We mean the title of this entry in two ways: we are giving out books all the time to our friends (most of our clients are considered good friends, or serious business partners; or both). Below is a photo of a stack of the book Antifragile by Nassim Taleb, which is our gift book of choice for 2015. It is a good book, if only for its concept; even if it can be repetative towards the 2nd half of the book. We are giving this particular title to our friends because we want to give our friends the great idea of antifragility: the ability to gain from and not be disturbed by the shocks and surprises (black swans) life or the world will inevitably keep throwing at us. This is something we are very proud of: as much as possible, we only deal with a small set of clients, but we make sure their doing business with us will mean we will try our best to serve them beyond medical equipment, we are here to help them thrive, solve problems, and even make the world better. What a grand claim: but we can refer to our clients, big and small in their respective industries, to say we live this company philosophy. And our small gift of this book is a tiny example of our vision of ourselves as a corporate citizen.
For people into issues of design, creativity, books (or even the very issue of the survival of physical books), Designers and Books is the best site to visit, and visit and patronize regularly. We are not much of designers in our company, as we are really a management and trading and medical equipment company; but we are aware of the importance of the concept and execution of design, not just in designing objects, but in designing as an overall concept for management and life. The sheer strength of this site is that it has top people involved in design (fashion, furniture, architecture, interior) listing their favorite books that they generously share for the curious or the fan or the just driven to learn. Okay, those out to change the world will also benefit from a visit to this site.
A small interesting fact is there are hardly any management books in the over one thousand books recommended by these high achievers. Having looked at hundreds of the recommendations, I only can recall Peter Drucker’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship as a classic business book which made the master list (from industrial designer Tim Brown), which tends to affirm the dubious usefulness of business books as being helpful to people out there trying to set up innovative enterprises. Not surprisingly, books about building or designing classics like bicycles and violins have made the reading list of many people. Yet imaginative literature, or fiction, are all over the site and James Joyce’s Ulysses and Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities being the most cited; and our personal favorites, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Nabokov’s hilarious Lolita are there as well (gratifying and flattering those of us in the company who majored in literature, not the more fashionable design or fine arts, in college). This tends to affirm our belief, spoken of as well by Michael Eisner (former CEO of Disney), that literature (novels, short stories, plays) are essential to feeding the human imagination to create, innovate, and interact with and in the world.
Books are in a precarious time these days, if we are to believe many who have declared the death of books as we know it; but for those of us who believe that print is still very much viable, which the recent issue of the Economist (October 11, 2014) shows is making a strong comeback for publishers in terms of income, this site is an incredible resource, a delight to visit, and we can only hope it thrives without having or needing to be acquired by Amazon or some such giant, whose love for books is at best questionable (no matter how innovative they are). We definitely, even if we have never won its regular book lottery (which we admittedly have), love Designers and Books. Visit the site, learn, and be affirmed that intense creativity is happening all around us. We can even contribute to that great human endeavor, and this site encourages that kind of magical thinking. Congratulations to its editor Steven Kroeter and his incredible team.
Yesterday, we saw an announcement in a business paper about an upcoming workshop on improving work systems, to make manufacturing and services more efficient: this is for Lean Sigma Six. If you want to be certified to be a consultant or to do lectures for this particular way of approaching quality control and efficiency analytics, they have different grades, black belt being one of the highest. Wow. What caught our attention was the mention that on the area of service efficiency, a vice president of one of the biggest banks is there to talk about how to delight and serve the customer. It caught our attention because every time we are asked to deposit money in someone’s bank account, say a travel agency in an emergency to book plane tickets and hotels, we always dread it when the name of this bank comes up.
Their branch in Ortigas may yet qualify as one of the longest lines in Philippine banking (yes, some hyperbole, but some reality there as well) with only three, at times because of the lunch-hour break each of them deserves, only two tellers, even one when someone is sick or is needed in the vault to process the entry of cash from the armored van. Our office is in a business center of Metro Manila (Ortigas): you can imagine how chaotic it must be in other business centers like Makati, Binondo, and Cebu. The same top bank just had its president retire to high accolades; a bright, popular, certainly a nice guy who has an Ateneo de Manila University undergraduate degree and a Harvard Business School MBA tucked under his belt. Never mind the Management Man of the Year Award. This same bank has a cutting-edge leadership program for its executives, tie-ups with Harvard Business School, a resident Caucasian-American to just provoke and challenge the way things are done.
But in the end we realize: all that does not mean anything. “Culture,” according to Peter Drucker, “eats strategy for breakfast.” And unless there is a massive overhaul of its culture in this bank, all the Michael Porter-photocopied reading materials on strategy and competitive advantage, all the right diplomas plastered on the walls, all the right sound bites won’t save it from the bad service it offers customers. Why they cannot figure it out and us geniuses here in Sunfu Solutions can? The bank’s size alone protects it from having customers flee in droves, as its branch network is one of the most extensive in a country of islands.
