One of the most helpful business books I’ve ever read (Throwing the Elephant: Zen and the Art of Managing Up) was written by a columnist for Esquire (Stanley Bing, who has since left that magazine to write for Fortune). So when I heard that another Esquire columnist (Ross McCammon) had written a business book, I was eager to give it a read. Continue reading
2015 wasn’t a great reading year for me. I may have started a dozen books, and finished perhaps eight or nine of them. Not much to brag about there.
When you consider books relevant to this blog, the pickings for 2015 were pretty slim. That made it easy to narrow down to my top three books relevant to higher ed and/or marketing that were published in 2015. If you didn’t read them this year, you might want to consider reading them in 2016. Here they are: Continue reading
You might pick up Fareed Zakaria’s latest book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, expecting a jeremiad against STEM education.
I certainly did. After all, my first exposure to the book was in the form of excerpts repackaged as op-eds accompanied by frightening headlines. (From the Washington Post: Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous. Step aside, heroin. This STEM education business is scary.) Continue reading
2014 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.
Fellow 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?
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.
There’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.
Just 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.
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.