Hope and the stuff we read in books
How to take the concepts we read and put them into practice
Carlos Perez is an Alignment Strategist and Coach at Purple Sector Strategy. He helps product teams get aligned around a shared vision through facilitated workshops and coaching. Book a free consultation to learn more.
To the chagrin of my past self, I'm a big fan of a good business book — especially those related to driving positive change through innovation. Although the Carlos from 1997 (who had Radiohead's OK Computer on constant repeat) didn't know it, I would wind up finding my passion in understanding how great teams work. Pair that with a propensity for geeking out on tech, and I found working on product and innovation teams something I truly enjoyed, at least, when they worked well.
In defence of present-day Carlos, who still often listens to Radiohead, I don't mean I like those old stodgy business textbooks, but rather, those that share stories in relatable ways. They inspire you to change the way you think about work and fire you up to realize that positive change is possible. Amongst some of my favourites include Good to Great, Competing Against Luck, Escaping the Build Trap, and Alive At Work. Check them out if you haven't had a chance.
We spend an incredible amount of time at work. Call me a hopeless romantic, but I think you should be able to, on the whole, enjoy the time you spend there. These books promise a pathway to a better way of working by sharing stories about cultures of experimentation, purpose-driven mindsets, and collaboratively driving towards great results.
Having gone through countless reads, though, I've noticed a familiar pattern with my relationship with these books. It's more than just a pattern, really, it's an emotional rollercoaster. You love them, you resent them, rinse and repeat.
From the moment you first crack the spine of your new book, there's the initial high you ride thinking of all the ideas you want to try with your team. This time, you think to yourself, this time, I'll find the clue that makes it all come together. As you blast through the pages faster than you would the Da Vinci Code (or the Twilight saga), you're lapping up all the great ideas. What really lands are all the spot-on examples of what you shouldn't be doing as an organization. Snort, that's so us... we totally do it wrong! This book really gets me.
Naturally you'll start suggesting the book to colleagues (heck, you even buy them copies!) so they too can see the brilliance and get caught up in the euphoria of all the good that will soon come. That strange sensation you might feel at this stage is hope. Hope that change is possible, hope that a better way of working is within reach, and hope you're not alone in getting your organization to that better place. We don't want to be miserable at work and we don't want to keep repeating the same processes that deliver the same uninspiring results. We hope that we can realize our potentials.
If you're an avid reader of these books, this feeling is familiar, as is what commonly comes next. You search for signs that others feel that same hope you did. Riding the high, you ask others what they thought of the book, you even start dropping references to it in meetings. But all you get in return are blank stares. As it turns out, no one read it. Yet, they promise. Sure your colleagues have the book, some even downloaded the audiobook, but other things are in the way so they haven't gotten around to it. What gives? I read this book over the weekend, you think to yourself. The onslaught of deep discussion and exchange of opinions and ideas you thought would come isn't materializing. It's not even on the radar. Some though, one or two, did take the plunge and read it. And yet, they're still waiting to take their cues from you. OK, I've read the book. Now what?
This stage can be demoralizing. I've been there. The hope wanes. It's now coming straight up against a wall of fear, disinterest, or simply against the inertia of how things have always been done. This isn't the fault of the authors and their books, they had good intentions. It's not your fault, the dreamer, for hoping for better things. And nor can you fault your colleagues, they were just going about their business until you made them read something. They wanted to watch Red Bull challenge Mercedes for the F1 championship this weekend, not read a business book... bleh!
The truth is you're hoping that someone else be as excited as you are, and more importantly, that they'll be the ones to tell you how to take the theory and turn it into action. Because this is the hard part. You can't expect your colleagues to do this for you. Yes, you can ask for their help and participation, but to see it through, you have to find ways to introduce new concepts and approaches to the organization yourself.
Now this is where a lot of people give up. I know I have. And then you wait until the next great read comes along and the cycle repeats itself. But what can you do to break this cycle? How do you carry that initial feeling of hope forward? How can you make it infectious? While it is easier said than done, it requires you to take the first step. It doesn't have to be sophisticated and it doesn't even have to be right. But it needs to be intentional. Honesty and transparency helps too — "hey folks I read a thing, we're going to try it, it might make a positive impact on how we work, it might not. What's worse than it failing, though, is not trying at all".
Many of these books are heavy on the great aspirational outcomes and sparse on the details of how to get started. But there are always clues if you look hard enough. Spot a question, an exercise, or even online materials that are referenced in these books and just try it. In the absence of those clues, work backwards — start at the end result and ask yourself what it would take for your organization to get there. Hint: it generally starts with understanding your customer. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.
By taking action and showing others that change is possible, you are opening the door to more experimentation and improvement. Maybe others have ideas they're holding back. In my experience, being the one that takes the leap to turn concepts into practice is met with more support than resistance. Sure, you'll find the naysayers, but they are generally in the minority. Change goes against the grain, so it's natural for it to feel uncomfortable at first. But the more you try, the more likely new practices will be adopted.
Doing this requires a comfort in taking chances, making the attempts purposeful, and knowing that it still might fail. In my experience there is an appreciation for someone trying new things — people are grateful for them putting themselves out there. They want to rally around something, but might not know how to do it themselves. The more you can demonstrate that through action, the more they are encouraged to find other ways to improve. If you let the hope wane on your way to your next read, you're missing an opportunity to energize those around you. The hope you felt when you first cracked open that book can become infectious.
Are you up for a chat? Do you have a particular book that has inspired you but has also frustrated you because you're not sure about what to do next? Let's find a time to talk! At best, we'll share some ideas on how to create change; at worst, we'll exchange some more titles to add to our already heaping backlog of unread books. Either way, I think it would be a great way to spend some time.