Friday Five: 5 things I learned from books I read in 2014

pile-o-books2014 was not a banner book year for me. I read, or partially read, no more than a dozen books all year. All but one of them were non-fiction.

That averages out to a book a month, which is nothing to brag about. Still, some reading is better than no reading at all, right? And from those books I absorbed a few ideas that I hope will help me approach 2015 with a perspective that is healthier, more informed and more understanding of human dynamics than the perspective I brought with me into 2014.

Here are five lessons from five of the books that I read in 2014.

1. Sometimes, less is better

In Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less, Stanford B-school professors Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao touched briefly on the dangers of “cognitive load.” Cognitive overload would be a more apt description of the problem.

Cognitive overload happens when our brains reach capacity. It refers to our inability as humans to hold more than a certain number of ideas, names, phone numbers, etc., in our minds at one time, or to manage more than a certain number of projects.

But cognitive overload doesn’t just affect people. As Sutton and Rao point out, it also affects organizations.

As organizations grow, they tend to become less efficient, as well as more complex and more bureaucratic. When that happens, a disconnect occurs between leaders and their teams. In describing cognitive load, Sutton and Rao introduce readers to psychologist George Miller’s Magical Number of seven (plus or minus two), which refers to the capacity of human’s to effectively process information. But Miller’s magic number applies to other aspects of life, such as span of control (managers with more than seven or so direct reports may find it challenging to effectively lead, communicate and delegate), project management and layers of sign-off for projects.

So, instead of always thinking about how we need to scale up to accomplish projects or take on new initiatives, sometimes we should consider the benefits of scaling down.

Making “subtraction” a way of doing business will help ideas and projects scale. Breaking projects and teams into smaller chunks, and giving people the opportunity to focus on fewer tasks, could yield greater results. (The idea of “subtraction” is also brought up in another book I started, but didn’t finish, in 2014: Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. I plan to wrap up that book in 2015. Stay tuned.)

(Here’s my February 2014 review of Scaling Up Excellence.)

2. Sometimes, the medium is the environment

By now, all of us in the communications business are familiar with Marshall McLuhan’s famous statement that the medium is the message. But thanks to John Naughton’s book From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: Disruptive Innovation in the Age of the Internet, I now think much differently about the medium — especially the medium of social media.

“The conventional — journalistic — interpretation holds that a medium is a carrier of something,” writes Naughton. And that’s how I typically think of social media: as a carrier of information.

But Naughton reminds readers that the world of biology has a different way of thinking about a medium. “In biology,” he writes, “media are used to grow tissue cultures — living organisms. … It seems to me that this is a useful metaphor for thinking about human society; it portrays our social system as a living organism that depends on a media environment for the nutrients it needs to survive and develop.”

So now I no longer think of social media as simply a conduit of information. I think of it as the environment that sustains our vital human need to commune with other humans. In this sense, social media is also not isolated from other media. They interconnect and interplay, weaving a mediasphere.

I dug a bit more deeply into this concept last March.

3. Sometimes, no is better than yes

The book that caused the most cognitive dissonance in my life in 2014 was Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown. Essentialism examines our culture of over-complexity and glut — and of feeling obligated to say “yes” to too much, too often — and implores readers to examine the things we say yes to and consider culling those back to a manageable, spare number. Intellectually, I have no qualms at all with McKeown’s assertion, and I a big fan of his “90 percent rule” of judging priorities. (I wrote more about this in yet another blog post. I may not have read many books, but I wrote about much of what I read.) But in practice, it’s very difficult to implement in the work place. Hence the cognitive dissonance. Still, Essentialism was a worthwhile — nay, essential — read for me in 2014. I would put it at the top of my “best-of” list for the year.

4. To be more influential, be more likable

This should be a no-brainer, right? If you’re likable, you should have more influence over others. But I need a reminder from time to time. In 2014, I finally got around to reading Bob Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. The book has been around for a few years, and has been referenced in a number of more recent business and marketing books, so I have no excuse, other than procrastination, for waiting so long to read it. I would put this on my must-read list for anyone in the marketing, branding or public relations business.

