Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success (REVIEW)

Smartcuts By Shane Snow Book Review

Ever since I read “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcom Gladwell, I have been fascinated with productivity and success. I recently read Shane Snow‘s book, “Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success.”

In sum, it is a good book that puts forward compelling principles and provides fascinating stories to support them. I loved reading about the variety of “smartcuts” Snow found in shoe design, space technology, baby incubators and more.

Hacking The Ladder: Using the “Sinatra Principle” To Get Ahead

What comes to mind when you think of the pinnacle of achievement in a profession? You might think about someone who is highly experienced, a person who has climbed the ranks over time. Certainly, that’s one approach to take. Snow presents interesting data from U.S. Presidential history to suggest that paying your dues is not the only way to the top. He found that several Presidents including Theodore Roosevelt and John F Kennedy became Presidents with relatively little experience in national politics. How does that work?

They use the “Sinatra Principle” to leverage credibility from another field. Snow is referencing Frank Sinatra’s famous song “New York New York” whose lyrics include “If I can make it there, I’m gonna make it anywhere.” In our world, we might say the same thing about working at Google. If Jenny Blake was successful at Google, then we should get her books and programs. In the case of Presidential politics, how does this work? The “outsider” candidates brought credibility and leadership skill from another area (e.g. Eisenhower’s success in the Second World War) and transfer it to the political arena.

Application: How can you reach your goals faster by transferring credibility from one area of achievement to another?

Training With Masters: How To 2X Your Growth Through Mentorship

Getting ahead all by yourself is difficult and rare. Even Vincent Van Gogh had support (and financial assistance) from his brother Theo. In “Smartcuts,” Snow points out the value of learning from masters. It’s an important idea that other authors have also covered – I recall the story of scientist Michael Faraday’s apprenticeship as told in Robert Greene‘s excellent book “Mastery.” Snow takes a different approach here by emphasizing obsessive study. Snow’s research also suggests that organic mentorship efforts tend to be the most successful (i.e. one person reaching out to another without an organization organizing the interaction).

In this chapter, he looks at the rise of noted comedians Louis CK and Jimmy Fallon. As a young man, Fallon was dead set on joining Saturday Night Live. To pursue that goal, he worked with two types of mentor: a traditional, in-person mentor in the form of his manager and a distant mentor, namely studying other comedians such as Adam Sandler. On a related note, it was great to take career insights from comedians. We all hear about start-ups, traditional professionals and CEOs in the business media. Learning principles from a new profession was valuable.

Application: Live mentors and other models are most effective in your growth if you seek them out and model their success. Waiting for your employer to organize mentorship tends to be less successful. In addition, look for mentors in books and history who can inspire you.

Rapid Feedback: Decide How To Use Feedback Effectively.

Consider the difference in practicing a skill by yourself versus getting steady feedback. Which scenario do you think will make the difference in boosting your results? Clearly, feedback makes a difference. Snow pushes beyond that observation to ask how feedback is best used. One approach is to intently observe others fail and draw from that experience. Snow cites research on surgeons who improved after observing medical mistakes:

On the other hand, we tend to pin our successes on internal factors. When they failed [at performing the medical procured], it was because of bad luck. It was hard to see. The patient was unstable. There wasn’t enough time… When doctors failed due to what they perceived as bad luck, they didn’t tend to work any smarter the next time… When someone else fails, we blame his or her lack of effort or ability. For the cardiac surgeons, this made the failure of a colleague quite valuable. Since it was that guy’s fault, fellow surgeons instinctually zeroed in on the mistakes. “I’ll make sure not to do that,” they said subconsciously. And they got better at the surgery.

This principle suggests that the practice of lessons learned have great potential as a feedback mechanism. Building on Snow’s surgeon example, close observation of a failure event makes the difference. I wonder if reading a traditional lessons learned report or end of project report would have the same feedback value.

Application: Observe others around you who practice a similar profession. What mistakes are they making that you can avoid?

Simplicity: Inside An Innovative Solution To Saving Babies

Constraints and creativity have an interesting relationship. If you have endless resources, you may not come up with experimental or breakthrough ideas. In contrast, if increasing the budget by $1 million is simply not available, then you have to find other solutions. In the project world, we’re used to change requests, “gold plating” (i.e. staff adding extra features they believe to be valuable but which are not specified in the project plan) and similar activities. What if you had to achieve results and a higher budget was not available?

That’s the case presented by Snow in this case. The challenge? How to save more premature babies in developing countries? The standard solution in the developed world is to use incubators, which often cost over $20,000 each and require training to use effectively. Initially, Jane Chen’s team looked at cutting costs or making an inexpensive glass box. Those efforts did not lead anywhere. At that point, the team analyzed an incubator at a feature level: what were the features of an incubator which features provided the greatest benefit? Their conclusion: providing consistent warmth was the most valuable feature. This insight led to Embrace, an inexpensive solution that does not require electricity, significant training or a hospital. It has saved many lives.

