The Tax You Pay For a Bad Idea

In the software development world, there is an important concept called “technical debt.” Basically, it’s a metaphor developed by Ward Cunningham (inventor of the wiki) and it goes something like this. You’re building a piece of software. It could be a full system or just part of a system. You know there are two ways to approach the development; the quick way or the “right” way. But you’re facing some time pressure to deliver so you choose the quick way. You know there are best practices and other things you should and must do but you choose not to do them now because of the time pressure. By choosing the quick way you choose to accumulate some technical debt.

Today I was reading this book “Flirting With the Uninterested” by Maria Ferrante-Schepis and G. Michael Maddock. [1]

Flirting2

In the book the author discusses a new type of debt, “innovation debt” although in the book she refers to this as an “innovation deficit tax.” In my view it’s more properly termed “innovation debt.” Here’s the entire discussion from the book.

WHY DO YOU WANT TO PAY MORE IN TAXES THAN YOU HAVE TO?

You are likely paying an innovation deficit tax. Why? Because marketing and advertising are the tax you pay for a bad idea. More accurately said, they have become the tax you pay for not being able to create a better idea than your competitors.

The days are gone when a nice tagline or clever campaign could create sustained buying behavior. The more complicated the product, the more likely that people will tap their social network to make decisions. People don’t talk about ad campaigns when making these decisions. They share excitement and information about truly differentiated products. The lesson? The smartest companies are shifting their ad spend to innovation spend. They have realized that they can get exponentially higher return by investing in something that is truly different and needed, and THEN marketing it. And when they do, they spend less on marketing because their consumers do the marketing for them.

If you incur technical debt, as with any debt, you’ll need to make interest payments. These come in the form of the extra work you need to do both now and in the future. Incurring technical debt isn’t always the wrong choice; there may be a window of opportunity that, if missed, would incur a far greater debt. Presumably however, if you want to stop paying the interest, you’ll need to pay down the debt and do the work required to build the system the right way.

If you incur innovation debt, you’ll also need to make interest payments. In essence, if you haven’t invested the time to build something truly innovative and compelling that distinctly meets a customer need better than your competitors, the interest you’ll pay will be in the form of marketing and advertising.

The key takeaway: “The smartest companies are shifting their ad spend to innovation spend.” So, “If you’re considering spending a bunch of money on marketing or social media, why not start by developing a game-changing idea first and marketing it second?” [1]

 [1] Ferrante-Schepis, Maria. ““The Product Isn’t the Problem”” Flirting With the Uninterested Innovating in a “Sold, Not Bought” Category. Charleston: Advantage Media Group, 2012. 12. Print.

Posted in Innovation, Marketing, Software Development | 1 Comment

Windows 8 Is a Direction, Not a Destination

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” — Steve Jobs

Windows8Direction2

And maybe even after you show it to them. The reactions to the introduction of Microsoft’s Windows 8 are decidedly mixed but on balance they tip to the negative side. The complaints are myriad:

  • “Where’s the Start button?”
  • “Too radical”
  • “It’s incomplete”
  • “It’s slow”
  • “The apps don’t work well”
  • “Key apps are missing”
  • “Hard to use”
  • “It’s dual purpose, they should have chosen desktop or Metro”

I wonder if people are missing the point. Microsoft is faced with a situation it’s encountered before.

  1. A new UI paradigm
  2. Huge media and industry hype
  3. A threat to Microsoft’s market share

Windows 8 is just Microsoft’s response to these factors. For sure it’s a new direction for them but it’s also the opening salvo towards a destination and we’re just starting down that road. Let’s take a step back a few years to the late 70’s.

The personal computer industry was filled with variety and there was no clear winner. The market was dominated by Radio Shack’s TRS-80 which enjoyed over 50% of the market. [1] The early 80’s saw a number of competitors like Commodore, Kaypro and Osborn join the fray and together take about 50% of the market. In fact, in 1983-1984, the Commodore 64 held sway with about 40% of the market while the Apple II had about 10%. [2]

The common factor for all of these machines was the command line interface. However, the market was beginning to solidify around DOS, the operating system developed by Microsoft and licensed to multiple computer companies. But something ground-breaking was to happen in 1984 with the introduction of the Apple Macintosh.

