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There are books that inspire. There are also people who inspire. This review is about a book that inspired a person who inspires. It also inspired that person to write a book to inspire people.

I’ve been following Simon Sinek for a bit now. For the past few years he’s been speaking about a way of looking at things that differs from the common view. He’s also written a book (releasing in October 2019) about it titled, “The Infinite Game.” This review isn’t about Simon, his videos, or upcoming book. It’s about the book that inspired him.

That book, by James Carse, is Finite and Infinite Games.

Unlike many of my recent reads, this one was a bit on the compact side, coming in at under 150 pages. The interesting thing to me approaching the book was how such a short volume had inspired Sinek to take its concept on the road.

In typical university professor process, Carse opens by describing the endpoints of a spectrum, games of a finite and infinite nature. He asserts these to be just that, endpoints. We are left to conclude that there are other games within the spectrum, but none are explored. Although this would have allowed for a larger volume, there really isn’t much point. If you’re the kind of person who buys this book and doesn’t appreciate that it’s been written by a philosophical / political / historical viewpoint, the additional material wouldn’t have enabled you to get any more out of it. On the other hand, if you do, you’ll have little difficultly extrapolating the spectrum and its related historical and political examples.

Once the groundwork is laid, the author spends a chapter exploring a seemingly obvious point. “No one can play a game alone.” This appeals to our sense of self. We exist in relationship to the not-self. We cluster our selves into communities in relationship to other communities and nation-states likewise.

From here, the book explores our traditional view of games. Winners and losers. We see how this binary / hierarchical viewpoint demands the existence of a time-bound context (world). For Whovians this represents a fixed point in time. Examples would be the 1962 United States World Series (baseball) champion or the victors of a battle. The interesting element of which is that of any fixed point in time, it never changes. It is never different. It also never improves. Implicit in this view is the requirement of losers as well as accepted, well-defined rules.

In the broader world we see analogs to zero sum games. We see companies constantly defining themselves in terms of being the number one firm in something contextualized by a specific time period. These tend toward ever increasingly pointless hair splitting. The question becomes, “to what end?”

An interesting point, which I’d not previously considered, was that finite games require an audience. That is witnesses. These serve to validate the victor and their victory. They also are responsible for carrying the memory of the event, anchoring it in time.

It is only now, two thirds of the way into the book, that the other end of the spectrum is examined. To do so, the author has us look to nature (well actually anything not contrived by human beings).

As one might have come to conclude, the world (and by extension universe) got along just fine without us and will probably to do again. Carse points out that in and of itself, the world has no narrative structure, it simply is. In the same way an infinite games is the complete opposite of a finite game. It has no fixed rules, no audience, no winners, no losers and is not time bounded.

So what is the point of an infinite game?

To keep playing.

Players come and go. Objectives change. But, at the end of the day, playing is its own motivation. In this view of the world, there are no enemies to be defeated, there are rivals to out do. Without rivals (other players) you aren’t playing a game. There is no attempt to reach a pinnacle, but rather to be pushed to exceed ones own success.

In a finite game you declare victory. Once at the top of the heap, it’s all down hill. Finite games are by their very nature self-limiting. There is no incentive to excel once you’ve attained supremacy. We have seen time-and-again companies creating new and innovative technologies only to hold them back because they were already number one. These same companies lost that position to others not held back by past glories.

I have seem many times how in the software world, companies have milked the “completed” product cow while at the same time refusing to invest in keeping that same cow current in terms of technology. It is only after decades of neglect that they realize that they can no longer add features and that a generation or two of graduates have passed by since anyone was taught how to work with the technologies used in said cash cow. And then the cow dies.

T.S. Elliot said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; …” Pablo Picasso said, When there’s anything to steal, I steal” Steve Jobs spoke likewise. These are views of those constantly improving their craft. Learning from and incorporating the best we see in others vs. simply attempting to exploit the weaknesses we see is a hallmark of the infinite game player. The other players of their infinite games are not opponents but rather rivals. Opponents seek our defeat. Rivals seek our respect. Opponents want their fixed point in time. Rivals desire that every day we push them to be their best.

