Jo Malone: My Story

At 402 pages, not including acknowledgements and the index, My Story by Jo Malone is not a weekend read. But it has the ability to keep a grip on one’s attention till the end. The book has the support of a ghostwriter, whom she thanks in acknowledgements. Ms Malone is dyslexic and makes the point that her sense of smell, which is almost synaesthetic, may have been a sensory compensation for her dyslexia. As a hyperosmic synaesthete, I found that fascinating and relatable. She talks frequently about her eidetic memory for smells which has played a vital role in her creativity.

One of the first, unmissable attention-grabbers in this book is the scented glossy page. It is scented with Pomelo, the pomelo, grapefruit and vetiver based first fragrance she launched with Jo Loves. It is an overpowering smell, that competes with and easily beats the new book smell. If you are hyperosmic like me, be alert to the the possibility of a headache! The smell is strong and did not fade away during the 3-4 days over which I read the book.

There are two distinctive stories being told in the book — one, the autobiographical detail, the other, the business creation stories which essentially drew me to the book. They are neatly intertwined of course, though often nostalgia wins out over the business building story.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part “Roots” is the story of her childhood which alternates between idyllic and quite disturbing, while it clearly is where her creative and entrepreneurial character was fostered.

The second, and the longest, part “Wings” is both a love story, with her husband and co-founder Gary Willcox, and the story of the creation of Jo Malone. Their partnership — through the growth of her facials business, the creation and building of Jo Malone, the sale to Estee Lauder, the birth of the son Josh, Ms Malone’s breast cancer and treatment in New York, and her making slow steps back into fragrance creation once the non-compete with Estee Lauder ended — is the rare, non-replicable, not-so-secret sauce of her success. She mentions almost no major arguments or disagreements, which is something other co-founding teams rarely experience. They also have complementary skills in the building of the business and complete trust between them. She is the creative power, and he is definitely the more commercially savvy partner in the duo. He is also the man with the retail real-estate savvy, crucial in building both Jo Malone, and now, Jo Loves. But there are useful lessons in here about building a client list before launching a major brand, being very good at one’s craft but also learning constantly instead of lazily hiring help in (in business, you cannot manage what you don’t understand and measure), delivering the best customer experience from the get-go and recognising and drawing upon all the social capital you have built. What is missing is any major discussion of the financial aspects of building Jo Malone, especially since she mentions she learnt early never to take on debt in the business. A business growing gangbusters, especially where one must manufacture and stock the product before it can be sold, needs robust finances and that part is disappointingly sparse in this section of the book. There is also little about the backend of the business such as what was learnt from the mail order business, and how the relationships with the best customers were managed.

The third part “Reinvention” is about how she returned to making fragrances with Jo Loves, which being an ongoing story is the shortest segment in the book. She discusses how hard it may be to come back and compete in the same category not because of legal restrictions but because of the old memories that surface and because it may be hard to let go. Mr Willcox’s wisdom about letting go before you move on is spot on here. The creation of the brand Jo Malone is a BSM — Before Social Media — business creation story. Her new brand, Jo Loves, is smack bang in the social media era as seen right away from the story of the pop-up launch  at Selfridges. She even tweeted from her handle, @JoMaloneMBE, on the very first day the Jo Loves shop opened at 42 Elizabeth Street, the shop where she had worked as a teenager with florist Justin de Blank. This part of her story also has a huge international aspect to it. I found the rebranding challenges quite interesting too but as with any story told after the fact, the struggle seems more compressed than it actually may have been. This is the ‘to be continued” part of Ms Malone’s story, of course, though the book ends with her induction into the Retail Hall of Fame. As she says in the book about her first tweet: “Once a shopkeeper, always a shopkeeper”.

As with all autobiographies, the author has been generous to herself. I can’t find it in me to turn up my nose at what could be seen as “poor me”. I did feel sad for her that her family is not with her celebrating her success, as they all passed away within a short period of one another. There is not inconsiderable name-dropping in the book. Seeing as this is a BSM book, and many of these people were her clients and her champions in the very early days of her business, even before Jo Malone was launched, it is like a roll call of 1990s London. Some of these names are seminal to her story e.g. Sarah Ferguson, who was her client from before she married Prince Andrew and who introduced new clients to her facial business when Malone separated from her mother’s business, Leonard Lauder, who was at the helm of Estee Lauder when they bought Jo Malone, and Jeremy King of Corbin and King. Other names, such as the mention of David Linley queuing up, feel gratuitous.