In Influence, Cialdini discusses the six principles of influence. Each of which have great merit and can be used (like jujitsu, as Cialdini describes it) to get others to say yes. (Note to readers of Essentialism: You may want to be aware of these tricks, too.) But of the six principles, I like the fourth one — the principle of “liking” — best.

The principle of liking boils down to this: We are more likely to be influenced by people we like, know and respect. Pretty simple, right?

(Guess what? I actually have not written a blog post about Cialdini’s book. But back in June 2012 I wrote a review about a book called Likeonomics, which got into much more depth about liking and likability.)

If you don’t have time to read Cialdini’s book but have 12 minutes, this video (also embedded below) will give you a good overview of the six principles.

Bob Cialdini’s science of persuasion

5. Ken Follett’s novels are long and predictable, but I still enjoy reading them

I’m not quite finished with Edge of Eternity, the third and final tome in Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy. So, technically, I didn’t finish this book in 2014. (Judge me if you must, either for slipping this one into a list of “finished” books or for my taste in fiction.) But I include it here for two reasons: 1.) I needed a fifth “takeaway” to round out my first Friday Five of the new year, and 2.) sometimes it’s OK to read for fun rather than to learn something. You just might learn something anyway.

Photo: Pile of Books in Prague Library, by Callum Scott on Flickr. 

Friday Five: Q&A with Liz Gross, author of ‘How to Manage Social Media in Higher Education’

ManageSocialMedia_PromoImg_1200x1200Fellow higher ed marketer Liz Gross (@lizgross144 on Twitter and blogger at Gross, Point-Blank) has put together a nifty ebook — her first ever — about managing social media. It’s called How to Manage Social Media in Higher Education: A Guide for Campus Administrators.

I downloaded it earlier this week and have managed to only skim the contents to this date. But I like what I see. Right off the bat, Liz emphasizes the need to connect your social media work with your institution’s brand identity. She’s singing my song right there. The book is well-organized and easily readable — one you can peruse and reuse as a manual. I would recommend this ebook for anyone involved in higher ed social media — whether you’re involved in the day-to-day management of university social accounts or managing those who are.

For today’s Friday Five feature, I’ve asked Liz to talk about the book and why she decided to write it.

1. Why did you decide to write this book?

Liz Gross

Liz Gross

I was actually asked to write about this topic as part of a chapter in a book about social media and higher education. The author and editor of the book decided, after a draft had been completed, that it was no longer a fit for the theme of the book, which focused more on student development and social media. I had put a lot of time and effort into the research and writing, so I modified the chapter to appeal to the audience I identified with most: higher education professionals that want to use social media as part of their communication strategy. With this sort of laser-focus, it seemed appropriate to offer it as a short eBook.

2. What is the main thing you would like readers to take away from this book?

Creating and executing a successful social media program in higher education isn’t rocket science. As long as you know where to start (and I think this book provides that foundation), social media can be integrated into an existing marketing and communication strategy without an enormous investment of money or resources. While it’s not free, it’s also not something that can’t be learned by almost any motivated individual.

3. What have you learned about social media as a result of writing this book?

Although the tools of the trade change all the time, the theoretical underpinnings of social media as part of an integrated marketing and communications strategy have not changed that much over the last few years. The majority of the text in this book was written in Fall 2013, and after reviewing it a year later not much had to be changed.

4. What would you like to see higher education do differently in the way we approach social media?

I allude to this towards the end of the book when I talk about ROI (return on investment). I’d love to see more higher education social media programs with clearly articulated goals that align with institutional/department objectives, and a defined measurement plan that allows manager to clearly report on the performance of the program. I believe this is possible for most any institution if they frame the purpose of their social media program correctly.

I hope to have a part in shaping this future by teaching practitioners in a newly-launched class I’m teaching through Higher Ed Experts – Social Media Measurement in Higher Ed.

5. How do you see the role of social media manager changing in the next few years?

With the exception of schools that have extremely large, engaged communities (hundreds of individual conversations per day), I believe that a staff member specializing in social media will cease to exist. And, I say this as someone who was most recently hired as a social media specialist. It will take a few years, but much like email, display advertising, and other electronic communication, social media will be integrated into a multi-channel marketing strategy. Smart marketers will have a baseline understanding of the medium and its associated tools, and that understanding will allow them to execute their communication strategy in social media and many other online (and offline) venues.