Curious to know more about the Embrace story? Watch Jane Chen’s TED Talk: A warm embrace that saves lives.

Application: How could you achieve more of your project goals by radically simplifying the project requirements? Consider breaking down your wish list of features and determine which features add the most value.


12 Books To Kickstart Your Leadership Skills

Looking for books to read this fall? Here are some highlights from my 2016 reading. Please take a look and enjoy! You’ll find insight on networking, how to learn valuable super skills, become more productive and find biographies of highly successful leaders.

How Do You Read So Many Books?

Reading books is a priority for me so I make time for it on a daily basis. My minimum is 30 minutes of book reading per day. My connection with books goes way back. In fact, I had a part time job in a public library as a teenager. If learning, growth (and yes, entertainment) interest you, then find a way to make time for books.

1. The Education of Millionaires: Everything You Won’t Learn in College About How to Be Successful by Michael Ellsberg


After listening to this book twice on Audible, I bought to read in Kindle format. It’s an excellent book. The book presents two arguments. First, that higher education in the U.S. (and to some degree elsewhere) is dysfunctional and overpriced and no longer the only path to living the good life. The second argument, forming the majority of the book, is an explanation of key business success skills: sales, marketing, networking and more.

Rating: 5/5



2. The Last Safe Investment: Spending Now to Increase Your True Wealth Forever by Bryan Franklin and Michael Ellsberg

The Last Safe Investment

This ambitious book seeks to take on the financial industry and describe a better way. In some ways, the book is structurally similar to “The Education of Millionaires.” The authors start by describing a large scale system they describe as broken (i.e. the financial services industry) and then propose solutions. There are interesting concepts here such as the Happiness Exchange Rate and Super Skills. In some cases, I found that there was no quite enough examples and evidence to back up the book’s points. There is still much to be gained from reading this book.

Rating: 4/5

3. The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy by Chris Bailey

The Productivity Project

What strategies and techniques actually work in productivity? That’s the premise of Bailey’s book. It’s an excellent book that covers both tactical points and big picture issues (e.g. taking care of your mind and body make a big impact). The author’s website is also an excellent resource of articles that combine serious and playful explorations of productivity (e.g. 5 huge lessons I learned binge-watching Netflix for a month and 10 huge productivity lessons I learned working 90-hour weeks last month).

Rating: 5/5

Tip: Curious to learn more about this book? Read my book review of The Productivity Project.


4. Networking with the Affluent Paperback by Thomas Stanley

Networking With The Affluent

Networking is one of the most powerful skills to develop, yet many people struggle with it. Ever heard the tip to “give value to your network” and wondered what exactly that means? In this book, Stanley gives you plenty of practical examples. For example, write to elected officials to support causes that people in your network care about (assuming you have a similar position). Even better, refer customers to people in your network.

Note: the book is aimed at sales professionals and professional services providers (e.g. imagine you are an accountant looking to building your practice with affluent clients). With a bit of creative thought and reflection, you can apply much of the book’s insights to your career even if you are not in sales.

Tip: Readers ask me how to make the most of conferences. Check out this resource: “How To Get The Most Value From Conferences In 6 Steps

Rating: 4.5 / 5 (The book’s dated examples are sometimes tiresome. Don’t let that stop you from obtaining valuable insights!)

5. Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam M. Grant


Earlier in 2016, I had the opportunity to see Grant speak at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto. Grant’s work shows why being a giver in life and business improves productivity and performance. Grant’s dedication to field research sets this book apart from many books written by professors. The final section of the book covers how to apply the book’s insights.

Rating: 5/5



6. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant

Originals Adam Grant

What does it mean to make an original contribution? Grant shows that novelty and logic is not enough to bring a new idea to life. Sometimes you have to take an indirect approach. As I grow my platform and see more of the world, creativity is a growing concern for me. It was well worth it to read this book. Oh, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote the forward.

Bonus: Check out Grant’s TED talk The surprising habits of original thinkers.

Rating: 5/5



7. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries

The Lean Startup

What does it take to create a successful product and business with a minimum of wasted time and money? That’s the question that Ries explores in the book. I like that he refers to his own startup experience in developing the book. If you are interested in finding out more about tech startups and their approach to innovation, this is the book for you.

Rating: 4/5 (I found some of the book’s concepts difficult to apply. However, there is a community of fans and consultants who can help you apply the book’s concepts!)



8. Eleanor Roosevelt Vol 1 & 2 by Blanche Wiesen Cook

Eleanor Roosevelt Vol 1

I picked up theses books after I saw that Ryan Holiday recommended them. Wow! What an interesting life – full of change, activity and overcoming disappointments. Did you know that some insiders encouraged ER to run for President in 1940? ER did not hold public office yet she wielded tremendous influence through her network, publishing and activism. These books took weeks to read – it was well worth the effort.