Star rating: 3.5 out of 5 

Usefulness note: The middle section “Wings” would be useful for people looking to create startups in the lifestyle space. But the usefulness would be limited, because of the BSM nature of the brand Jo Malone and because discussion of money and other seminal details of business building are not discussed enough or at all. The Jo Loves story is WIP.

How Women Decide

How Women Decide, by Therese Huston, is provocatively titled and an easy read, backed by substantial research, listed in the 53 page of references.

The book has six chapters each dealing with themes that surface when women’s decision-making is discussed, namely women’s intuition, decisiveness, attitudes to risk, confidence, decisions under stress, and unusually, watching others make poor decisions. Each chapter has a summary of take-aways at the end which is handy. Huston tells stories often from the public domain to make her points. She also patiently untangles science from socialisation while making her argument.

If I had to recommend one chapter, I would be hard-pressed to pick between “Hello, risk taker” and “Stress makes her focused, not fragile”. Biases regarding their risk taking behaviour and their ability to cope under stress follow women around. Yet as Huston demonstrates in the chapter on the former, risk-taking is not a personality trait, but a skill which can be learnt although men take more risks during the process of learning than women do. The differences in risk taking disappear later with experience. She also shows that women actually takes more risks e.g. speaking up in hostile environments where they are in the minority than men do. She specifically points out the challenges of precarious manhood and the “white male effect” on how something may appear risk free to a white male but not to many others. In the chapter on stress, she demonstrates how women and men behave differently under stress vis-a-vis the risks they take, and their approaches i.e. fight-or-flight in men and tend-and-befriend in women. She also highlights how social judgment is harsher on women than on men in stressed situations and how the genders express emotion in socially sanctioned ways.

The chapter on watching others make poor decisions had personal appeal for me. I am simply unable to watch a poor decision being made, and it can often cause friction with friends and family.

If I could make it compulsory for senior executives, board directors and people managers to read this book, I would. Of course, the most open-minded would benefit the most and in turn their organisations would too.

Like many non-fiction books, this book too could be shorter by a quarter without losing substance. But it is an easy read so the length does not weigh down on the reader.

Extra kudos to the author, for acknowledging that her husband’s willingness to cover the family’s financial needs for several years gave her the chance to try her luck as a full-time writer! As Ann Bauer wrote a few years ago, this is the sponsorship that doesn’t get discussed honestly or openly, as much as it should be. Not all writers have wealthy philanthropist patrons. Sometimes the truth for creative people is that their own family is giving up a lot to support their dreams and for being honest about that Ms Huston deserves a gold star.

Star rating: 5 out of 5 (could have been a shorter book!)

Usefulness note: I would nudge those, who manage people or otherwise work with people to read this book. It is not a dry read and gently challenges unconscious biases held against one half of humanity.

Small Data

Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends attracted my attention for several reasons. One, I am interested in understanding the world better, so other people’s ways of seeing, ways of making sense of things interest me. Two, I read anything that can be vaguely filed under “decision making”. Three, that the title appears to rail provocatively against the tide of “big data” drowning us these days.

Martin Lindstrom, the author, is a Danish consultant to brands. As a 12-year old he was once confined to hospital where, to entertain himself, he started keenly observing others in his ward and the various nurses and doctors who came to visit, and making hypotheses and testing them. As a keen Lego maker as a child, he notes in passing an encounter with Lego’s lawyers and then how later he was able to help the brand remain on course even as the company feared it was losing its market as kids became more engrossed in online games and communities.

The book is full of stories from Lindstrom’s assignments for various brands in many different countries. His insight often benefits from his outsider status in the cultures he studies whether as a middle-aged man observing teenage girls’ fashion behaviours, or as a Danish man trying to disentangle the Indian Mother-in-law-daughter-in-law dynamic in joint families. He also shares a story of when he had to go off Pepsi in his personal life to become a more-or-less dispassionate observer in order to help the brand.