What I’ve written about in this book will still be important, but I hope that every department that communicates with students and other stakeholders on a regular basis will understand its importance, not just the “social media person.”

That being said, I think the social media manager that understands how his/her work fits into the bigger picture — through aligned goals, strategy, measurement, and multi-channel marketing — will prove his/her value to an organization for years to come.

Friday Five: Review: The Innovation Book

Innovation_bookThere’s no shortage of books and articles and blogs about innovation. In fact, the term itself has become such a junk word that I hesitate to bring it up.

But I asked Max McKeown for a copy of his latest book, The Innovation Book, which was released earlier this year, and he was kind enough to send me one to review. So I knew I couldn’t get away with not using the i-word in this post.

Given the volume of writing on this topic, McKeown isn’t exactly plowing new ground with this book. But if you’re interested in the subject, as I am (especially as it pertains to higher education and marketing), you might find this book valuable as a resource and reference.

Here are five key takeaways I got from reading The Innovation Book. (Disclaimer: Since I’ve read very little on this topic, my take on the contents of McKeown’s book may be considered naive by innovation fanatics.)

  • A practical handbook for would-be innovators. This book is organized in a way that serves as a handbook or manual for would-be innovators. It’s broken into six sections, each with “action topics” related to its section. McKeown encourages readers to “dip in and out of each topic as you choose.” The final section — “the innovator’s toolkit” — is filled with approaches to problem-solving and creative thinking designed to help the reader think differently about a problem. There, and throughout the book, McKeown emphasizes the point that innovation is about “practical creativity.”
  • Written for organizations. McKeown emphasizes that innovation is a team sport. No matter what business you’re in, innovation seldom occurs in a vacuum, or by the hand of a lone tinkerer. It is a collaborative endeavor. The Innovation Book is written with that in mind. It addresses innovation from an organizational standpoint. He discusses the benefits and drawbacks of different organizational approaches (open versus closed systems, for example) or team composition (functional, lightweight, heavyweight or autonomous) and notes that different types of work environments tend to encourage different types of innovation. He also points out that organizational culture can be a significant factor as to whether innovation thrives.
  • Challenging to-dos. Each subsection, or action topic, of McKeown’s book ends with a challenging assignment for the reader under the header “Do this now!” At the end of Part 1’s first action topic (“Nurturing your creative genius”), he urges readers to “Spend 10 minutes finding out why other people love a new idea that you hate.” The point of each exercise is to apply the lessons of that section to our everyday lives. And it’s a good practice (in theory, anyway; I’ve yet to implement any of the to-dos).
  • Off-the-beaten-path examples. As I said, I haven’t read a lot about innovation, but much of what I’ve read tends to focus on case studies or anecdotes from well-known companies — such as Apple or Google — or in higher education, from a handful of institutions (MIT, Stanford, Arizona State). And much of my reading has been USA-centric. So it was refreshing to read about many examples of innovation from around the world. These include Dassault Systemes, a French company that is merging virtual reality and 3-D printing, and Kweichow Moutai, a producer of Chinese liquor that brought innovation into a 2,000-year brewing tradition.
  • Not a recipe for innovation. The one thing I liked most about McKeown’s approach to this topic is his objectivity. He does not approach innovation with a pre-conceived idea that Idea X will work for Situation Y all of the time. Based on his research, he shares the pros and cons of various approaches and lets the reader decide which ideas might work best for a particular situation. More than anything, he acknowledges the innovation can be a messy business.

While The Innovation Book is not written specifically for those of us in higher education, or even in marketing, the principles it outlines can serve us well as we think about ways to do things not just differently, but also better. As McKeown, ever the pragmatist, cautions: “Some people are so new-idea hungry they have a kind of novelty fetish. These change addicts are not as interested in whether the new idea makes anything better as they are in the newness itself. … You want to make room for new ideas without gutting systems that already work.”

Follow Max McKeown on Twitter: @MaxMcKeown.

The enchanting yes; the essential no

yes_manJust over a year ago, I was riding a conference high. You know the kind; that afterglow that comes following a terrific professional development opportunity. In this instance, I had just returned from the 2013 CASE Summit with a head full of ideas and a spirit lifted by thought-provoking sessions and inspiring keynote speeches.