My favourite Roosevelt biography remains The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. His boundless energy, work ethic and accomplishments remind me to keep working away at my goals.

Note: Volume 3 in the series, covering 1939-1962, is expected for release later in 2016. I may well read on my end of year vacation.

Rating: 5/5

9. The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter by Michael D. Watkins

The First 90 Days

Executives and managers starting a new job face special challenges to get up to speed. In this book, you will learn how to make the most of your early days in a new role. Watkins emphasizes the importance of listening and learning before you start to make changes. You can read this book in a weekend: short, to the point and helpful.

Rating: 5/5 (Project Managers: think about applying this book’s concepts when you start a new project especially if you are working with a new team).



10. Born for This: How to Find the Work You Were Meant to Do by Chris Guillebeau

Born For This Book Cover

I have followed Guillebeau’s work for years with great interest. In some ways, he is an inspiration for the work I do on this website (see: 279 Days to Overnight Success which inspires me to continue my work). In this book, Guillebeau explores how to find a career that suits you. To get you started, there are some helpful resources on the Born For This book website such as how to start a side hustle.

Rating: 4/5 (I think his earlier book “The $100 Startup” was stronger. If you’re looking for tips on how to make it big in the Fortune 500, this is not the book for you.)

Tip: Curious about Guillebeau’s annual conference, “The World Domination Summit”? Read my article Field Report from the World Domination Summit.

11. Becoming The Boss : New Rules for the Next Generation of Leaders by Lindsey Pollak

Becoming The Boss Book Cover

You’ve been promoted! Now what? That’s some of what you’ll learn in Pollak’s book. I like that she targeted her approach to the Millennial generation though much of the book will apply to others. Most career management books for this generation focus on the first job, so it is great to see this broader perspective.

Rating: 4/5




12. The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever by Michael Bungay Stanier

The Coaching Habit

The best leaders develop their staff. You can’t accomplish that if you never listen and treat your staff like a pair of hands. In his timely new book, you will learn the fundamental coaching skills. Want the ultra-brief version? “Listen more and ask more questions.”

Rating: 4/5

Hat Tip: Today’s post is inspired by James Clear’s book article: Book Summaries: Popular Books Summarized in 3 Sentences or Less.



Question For The Comments:

What book have you read this year to grow your leadership skills?

Escape From Shallow Work with “Deep Work” (Book Review)

Deep Work by Cal Newport Book Cover

I finished reading Cal Newport‘s new book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World a few days ago. It has adjusted my thinking on productivity. The classic productivity books like Getting Things Done by David Allen (want to know more? read this: Leading Yourself With Getting Things Done) are often interpreted as a ‘task management system.’ Newport’s book argues that raw task accomplishment is not enough. We need to focus our energy on high value activities or or what he calls “deep work.”

Two Ways To Think About Your Work

Through book, Newport regularly compares and contrasts shallow and deep work. Let’s clarify with his definitions:

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

The degree to which the work is demanding on your capabilities is a key point. Newport also makes an economic distinction. With few exceptions, deep work tends to produce greater value and rewards. Why? Deep work tends to lead to mastery, new insights and improved skills. If deep work is so great, why don’t we practice it already? It comes down to distraction.

Why You You’re So Distracted: The Impact of Habit Forming Products

What comes to mind when you read the phrase ‘habit forming products’? Tobacco? For many of us, that’s not the challenge. Instead, the challenge is how and when to use what Newport calls “network tools.” In that broad category, he includes Facebook, email, social media, smart phones and more. It’s no accident these products and services are constantly grabbing your attention. A recent book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products delves into the psychology and methods to create this distracting (addictive?) products. If you find it difficult to focus, it’s not entirely your fault. There’s an industry of designers, engineers and consultants who are working at making these services difficult to resist.

At this point, you might be thinking, “Ok, so what can I do about this?” Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. Keep reading!

Identify The High Value Activities For Your Profession

Doing the right work is underappreciated. Usually, there are a few activities truly matter. For research professors seeking tenure, publishing articles in highly respected publications is the most important activity. For sales professionals, time spent interacting with qualified prospects is the most important activity. I’m keen on this principle. Yet, I’m struggling with how to apply it to analyst roles or project management jobs. “Deliver the project” seems too broad. Perhaps the application is to aggressive manage the most important person (i.e. your boss, the client or the sponsor) because neglected clients will tend to get upset even if the project metrics look good.

Read: “The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results” by Gary W. Keller and Jay Papasan.