In telling his stories, Lindstrom goes off on tangents sometimes, but also links back to experiences described in other chapters. This quirk has personal appeal for me because in conversations, I am quite prone to telling side stories and going off on tangents to enrich a thread but unlike many others, I also have the ability to always come back to the main narrative.

In the last chapter, Lindstrom shares his 7Cs framework of observing and making sense of small data. That framework, alas, is the weakest link in this book. I can see why it might have been compelling to abstract his “magic” into a framework others could use. But when I put my business person and sometime teacher and trainer hat on, I know that people missing the obvious and not being keen observers is quite common. That ability to observe aside, being able to link things, and to reject or persist with various hypotheses is Lindstrom’s real USP. The framework would go nowhere with those whose ability to see is not as keen as the author’s.

The references and the index are helpful but if you seek academic research type references, this is not a book for you. Read it definitely but read a lot more besides.

The stories are good and amusingly regaled, even if sometimes correlation-causation-explanation-inquiry get muddled, and some hypotheses or conclusions seem a bit too far fetched. As a way of seeing and explaining the world, the book would easily nudge “big data” obsessed business decision makers into questioning and reflecting.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: A good light read, which I would heartily recommend, but not for those seeking robust academic style frameworks and concepts.

Life Moves Pretty Fast

Just over 300 pages, including several Top-n lists, notes and an index, Hadley Freeman’s Life Moves Pretty Fast is a breeze to read.

Written in the chatty style of friends nattering over a coffee or a beer in a British pub — although Freeman was born in New York, she seems to have grown up in the UK and now lives in London — the book is almost deceptive in the seriousness of its thesis. The book explores the complex dynamics of race, gender, class, relationships, and identity, without being dry or boring.

Freeman builds the case — although you wouldn’t know it from the ease of her storytelling — that 80s Hollywood films discussed important social themes, and did so in a manner essential to the story, that is no longer seen in films. This is, to a great extent, owed to the fact that the earlier studio driven system of film-making has now morphed into a handful of corporate owners focused less on story telling, and more on profitability of specific market segments, such as China, for whom Transformers 4 was made. This push for profitability in non-English speaking markets may also be why subtlety, complexity and nuance are being lost in favour of violence and cartoonish characters. After all, there is no need to translate violence, she argues. As readers, we find ourselves agreeing with her, as we do with many of the other key points she makes.

That these studios are owned and controlled by men means that it is increasingly tough for women to get films made, which explains a lot of things about modern day Hollywood fare but I digress.

The chapters are organised by film and a dominant social theme, although as we dive into each chapter it becomes clear that social themes come in clusters. Freeman discusses abortion (Dirty Dancing), the multi-facetedness of love (The Princess Bride), the interestingness of women (Steel Magnolias, whose back-story is as moving as the film was impactful), the importance of parents (Back To The Future), social class (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).

Using Ghostbusters and Top Gun, she writes about the idea of masculinity and male friendship. The chapter fascinated me no end not least because well I don’t have to worry about being masculine but as women, we deal with men who have to. I read twice the chapter discussing When Harry Met Sally. Freeman writes an ode to romantic comedies, and gender, love, and how the depiction of women in films is cliched and stereotypical and reductive.

Freeman however saves the best for the last. In a chapter titled “Eddie Murphy’s Eighties Movies: Race can be transcended”. That chapter made me wish the book went on a bit longer.

Ironically the only chapter I did find a drag was titled “Batman: Superheroes don’t have to be such a drag”.

The book could have been edited a bit tighter. I struggled to resist reading it without a highlighter or pencil in hand. There were several occasions where I felt that some of the most crucial, impactful points Freeman makes may be at risk of being missed altogether. The voice can sound a bit teenager-y at times but I wouldn’t dwell on it as a shortcoming of the book.

There is a skill in discussing uncomfortable themes, themes we can relate to so obviously we don’t think they merit a discussion at all, without getting all het-up, moralistic and preachy. Freeman demonstrates the skill in spades. There is mention of the Bechdel test, for instance, but it doesn’t make it to the index, that remains steadfastly focused on the names of films, actresses and actors that appear in the book.

This review gets out on the Saturday of the second May bank holiday in the UK. You have time. Read the book, watch the films, but this time you may well do it with a different angle on them.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: A book about Hollywood films of the 1980s will likely best appeal to those who were growing up in that time. But it should be read by all those interested in cinema and its power to reflect and shape social discourse, indeed document it in a story telling format.