One particularly inspiring keynote was Guy Kawasaki‘s talk on the topic of “enchantment.”

Enchantment is also the title of one of Guy’s recent books, which I purchased to read on the flight home. It’s a great little book. It’s a quick read and one that I ought to re-read on occasion.

But there’s one part of Enchantment, and Guy’s talk, the left me disenchanted — and that is the idea he espouses about making “yes” the default response to requests. “Defaulting to yes” is one of the keys to becoming more likable — and that, according to Kawasaki, opens the door to greater success.

“A yes buys time, enables you to see more options, and builds rapport,” Kawasaki writes in Enchantment. “By contrast, a no response stops everything. There’s no place to go, nothing to build on, and no further options are available.”

There’s some truth to this. And being on that conference high, I decided to default to yes more often in my work and life affairs. I didn’t go so far as Jim Carrey’s character in Yes Man. But I went far enough to cause myself a great degree of discomfort.

Just say ‘no’?

Still, I think there’s something to be said for “no.”

Here’s the thing: I’ve never been much of a “yes” person. And that’s gotten me into trouble more than a few times with internal clients, bosses, my family, my wife (God bless her), what few friends I have and the general public.

But I don’t think it’s necessarily a good idea to uncritically say “yes” to every request that comes down the pike. (To his credit, Kawasaki suggests that people like me could default to “not yet” instead of “yes.” So there might be some middle ground.) Saying yes too often will lead to dilution, lack of focus and exhaustion.

In my opinion, it’s important for people in our business to take a critical view when it comes to certain requests for assistance from internal clients.

Our job as marketers within higher ed organizations is twofold: We provide expertise in the areas of branding, marketing, public relations, graphic design, online communication and so forth. But we also serve as internal marketing and communications consultants.

We provide the most value to our organizations when we apply our expertise to a situation — that is, our understanding of the principles of good communication, branding, PR and marketing — and help our clients find the right solutions to their marketing and communications challenges.

Too often, however, clients come to us with their idea of a solution already developed. They want us to execute their ill-formed visions — produce a brochure, write a press release or speech, slap up a website — no questions asked. They prefer we not serve them and the institution by consulting — by helping them bring more clarity to their thoughts about whatever problem they think they need to solve.

After all, our clients aren’t marketing experts. We are. And we owe it to them to offer that expertise — even if they aren’t coming to us for our expertise, but to merely fulfill a request. (For more on this philosophy, see this post from way back in 2009: 3 simple questions for communicators.)

There’s another problem with saying yes too often if you’re a manager. When you commit yourself to “yes,” you’re really committing your team. That’s unfair and forces further trade-offs down the line where the really brilliant, creative work happens — or could happen, if managers would say “yes” to non-essential projects more often.

Essentialist angst

Anyway, I have tried to follow, more or less, Kawasaki’s advice and default to yes during the past year. I’m not sure I’ve been as successful as others who might have more of an inclination toward people-pleasing. But I’ve tried. Really, I have.

And then I started reading this other book: Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown.

McKeown is a big fan of the “no.” Not “no for no’s sake,” though. He’s really more of a fan about deciding what is absolutely essential for us to say “yes” to. McKeown believes that saying yes to less is the key to success.

(For more about McKeown’s book, I recommend you read these reviews by Karine Joly — who recommended I read Essentialism — and Donna Talarico, who has also chronicled her struggles with a default-to-yes approach.)

In many ways, McKeown’s approach is a 180 to Kawasaki’s. And for me, it’s more attractive.

Because the business we are in — branding and marketing — should be about saying no more.

We live in a world of clutter and over-communication. Higher ed brands are especially guilty of wanting to communicate every little feature of every degree program. Have you sat in on a university administrator’s PowerPoint presentation lately? Slides are jam-packed with cluttered, disorganized, unfocused information. Presenters and their presentations meander. Brochures runneth over with fatuous verbiage. A good 90 percent of that shit needs to go. (McKeown has a 90 percent rule that is worth thinking about.)

And yet, the world pulls us toward “yes.” Yes to more. Yes to dilution and bloat. Away from clarity and specificity and the essential.