The Mac was this amazing new piece of hardware with this interesting new concept, a GUI, a graphical user interface. Gone was the command line. Instead there were “windows” and “folders” and the use of a pointing device, a “mouse.” Fueled by Steve Jobs’ hard driving motivational energy, based on the “snow white design language” [3] and launched by the famous ‘1984’ television commercial aired during the Super Bowl [4], this small computer gained immediate popularity.

So, in 1984 there was also 1) a new UI paradigm, 2) huge media and industry hype and 3) a threat to Microsoft’s market share. Microsoft responded by developing and launching Windows 1.0 on November 20, 1985. In fact, Windows wasn’t a new operating system at all but rather an “operating environment” that extended DOS. In effect, you ended up with this dual-headed system. Sound familiar? In this case, your PC booted into DOS and at the command line, you typed in “WIN”.

There were new UI concepts like drop-down menus, scroll bars, icons and dialog boxes. Windows 1.0 shipped with several new “apps”, Paint, Writer, Notepad and Calculator. But Windows 1.0 was nothing more than an initial foray into some new concepts. The UI was very rigid and hard to get used to. You couldn’t overlap windows, control the screen layout or use keyboard shortcuts. And it was slow and cumbersome. Again, sound familiar?

Windows1point0

And, to extend the parallel even further, major respected publications like the New York Times questioned the value of the concept altogether as they opined on Christmas day, 1984, “Windows were a great idea until you compared them with the old-fashioned, uncomputerized desk, at which point it became obvious that they were simply too complicated to be dealt with efficiently. They made life more difficult, not easier, and they will continue to do so until a video display the size of a desktop can make visible a number of complete documents, each in its own window.” [5]

Yes, Windows 8 is cumbersome at times. Yes, there are some missing pieces and changes will need to be made. Yes, there’s much to learn. But it’s not the final say in how we’ll use Microsoft-based PCs. It’s only the opening statement in a direction the PC (and tablet) is heading. Windows 8 is a reaction to iOS and Android based on the events of the last few years and is really history repeating itself. Will it be successful? Yes. Microsoft has a user base of over a billion users of Windows already. It’s hard to envision a scenario where Windows 9 or 10 is not the widely accepted solution of a billion computer users.

So, complain and vent, yes. And by all means, push Microsoft to improve. That in fact is critical. But see Windows 8 for what it is, a precursor for the future, a likely future, a good future in fact. Microsoft has made a big bet, and in my estimation, a paradigm-shifting bet that will have the impact and adoption of Windows 95.

[1] http://arstechnica.com/business/2012/08/from-altair-to-ipad-35-years-of-personal-computer-market-share/
[2] http://arstechnica.com/features/2005/12/total-share/4/
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snow_White_design_language
[4] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhsWzJo2sN4
[5] http://www.nytimes.com/1984/12/25/science/value-of-windowing-is-questioned.html

Posted in Innovation, Marketing, Software Development, Windows | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Morning Drive Thoughts on Windows Phone

I was chatting with a friend last week about Microsoft and Windows Phone adoption and what they could do to improve it… and these random thoughts occurred on the way in this morning…