Delivering Happiness

Link: This review also appears on Amazon-UK here.

Most non-fiction books I have read recently appear, absent the author’s need to write a full-length book, fit to be or have remained a long-form essay. Not this one, although Tony Hsieh’s hard-to-classify book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose, too could have benefited from some editing. However once one makes peace with the colloquial tone – which is a refreshing change from many “business books”, but then again this isn’t exactly one – the book is a page-turner. At just over 250 pages – not including the appendices – for the paperback edition I read, it took me just under 5 hours to finish.

The book is above all a story: of the making of Tony Hsieh (now the CEO of Zappos.com), of his entrepreneurial journey starting in his childhood through college and later, of how he came to be involved in Zappos.com first as an investor and then as the CEO, and finally of what made Zappos.com the unique e-commerce success story it is. Organised in three parts, titled “Profits”, “Profits and Passion”, and “Profits, Passion and Purpose”, it appears to map Mr Hsieh’s journey of personal and professional growth.

Mr Hsieh is a child of Taiwanese immigrants. The parents feature in the book, but refreshingly not in the holier-than-thou tone, which is the staple of much immigré writing. They have made seminal contribution to his entrepreneurial spirit, mainly by not strangulating it with the burden of parental expectation, although Mr Hsieh himself, as a young person, wasn’t above some mischief to get his own way. In many ways, it made me wonder if Mr Hsieh’s story could pan out the same way anywhere but in America.

The story slowly morphs from being about Mr Hsieh’s entrepreneurial adventures and misadventures – including the lessons he learnt at Link Exchange and the Venture Frogs fund he ran jointly – to being about Zappos.com. It is in the description of the the mechanics at Zappos.com that the tone changes to more business-like, especially the emails he has included. In illustrating what the famous Zappos.com values mean, he has included write-ups from his colleagues and Zappos.com employees. That is a nice touch. The story culminates with the share deal Zappos.com made with Amazon, after which Amazon let Zappos.com continue to operate independently.

The recurrent themes in this story are loyalty, relationships and risk-taking, besides the obvious ones in the title of the book, namely, profits, passion and purpose.

There is intended and perhaps, unintended, humour in the book. For instance, Mr Hsieh writes about how his parents appear to have found “all ten” Asian families in Marin county for regular get-togethers. Michael Moritz of Sequoia doing the Macarena is not an image easily banished from the mind! There are also some notable gaps. Not all key characters in his story are featured, a sometimes deliberate exclusion which Mr Hsieh explains in the foreword. But while Fred Mossler appears prominently, rightly so, Nick Swinmurn, the founder of Zappos.com appears to have been glossed over and his departure doesn’t figure in the book. This seems a bit strange seeing as the Zappos.com story is about motivating the team, and engaging and leading them to a higher purpose. Towards the end, the book become a tiny bit tedious and “corporate”. Especially in the chapters titled “Taking it to the next level” and “End game”.

But if one can get over those quibbles, it is an engaging, hilarious, often moving, thought-provoking and inspiring read about creating a business that many now look to as the exemplar in customer service.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: While reading it, I thought of mentors, friends and young entrepreneurs I know and admire. Many of them appear to have read the book already; others will certainly benefit from reading it.

The Art Of Choosing

Link: This review appears on Amazon-UK here. And on Amazon-US here.

With a researcher’s and practitioner’s interest in decision-making, I did not have to ponder over the choice to buy this book. Nor did I struggle with reading its 268 pages (not including acknowledgment and references) in just over 4 hours. Professor Sheena Iyengar has written an engaging treatise on what choice means to human beings, how we make choices in the face of sometimes confounding contradictions and uncertainties, and how the sheer option and the act of choosing can affect our well-being. The illustrative examples and stories cover a wide range – from the trivial, such as picking between two colours of nail polish, to the serious life-and-death choice of whether to keep a sick neo-nate on life support or to turn it off.