Use Fixed Schedule Productivity

In the productivity world, there’s an ongoing debate between focusing on your schedule versus focusing on your task list. Clearly both matter; it is a question of priority. I like to use the “3 big tasks” each day strategy where each of the tasks connects to my annual goals (i.e. write and promoting this blog post connects to my goal to grow my email list – you can sign up here: Sign Up For the ProjectManagementHacks Email Newsletter). Newport makes the case for using a schedule approach.

Read the following article for a detailed explanation of this approach: How I Accomplish a Large Amount of Work in a Small Number of Work Hours

Improve Your Email Habits

Handling email is a major source of shallow work for all professionals – especially those who work in project management. Let’s take a look at some of Newport’s suggestions to cut back on email. Remember, the point of cutting back on email is to free up time to work on deep work activity.

Tip #1: Make People Who Send You E-mail Do More Work

Newport uses his practice of discouraging email correspondents with this example:

If you want to reach me, I offer only a special-purpose e-mail address that comes with conditions and a lowered expectation that I’ll respond: If you have an offer, opportunity, or introduction that might make my life more interesting, e-mail me at interesting [at] For the reasons stated above, I’ll only respond to those proposals that are a good match for my schedule and interests.

Evaluation: I love the principle but it will likely be very difficult to adopt if you are an employee. If you have a way in mind to implement this idea, please share by writing a comment below.

Tip #2: Do More Work When You Send or Reply to E-mails

It’s easy to dash off a quick response simply to “get it off your plate.” Newport points out this frantic approach often generate even more email because others need clarification. How do you improve? Newport’s solution is to use templates and a process approach to improve email.

The process-centric approach to e-mail can significantly mitigate the impact of this technology on your time and attention. There are two reasons for this effect. First, it reduces the number of e-mails in your inbox—sometimes significantly (something as simple as scheduling a coffee meeting can easily spiral into half a dozen or more messages over a period of many days, if you’re not careful about your replies).

Example: You need to arrange a meeting time with a coworker.

Bad Approach: “Let’s meet sometime”

Better Approach: “Let’s meet at the following dates and times (3 options).”

Evaluation: Yes, this is a fantastic principle!

Tip #3: Don’t Respond

Could silence be the best solution to never ending email? Here is Newport’s explanation:

As a graduate student at MIT, I had the opportunity to interact with famous academics. In doing so, I noticed that many shared a fascinating and somewhat rare approach to e-mail: Their default behavior when receiving an e-mail message is to not respond. Over time, I learned the philosophy driving this behavior: When it comes to e-mail, they believed, it’s the sender’s responsibility to convince the receiver that a reply is worthwhile.

Evaluation: An interesting approach! It reminds me of email strategy that Tim Ferriss advocates in The 4 Hour Workweek.

Question For The Comment Section:

How do you improve your focus on high value deep work activities?

Book Review: Ego Is The Enemy by Ryan Holiday

Ego Is The Enemy

Is ego your enemy?

That’s a key question that author and strategist Ryan Holiday explores in his new book, “Ego Is The Enemy.” He shows how ego – irrational or delusional self-belief – has long been linked with success and striving for goals yet this same drive has a dark side. It’s an interesting challenge to navigate in the age of personal branding and social media. I love the expression Holiday references for managing one’s ego: it is like sweeping the floor. It’s an activity that needs to be done over and over again to maintain order.

One of the book’s chapters is “Work Work Work.” It’s a great admonishment to continue honing our craft and working even after we achieve success. The book’s style – sharing examples from history and then analyzing them – reminds me of Robert Greene’s books “48 Laws of Power” and “Mastery.” Given Holiday once worked for Greene, that makes sense. As a student of history, it is an excellent approach to counter our culture’s tendency to live in the present.

In the rest of this review, I will explore a few chapters and show they apply to career growth.

The Canvas Strategy

“The person who clears the path ultimately controls its direction, just as the canvas shapes the painting.”

Would you consider serving as an assistant, intern or aide to a successful person? Our popular culture is conflicted on this point. On the one hand, we have “The Devil Wears Prada” which suggests the opportunity aspect of working as an assistant. In contrast, we have the novel “The Assistants” by Camille Perri which emphasizes the stress and disappointment associated with this role. There is little glory in serving as an assistant. Yet, that lack of glory and attention presents an opportunity.

Drawing on Benjamin Franklin’s early career and Roman history, Holiday shows how these relationships have provided benefits for the supposed underling for many years. As an apprentice, intern or simply a new person to the organization, serving and clearing the way for those in charge yields benefits. First, this strategy encourages you to slow down and observe how the organization works and what it values (e.g. risk management may be prized over innovation). Second, there is reduced personal risk in a support role so you have the opportunity to make mistakes as you learn. Finally, the canvas strategy helps to proactively avoid charges of egotism.

Career Application: If you are new graduate or new hire, this strategy will equip you to focus on opportunity and learning rather than complaining about limitations. If you are established in your career, look for ways to serve those in higher levels.

