4 books I (actually) read this summer.

I skim a lot of books. That’s one of the benefits of having an excellent public library. The San Francisco Public Library is excellent in 2 ways:

1) Breadth and depth of collection

2) Netflix-like system for reserving books

I drop interesting books in my request queue on sfpl.org as I come across them.  The library has the book I’m looking for over 90% of the time.  Then three days, three weeks, or three months later I receive an automated e-mail telling me my book is ready.


I’d guess that I only actually read one book for every three or four books that that I skim.

So here are four books that I actually read this summer. All four have spoken to me on a business and personal level. In fact, I’ve found that the less that a book has to do with work, the more impact it ends up having on the way I think about our company and our customers.



David Chang and Peter Meehan

My wife Denise found this cookbook / autobiography and thought that I would enjoy it. She was right. 

The food looks amazing and we’re going to hit up at least one of their restaurants when we’re in New York in October.

Yet it is the story of the restaurant that stayed with me. David Chang and crew scrapped, hustled, and invented their way to a new form of restaurant in one of the toughest markets in the world. Their passion for teamwork and focus on execution is contagious. I understand that David Chang’s swagger is off-putting to some, but I ate it up. This is a guy who wants to cook killer food, his way, and is not going to let anyone stop him. Great stuff.



Born Standing Up

Steve Martin

I fell asleep to Steve Martin’s records when I was a kid. I had dozens of his bits memorized. This came in handy one day in the seventh grade. One of my friends told me that he was auditioning for the school musical and asked me if I was going to try out. I thought that sounded fun, so I went along with him.  It turned out we were supposed to have prepared a monologue and a song. Crap. I had decided to stay after school and audition on a whim and wasn’t prepared. Or was I? Luckily, I had unknowingly been rehearsing for months and when my turn came to perform, I nailed a monologue and song of Steve Martin’s. (I wish I could remember which ones.)  I got the lead in the play and that was the beginning of my theater days.

“Born Standing Up” is a must-read for fans of Steve Martin. But I also think it is a must-read for anyone who speaks, teaches, or sells for a living.  Steve Martin started performing when he was 12 years old. He worked at his craft for decades before any of us learned who he was. He failed repeatedly and experimented wildly. He never turned down an opportunity to work on his material, “speaking” in front of small audiences and giving his all. His endurance is breathtaking.



The Razor’s Edge

W. Somerset Maugham

Steve Martin wrote in “Born Standing Up” that his favorite book of all time was “The Razor’s Edge.” So I requested it from the library immediately.

Steve Martin’s favorite character in “The Razor’s Edge” is Larry Darrell, who dedicates his life to acquiring knowledge and searching for meaning at the expense of love and wealth. Larry spends 12-14 hours in the library a day reading. Languages, classics, history, science, and philosophy. He doesn’t know exactly what he is looking for, but he is resolved not to stop reading until he finds it. When his fiancé asks him what he wants to do with his life, he tells her that he wants to “loaf.” That’s what he calls reading 12-14 hours  a day, “loafing.” Classic.



Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!”

Richard Feynman

Do you ever find that you have gone your whole life without hearing about a certain person or book and then three or four times in one week you come across them?

That happened to me with Richard Feynman.

I noticed that people spoke and wrote with a certain reverence for Richard Feynman that reminded me of the way people talk about Kurt Vonnegut or Richard Brautigan.

“You don’t know about Richard Feynman? Oh man, you’ve been missing out.”

And I had been missing out. I read “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!” in one sitting. I couldn’t stop. He’s a scholar, inventor, prankster, and teacher all in one.

If teaching is part of your job (and I would argue that’s everyone) then you should read this book.  Or if you are like me and have a grandfather and father in law who love to tinker with mechanical things just for the fun of it, then this book will give you a good laugh.

So that’s me…

What have you been reading this summer?


Posted: August 30th, 2010 | Filed under: General | Tags: | 3 Comments »

Are you a multiplier or a diminisher?

The most important, and indeed the truly unique, contribution of management in the 20th century was the fifty-fold increase in the productivity of the manual worker in manufacturing.

