Can you really learn to think differently? According to three new books, the answer is yes.
Sometimes survival requires looking at a situation from a whole different angle
In recent years the potent mix of ongoing technological innovation alongside the insidious notion of Internet time -- that jobs could and should get done 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- has created a culture of relentless overwork. Thriving in 24/7: Six Strategies for Taming the New World of Work is a rational response to that difficult, if not impossible, dictate. Author Sally Helgesen outlines a step-by-step approach for keeping your career from being all-consuming. She concedes that if you didn't have to sleep, maybe you could get everything done. But since you need your rest, you probably need some help handling your workload, and she is happy to oblige.
At its heart, Helgesen's treatise is a gussied up time-management book, one targeted at the sort of professional who wouldn't be caught dead reading a time-management book for fear of acknowledging that his or her life was out of control. Traditional books in the genre tell you to rank your projects and start with the most essential ones. Whatever you don't get to by the end of the day, week, or month is, by default, the less important stuff and can be left undone.
Helgesen takes a similar approach. Her six steps can be boiled down to this: figure out what you enjoy doing most and work hard to eliminate everything else. She writes, "Given the intensity of life in 24/7, we cannot really enjoy our days if we have no control over our work .... Nor can our lives be fully satisfying if we feel creatively muzzled, or are stuck in doing work that does not allow us to express our talents."
Perhaps Helgesen's biggest contribution is testimony from people who've had success in balancing their lives. She provides many examples -- a disproportionately large number from women, perhaps a first in a business book geared to both genders. All the people quoted say they're getting more work done and feeling less pressured about it.
Of course, if you eliminate most of the stress and inefficiency in your life, you may find yourself with time for new pursuits. One suggestion: practice judo at work. No, don't take out a mat and work on your throws. Rather, adopt the principles of judo as part of your company's thinking. That's the message behind Judo Strategy: Turning Your Competitors' Strength to Your Advantage, by David B. Yoffie, a Harvard Business School professor, and Mary Kwak, a research associate at Harvard Business School. (Kwak also has done research and has written for Inc.)
Although positioned for the overall management market, the book should have particular resonance with Inc. readers. Since the beginning of time, entrepreneurs have been told to find a niche and fill it. This book advises entrepreneurs who follow that strategy about how to deal with big-company competitors they may meet along the way. The trick: use the behemoths' apparent size and strength advantages against them.
Extending their chosen judo analogy, the authors describe how the key principles of judo -- movement, balance, and leverage -- can be used in business. The idea is to avoid going head-to-head with your inherently stronger opponent. Stay off the larger company's radar for as long as possible and define as narrowly as you can the space in which you're competing -- probably by subdividing the niche to the point where you can make a pleasant living but remain unworthy of your potential competitor's attention.
Unfortunately, the book's argument is not helped by examples of companies that tend to be huge; for example, poster child Palm Inc. has revenues of more than $1 billion. And in most cases, the authors don't provide enough detail about how the companies put the judo strategy to work. For instance, eBay's outmaneuvering of competitors like AOL, Yahoo, and Amazon.com in the auction space could have been a fascinating tale, but even after reading 10 pages about it, you're still not sure how eBay pulled it off. Nevertheless, Judo Strategy's overarching points are valid and can serve as a checklist to follow as you plot your campaign against larger, established competitors.
Build Your Own Garage: Blueprints and Tools to Unleash Your Company's Hidden Creativity also uses a central metaphor -- the garage as wellspring of creativity -- but stylistically, the use of a central metaphor is about all it has in common with Judo Strategy.
Where the latter is straightforward, Garage is loopy -- both in the sense of going around in circles and in the sense of frequently making no sense. (Half the book's parables fall into that category; they are impossible to parse.) Judo presents an idea and moves on. Garage is self-indulgent. (A full 10% of the book is devoted to a parody of Bram Stoker's Dracula that is presented only to make the point that "the strictures of traditional corporate culture are enough to suck the life energy out of anyone.")
So why devote space to reviewing it? There are three reasons. First, the book is part of a noteworthy and growing trend ( The Cluetrain Manifesto and The Hacker Ethic are other examples) whose perpetrators are trying to transport the immediacy of Internet writing into books.
Second, the authors, Bernd H. Schmitt and Laura Brown, who are creativity consultants, begin with an intriguing premise, though they don't spend enough time on it. They believe that if you can combine the analytical, planning-oriented side of a business with the passion harbored by every employee, what you get is "a tension that captures and nurtures chaos. The result of managing this tension is creativity." They may well be right. They don't give compelling examples and there isn't much in the way of firsthand research, but the premise is worth pondering.
And so is the third reason for mentioning the book: the Web has changed everything. Traditional industries -- publishing, certainly, and maybe yours -- have not adapted well. And when it comes to failed adaptation, Build Your Own Garage is an object lesson. After all, if one were not able to learn from failures, the U.S. military wouldn't still be studying Robert E. Lee's battle plans, the O.J. Simpson prosecution wouldn't be required reading for trial lawyers, and filmmakers wouldn't still be renting Heaven's Gate and Ishtar.
Paul B. Brown is the author or coauthor of 10 books and editor-in-chief of Direct-Advice.com.
President of Palo Alto Software, a $6-million business-planning-software company in Eugene, Oreg.
Berry encourages his 30 employees to pick up Growing a Business, by Paul Hawken. "It's a very nonbusiness business book," he says. "A successful business starts with doing something you want to do and care about. And if you care, then others will, too. I'd like to think I run my business like that." He also recommends Burn Rate: How I Survived the Gold Rush Years on the Internet, by Michael Wolff, a book that he describes as "a classic about the Internet euphoria of the '90s."
Sometimes a Great Notion, by Ken Kesey, which takes place in the Oregon woods. "It's probably one of the best novels written in English in the last century," says Berry, who earned a bachelor's degree in English literature before getting his M.B.A. Also: Timequake, purportedly the last book that Kurt Vonnegut will write. "I've read all his books," Berry says.
--Jill Hecht Maxwell and Rifka Rosenwein
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