  1. BlackBerry 10 is coming out soon. I don’t have any reason to think it’s going to do well but the somewhat positive perception created by the press may be an issue in slowing the adoption of Windows Phone. One huge opportunity for Phone is to fill the gap created by RIM’s demise. One missed opportunity may be Microsoft’s response to events like BlackBerry 10’s rollout. I’ve seen much more advertising for Windows 8 than Windows Phone and that’s a big miss. If they’re serious about competing, they need to invest more in Phone. They spent $8.5B to acquire Skype. They could afford to incentivize their partners to aggressively court companies like Home Depot to replace their BlackBerry offerings with Windows Phone. Where are they on this?
  2. They’re behind in apps. Yes, they’re getting better but not there yet. Even though they claim 46 out of the top 50, one could question that (http://j.mp/RGz2N3). They need to invest in app creation similar to programs they have in place for building apps for Windows 8. My daughter is interested in Windows Phone but as a designer she deems Instagram a critical app. They spent $8.5B to acquire Skype. How about $XXM in a critical app creation program? They could invest in their partner network to build critical apps. Pay attention to apps that are gaining attention now in iOS/Android and target those to be built and introduced in three months.
  3. They get hammered in the press. Their marketing needs to be preemptive and reactive, just like a political campaign. If you get hammered in the press, push back. If perceptions are inaccurate or biased, put out another point of view. Work to gain positive perception and mindshare. Apple got somewhat hammered for the maps snafu. Had it been Microsoft, it would be game over. BlackBerry is getting somewhat positive press. Microsoft needs to pay attention. They spent $8.5B to acquire Skype. They need to treat Phone as a first class citizen and invest in PR like it matters. It’s really now or never. Having firms like IDC predict gloom for Phone (http://j.mp/YpOfUw) is a failure of Microsoft evangelizing their platform.

There is no guarantee that Phone will succeed and if Microsoft is serious they should pony up, send the message that they’re really committed to its success.

Posted in Marketing, Mobile | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A Rollout Like No Other

“If I had simply asked people what they wanted, they would have asked me for faster horses!” — Henry Ford


Eighty five years ago today the intrepid and amazing Henry Ford and his Ford Motor Company introduced the Model A to the world. We have been amazed and enamored over the past few years at the long lines when a new Apple product has been introduced. But we have only to look back 85 years to witness a product rollout far more impressive in scale and magnitude. [1]

Henry Ford was well known for his devotion to the Model T. It was his baby. It had made him a fortune, established him as a paragon of industry and, with his commitment to a pricing model people could afford, endeared him to the people unlike any other public figure of the day. He was keenly aware of this role and the fundamental part his invention had played in shaping American culture and providing a new level of joy for the American people. An incident from 1912 illustrates the magnitude of his devotion to his product.

Ford had been away on an extended trip to Europe and during that time his leading engineers and managers cooked up a little surprise for him. As engineers are wont, they had a deep desire to “advance” the design and thought Mr. Ford, when he saw their work, would be excited to broaden the product line. So they designed a prototype, a proposed successor to the Model T. It had four doors, was longer with more stylish lines, and was painted red. When Mr. Ford returned from his trip, one company manager described what transpired as Henry inspected the new vehicle.

He kept looking at it. He’d tip his head this way and that and look at it…. I said, “Is there anything more I can …?” “No,” he said. “I’m going over and look at the new car.” He kind of smiled…. He had his hands in his pockets and he walked around that car three or four times, looking at it very closely. It was a four-door job and the top was down. Finally, he got to the left-hand side of the car that was facing me, and he takes his hands out, gets hold of the door, and bang! One jerk, and he had it right off the hinges! He ripped the door right off! God, how the man done it, I don’t know! He jumped in there, and, bang, goes the other door. Bang, goes the windshield. He jumps over the back seat and starts pounding on the top. He rips the top with the heel of his shoe. He wrecked the car as much as he could. [2]

And so, company executives knew exactly where not to stray. The Model T would define the Ford Motor Company forevermore. Well, not exactly. By the mid-1920s the Model T’s appeal to the American public was waning and everyone in the industry knew it. Everyone that is, except the titular head of said industry. Company executives began a concerted campaign to win over Mr. Ford and finally, in the late summer of 1926, after literally years of tension and debate, Henry Ford gave in. A new model could be built.

The following year was filled with endless debates; Henry staunchly advocating for traditional features, and Edsel, his son, and president of the company, lobbying for modern innovations and contemporary styling. Many of the debates, when viewed in modern terms, seem comical today. For example, the new model could hit sixty five miles per hour and during one test run, the driver lost control and the car ended in a ditch prompting Henry to proclaim, “We can’t put that car out on the public! We’ll kill them all!” [3] Nevertheless, Mr. Ford relented on many innovations proposed by his son including the more powerful engine.