Using many such stories from research, Professor Iyengar shows how the desire for choice, as a way to exercise control, is universal. She demonstrates how our “framing” of choices depends upon the stories we have been told, and our beliefs that may arise from our culture, religion, ethnicity etc. A freedom to choose may be a “freedom to” or “freedom from”, as Erich Fromm has written so how in an increasingly globalised world do we reconcile all these differences in perspective? Professor Iyengar proposes a sort of “metaphorical multilingualism”, using the example of how she herself uses the language of sighted people although she is functionally blind.

Professor Iyengar takes us on a fascinating exploration of American history to show how choice relates to identity, and then shows yet how many more people are alike than not although they prefer to think otherwise. Such contradictions contained within us in Walt Whitmanesque multitudes, she argues that we constantly rearrange our identities to appear independent-thinking, identity being a dynamic process not a static object. We adjust our behaviours and lives to reinforce that identity seeking, she writes, common ground without being copycats. If you pick only one chapter to read from this book, I would recommend Chapter 3.

Further we learn how choices are not just about possibility, but also responsibility and consequences, foreseeable or otherwise. Professor Iyengar discusses our automatic (subconscious) and our reflective (conscious) brain, and how trouble arises when the two are in disagreement. What follows is a thought-provoking discourse on how we use heuristics and employ our preferences and biases, sometimes using them to colour our search for information, which ends with a soft suggestion that sometimes it may be better to throw in our lot with others or their experience.

Is there such a thing as too much choice? Research suggests that to be the case. Choice, as we see, is not an unconditional good. There are limits to human cognition and we may need to cultivate expertise to deal with the surfeit on offer. And then there are complex choices, such as in medically serious situations, which require us to put a “value” on things which have “worth” for us, exacting a mental cost which we are unable to assess fully at the time of making the choice. Choice, Professor Iyengar concludes, is an art with its uncertainties and contradictions, and in its mystery lies its puissance: a conclusion most readers of this book may choose to agree with.

It was difficult for me to give the book 4 stars instead of 5. Here is why I struggled. While the stories are fascinating, some sections meander and one can lose the thread pretty quickly. Having read the book, I can empathise with how difficult the editorial choices might have been: which of the research references to keep, and which to edit away. It was a choice and the editor chose to keep them all in. A research described in Chapter 3 discusses using a scale where research subjects had to determine if something was “moderately unique” or “very unique”. This was mildly irritating. These phrases may be colloquial usage but that does not make them correct.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: A thought-provoking book which most will benefit from reading. However as Professor Iyengar warns, introspection or self-examination is not everyone’s cup of tea, so it is unlikely to be a comforting read for all. It does however offer several points of departure for thinking about things around us. From brand marketing to politics, to how various nations are dealing with the recession.

Do More Faster

Link: This review now appears on Amazon-UK here where, if you like, you can vote for it. Thanks.

The “entrepreneur” is, to many, a mysterious beast surrounded by myths and legends. This book, edited by Techstars founders David Cohen and Brad Feld, seeks to share some of the secret juice that makes for a successful entrepreneur. If, like me, you expect this book to be like Founders At Work (FAW), edited by Y-Combinator’s Jessica Livinsgton, it would be only partially true. FAW contains interviews with the creators of some of the hottest tech products such as Gmail and Hotmail. Do More Faster on the other hand is a collection of short essays of 1-2 pages, where successful tech entrepreneurs distill the most important lesson in taking their idea to execution often with mentoring from Techstars. These essays are organised along seven themes: Idea & Vision, People, Execution, Product, Fund-raising, Legal & Structure, Work-life Balance. The titles are a testament to good editing. The book can almost become a reference point for those scratching their heads about something specific, because they can locate the specific essay by its title in the list of contents.

Strong points are made here, including that if you have an idea, you can be sure half a dozen people around the world are already working on it, and that most start-ups started out doing something totally different from what they do now. Myths are busted including the belief some entrepreneurs have that they need to raise external cash to find validation. Remarkable honesty is on offer such as in Issac Saldana’s essay on how he much preferred writing code over talking to people, but how the latter helped him create a valuable and valued product. The value of pragmatic over perfect is demonstrated such as by Matt Mullenweg in how 2006 became WordPress’s lost year, not in a bad way but in a way that brought a valuable lesson regarding product releases and discipline to Automattic. And good advice too such as the essay titled “stay healthy”, which I have often said to young entrepreneurs I know, including one, who had to be hospitalised for a few days to accept the value of good health above all else. Brad Feld’s punchy essay “The plural of anecdote is not data” but establishes a home-truth about the need to question and validate any data, especially anecdotes often peddled as truths. I marked out several essays as my favourite by folding pages. No points for guessing more than three-quarters of the book was folded over by the time I finished reading it.