The most important contribution management needs to make in 21st century is similarly to increase the productivity of knowledge work and the knowledge worker.

The most valuable assets of the 20th-century company were its production equipment. The most valuable asset of a 21st-century institution, whether business or non-business, will be its knowledge workers and their productivity.

Peter Drucker, Management Challenges of the 21st Century

You’ve probably read this quote before. If not this exact quote, then something like it.

If you are like most people that I talk to, you probably agree with it.

Then what’s the problem?

If we agree that knowledge and knowledge workers are our most important assets, why do so many firms have such a hard time leveraging those assets?

Actually that’s not going far enough.

Why do firms prioritize the urgent but tactical issues of the day over the development of knowledge and knowledge workers ?

I’m not going to write about that today.

But I will tell you that I just read Multipliers by Liz Wiseman and Greg McKeown.

Their take is that there are two types of people – diminishers and multipliers. Diminishers are primarily concerned with being perceived as geniuses.  Multipliers would rather be perceived as genius makers.

I think that many of the answers to my questions above can be found in this book.

It seems to me that a multiplier/genius maker mindset is a fundamental precondition to effective organizational learning and knowledge management.

(That’s my way of saying that I think you should read the book.)

Posted: August 3rd, 2010 | Filed under: General | Tags: | 3 Comments »

“Knowledge Nightmares”: What would Gordon Ramsay do?


                                                                             © FOX Broadcasting Company

Denise and I got rid of our TV seven years ago. We had several blissful years of control over our lives. We dodged most of reality show mania. We missed the first two seasons of Lost. Best of all, we avoided advertising.

Then came Hulu.

Now we cannot stop watching Kitchen Nightmares.

A simple premise. Repeated.

Restaurant owners on the brink of shutting down call in star chef Gordon Ramsay to help them save their restaurants. They are between half a million to two million dollars in debt. Their restaurants are empty. They’ve tried promotions and gimmicks to no avail. They know they are failing. The restaurant owners, many of them chefs, have accepted that they need help and have asked for it.

There is only one problem: All of the restaurant owners think that the food is excellent. (Hint: It isn’t.)

The Kitchen Nightmares formula

I read Jason Fried’s new book last weekend. REWORK is excellent. Go buy it and read it. I’m a big fan of his blog, his software, and his first book, Getting Real. 

Turns out Jason has been watching Kitchen Nightmares as well. He has a short essay in REWORK about the formula Gordon Ramsay uses to turn around a restaurant. It goes something like this:

  1. Establish a vision. Most of the restaurants Chef Ramsay turns around are drifting without a clear identity, trying to be everything to everyone. In recent episodes he’s helped restaurants to position themselves as “healthy and fresh,” “family-style Italian,” and “from farm to table.”  
  2. Do less. Chef Ramsay cuts down the number of items on the menu by at least half. (This episode is an extreme and entertaining example.)
  3. Do it well. Most of the chefs on Kitchen Nightmares are using either frozen food or dated ingredients or both. Gordon pushes them towards fresh ingredients.
  4. Fix the decor. While fixing the food is first on the agenda, Chef Ramsay always overhauls the “look and feel” of the restaurant to align the decor with the vision and the new menu.
  5. Work as a team. Many of the chef-owners cannot delegate and bark at their staff. Chef Ramsay puts in a proper organizational system so that chefs and owners can leverage themselves and grow their team.

In REWORK, Jason Fried suggests that software companies should apply Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares formula to their products. He argues that most software is a meandering, bloated, feature-rich, mess of code.

Putting everything customers ask for in the product (on the menu) only spreads developers (chefs) thin as they try to support an ever expanding code base.  Software product managers need to look back to their visions and hold fast when it comes to making decisions about  adding new features to their products. Jason’s central thesis is that by doing less and doing it well, software companies will have happier customers.

What would Chef Ramsay say about your knowledge management strategy?