Not long ago, someone said to me, “unicorns want to be around other unicorns.” According to Guy Kawasaki, Steve Jobs said, “A players hire A players; B players hire C players; and C players hire D players. It doesn’t take long to get to Z players. This trickle-down effect causes bozo explosions in companies.” I prefer Eric Dietrich’s thought, “A Players Don’t Hire A Players — They Partner with A Players.”  We can look to the rise and fall of stack ranking in the technology world to see the negative impact of the finite game in a world where the goal is to create the future.

Upon finishing the book I was left with a sense of affirmation and sadness. I recommend this book to anyone who intends to undertake any endeavor over the long term.

 

 

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I always find myself impressed at how nation-states and their leaders exhibit repeating patterns of behavior. This is expertly explored through space, time and scale in John Lewis Gaddis‘ latest book On Grand Strategy.

Dovetailing beautifully into my previous post’s assertion that I am an experiential gestaltist, Gaddis’ work takes us from Persia to Greece, China, Spain, England, France, Russia and the Americas. The book deconstructs battles and their attendant strategies, the motivations of their commanders, and the moods of the peoples involved.

From the outset, Gaddis presents us with the metaphor he will return to time and again. That of the fox and the hedgehog. These represent the approaches of alert outward-directed probing with stealth and of unwavering belief and inward-directed defense of that belief.

He shows that time and again battles are lost because leaders lack the ability to see changes in the situation before them. This may manifest in populations simply abandoning territory as was the case in both Xercesattack of Athens and Napoleon‘s of Moscow. Forcing your attacker to extend their supply lines should give pause to any commander, and yet, time after time we see overconfidence leading to defeat.

We see how Elizabeth skillfully balances force and guile to turn a seemingly weak position with respect to the attacking forces of Spain’s (God will make it work out) Philip. Like Xerces, Philip believes that his forces cannot fail. Less so because of their intrinsic numerical advantage and more because of his steadfast belief in his divine mission. His confidence extended to failing to provide adequate direction to his various forces and ignoring losses due to bad weather. Elizabeth, on the other hand patiently and judiciously used her limited resources.

The British colonies in North America are examined and we see the interplay between the colonials and the empire. As the United States are forming, the choice to kick the can of addressing slavery down the proverbial road of history is in full display as they draft their Declaration of Independence and Constitution. We jump to the American Civil War where leaders are struggling with the consequences of being at once a nation based on democratic ideals and yet built on slavery. They were very well aware that the monarchies of Europe still looked on them as an untenable aberration. A hypocritical one at that.

And we see into the churn that formed the backdrops of both World Wars. Also, how England worked to engage the United States and how others tried to prevent its engagement.

Throughout it all, we are presented profiles of leaders who are either able or unable to navigate the ambiguities of the realities before them. There are those without a compass, unable to achieve goals because there are none. There are those whose compass is trusted to the exclusion of the terrain. They find themselves, like those today blinding following navigation apps, ending up going off cliffs and ending up in lakes. Knowing where you are going is important, but if you fail to allow for the terrain and weather conditions, you will not do well.

On the whole, the book provides us a valuable mirror. It is amazingly timely given that we are in a period where our leaders seem again poised to engage in actions demonstrating that they have failed to either study of learn from the teaching of Sun Tzu, Thucydides, Augustine and Machiavelli. Their message could be described as success is found in following the middle way, embracing both certainty of mission, preparation and proper respect for the fluid nature of engagement.

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The book, The Character of a Leader: A Handbook for the Young Leader, is an odd beast. There aren’t many non-fiction books I’ve read where the author uses a nom de plume. According to the Amazon description the author Donald Alexander is an executive officer within the United States intelligence community. Presuming this to be true, they’re desire is to provide a foundation for aspiring leaders and not their own aggrandizement. I say aspiring here because a leader isn’t a title or rank, but rather a state or behavioral characteristic. Leaders can at the same time be led. They are also in a constant state of self-education.

The author argues that a leader is grounded in a set of core characteristics and beliefs about themselves and others. This position is opposed to those who believe that one can be an effective leader and hold that there are no absolutes with regard to attitudes and actions (moral relativism).