Always Stay A Student

“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.” – Epictetus, Stoic philosopher

For years, I have pursued continuing education for professional and personal growth. Holiday shows that a student mindset goes a long way toward managing ego and avoiding disaster. Taking a page from history, he argues that the attitude to learn and adapt is a key reason for the success of the Mongol empire. Holiday’s perspective is especially important if you are thinking about career change, starting your career or simply looking to avoid the pain of ego. Continuing to focus on learning is easy when you acknowledge the world’s complexity.

Career Application: There are many ways to stay a student. Observe your reactions to performance extremes (i.e. “What did that person do to become this company’s youngest executive?” or “What led to that division bearing the brunt of layoffs last year?”). Analyze somebody who has achieved success in your field using a different approach (e.g. if you became a successful project manager by mastering the details, observe how another project manager achieved success by focusing on leadership skills). Finally, take up the challenge to read in a different field – use Alltop to explore topics quickly.

Managing Yourself Like Eisenhower, Not DeLorean

How far does genius, skill and inspiration take you? And what is the role of discipline and organization for high performance people? Holiday contrasts U.S. President Eisenhower’s focus on prioritization and delegation (see: the Eisenhower box) with the apparently unfocused approach of DeLorean. As a fan of the Back To The Future movies, I had only heard of DeLorean cars in those movies (see: DeLorean time machine) – I had no idea about the company’s troubled history and leadership.

In Holiday’s analysis, DeLorean comes up as a brilliant player in the automotive industry who is frustrated by the restrictions at General Motors He leaves to start his own company where he can pursue his own vision. So far, this story fits perfectly into our culture’s fascination with maverick entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, DeLorean’s poor management translated into major operational problems: “Cost per unit was massively over budget. They hadn’t secured enough dealers. They couldn’t deliver cars to the ones they had. The launch was a disaster. DeLorean Motor Company never recovered.” Genius alone was not enough. A genius inventor or designer needs leadership skills to lead a company.

Career Application: As you climb the ladder of success, develop new skills. As Holiday writes, “As you become more successful in your own field, your responsibilities may begin to change. Days become less and less about doing and more and more about making decisions… It requires a certain humility to put aside some of the more enjoyable or satisfying aspects parts of your previous job.” Shifting from an individual contributor (e.g. a software developer) to a management role (e.g. a project manager) is one of the most challenging shifts in our careers. That promotion is like entering high school or college – you’re starting at the bottom of a new ladder.

Maintain Your Own Scorecard

How you measure your success matters. If you exclusively use external measures (e.g. dollars earned, pageviews and awards), you are unlikely to be happy. Why? An exclusive scorecard ultimately depends on other people and factors that you cannot control. Instead, Holiday encourages readers to build our own scorecard.

Warren Buffet, the billionaire investor, is noted for his commitment to this approach: How Warren Buffett defines success. Of course, there ought to be some link between between inner measures and outer results. If your scorecard simply tracks minutes per day spent watching paint dry, boosting that score is unlikely to lead to interesting results.

Career Application: Take note of Holiday’s observation – “A person who judges himself based on his own standards doesn’t crave the spotlight the same way as someone who lets applause dictate success.” In the context of traditional employment, that means setting your own goals and standards apart from what an employer asks.

Question For The Comments

How do you manage ego? What approaches have proven most helpful?

Smarter Faster Better Book Review: 3 Lessons Learned

In March, I met Charles Duhigg at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto when he spoke about his new book, “Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business.” In this article, you will learn a few insights from the book. The book covers eight areas where we can increase performance (e.g. motivation, goals, team performance and others). In this review, I will highlight four areas. If you want to go deeper, read the book.


Overall, I found the book to be an insightful discussion of new insights and methods to boost productivity, innovation and achievement. Duhigg brings several gifts to bear on the project including the ability to select great examples, interview a variety of subjects, and summarize research papers. In some respects, this book reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s work (“Outliers” is my favorite Gladwell book). Duhigg does well to include “A Reader’s Guide to Using These Ideas” at the end of the book to help readers with next steps.

Duhigg’s approach to the book weaves together first hand interviews, academic research and other sources. I’m impressed by the sheer variety of interviews that Duhigg completed including Google’s People Analytics group, Israeli generals and airline pilots. Duhigg also does excellent work in summarizing academic research articles from various fields and pulling out the relevant insights.

Lesson 1: Improve Goal Achievement

Setting and achieving goals is an important skill and practice for everyone to develop. Previously, I wrote about two types of goals: How To Develop Goals: Habits vs Outcomes. Duhigg’s contribution to goal setting is combine the vision of stretch goals with the practical focus of SMART goals. Why is this approach important? Duhigg shares the example of General Electric where staff often set SMART goals and routinely achieved them. There was just one problem – the goals pursued did not have much impact. This is a way to ensure that your goal setting energy are focused on achieving true value.