If you have been reading the Knowledge Architecture blog you probably know how this story is going to end. I’ve written recently about overly ambitious and bloated project history databases which try to capture everything and end up capturing nothing. At the end of the post I suggested the following:

  1. Create one source of truth by consolidating project history from multiple locations into one database.
  2. Keep your project history database simple by prioritizing fields which actually get used.
  3. Assign a librarian to each field you want maintained. You may well have different librarians for different types of fields. (For example, QA/QC tracking, project roles and responsibilities, location of the record copy of the half-size set, and project descriptions might be maintained by four separate librarians.) 

Going forward, you should only add fields into your project history database when you have a clear “use case” for how each field will get leveraged and assign a librarian to maintain it. 


Think about the Kitchen Nightmares formula above:

Establish a vision. Do less. Do it well. Fix the decor. Work as a team.

If Chef Ramsay came into your firm, what would he say about how you manage knowledge as he progressed through each of these five steps?

Feel free to share your answers in the comments or e-mail me directly.

I’ll be back after KA Connect 2010 with a five-part series on how architects and engineers can apply the Kitchen Nightmares formula to turn around their knowledge management efforts.

Posted: April 2nd, 2010 | Filed under: General | Tags: | 1 Comment »

“Do Not Hurry; Do Not Rest” – On Acquiring New Knowledge.


How it begins

A couple of weeks ago I interviewed Josh Lobel to speak at KA Connect. Josh is an architect with a deep interest in the impact that digital  tools have on architectural practice.  A mutual friend had introduced us and had mentioned to me that Josh was a big fan of “The Craftsman” by Richard Sennett. I checked “The Craftsman” out from the library and have been recommending  it to people to ever since.  Here’s what the New Yorker has to say about it:

“Sennett considers an array of artisans across different periods, from ancient Chinese chefs to contemporary mobile-phone designers, in this powerful meditation on the "skill of making things well." The template of craftsmanship, he finds, combines a "material consciousness" with a willingness to put in years of practice (a common estimate of the time required to master a craft is ten thousand hours) and a strategic acceptance of ambiguity, rather than an obsessive perfectionism.”

Sennett discusses the history of knowledge transfer throughout the book. Organizations have always wrestled with best practices for educating the next generation of craftsmen, whether they be the  guilds of medieval Europe or modern design firms. In addition to exploring the history of organizational learning, Sennett explores what humanity has gained (and lost) from introducing machines into our workshops. Sennett specifically focuses on the impacts of using CAD tools in architectural practice.

Josh and I started our conversation by discussing “The Craftsman.” Our conversation was energizing and fun. As we jumped from topic to topic – discovering that each of us had been thinking about history and process and tools  and practice from different perspectives – I kept thinking one thought to myself:

“Damn I wish I was recording this.”

Interviews as knowledge assets

I sent Josh an e-mail the next day to pitch him on the idea of conducting an audio interview for the KA Connect blog. He wrote me back to say that he was in. Awesome. We’d produce it as a podcast, perhaps the first in a series. The wheels were turning now. I thought of all the other people I could interview, the sponsorships, the glory.

As the days went by I kept thinking about great having a podcast series would be – I’ve advocated interviewing as a great knowledge management technique for years. A good interview helps to tell someone’s story. If you ask the right questions,  your interviewee will often share insights that they had not previously articulated, even to themselves. (The knowledge management intelligentsia calls this “Latent Knowledge.”)  Best of all, you can capture an interview and leverage it as a reusable asset – whether as a blog post, podcast, or video.

Perfect. I’d lined up the essential elements for a new knowledge management initiative  – create knowledge, capture it as a reusable asset, and then share it via multiple channels. There were only two problems with my plan:

    1. I didn’t have any experiencing interviewing people.
    2. I had never put together a podcast.

How I acquire new knowledge

Most of the writing I’ve done on this blog has focused on organizational learning, not personal learning. In addition, I’ve focused on leveraging existing knowledge, neglecting acquiring new knowledge.

My desire to create a series of interview podcasts got me thinking about how I learn new skills. Unlike the apprentices in “The Craftsman,” I’m not in a guild.  There is no master to pass down knowledge honed over generations. In addition, many of the skills I want to acquire (i.e., podcasting) were invented in the last few years.