Given the books short length (about 120 pages of main text), it struck me as unusual that the introduction was about 15 pages in length. Why not simply incorporate it into the body of the work? My view is that this device allows the author to create the questions that the main text then answers. In a way, it is as though a student approaches a teacher and in asking questions inspires the teacher to assemble a lesson for all their students. I look at it this way because that’s what I have done in similar circumstances. It’s not usually the case that people coming to me with questions realize that their questions are of import to others, but it is the obligation of those of us who people approach with such questions to “spread the wealth.” Noblesse oblige, if you will.

The book is divided into sections defining a working definition of leadership, leadership and character, leadership traits, expectations, becoming a leader, and the fundamental obstacle  to leading (tribalism). It concluded with a call for leading with integrity.

No one who has been in a position of leadership will be surprised at either the structure of brevity of this book. You could put the totality of the facts conveyed onto a business card (I’d’ve said index card, but no one knows what an index card is anymore). But just like a PowerPoint, you don’t need to write every word you’ll speak on the slides (they’re not really slides anymore either). This book is a touchstone. For those newly recognized leaders, this book is a cross between a travelogue and a cautionary tale. For the former, the inclusion of additional material would simply be superfluous. For the later, it might convey the idea that the actions of a leader are paint-by-number, whereas in reality the are very much free-hand.

There are numerous quotes by and about leaders from various periods in history. These both build the case for the author’s assertion that character is essential to being a leader and provide jumping off points for further exploration of specific aspects of leadership.

I am impressed at the tightness of the narrative and the compelling argument made by the author. They strike me as one of those individuals that I would very much enjoy learning from and working along side.

 

 

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I spend much of my time these days doing long-term strategic research and planning. Part of that time is spent identifying areas where technology training is warranted. The ways and means I use to create and present training materials have been developed through years of trial and error. In the midst of one particular line of research into a non-training-related area, I found Building an Innovative Learning Organization by Russell Sarder.

The book is relatively short, about 220 pages, but in many ways, you really don’t need more than that to cover the concepts of training. While it’s true that it would take far more to cover all aspect of training, from organization by-in, to facilities, to choice of materials, to length of courses, etc., those are details. And the details are as pointless as ornaments without a tree if you don’t have the fundamentals in place. That’s where this book shines.

Yes, there are all the requisite elements of a business-oriented book (voices from industry, outcomes of research, anecdotes, and the like). Not to mention the mound of acronyms tossed in for good measure. But, I expect those. This book asserts that learning should be a systemic attribute of any thriving company. As such, learning must be part of the culture of the company for it to be successful. You cannot slap training on the side and expect that you will have any serious ROI to the company. It would be like thinking that buying Girl Scout cookies or Boy Scout popcorn has a substantive impact on the members of either organization. Yes, it does provide financial support for programs, but it’s not “the program.”

Training needs leaders, resources, people interested in learning, and a purpose (lest we forget why we do training in the first place).

Training has a structure and that structure is not one-size-fits-all. People have varying modalities of learning. Even the best material won’t work well for everyone. This is were that whole (materials, time, place, etc.) details thing comes into play. But, again the focus of the book is to lay out the challenges and considerations, not specifics.

Finally, you need to see that training produces results. This can be fiendishly difficult to measure, so it’s vitally important to set expectations before doing the training. Being happy is not considered a valid measure of ROI for the company.

As mentioned earlier, the book is replete with references and for those who create training material or even those who want to create an environment within their company where can be effective. It is a good starting point. For those who have been involved in training for some time, the book can serve as a reference that can be used to educate management in the scope, cost and investment (they’re different) necessary to create a learning environment that will have long-term benefits.

Overall, a decent read. I found the interviews with CLOs (chief learning officers) incisive. As with all organization-level things, there are no easy answers. And you do get what you pay for. You’ll dispatch this book in a few hours and then find yourself going back over it later.

 

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Whenever I take long trip I try to bring a book to read. When I went to CppCon 2017 in September, I brought Ray Dalio‘s Principles. Ray founded the world’s largest hedge fund. His company Bridgewater, is the exemplar for his book. [29 April 2018 Note: I’d actually completed the book during that trip, but got distracted by other things. I let this linger for far too long.]