I must add that the definition of “tech” used here is relatively narrow. If you somehow miss paying attention to iRobot (Why would you do that anyway? They make Roomba!) you might think “tech” is all about the web and services. But on some reflection, it is easy to see the broader applicability of the lessons to successful commercialisation of innovation in other sectors too.

Star rating: 5 out of 5

Usefulness note: The saying goes: “Ordinary people learn from their mistakes; smart ones learn from others’ mistakes”. If you think you have a world-changing idea (or if you know someone who thinks so), you – or that person – may want to learn from some of the most successful entrepreneurs featured in the book. If you don’t think you can learn anything from this book, then you perhaps need to make your own mistakes in executing that idea, in which case, refer to the saying above. If you are a mentor or an advisor to start-ups, you will equally enjoy this book and the thoughts it provokes. The process of innovation and creativity is kaleidoscopic, and I am pleased I didn’t miss the chance – all 3 hours of it – to look through so many of those kaleidoscopes.

Mother Pious Lady

Link: You can vote for this review now appearing on Amazon-US here, or on Amazon-UK here.

Mother Pious Lady: Making Sense of Everyday India* is an amusing yet thought-provoking, insightful yet confounding, and relentlessly introspective, with hints of self-flagellation, book. The title is a nod to the specialised language used in the very specialised Indian area of matrimonial ads that appear in the Sunday papers. Over the years, these ads have enabled millions of marriages. A typical ad encapsulates the marital ambition of an average Indian man seeking his own version of Miss World, under the watchful gaze of his mother, often described as a pious lady, who as Santosh Desai points out in the book is probably keener on burning incense than burning brides.

Mr Desai, a man of brands and advertising, has much insight into his generation – my generation – of Indians, into what shaped us, how we are changing and the inevitable what-next. Accordingly, the book is organised in 3 major sections: Where Do We Come From?, New Adventures Into Modernity and Dilemmas Of Change.

Each section features individual chapters that contain several short essays on Indian behavioural quirks as a means to demonstrating what drives Indians. Where Do We Come From? focuses on our need to get value for money (“the Dhania factor”), relationships without the overt need for an immediate gain (“in praise of the unannounced visit”), the need to save and let save face (“the meaning of the slap”), the Indian interpretation of time as a transience (“Indian traffic as metaphor”) and ingenuity in problem-solving (“the power of the imperfect solution”).

It is worth a mention that as is true of much in India, every behavioural peculiarity can be read in more ways than one. My view on the slapping business in India, for instance, is quite different from Mr Desai’s. In their quotidian lives, every Indian deals in multiplicities and contradictions, of meaning and reality, a theme that is implicit in Indian lives but not quite in this book.

The second section, New Adventures In Modernity, addresses a range of themes such as the Indian view of the family as a unit (“terms of endearment”), the redefining of masculinity (“Salman Khan and the rise of male cleavage”), the emergence of the new Indian woman (“in gentle praise of the saas-bahu sagas” and “the woman, exteriorized”), the phenomenon of celebrity (“of genuine fakes and fake genuines”), the idea of Family as emotional headquarters (“the joint stock family”), continued hyper-competitiveness (“the paranoid parent”) and the negotiation with the old (“retrieving space slyly”).

This section reminded me of something I see in my work with British businesses. Few of those seeking to do business in India realise the daily difficulties that an Indian overcomes to deliver results. Work provides a space to be creative, to be free, to be responsible and to be focused. No concession need be made, of course, but recognising the barriers overcome gives one new respect for what Indians achieve rather than criticism of what they do not.

All along Mr Desai maintains a raconteur’s tone, sometimes with hints of understated humour and sarcasm. The tone changes in the last section, titled Dreams Of Grandeur, where his frustration at the behavioural dissonances of his compatriots becomes evident. He touches upon sensitive themes such as the Indian tendency to claim people of Indian origin around the world, craving western approval but getting offended easily, the growing desire to protect the interests of the few. This section sadly for its promise feels rushed. It could have been used to set an agenda or at least set forth a dialogue but perhaps that wasn’t Mr Desai’s intention.