When you say “no” to requests — or ways to do things that are unessential, that don’t add value — you can be seen as uncooperative and disagreeable. You’re not a team player. In fact, you’re more of a team player than those who want to pile on unnecessary, non-essential stuff.

A middle way?

So here’s the conundrum: The enchanting yes vs. the essential no.

It seems to me that the right path is a combination of the two approaches.

First, follow McKeown’s advice and winnow our choices down to only the best options for us. This is where McKeown’s 90 percent rule kicks in. It works something like this:

  • List all of the opportunities for you to say “yes” to something — a project, an event, a purchase, a speaking opportunity, a new social media channel, a short term commitment, long term commitment, whatever. List it all.
  • Score the value of each opportunity to you and your mission on a scale of 0 to 10.
  • Eliminate everything that doesn’t score a 9 or 10.

Then and only then should we apply Kawasaki’s advice to say yes.

This follows a path Michael Fienen discusses in a 2012 .eduGuru post about Pinterest. That post is not really about Pinterest. It’s really a platform for Fienen to preach his mantra to “do less better.” That sums up the point of Essentialism quite well, I think.

It’s my tendency to default to McKeown’s approach. But in a world that continuously demands us to say “yes,” it’s tough to be a no man.

What is the ‘media’ of social media?

Is this what social media looks like?

Is this what social media looks like?

Sometimes we become so immersed in a thing that we can’t distance ourselves from it enough to think critically about it. Like air. It’s all around us, and unless something happens to disrupt its usual quality, we rarely give it much thought.

And then sometimes we can’t think critically about a thing because we bring our own biases and pre-conceived ways of thinking about the thing that we can’t fathom any other perspective.

For those of us who work in social media, we probably don’t understand this thing as well as we could, and for a combination of the two reasons I mention above. First, we’re too immersed in our social media work to view it with much detachment. Second, and we filter our understanding of it through our own biases or the requirements of our job on how we use it. If I’m a marketer, for example, then my marketing background is going to affect how I view social media.

Viewing through a different lens

Lately I’ve been thinking more about our understanding of social media — or our lack of understanding — because of something I read in the early pages of John Naughton’s book From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: Disruptive Innovation in the Age of the Internet.

By comparing the communications revolution spawned by the Internet to that which arose from Gutenberg’s printing press some 550-plus years ago, Naughton — a British academic,  blogger and tech columnist — draws some interesting parallels. But first, he provides some context about how to think about the Internet and all its trappings. At one point, he suggests that some of us may be viewing this thing called social media through the wrong lens.

Like many of you, I have a background in communications — in my case, journalism. Whenever journalists, marketers, strategic communicators and others with similar academic and vocational backgrounds think about a “medium,” the singular of media, we tend to think about a conduit of information. Television is one medium of communication. A newspaper is another.

“The conventional — journalistic — interpretation holds that a medium is a carrier of something,” writes Naughton.

That’s how I typically think of social media: as a carrier of information. That’s how I was trained to think of any sort of media, social or otherwise.

A global Petri dish?

But as Naughton points out, a biologist may offer a different perspective on the word.

In biology, media are used to grow tissue cultures — living organisms. … It seems to me that this is a useful metaphor for thinking about human society; it portrays our social system as a living organism that depends on a media environment for the nutrients it needs to survive and develop.

Perhaps that’s what this thing we call social media is. Maybe it’s more than just a communications conduit — more than a “series of tubes,” as one out-of-touch politician put it many years ago.

Maybe it’s a type of global, interconnected Petri dish that provides the digital nutrients our interconnected world needs to sustain the increasingly complex, interdependent and internetworked social systems.

And because we’re all immersed in this giant Petri dish, we can’t fully understand its impact — no more than a jellyfish could comprehend how it and seaweed both thrive in the waters of the sea.

This brings me to the question I’m grappling with: If we were to start thinking of social media more as an ecosystem and less as a carrier of information, how would that change our approaches — vocational and personal — to social media?

Book review: ‘Scaling Up Excellence’ (plus #highered takeaways)

ScalingUpExcellenceFull disclosure: I am a huge Bob Sutton fan.