At this point, I could assert that having created an organization a large and successful as Bridgewater would be justification for following the methodology he espouses. After all, isn’t that what we do, chase success is search of our own? If your desire is to leverage Ray’s book for that, you’ve failed before you’ve even started.

The information you will find in Principles is slow burning. Everything about his methodology requires tremendous time, effort and attention to detail. Let’s look at how the book decomposes:

In the first part (of three), he gives his personal backstory. This takes about 120 pages of the 550 or so page book. That’s a lot of exposition for a book ostensibly about life and work being able to be systematized. Then again, this isn’t a “here’s a fish” kind of book. If someone is going to purport to present a set a principles leading to success, you need to establish that you actually have the chops. And those chops don’t come from those whose success is inherited or the result of random chance. As has been said in many forms, “you learn nothing from success, but you learn everything from failure.”

The second part (about 150 pages) is devoted to life principles. The takeaway here is that work success is an extension of who you are. Your work, as opposed to your job, is not a coat to be put on, like some bulwark against the financial storms of life. To many his life principles are quite Machiavellian. While having clear goals is the basis of any true achievement, and root causing problems and designing solutions around them are in service to that end; both not tolerating problems that stand in your way and doing what is necessary to achieve results fall into the ruthless bucket. In no way am I opposed to his principles. In fact, I wouldn’t have personally accepted his work principles had he not been ruthless in his personal ones.

The third part is the thing we came to see, it covers his work principles. Here again, we see the division into thirds. They are culture, people and organization.

In the area of culture, first and foremost are the dual concepts of radical truth and radical transparency. On this foundation is having meaningful work and relationships. Next, and where I’ve seen many companies fail miserably, the culture needs to accept mistakes but demand that people learn from them. Once things are spun up, you have to keep everyone in sync. This goes back to the ideas of radical truth and acceptance of mistakes.

On the people front, you must hire the right people. Hiring the wrong people will kill your company eventually. In that vein, who the people are (life principles) is more important that what they know. People with a good foundation can be built upon. Those without can’t. Finally, you must constantly refresh people’s skills. This rigorous regime of renewal is not something that everyone can embrace. When people don’t … well, we’re back to Machiavelli.

Lastly, he addresses the organization itself. In many ways, his approach to the organization is identical to that of a person. The same issues of goals, problem tolerance, evaluation and improvement apply. That may sound like I’m short changing that part of book, but given Ray’s premise that work is an extension of the self, it’s only natural that the organization is an extension of the people working there.

This book is one you will either embrace as an affirmation, or reject as too demanding. As to why I don’t believe that there’ll be any middle ground, the title says it all. You either see the material in the book as principles or you don’t.

I, for one, do.

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I wasn’t sure what to expect from Giles Kemp and Edward Claflin’s book “Dale Carnegie: The Man Who Influenced Millions.”
Having been a member of several speech clubs in the past, as well as having made a lifetime worth of presentations, I really didn’t think there was much to be learned from Carnegie’s course.

I came across a review of Carnegie’s book that mentioned that Carnegie left out a chapter on dealing this toxic personalities. This is the book referred to.

To some extent, I find Carnegie’s life to be ironic. To the public, he’s perceived as being the the perfect speaker and someone at ease in any situation. In reality, he was uncomfortable outside of his “school’s” environment. He created a mechanism that allows people to be more self-assured and better at dealing with others. But, being able to teach others does not imply mastery of the techniques being taught.

In my reading of impactful individuals from the last 300 years, I am saddened that there is very little possibility for someone to replicate their path in today’s world. Carnegie never completed junior college ant yet was able to achieve great success teaching even the captains of industry.

Unlike the traditional biography, vignettes are presented from contemporary (1989) Carnegie classes.

The book is well worth the read.

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I finished reading “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.” It’s a good overview of centralized vs. decentralized organizations.

A must read for anyone with a desire to champion a cause.

It’s also a cautionary for anyone who doesn’t want to be owned by their ideas.

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