Finally, on May 26, 1927, the new car was announced. In Apple-esque style, few details were given other than that the new model would have “speed, style, flexibility, and control in traffic.” [4] While the Ford Company re-tooled their factories to build the new model, Henry began a carefully crafted and masterful public relations campaign previously unmatched in American history. He withheld almost every detail of the new vehicle, occasionally releasing tiny teasing tidbits but never announcing anything substantive. He also positioned himself as the public’s benefactor, a heroic and wise man of the people, defender of their interests.

By Thanksgiving the anticipation for the new car had reached fever pitch. For five straight days after the holiday, Ford ran full page ads in every English language newspaper in the country, two thousand in all. On December 2, 1927, the day had arrived and Model-A-mania gripped the nation. This was the event that everyone had been anticipating, like a Super Bowl of epic proportions or a new iPad rollout. But nothing has or possibly will ever compare to this event. The first day numbers were staggering considering the US population of 119 million. In Detroit, 100,000 people viewed the car on the first day. In Cincinnati there were 296,745, in Chicago, 514,096 and in the Kansas City area, an amazing 651,000. [5] This, despite the fact that many people had to be turned away. C.W. Doss, the Kansas City branch manager related the staggering event.

“It’s history – what a tremendous reception the Model A had. In Kansas City they literally broke the doors down to get in before it was time to open to the public. They pushed them right through. You couldn’t control that mob. There will never be another introduction like that; never was before. That was the story all over the country. It was tremendous, fabulous. The advance orders on that car were tremendous. They just ran over you to get one.” [5]

Estimates were that 10 million Americans went to a dealer to see the new vehicle in the first thirty six hours and 25 million in the first week. In other words, over 20% of the American population, 1 out of every 5 men, women and children in every city, town, village, and borough made it a point to see the new vehicle in the first week alone. And the new car did not disappoint. New innovations were everywhere; hydraulic shock absorbers, windshield wipers, new color schemes, theft-proof locks and safety glass. Perhaps more surprisingly, the new model continued the Ford tradition of affordability, costing no more than the Model T, with prices ranging from $385 to $570.

The introduction of the Model A was a signature event in American history. In many ways it was a high point of the decade with an industry magnate building a product of high quality at a reasonable price. And it was likely the most remarkable product rollout in history.


[1] This entire post borrows greatly from Watts, Steven. The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century. New York: A.A. Knopf, 2005. Kindle Edition.

[2] Brown, “Reminiscences,” pp. 110– 11. Allan Nevins noted that this story was corroborated by C. H. Wills, Jr. (See Nevins, Ford: Times, Man, Company, p. 581.)

[3] Sheldrick, “Reminiscences,” pp. 30– 31; Ernest G. Liebold, “Reminiscences,” p. 846; Nevins and Hill, Ford: Expansion and Challenge, p. 450.

[4] Watts, Steven. The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century. New York: A.A. Knopf, 2005. 372. Kindle Edition.

[5] Spawn, Jim. “The Introduction of the New Ford Car.” The Restorer. N.p., July/August 2010 Web. http://www.mafca.com/downloads/Restorer/Introduction_of_the_New_Ford.pdf

Posted in Innovation, Marketing | Tagged , | 2 Comments

How NOT To Innovate

“The problem is never how to get new, innovative thoughts into your mind, but how to get the old ones out.” — Dee Hock

Liberal vs. conservative, PC vs. Mac, Chevy vs. Ford. Seems there’s always two points of view, two approaches, two views. Or there’s a continuum. What about “innovation”? What are the opposing approaches to innovation?

For companies, it’s all about competing. It’s all about competing. Just starting out? How do you get a foothold? In the middle of the pack? How can you get to the front? Are you the leader? How do you stay there? The answer is and will always be — innovate!