Is it simply because, as legendary editor Tina Brown said: “It’s really, really difficult for the old behemoths to stay nimble in an era of such disruptive innovation. Elephants can’t tap dance” ? We doubt if it is that easy. To say what Brown said is to buy into the mantra that corporations are by default slow, wasteful, and unresponsive to customers. Organizing corporations is easily justified because of its ability to get massive undertakings executed, but supposedly in an efficient and timely way. You can’t get to build an oil rig or hospital building without a massive organization. Sunfu is able to detect the flaw in the Bank of Philippine Islands because it is small, nimble, always desperate for time? We think it is because senior managers are expected to routinely, even if only occasionally, as part of our company exercise to do the work of its most junior staff. Meaning our senior management people go to the bank, pick up a customer from the airport, and join in equipment installations in far-flung provinces (Palompon in Leyte anyone?), as a management rule in making sure we face reality and not just face the balance sheet, we do not just meet long-existing and happy customers, and we do not just drink the kool-aid we offer. Every time one of us senior managers do this kind of work, or exposure, or quality/reality check, inevitably something will come up in the next company-wide meeting about how to avoid complacency, how to serve the customer better, what equipment or systems need to be upgraded, what rest period a personnel will need from the daily grind of a routine. Knowing reality and experiencing it is definitely one of the most important management tools: certainly better than a piece of paper saying you have gone through the Harvard Business School. A doctorate degree holder in business management who happened to be a president of one of the biggest universities in downtown Manila once told us she had never taught a single class in this university where she was president. She did not see it as being part of her job. It was immediately our conclusion that it explained why the university she managed was in shambles. At times like this, in spite of our love for management books and management gurus, we get our very healthy dose of skepticism that they even help us at all in improving.
Everyone in the office was treated to any book or reading material of his or her choice in a company-wide bookstore trip to Bestsellers two weeks ago. We thought we share with our colleagues some of the books we are trying to clear before 2013 ends next month:
We only have one digital book to clear: The Emperor of Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
We were just congratulating start-up thinker (is that a better term Steve than guru?) and global problem solver (too grand a term maybe?) Steve Blank for the latest post he put up on his site about how “When Product Features Disappear” from our gadgets because companies like Apple or Amazon or Tesla decided to change the features or rules of the game, or due to some legal, technical, or even deadline issues. We were a great fan of Amazon, in spite of our great love for traditional physical books, but we now vow not to buy anything digital, or at least avoid it unless absolutely urgent. The last ebook we bought, incidentally, was “Holding A Cat By The Tail,” by Steve Blank. We just checked now, and we got billed for the book November 15, 2013. Just two days after we got a reply from Raghavender Sandan, described as Executive Customer Relations of Amazon.com, acknowledging the email we sent to Jeff Bezos. The issue we had with Amazon was that, once the free trial of the Prime subscription ended for our Kindle Fire, our magazines, that we had already paid for (Bloomberg, Philosophy Now, DotMed, India Today, Harvard Business Review, MIT Technology Review), disappeared. Or at least the old issues disappeared. This is because you are only allowed 7 magazines to be in your device, and according Sheila D. of Amazon customer service, 14 will be allowed in your Amazon cloud. Wow, we did not know that when we subscribed to those magazines: and we wasted a lot of time trying to get the transfer from our account to Cloud, but could only get 7 so far not 14, but we do have the 7 in our device, when we used to have maybe 20 or 30 or maybe even more. Whatever it is, we like to have our magazines, like our physical and digital books, easily accessible as reference, entertainment, inspiration, or security blanket. We cancelled all our subscriptions, except for DotMed, which is not readily available here in Manila. We are going back to hard, tactile, materially existent magazines.
Not having any propensity to writing fan mail, we found ourselves congratulating Steve for his post, which for us was very perceptive, and timely: he is not only a great educator and inspiration for start-up entrepreneurs, but he is a great advocate for consumers, both requiring different sets of radar systems to detect important Unidentified Flying Objects. Proof of our admiration for Steve is we bought his ebook (no hard copies for this compilation of blog entries) in spite of our issues with Amazon.
It just dawned on us that Steve might just visit our blog and find out that we did not include him in our list of important books on business and organizations. Imagine how embarrassing that is after gushing about being his biggest fan. He can actually be number 1 in our list if we were to do a list in order of importance. Why is he not there?
The answer is simple: we don’t associate Steve with a book, the way we associate Drucker with say “People and Performance;” or Ram Charam with “Execution.” We associate Steve Blank with some of the most visual, effective, and realistic words, ideas, challenges, and mental pictures of what it means to be a start-up and an entrepreneur, to scale, to pivot (with his student Eric Ries for the word pivot, of course). You find him in his books, youtube, workshops, seminars, quotes from other gurus and former students, interviews (like David Kidder’s “The Start-Up Playbook”). One of our partners, anti-capitalist and a published fiction writer, was convinced to help us build Sunfu by reading and listening to Steve, on start-ups as works of art by artists, as problem solving engines to some of the most pressing health issues, start-ups being essentially out there to discover and solve the needs of the world, not just “the customer.”