There is an important caveat to the power of stretch goals, however. Studies show that if a stretch goal is audacious, it can spark innovation. It can also cause panic and convince people that success is impossible because the goal is too big. There is a fine line between an ambition that helps people achieve something amazing and one that crashes morale… Stretch goals, paired with SMART thinking, can help put the impossible within reach.

Application: To create BIG goals, start with Michael Hyatt’s goal setting suggestion (“What I like to do is set a goal that’s delusional and then dial it back a few clicks” ). Next, use a focused tool like the Freedom Journal. Project managers can also apply their skills of building work breakdown structures to create the details.

Lesson 2: Become An Innovation Broker – The Import-Export Creativity Solution

“This is not creativity born of genius. It is creativity as an import-export business. ” sociologist Ronald Burt

Innovation remains a mysterious and powerful process in many organizations.  Yet Duhigg shows that certain practices that tend to increase innovation. Becoming an innovation broker, a phrase coined by Ronald Burt, is a great method to use. Rather than seeking to create brand new products from scratch, innovation brokers transfer ideas between sectors and industries. As an example, Duhigg presents the creation of highly successful musical “West Side Story” which found success by combining concepts areas from several areas (e.g. 1950s gang novels, classical dance and other sources). Reading broadly across several areas and observing different areas is one way to apply this insight. This approach has also been applied in the industrial setting.


“Fostering creativity by juxtaposing old ideas in original ways isn’t new. Historians have noted that most of Thomas Edison’s inventions were the result of important ideas from one area of science into another…. A 1997 study of consumer product design firm IDEO found that most of the company’s biggest successes originated as ‘combinations of existing knowledge from disparate industries.’ IDEO’s designers created a top-selling water bottle, for example, by mixing a standard water carafe with the leak proof nozzle of a shampoo container.”

Application: If you are in a software development company, what are ideas that you could borrow from fashion, hotels or other industries? Looking for a tactical way to get started? I recall a great suggestion from one of Daniel Pink‘s books. Pick up a magazine for an industry or topic that you know nothing about and start reading it. An artist might pick up Popular Science, a non-profit leader might read FORTUNE and a project manager might find Success magazine helpful.

Lesson 3: Learn How To Overcome “Information Blindness” – How People Can Extract Insights From Overwhelming Information

Using data to make better decisions is a growing trend. Medical researchers emphasize the value of evidence based medicine. The Lean Startup concept of actionable metrics described by Eric Ries also makes the case for data that can be used. The demand to obtain data and use it has led to the rise of data science. Overall, this is an exciting trend!

Unfortunately, successful implementation is a major challenge. Duhigg reports a detailed case studies of teachers and staff in Cincinnati where they were equipped with detailed statistics and online dashboards. Despite the wealth of data and efforts to use it, little improvement occurred. Fortunately, Cincinnati turned the situation around. Learn how they changed their approach to derive greater value from data. Every organization that produces reports and databases can find inspiration in this example.


“In 2008, the Elementary Initiative was launched. As part of that reform, Johnson’s principal mandated that all teachers had to spend at least two afternoons per month in the school’s new data room. Around a conference table, teachers were forced to participate in exercises that made data collection and statistical tabulation even more time consuming. [Each teacher made an index card with handwritten data on each student]…. “It was intensely boring. And frankly, it seemed redundant because all this information was already available on the students’ online dashboards… ‘The rule was that everyone had to actually handle the cards, physically move them around.’… “Handling the cards, she found, gave her a more granular sense of each student’s strengths and weaknesses..”

The key insight is to break down the information in small and tangible components. In the above case, data about a whole class of students did not provide much insight for teachers. In contrast, going a level deeper into insight about individuals proved more helpful.

Above and beyond the specific insight, there is a more general process at play. The teachers began to experiment with the data and play with different ways to organize the data. A willingness to experiment with data produces insights in a way that highly polished dashboards cannot.

Application: Instead of accepting management reports as produced, start by asking different questions. For example, use different units of measure. If you typically receive sales volume reports at a monthly level, consider looking at a weekly or hourly level to see if there are other interesting patterns.

Resource: Want to become a data science? Read my article on InfoWorld for additional insights: “Career boost: Break into data science” on InfoWorld


Book Review: Corporate Confidential

Corporate Confidential

Building a successful career in the corporate environment requires savvy, positive attitude, and mastery of certain practices that are rarely disclosed. In her excellent 2005 book, “Corporate Confidential: 50 Secrets Your Company Doesn’t Want You to Know—and What to Do About Them, “Cynthia Shapiro shares fifty secrets for corporate career success. I found the book helpful and highly thought provoking. Some of her suggestions conflict with conventional wisdom and that makes the book all the more worth your time.