I’ve been a fan since I was first introduced to his work by way of his book The No Asshole Rule, which was recommended by a speaker at some long-ago conference. In that book, Sutton pointed out some of the jerk-like tendencies I’d noticed in others (and, unfortunately, myself) and revealed to me a lot of things I needed to stop doing at work and in life.

Then I discovered his blog, which is a great resource for anyone who works in organizations.

And then Good Boss, Bad Boss came out, and I bought a copy as soon as I could. Once again, a Sutton book showed me more ways I could improve — both as a boss and as someone who works for a boss.

So, when I won a review copy of Sutton’s newest book, Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less, through a Twitter contest sponsored by @goodreads, I was pretty stoked. (I was also happy that Sutton’s co-author for the book is Huggy Rao, who spoke last summer at the CASE Summit, and who has one of the best names of any business or leadership author around.)

In Scaling Up Excellence (official release date Feb. 4), Sutton and Rao switch gears a bit. The emphasis is not so much on the individual (the a**hole or boss). This time, the focus is on leading organizations to take what they do well and scale them. It’s a concept that most of us in the higher ed marketing, branding or public relations field can appreciate.

Scaling Up Excellence is the result of a seven-year quest by Sutton and Rao to discover the keys of scalability for organizations. The interviewed, met with and observed dozens of leaders and teams who were working on ways to scale up projects. They also consulted the literature. (Plenty of books and studies on organizational change, leadership, etc., exist, and they cite many good ones, familiar and foreign to me, to bolster their case.) Most of the examples and case studies in the book pertain to companies, but the principles apply to other organizations. Several takeaways pertain to higher education.

Scaling up branding and marketing

All of us who do PR, marketing or branding work want our efforts to be scalable. We want our marketing campaigns to have as much meaning and impact to a large audience as they do to a small, well-informed core. Although Sutton and Rao don’t offer easy “how-to” templates for us, they do offer some valuable guidelines to help us along the way to scaling up excellence in our own sector. Here are a few of them:

A Catholic and a Buddhist walk onto the quad… Organizations tend to operate on a continuum from the highly structured (Catholicism) to the more free-format (Buddhism). When the time comes to scale, an organization with a more Catholic culture may desire to continue a practice of “replicat[ing] preordained design beliefs and practices,” while the Buddhist organization may rely on “an underlying mindset [that] guides why people do certain things — but the specifics of what they do can vary widely from person to person and place to place.” The trick, when scaling up, is to allow flexibility to move more toward one end of the continuum when necessary. (Among the examples cited in the book is Home Depot’s difficulty translating its DIY brand and philosophy — as captured by its “You can do it, we can help” slogan — in China, where it clashed with a “do it for me” mindset. Home Depot had to learn to be less Catholic, and more Buddhist, in their approach to business.

The takeaway: Most higher ed institutions tend to fall on the Catholic side of the continuum. But as we scale our branding efforts — whether across cultures with international programs or across campus with brand identity standards — we must learn to be more flexible, more Buddhist, in our approaches. But as brand managers, we also have an obligation to ensure brand identity standards, from messaging to visuals and everything in between, are not diluted. We need to “strike the right balance between replication and customization.”

Hot causes, cool solutions. This is the first of Sutton and Rao’s “scaling principles.” And it presents a chicken-and-egg type of conundrum for marketers: Which comes first, the “hot cause” that evokes passion and inspires people to get on board, or the “cool solution” by creating behaviors or actions for others to mimic. To rally people around a cause, “you can stoke the scaling engine by targeting beliefs, behavior, or both at once. The key is creating and fueling a virtuous circle.”

The takeaway: In higher education, certain causes may arouse passion and lead to a “hot cause” that could inspire support. Other important issues require a different approach. That’s where the “cool solution” comes in to play. (When the university where I worked went through a name change and rebranding, we took the cool solution approach, laying out the logic of the name change, rather than trying to build on strong beliefs, since many alumni were not initially supportive of the change.) In scaling up your marketing efforts, consider carefully which approach to take.