Our ultimate tribute to Steve Blank is we mention him in our company meetings, we share his ideas, and we quote him often, maybe too often, and perhaps he is the only management/business “expert” we have been consistently quoting. So we end this post with a quote from his book, his collection of blog entries, “Holding A Cat By The Tail,” which we read out loud just last Monday to our team in our company-wide meeting, and after reading the passage, re-read it in Filipino, just for emphasis. Here it goes (Chris our youngest colleague said the quote answered many of his questions about start-ups):”If you can’t manage chaos and uncertainty, if you can’t bias yourself for action and if you wait around for someone else to tell you what to do, then your investors and competitors will make your decisions for you and you will run out of money and your company will die. Therefore the best way to keep alive is to instill in every employee a decisive mindset that can quickly separate the crucial from the irrelevant, synthesize the output, and use this intelligence to create islands of order in the all-out chaos of a startup.”
Our favorite quote though comes from another page of the book: “Both founders and entrepreneurial employees prefer to build something from the ground up rather than join an existing company. Like jazz musicians or improv actors, they prefer to operate in a chaotic environment with multiple unknowns. They sense the general direction they’re headed in, okay with uncertainty and surprises, using the tools at hand, along with the instinct to achieve their vision. These types of people are rare, unique, and crazy. They’re artists.”
The management mantra in our company for its leadership is: “get out of the building,” to learn about the world and its needs and problems: “get out of the building” comes from Steve Blank. We practice what Steve has experienced by “getting out of the building,” and he has shared the lessons by being out there. If you want to solve the problems of the world as an entrepreneur, employee, scientist, revolutionary, artist, writer, teacher, or student, read him.
People, like us, love reading lists. No wonder many sites telling us what books, or movies, or cities we should have experienced before we die are a big hit. The website of Bill Gates continues to attract us because we always wonder: what books would he be reading or have read? Here are books that influenced, pushed, and shook us (in no particular order):
Business and Organization Books:
1. Know-How by Ram Charam (It’s as always, simple, insightful, practical approaches to business, reminding us that business is all about nuts and bolts, more than metrics or anything like that).
2. Pour You Heart Into It by Howard Shultz (How can criminally expensive coffee take over the world? Read this book and find out).
3. McDonald’s Behind the Arches by John Love (We thought this better than the autobiography of Ray Croc. But for us, whatever else are the failings of McDonald’s as a fat delivery device, Ray Croc is the greatest entrepreneur of all time, even more than Steve Jobs, who was great, but was also being swept and helped by the tide of the technological revolution). The franchising fever was made possible by Croc.
4. The HP Way by Packard. (Called the original tech start-up company, this book tells you why the United States, particularly Silicon Valley, is in the cutting edge of technology, in spite of the collapse of US politics and its economy).
5. To Sell is Human by Daniel Pink (The most hated figure in the world has got to be salesmen. Pink takes simple ideas, like selling, and shows us why this moves the world in positive and negative ways; but good ideas hardly have a chance if there are no salesmen. Everyone, almost everyone, artists, writers, inventors, revolutionaries, scientists are salesmen; and if they are any good, they and their ideas have a chance. Incidentally, the best theater on salesmen, of course is Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, and the best film documentary is Salesman by the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin, about door-to-door Bible salesmen. We always respect salesmen, as much as possible, and we return their calls even if we have to turn them down. Although we have met sleazy ones like when we bought our Kia truck from a Kia Manila Bay salesman. People like him give the word salesman a bad name).
6. People and Performance by Peter Drucker (The only Management Guru from the 1980s who is still read and respected in the 21st Century. He believed that businesses, enterprise, offer the world necessary service and innovation. This is something Marxist activists must learn from, if they are to convince the world to move out of capitalism, the most cut-throat system there is).
7. The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande (Steve Blank listed this in his essential books to read for entrepreneurs and did not know how to classify the book by a medical doctor who made the checklist compulsory for surgery. I thank Dr. Samuel Ang for introducing me to this author. We attempted to invite him to come to the Philippines for a fee, but realized, even if we were a behemoth pharmaceutical company, we would not be able to afford him).
8. The Empty Raincoat by Charles Handy (Usually simple and insightful about the changing nature of work and organizations).
9. The Road Ahead by Bill Gates (He wrote somewhere in this old book that he would hire people who came from companies that went bust, so that they could help him see if his company was on the wrong track. It certainly made us aware that even the best run companies should be aware that their best times could be their blindest moments).
10. Antifragile by Nassim Taleb (A simple and great concept, that one should be antifragile, written in an overly long book, but helpful nonetheless).
If you want to learn, feel, and enjoy invention, which makes innovation in technology, business, marketing, human relations possible, we say read great fiction.
1. The Bread of Salt and Other Stories by NVM Gonzalez.
2. The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud
3. Drown by Junot Diaz
4. The Stranger by Albert Camus
5. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
6. Death in a Sawmill by Rony Diaz
7. Distance to Andromeda by Gregorio Brillantes
8. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
9. War Trash by Ha Jin
10. The Stories of John Cheever
11. Buru Quartet by Pramoedya Ananta Toer
12. Cairo Trilogy by Mahfouz
13. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
14. Stories by William Trevor
We will try to mention a few books in the coming months, in the hope that you will find them helpful in your life and work.