At 380 pages, it may be difficult to describe it as a breezy read but it really is, even despite its awkward organisation in themes, chapters and then short essays. For my part, I found myself laughing throughout the book. I recognised some things, I cringed at others and yet other things I sneered at, thus confirming what my terribly English mentor in the UK calls my “bourgeoisie credentials”.

If non-Indians, the liberal dose of Hinglish, Hindi and Indian in-jokes may become jarring after a while. As it happens, some of the in-jokes are already being lost as a new generation in their 20s grows up. In fact, my only peeve against this book is that it is aimed for no audience in particular. An irony considering Mr Desai’s strong credentials as a marketing professional. Indians of my generation are reading it for amusement but we hardly are incapable, on reflection, of determining what shaped us through our childhood and teen and early adult years. Those, who are not Indian, may feel a bit alienated while reading the book as it sometimes reads like a swathe of in-jokes. One can argue that amusement is as important a utilitarian function as any other. However I feel it is a missed opportunity to bring this book to wider audiences interested in India and Indians.

Even so the book would be a great cheat-sheet for dealing with a sliver of educated, middle-class Indians of a particular generation – Generation X, if you will. India however is a country in the midst of change, occurring at a pace one can blink and miss. In that respect this book is a balance sheet, not a P&L account. Perhaps a second edition, or an entirely new book, will be in order in a few years, when Generation X ceases to be the generation at the helm of India.

Since no discussion on India and the Indians is complete without the obligatory mention of China and the Chinese, I have to say that a book like this is unlikely ever to emerge from China. For the simple reason that unlike the Indians, the Chinese do not explain themselves, do not debate issues, and definitely do not introspect in public view. But it is, I believe, immensely better to go in with a range of truths than a single official version. Whether you are interested in India for pleasure or for business, reading the book may prepare you much better than you imagine.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: Indians of my generation will find the book part amusing, part cringe-inducing but very insightful and perhaps a tad nostalgic for simpler times. But those, who seek to do business in India in the present times, where people of my generation are at the helm of most companies that matter, will probably gain the most from reading a book that explains why we are the way we are.

Honest Signals

Link: You can vote on my Amazon Review here. Thanks.

This book belongs – very, very broadly – with Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudges. These books present an exposition of what lies behind human decisions and how those decisions can be better understood and possibly influenced.

The core thesis of Honest Signals, by MIT Professor Alex Pentland, is that much human communication and decision-making is about signals. Signals such as clothes and cars can be deliberate and planned, or influenced by emotion or culture. But not so the unconscious or uncontrollable biologically based “honest signalling”, which has evolved from ancient primate signalling mechanisms. The stories quoted in the book are from the data collected by the author and his team using a device called a “sociometer” which is described in some detail in Appendix A in the book.

In the first four chapters, Professor Pentland describes four kinds of social signals; how they can be combined for signalling social roles; how an understanding of the signals and social roles can help read people better; and how group dynamics works and evolves. The last three chapters describe how networks, organisations and societies could be explained or could use the proposed thesis.

Chapters 1 focuses on four kinds of signals which are expensive to fake: influence (which signals control or attention), mimicry (empathy/ trust), activity (interest) and consistency or variability (where the former signals a focused mind and the latter signals an openness to input from others). In this review, letters I, M, A, C/V refer to these signals.

Chapter 2 describes how people use combinations of signals to indicate the social role they are taking, such as exploring (I, A), listening (A, C/ V), teaching (I, M, C) and leading (I, A, C).

I found Chapter 3 fascinating. The author describes how mirror neurons read signals and help develop or construct meaning such as dominance, deception etc. Social circuits formed through exchange of signals in a group situation may explain situations such as mood contagion. The discussion then moves on to charisma, which is an innate talent at reading and responding to social signalling. Signals also change people in an instance of what the author calls “self-inflicted brainwashing”. In group situations, signals, responses to signals and the resultant shifting coalitions are better predictors of outcomes, the author argues, than strategy, motivation, experience or personal characteristics.