Note that the book is likely to apply to environments beyond the Fortune 500. If you happen to work in government or a medium size company, there is still much great material. The book starts by outlining typical mistakes and mistaken beliefs that cause failure. It may sound negative to start with mistakes. Yet, Shapiro makes a great case that these mistaken habits will prompt management to question your judgement and discount your positive contributions.

Start By Avoiding Career Landmines

Shapiro lays out a number of critical mistakes and problematic beliefs that hold employees back from achieving success. As a former HR executive, Shapiro reminds us that the HR unit serves the company’s interests above all. That means complaining about management to HR and other negative comments are not private and are likely to be shared with others in the organization. Other career landmines include misuse of expense accounts (Shapiro’s comment: “Every time you submit an expense report, you’re putting your true loyalties in writing for all to see. Are you thrifty or extravagant when on the company’s dime?`) and poor dress choices. These are basic concepts that matter to getting ahead.

The Four Essentials All Companies Reward: Flexibility, Sales, Public Speaking & Goal Achievement

In a few short pages, Shapiro delivered outstanding and timeless value to readers. These capabilities apply to all careers and become absolutely vital at higher levels.

  • Flexibility. In the project management world, there is a constant need for flexibility as budgets, testing and other circumstances are in constant flux. Simply coping or acknowledging change is not enough. Shapiro encourages readers to be positive about flexibility. Positive flexibility sets you apart in the eyes of managers. I understand flexibility as both an an attitude and a willingness to adapt quickly to changing circumstances. Here is Shapiro`s take on this concept:

“Flexibility means being able to go with the flow no matter what happens. It also means dealing with and being able to embrace change as well as shift quickly to deal effectively with different systems and styles. Learn as many as you can of the systems, protocols, and skills your company uses on a daily basis, even if it’s not something your department handles.“

  • Sales. Over the past few years, there has been a growing recognition of the value of sales skills (e.g. `To Sell Is Human`by Dan Pink) for the entire workforce. In IT and projects, sales skills matter because project managers need to develop and “sell” their ideas to clients and managers. In career management, professionals are obliged to sell their services in order to win job opportunities and choice assignments. Fortunately, there are many great resources available on sales.

Sales Resource: A few popular authors on sales skills include: Brian Tracy (I`ve used his material and he also comes recommended by Shapiro), Jeffrey Gitomer, and Zig Ziglar.

  • Public Speaking. At first glance, public speaking skills may not seem relevant to many readers. After all, they do not plan to campaign for votes, address a public meeting or present to an executive. In fact, public speaking skills improve your effectiveness in many different scenarios. Advocating for increased budget, presenting yourself in a job interview and inspiring a new project team during a kickoff meeting are all circumstances where public speaking skills come to play. Of course, professionals seeking a promotion to management are called on to present and speak with regularity. If that is your goal, then it makes sense to get started developing this skill early.

Public Speaking Resource: Toastmasters remains an affordable and friendly way to develop your public speaking skills (see the article I wrote last year: How To Become Successful With Toastmasters). In fact, the organization also provides optional programs on sales presentations and interactions so you can develop both speaking and sales skills.

  • High-level goal achievement. Over the past few years, I have been focused on learning the art of goal setting and achievement. There are several aspects to the skill including designing goals with the right level of challenge and using tracking systems. The step by step process Shapiro presents, adapted from Brian Tracy, is great because it emphasizes developing additional options and solutions – there are often multiple ways to achieve a goal. The ability to develop goals and then devise multiple ways to achieve success is important in a corporate environment where new challenges often emerge to block your success.

1. Write down your five biggest goals for the year.

2. Pick the one that will make the biggest difference in your life. Tackle that one first.

3. Write your chosen goal in the past tense as though it’s already happened. This will not only tell you whether you truly want it by how you feel as you look back at it from the future, it will also help you identify (in imagined hindsight) all the critical steps it will take to get there. Outline as many critical steps as come to mind.

4. Write out twenty different things you could do right now to make it happen. Really stretch your thinking in new directions to get all twenty. Now pick the one that will have the greatest impact on the achievement of that goal.

The Gatekeeper To Your Career: Your Manager

Your attitude and actions toward your manager make a tremendous impact to your career success. In the best case scenario, a manager`s recommendation opens doors, provides resources and advice to help you grow further. In the worst case scenario, a lack of manager support weakens an individual’s promotion prospects. Building an effective relationship with your manager requires both a positive attitude and several actions. Shapiro`s recommendations include volunteering to grow yourself (though not at the expense of your current tasks) and seeking to understand the manager`s preferences. Learning preferences can take a while, so start with the basics: do they prefer to read or listen? This important communication style topic is covered in greater detail in a Manager Tools podcast: Is Your Boss a Reader or a Listener?.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I found this book excellent and well worth reading. Even better, the book reads easily. The “secrets” structure of the book makes it easy to pick up and put down as your schedule requires. However, if you are frustrated with the system or keen to get ahead, you will probably read it quickly like I did.

