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Practically Radical: Not-So-Crazy Ways to Transform Your Company, Shake Up Your Industry, and Challenge Yourself by William C. Taylor, William Morrow & Co., 320 pages, $27.99, Hardcover, January 2011, ISBN 9780061734618
If you made a resolution of any kind for the coming year—for your business or for yourself—Bill Taylor’s new book, Practically Radical, should be the first book of the year you read. As a great admirer of Fast Company magazine, which Taylor cofounded, and his first book, Mavericks at Work, I have been looking forward to this one since I saw it listed in the publisher catalog—and it didn’t disappoint.
In the introduction, Taylor tells the story of his struggle with the topic and timing of the book. Would people have any use for a book about fundamental change and transformation in the midst of a recession? Wouldn’t most business people be retrenching, cutting back and going conservative? But he realized that “turbulent times were precisely the right time to explore the hard work of making big change.”
If you’re an avid business book reader, you know that most books don’t need to be read cover-to-cover, that you can pretty easily find what’s applicable to your situation and skim the rest. Taylor isn’t shy about letting you know that about his book. In fact, he tells you upfront exactly where to start based on what kind of change you’re interested in:
If big-company change is your first order of business, then begin with the materials in Chapters 1 through 3 and move ahead from there. But if the challenges of launching something new (inside an established organization or with a blank-sheet-of-paper start-up) are what keep you up at night, then begin with the material in Chapters 4 through 6 and move around at your discretion. (My guess is that nearly all readers will turn at some point to the material on “Challenging Yourself” that begins with Chapter 7.)
Chapter 7’s “Leadership Without All the Answers,” which touts the pragmatic but status quo challenging advice to “invite bright people throughout the organization to share insights, talents, and ideas” is where I started, but I soon found myself consuming the entire book with enthusiasm. Taylor is such a deliberate writer and tells such unpredictable stories—like the opening story about the Providence Police Department—that I just couldn’t put the book down.
Above all, Practically Radical is, well, a radically practical book, chock-full of instantly applicable ideas and lessons. But it is also a perception-changing book from the start (wherever you start it), beginning with the first chapter, “What You See Shapes How You Change.” Taylor will help improve that vision and help you enact change that works.
Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commandments for a Digital Age by Douglas Rushkoff, OR Books, 149 pages, $16.00, Paperback, November 2010, ISBN 9781935928157
There have been a great number of books debating what effects technology and the Internet have had on us individually and as a species. And there is a bit of that at play in Douglas Rushkoff’s recent book, Program or Be Programmed, but what he really offers is a clear view of the fundamental biases of the Internet and what we can do to effectively use that technology without letting it abuse us in the process.
Program or Be Programmed does not literally suggest that we all have to learn to write computer code—though it’s helpful to understand that the code that is written makes certain decisions for us—but to write a code for our own lives and how we interact with and use technology. Rushkoff has come up with “ten commandments” in that regard, and each gets its own chapter in the book:
I. Time: Do Not Be Always On
II. Place: Live in Person
III. Choice: You May Always Choose None of the Above
IV. Complexity: You Are Never Completely Right
V. Scale: One Size Does Not Fit All
VI. Identity: Be Yourself
VII. Social: Do Not Sell Yourself
VIII. Fact: Tell the Truth
IX. Openness: Share, Don’t Steal
X. Purpose: Program or Be Programmed
Business people will want to play close attention to the chapter on scale. After so many years of the Internet intoxication in business thought, it is a sober reminder for entrepreneurs that they must still create real value in the real world.
[B]usinesses face competition from their peers in an increasingly commodified landscape. It’s almost impossible to establish a foothold that can’t be undercut by a tiny shift in the price of one component. So instead of going into business, … players become search engines, portals, or aggregators, rising one level above all those competing businesses and skimming profit off the top. In an abstracted universe where everything is floating up in the same cloud, it is the indexer who provides context and direction.
The existing bias of business toward abstraction combined with the net’s new emphasis on success through scale yielded a digital economy with almost no basis in actual commerce, the laws of supply and demand, or the creation of value. It’s not capitalism in the traditional sense, but an abstracted hyper-capitalism utterly divorce from getting anything done.
You’ll be surprised by how much intellectual wallop Rushkoff can pack into a slim 147 pages. Each page is a revelation, yet feels like a reminder of something you already knew. Program or Be Programmed is a simple, yet profound book, a book that can truly change your life in the hour it takes to read.
Histories of Social Media by Jonathan Salem Baskin, SNCR Press, 134 pages, $22.95, Hardcover, October 2010, ISBN 9780982700426
The current obsession with social media didn’t necessarily come from genius programmers, or Internet wizards. According to Jonathan Salem Baskin, in his book Histories of Social Media, the social element that drives these sites has been developing for centuries—by groups as seemingly disparate as revolutionary France, the Roman Empire, and certainly cavemen. However, the book is not just about how people communicate, but what can happen when groups of them do so. Throughout history, technology hasn’t been necessary for people to unite and accomplish things. Now, Baskin argues, with the help of technology, less ideal outcomes of communication are rampant.
Introducing the first chapter and setting the tone for the book, Baskin writes that “Crowds are usually led by autocrats who are ultimately no better than the institutions they replace, and sometimes worse.” Social media is a technologically enhanced and supported situation where groups can, and do, go wrong in their leadership, messaging, and call to action. Or as the author states, “What are you going to do when the next conversation starts demanding that heads roll?” Many will view this as extremism, and perhaps it is, but it is curious to understand the concept of “herd mentality” on the one hand, and on the other say, “let’s source that.”
Through multiple political and cultural examples, Baskin identifies that the Internet is a place that offers much individual freedom, but also creates new arenas for influence, power, and control—each of which can transfer into offline disasters. But Histories of Social Media isn’t anti-technology; it is simply technology-agnostic, showing that group dynamics existed before the Internet and that the crowds of people on the Internet aren’t necessarily wiser or less prone to folly than their predecessors offline.
The really interesting aspects of this book are its researched and insightful observations, observations that are so different than the multitude of books heralding the blessings and influence of social media. Hopefully, it will help both social media participants (and non-participants) better understand and be conscientious about the social groups and situations they’re participating in.