Of course, maintain and grow your current business. Of course, serve your customers better. But does this just involve doing things smarter, better, faster? Or do you need to adapt and change? Do you need to constantly rethink products, services and perhaps most of all, processes? How do you get the new, innovative thoughts into your mind and the old ones out?

It does seem that many companies talk about “innovation.” It does seem that many companies even give it a go. It also seems that most companies are fundamentally bad at it. From the outside in, it seems that there is an upside down understanding of “innovation.” When you really look at some companies’ efforts, it’s almost as if they went about trying to ensure innovation doesn’t happen. It’s almost as if they’re following in lockstep my tongue-in-cheek guide below.

So, if you want a guide on “How NOT To Innovate”, try this approach:

Don’t Rock the Boat

  • Have a detailed plan that maps out all the steps over the next year or two; realize that — creating new products, developing new processes — innovation — your thoughtful smart people can figure much of this out beforehand, then it’s just a matter of following the recipe
  • Make sure your company knows precisely how it has always made money and that everyone just tries to do that faster, better and smarter
  • If you’re an industry leader, innovation is risky so do it “safely”, sit on your lead a bit
  • If you’re in the middle of the pack, keep plugging away; soon, with incremental gains you’ll have made headway
  • Put in place a deliberate, public, “innovation” process, stepped and managed; that way, no one will submit foolish ideas or waste people’s time with frivolous and fruitless investment

Manage Creativity

  • Manage by committee, make slow deliberate decisions, make sure everyone knows to get approval for each stage of invention
  • Ensure all new ideas are very “smart”; when someone creates a “far out” idea, scrutinize it publicly so everyone knows what’s creatively de rigueur
  • Ensure politics are in place around who the “idea” people are, know your place
  • Discourage desires for new, cool things by subtly labeling them “a bit out there”
  • Make sure people who roll out new ideas feel most comfortable when they’re sure it will have support from everyone
  • Don’t tolerate ambiguity, make sure you’ve got it pretty much figured out before you proceed

Make Safe Bets

  • Create a culture of “Be careful, try things yes, but have a plan, don’t let it interfere with the business, get approval so no one can say you were wasting time or money”
  • Ensure that risk minimization is top of mind
  • Keep your tries to a minimum, don’t “blow” time and expense on trying too many things; again, we’re here to make money, not to feed the creative (but expensive) itch
  • Only reward the successes, and remember, determining “success” takes a while
  • Create a culture of discouraging “mistakes” or “wasted effort”
  • Don’t invest in efforts where the ROI isn’t clear from the get-go
  • Reinforce cultural mores that reward conventional success and discourage risk taking

Engineer Talent Carefully

  • Hire from a recipe, here’s the list of skills and the personality profile, go find them
  • Make sure there’s a need and position that matches each new hire
  • Avoid “opportunity” hires (see ‘Make Safe Bets’)
  • Promote those who follow the convention, who get along, who don’t create waves
  • Address employee attrition by rewarding those who maintain the status quo the best
  • Ensure political correctness is a criteria for suggesting innovation
Posted in Innovation | Tagged | 2 Comments

Why Organizations Struggle To Deliver Software

There are five underlying variables that deeply affect an organization’s ability to deliver substantive, high quality software solutions effectively. When discussing this topic, people typically mention things like process, tools or skillsets but in truth, though those aspects are important, of far greater import are things that affect people’s focus, commitment and direction.

Leadership: Size will determine the exact structure of the leadership but there must be a clearly defined leader of the software development team. This person is the ultimate head authority that sets tone, policy, leads the culture and has the right to direct the activities of the team. There can be multiple people “at the top” to be sure, for example, driving sales or marketing or directing strategy or defining architecture. But team members need to have a clear understanding of who they answer to so there is comfort in knowing they’re performing as requested and not receiving conflicting direction.

Culture: While this word is frequently overused, understanding it is central to an organization’s ability to deliver effectively. There is a continuum between “fast and furious” for example, and “slow and deliberate.” Where does your organization lie? Is the team rewarded for being nimble and effective and delivering frequently, for example, or is the concern more about knocking down every last defect before each interim release? Do you celebrate quality over timeliness or is rapid, regular, reliable delivery more desirable? Having your team understand the underlying philosophy that will be rewarded allows them to function successfully almost automatically.