Founding Knowledge Architecture has required me to develop the ability to rapidly acquire new skills. When I reflect back on jumping into sales and marketing, accounting and finance, product marketing and development and the countless other new things I have begun to learn over the last year – I can tease out three sources of knowledge which I repeatedly target :

People. Books. Blogs.

People – It turns out that I’m lucky. Josh’s sister Mia is an audio producer and journalist who specializes in podcasts. She and I talked last week and she gave me a wealth of advice and pointed me towards a long list of resources. (Talking to as many people who have knowledge on the topic in question is always my first step in learning a new skill.)

Books – I’m headed to the library this afternoon to pull a couple biographies of interviewers. I’ll probably also pick out a couple “best practices”-type books. (In general, I tend to prefer biographies to best practices books. The insights tend to stick with me better.)

Blogs – I’ve already started adding blogs about podcasting to my Google Reader. Blogs are a particularly good tool for learning modern skills such as social media and emerging technologies. However, blogs work equally well for learning “old-school” skills like marketing, business development, and writing. (The evidence of prior  knowledge acquisition sprees is clear in the image below.)


“Do not hurry; do not rest” – Goethe

Once I’ve gathered some interviewing and/or  podcasting experiences from other folks, books, and blogs, it will be time to to just try it. Record my first interview. Share it. I can refine and tweak from there. I’ll probably even write about podcasting and interviewing to help me crystallize my thoughts on the subject.

I like what Goethe says about pacing yourself in life – “Do not hurry; do not rest.”

I think his quote also applies to learning a new skill. Take a bit of time to do some research – but get on with it. The doing is where the real learning happens.

What about you? How do you acquire new skills? Feel free to share in the comments below.

Posted: January 31st, 2010 | Filed under: General, Most Popular | Tags: , | 1 Comment »

Book List: Information Dashboard Design.


Most folks involved in design or creative professions, be it Architecture, Engineering, Graphic Design, and so on have heard of Edward Tufte. If you haven’t, go check him out. He’s more or less the father of modern Information Design. He has written several classic works, including “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.” I have found his work inspiring, yet not quite relevant to our work at Knowledge Architecture. I have been on the lookout for materials directly concerning business reporting and dashboard design, yet with Tufte’s restrained sensibility.

A little lesser known figure in the field of Information Design is Steven Few. His first book, “Show me the Numbers,” is a must read for anyone who spends time presenting quantitative information. As we got further along in the development of our Synthesis platform of custom reports, dashboards, and portals based on Microsoft SharePoint it became clear that we needed a design polemic to give us a little push. I came across Steven’s book (and blog) and was blown away. If you are interested in dashboard design I cannot recommend it enough.

Here are a couple samples of Sales and Marketing dashboards. Contrast them mentally with a few of the last dashboards you have seen (or designed, I know, me too) and you’ll get the picture. No traffic lights, speed gauges, or 3D glossy bar charts here.



steven_few 2

Posted: July 14th, 2009 | Filed under: General | Tags: | 1 Comment »

Book List: The Four Steps to the Epiphany.


Almost everyone I talk to about starting Knowledge Architecture from the software/technology world asks me if I have read “Crossing the Chasm” by Geoffrey Moore. The answer is yes, and I think it is great. For those who haven’t read it, Crossing the Chasm explores the phenomenon that seems to sink most technology companies as they try to move from servicing the evangelists and early-adopters that got them started to the mainstream customers that will ensure lasting success. A great number of companies fail to make that leap…falling into the chasm in a flaming pile of wreckage.

A lesser known, but in many ways more compelling read, at least for a company in the early stages of starting up is “The Four Steps to the Epiphany” by Steven Gary Blank. Blank, a serial entrepreneur and fan of Geoffrey Moore’s work, posits most companies get Product Development all wrong. He claims that companies rush into Product Development way too early, skipping the essential activities that he defines as “Customer Development.” Customer Development is the process of actively (through the four steps outlined in his book) engaging early customers to validate your product or service vision before you even write a line of code. Many people have called it (including Blank himself) the prequel to Crossing the Chasm.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted: June 22nd, 2009 | Filed under: General | Tags: | 1 Comment »