Further detail on social roles – task roles (orienteer, giver, seeker, follower) and group roles (attacker, protagonist, supporter, neutral) – are discussed next. A manager or team leader would probably know from experience that 1 30-second slice of a group’s interaction is a reliable indicator of the various group and task roles at work, and that social roles can spread within a group. In an organisational context, such group dynamics can contribute to organisational intelligence.

It is harder to précis the last three chapters which are dense with ideas that could have benefited from a longer discussion. Perhaps future writings will do greater justice to the application aspects of this fascinating research.

Books based on science and research are now commonly organised such that a good half of the book comprises explanatory or technical appendices and a bibliography. This book is no exception. The 98 pages of main text, including an epilogue that makes an important point that much current technology is socially ignorant, are followed by 52 pages of appendices rich in research context, 13 pages of notes to appendices, and 14 pages of bibliography. All in all it took about an hour and half to read the book.

A main limitation of the book is the compact treatment of a fairly vast and promising subject. The description of the theoretical premise pitched in the book is interesting enough but the stories often feel incomplete, half-told, rushed. Quite reminiscent of how an academic thesis includes a section that describes future research possibilities; that section really is an admission of the limitations of the thesis, whether imposed by time or scope definition or something else. The author of a book for popular consumption really doesn’t face these limitations hence the dissatisfying experience. There is also not enough time spent on what in real life could be done with a sociometer or the findings of Professor Pentland’s research with it.

Star rating: 3 out of 5

Usefulness note: The book successfully articulates the concept of primate signalling and provides a quasi-framework that can be put to use in some situations. For instance, it may be handy in several situations including watching politicians and businessmen, and as the author points out, in social and work situations such as negotiation and dating. However if someone then tries too hard to “implement” the framework, it is hardly “honest” signalling and it can all potentially backfire. Recommended for a quick read on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Obliquity

Link: My Amazon Review is here, should you wish to vote on its usefulness.

On the cover of Obliquity, John Kay’s new book (hardback edition), Tim Harford pronounces it “persuasive”. Yet Harford’s subsequent column in the FT on March the 18th, 2010, titled “Political Ideas Need Proper Testing” suggested that he is far from persuaded by Mr Kay’s argument. That wasn’t a good start to reading this book.

John Kay’s core thesis is that that in any setting, there are multiple, often conflicting, goals; and that instead of a linear rational model, the best approach to problem-solving is oblique, an approach for which he coins the neologism ‘obliquity’.

The book is organised in three parts. Part one explains how the world abounds in obliquity, citing specifically how success in finding happiness and profits (in a business setting) does not come from direct pursuits, and how the rich people are not the most materialistic. There are amusing stories but Mr Kay cherry-picks the arguments, that bolster his thesis, and ignores how some of the least materialistic rich men cited were also single-minded in their pursuit of money.

Part two explains why problems cannot be solved directly. Here he dwells upon how rational models fail to capture the real dynamics of political decision making. He devotes time to demonstrating why this is the case where plural outcomes may exist, and complexity and incompleteness may mar our understanding of the problem. He also proposes that obliquity is a better term for Charles Lindblom’s coinage,”muddling through”, as an explanation of political decision making. Further he makes the case that the more one participates in or studies something, the better one understands and abstracts its complexity, its essence. Having spent several years in my doctoral research on political decision making, I felt he picked once again Lindblom because it is amenable to his thesis. Several better explanations of political decision-making have followed Lindblom’s and they cover more ground than Mr Kay does in this section of the book.

The third section, comprising shorter chapters, explains problem-solving in a complex world using stories from the real world. This was the quickest read in the book yet I found myself feeling dragged through it. Stories from several unconnected walks of life are great for anecdotes and dinner party conversation, but make a book feel like a jigsaw being forced together

To those given to seeking single labels for people, it is seductive to see Mr Kay as an economist. His wider philosophical grounding and interest is visible in the book as he illustrates his points using examples from history, urban design, football and evolutionary theory amongst others. Yet despite such ambition and possibility, the book is perhaps best described as a “light” read. One gets the feeling that Mr Kay tried to do a Gladwell on the topics of complexity and decision making but did not get far enough.

Star rating: 3 out of 5

Usefulness note: Probably a good read for a long-haul flight but not very strongly recommended if you have better options.