Legalism: Rules get a bad name. Rules are fantastic. They give people a sense of direction and how to operate. When there is a lack of policy and standards, people become confused and unsure how to proceed. By the same token, rules are constricting. When rules trump effectiveness, results suffer. Relying strictly on “rules” as a safety net rather than relying on your own common sense makes no sense. Your culture should be so well communicated that people know when an exception to the rule is the right way to go.

Fear: People should be empowered to make decisions because there is clear leadership and they understand the culture and they know when the rules don’t exactly fit the situation. Team members must be comfortable, not fearful, that decisions they make on their own will be supported, not picked apart and “Monday morning quarterbacked.” Feedback after the fact is important to be sure so that individuals understand how to make better decisions the next time. But confidence in their right to use their common sense “in the moment” will more often than not lead to superior results. Backing the person rather than the rule will have huge rewards downstream and will increase loyalty to the organization many times over as well as allow a person to grow in their decision making prowess.

Rigidity: Change is hard. Switching policies makes people uncomfortable. People complain because they developed a comfort level with how things have always been done. But change is essential. Tools evolve. Markets shift. Requirements change. Organizations that don’t adopt new practices, try out new techniques, adopt new methods and tools, are headed for the ash heap. Your staff must get comfortable with change. Your staff must get used to, at times, being uncomfortable because of change. Great organizations are great adopters of advancing techniques, ideas and methods. Promoting a positive, eager attitude that embraces change will lead to a culture of success.

Your organization can be extremely effective in building and delivering software, but, you have to pay attention to more than just process and methods.

Posted in Software Development | Tagged | Leave a comment

Reading, Actually: The Lost Art of Reading in 21st Century Culture

“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.” – Mark Twain


We live in the most amazing time in history for knowledge availability. With the advent of the Internet, opportunities for learning have skyrocketed. Many of the most respected universities have made courses available free online. [1] Amazon offers tens of thousands of books for free online just by downloading them to your Kindle or to a Kindle application that runs on almost any platform. The Internet Archive (archive.org) has 2.5 million free books.

You would think that as a society we would be advancing now more than ever in terms of knowledge, creativity and educational excellence. In fact, the opposite is true. We live in perhaps the least educated time in recent history. While many people seem to know high school Math, English, and Science, a basic level knowledge of facts that would have once been considered essential is now scarce. For example, in a recent survey by Newsweek magazine, 29 percent of respondents couldn’t even name the vice president. [2]

The secret is that the solution lies right at our fingertips. It’s not about improving the public school system. While a laudable goal and certainly worth continuing to attempt, it’s been tried repeatedly for generations with marginal results. The decline of people’s intellect is often blamed on the rise of cable television and the Internet, but it began long before that. While as a society we have learned the skill of reading, we have no longer acquired the practice. Sure, people read, but usually as a last resort — on the plane, when you’re sick, “to fall asleep.” Most people abandon all attempts at reading as soon as some alternative media is even remotely available.

Have you met people that seem larger than life? There is something different about them that you can’t put your finger on. Perhaps, just perhaps, it has to do with something that we all have access to. It’s been posited all over the Internet (but I can’t find a source) that the average CEO reads 4-5 books a month. People like Richard Anderson, the CEO of Delta Airlines who always asks people in interviews, “what are the last three or four books you’ve read, and what did you enjoy about those?” [3] Consider this then: boosting your career path and changing your own world (and our world) may be as simple as making a commitment to lead a literary life.