Small teams, big results. We sometimes complain about our lack of staffing to accomplish our grand marketing visions. But in Chapter 4 (“Cut Cognitive Load”), the authors make an important point about the challenges of growth in organizational culture. This relates to growth in complexity, in bureaucracy, in staffing — all elements of a typical scale-up effort. Growth can be a good thing under the right circumstances. But it can also lead to performance issues and a disconnect between leadership and the worker bees. Making “subtraction” a way of life — or at least of doing business — will help ideas and projects scale. Breaking projects and teams into smaller chunks, and giving people the opportunity to focus on fewer tasks — Sutton and Rao discuss psychologist George Miller’s magical number (a concept work exploring in more depth at a later time) — could yield big results.

The takeaway: When looking at ways to scale up projects, look also at ways to keep teams as small as possible. (This is tough to do in the higher ed environment, where many must be consulted on even the most mundane of projects or steps along the way. But try to limit team membership for maximum results.) 

You can get there from here. Scaling Up Excellence begins with seven scaling mantras that are woven throughout the book. These mantras are worth exploring, but I won’t get into them here. I would add an eighth mantra to the list, however, and it is another saying that finds it way several times within the pages of this book. In fact it is the essence of scalability:

What got us here won’t get us there.

That’s a paraphrase of author Marshall Goldsmith, who is cited in the very first chapter. There are “beliefs, behaviors, and rituals that once bolstered excellence but now undermine it,” write Sutton and Rao. Successful scaling requires that leaders remain vigilant about reviewing processes that helped to get the organization to where it is today, but won’t necessarily help move it along the next steps of the journey.

* * * * *

Follow Bob Sutton on Twitter at @work_matters. Follow Huggy Rao on Twitter at @huggyrao. Join the conversation about this book at #scalingup.

Friday Five: Best posts of 2013

calendar8It’s the final Friday of 2013, which means it’s time to do a backwards glance at the contents of this blog over the past 12 months. And time for a bit of introspection.

At a time when the experts are saying (again) that blogging is dead (again) — or at least dead for anyone except “40-somethings with kids” (I’m 50-something and have no kids) — I do have to stop and wonder whether there’s any value in a traditional blog like this versus, say, a tumblr. (Except, as I reported earlier this year, I haven’t exactly gotten the hang of the whole tumblr thing.) But then I look at the handful of fine higher ed-focused blogs that are out there, and the value they bring to their target audiences, I have to think that blogging still has a purpose.

And therefore, I plan to continue to publish this blog in 2014. And just as it was in 2013, the frequency of posts will likely be sporadic and sometimes off-topic, but I hope that some of you find some value in the topics I write about, just as you did this past year.

Here are the five (or so) blog posts that I thought brought some value, if not a little bit of insight, to the higher ed community in 2013:

  1. The elements of a great #highered Twitter account. First on the list is a two-part post, and its success belongs to all of you much more than it does to me. For this reason, the topic is probably the best example of how these old-fashioned blogs can still foster conversation among members of a community of practice, and tap into the hive mind to generate great ideas. The discussion began with a post last April in which I took Education Dive to task for their approach to ranking the top Twitter accounts in higher ed. (Education Dive relied on two criteria — number of followers and Klout score — plus an undefined “subjective appraisal” to determine the best of the best.) In that April post, I called on the higher ed community to share their thoughts on what makes a great Twitter account, and you responded in droves. I sifted through those comments to create the second part of this discussion in May: The elements of a great #highered Twitter account.
  2. ‘College (Un)bound’ and the frog in the kettleMy thoughts on Jeff Selingo’s 2013 book College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for StudentsOne of my highlights in 2013 was getting to meet Jeff Selingo at the CASE Annual Assembly last July in San Francisco.
  3. Content strategy is fine, but… A suggestion that, instead of focusing so heavily on content strategy, we take a look at the needs and wants of our customers and come up with an audience strategy.
  4. Media relations in a disintermediated world. As a former journalist turned PR/media relations practitioner turned brand manager, the role of media relations and the news media is a recurring topic for me. I wrote this back in October, and will also be presenting on this subject in June 2014 at a regional PRSA conference in Springfield, Mo.
  5. Boring old brand-building. A post that builds off of a quote from the greatest branding book ever written, Al and Laura Ries’s The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding.

Thanks so much for reading in 2013, and for sharing your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, and elsewhere. I wish you all a successful 2014 in all measures.