of Atlas Shrugged, rendered hilariously well in the trailer, we could sort of realistically see ourselves as global capitalist titans - wearing custom-made $4,000 suits, drinking 20-year old whisky served from crystal decanters, and putting our business adversaries in their place with jabs like 'If you double-cross me, I will destroy you'.

    Don't lie - you know you have wanted to use a line like that in your last budget meeting. 

    What do you think, will you see 'Atlas Shrugged' when it comes out?

    Have a great weekend!