The thing about literary people is, their life and perspective is far expanded beyond the small reach of their immediate borders. They see things through others eyes and in other times and places. If you want to go beyond a limited view of the world, your own immediate experiences, your own restrictive cognitive reality, the experiences of your very own last year or two, reading will do this for you. Here are some suggestions:

Read across a wide spectrum: Don’t stick to one subject area, one author, one time period or one genre. Of course you have limited time. But don’t just read tech books or business books. Human endeavor and the practice of it has been recorded faithfully for generations and you have ready access to the real words of these very real people. Have you ever wondered how Benjamin Franklin could be so productive and how he balanced his time between politics, religion, science, writing, diplomacy and music? You can read about it in his own words – the book is free on the Amazon Kindle. [4]

Dig deep: Consider picking a subject area you want to excel in and go for it. Don’t expect instant results. Developing respectable expertise may well take several months. The great thing is there are so many ways to do it. Download, buy, go to book sales, use the library, browse the Internet, follow the “1-3-5” method (below), read articles, listen to podcasts, dig deeply in one focus area and allow your brain, your experience and your unique perspective to be combined into your own special zone of competence.

Write: As Thackeray said “There are a thousand thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up a pen to write.” As you read, write. This could be your own reflections or simply repeating what you’re reading. If you want your thoughts to coalesce into something more than just repeating trivial tidbits that everyone already says or knows, you will allow your brain to come up with something unique that only you can contribute through writing.

Have a plan: Don’t expect to become literate without effort. Make a plan. Decide When. Choose a place and time to devote to reading. Make it regular. It could mean getting up a half hour earlier before the house wakes up, setting aside your lunch, or staying late at work. Stay devoted to it. Consider it just as critical as your other endeavors. If you’re interrupted, don’t write it off: “well, I was only reading.” Make it a priority. Decide What. If you have a goal for educating yourself on a topic, make a plan and stick to it but be willing to adjust your plan as you discover new sources of knowledge.

The “1-3-5” method: Do these three at the same time and you will get maximum exposure to a subject area. Your cognitive integration of the subject matter will surprise you.

  • Pick 1 respected tome about the subject and absorb every word digging very deeply, write down your thoughts as you go through it, perhaps even rewrite parts of it, write chapter summaries, blog and tweet about it.
  • Pick 3 related shorter books about the same topic and read them cover to cover but as quickly as possible while you’re reading the first book. Don’t pause to reflect, just fire-hose them down.
  • Find 5 other books that are related tangentially and skim them, reading some parts in detail but simply skimming other parts. Your brain’s ability to integrate all of the subject matter in new, fresh and interesting ways will surprise you. Your ability to discuss the subject at hand at close to an expert level will position you as that expert in your colleague’s minds.

Follow the path: If the author you’re reading makes you jump out of your seat in excitement, find out what else that author has written and find out who were the big influences on that author. Don’t blow off footnotes or bibliographies, especially now that much of your reading can be done while online. They are there to help you develop a unique and integrated view of what you’re reading, connecting different subjects and explaining cross-cultural references. If you love Tom Clancy, don’t stop there. With a little digging you will find that Freddie Forsyth was a major influence on him and now you’ll have a whole new world to enjoy.

Use all the tools: Don’t miss out on the tools available to you. For example, you don’t need a Kindle to read Kindle books. There are apps to let you read Kindle books on any PC or device or using a browser. This means you can read anywhere. On the bus, at the dentist, waiting in line, at Starbucks, waiting for the wife to try on seventeen outfits, at the symphony, in a boring meeting, at the company quarterly. Skimming through books works especially well during these times.

We live in an age of vast accessibility that even our parents and grandparents could only dream of. Take advantage of it. Now more than ever you can expand your borders beyond the prison of a non-literary life.


[1] “400 Free Online Courses from Top Universities,” Open Culture OpenCulture.org (November 26, 2011), http://www.openculture.com/freeonlinecourses

[2] Andrew Romano, “How Dumb Are We?” Newsweek (March 20, 2011), http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2011/03/20/how-dumb-are-we.html

[3] Adam Bryant, “He Wants Subjects, Verbs and Objects”, The New York Times (April 25, 2009), http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/26/business/26corner.html

[4] Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. [Lexington, Ky.]: SoHo, 2010. Digital.

Posted in Literature | Tagged | 2 Comments