How To Use The Coaching Habit

Coaching Habit

Coaching is a great way to help people improve at work. Yet, many managers and project managers decline to use this approach. Why? It is widely assumed that coaching involves a major time commitment and extensive training. Further, many professionals are unsure how to use the approach.

Fortunately, there is a solution to help you get better at coaching. Michael Bungay Stanier has a new book, “The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way Your Lead Forever,” that provides an easy to read and practical guide to getting started with coaching. Today’s discussion of the book is based on my reading and a discussion with the author. It was a treat to meet Bungay Stanier here in Toronto earlier this month.

Defining Coaching

There is a growing profession dedicating to the art and science of coaching. In fact, it is a field that I have been studying myself. However, this is not an all or nothing approach. In a way, I think about “The Coaching Habit” like First Aid. You can deliver great benefits to someone in distress with First Aid training, no medical degree required. Of course, you need to know your limits and when to call in professional support.

Bungay Stanier’s definition of coaching is simple and may be summarized as follows: “Ask more questions and give less advice.” The book lays out seven powerful questions that one can use to get started in coaching. While the book is aimed at managers with direct reports, one can apply the principles to other circumstances. Like any new skill or approach, be prepared for some discomfort as you learn the skills.

Getting Started With Coaching Questions

There is a time and place for issuing orders and providing direct advice. Bungay Stanier makes the case to curtail that practice and give more time to engaging staff through questions. He proposes using a series of questions designed to foster creativity and better understand problems.  Let’s consider a few ways that using questions helps managers understand their teams and business better.

  • Question Assumptions. Previously, I’ve explained the value of standard operating procedures. Those are a key way to operate a business. Using coaching-style questions from time to time reminds us to question our perspective on how we operate.
  • Understand Others Better. Using simple questions such as “what do you want?” – asked in the right way – make a difference. Bungay Stanier notes that asking the question several times is sometimes required to obtain a true understanding.
  • Use Appreciative Inquiry As A Framework. The “AI” approach is a method to engage people in problem solving. Fortunately, there is no need to complete a full degree to use this tool. When managers encourage their staff to solve problems rather than simply providing a solution, you receive two benefits. First, you receive a solution to the problem. Second, the other person develops problem solving skill.
  • Find And Leverage Positive Deviance. This concept is a novel and inspiring way to think about exceptional people and organizations. Bungay Stanier points out that there are pockets of innovation, top quality managers and other exceptional qualities in every organization. Once you find those units, studying their approach through questioning and other methods is often a great approach. Leveraging positive deviance also solves the “not invented here” problem.
  • Adopt The Consultant’s Viewpoint. Management consultants contribute value through their methods, knowledge, fresh perspective and other means. In the recommended reading section of the book, Bungay Stanier recommends Peter Block’s modern business classic, Flawless Consulting. Typically, such books are read by current or aspiring consultants. Bungay Stanier’s recommendation points out that we can improve performance by adopting the consultant’s “outsider” perspective.

Coaching Application Suggestions

Use the following scenarios to put the book’s coaching questions and practices into practice. I have experimented with some of the questions and have had good results so far.

1. Use during 1-on-1 meetings

Whether you are the manager or the direct report, coaching questions are useful in this context. Sometimes, people simply need to be a bit of encouragement to share their views. It is easy to stay focused on “business as usual” habits and processes. Asking questions such as “what’s the challenge for you in this situation?” help us to move forward.

2. Become a better facilitator 

The article I wrote on meetings – 7 Habits of Highly Effective Meetings – has become one of the most popular articles on this website. Developing skill at running business meetings (e.g. strategy meetings, problem solving meetings, risk workshops and so forth) becomes easier when you use coaching questions.

3. Use for fact finding

Properly understanding a problem is important to developing a solution. The Coaching Habit questions encourage us to think more deeply. That means going beyond the first comment or problem to solve the underlying problem. For instance: an IT manager might use coaching habit questions to evaluate a security breach more deeply rather than taking a report at face value.

4. Building a new professional relationship

Establishing new relationships is important whether you are in sales or work in an internal function. Bungay Stanier’s coaching questions are useful in getting to know what the other person needs. In the project management context, the coaching approach can be used to engage stakeholders and define requirements.

Links & Resources

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of “The Coaching Habit” for review. If you would like to read the book and receive special bonus materials, order the book on Feb 29th. The book has already gathered up great endorsements from David Allen, Daniel Pink and Brené Brown.

  • The Four Hardest Questions to Answer at the End of the Year. In this article, Michael Bungay Stanier shares reflection questions to make sense of your year. Of course, you can use these questions at any time of the year. I think the “What do I need to kill off?” question is a powerful way to increase productivity.