A Good Time To Be A Girl

I read A Good Time To Be A Girl on Easter Sunday 2018, an appropriate thematic read. That is 246 pages of writing excluding 18 pages of references etc. It is an easy read and Ms Helena Morrissey deserves credit especially for being honest about the warts and difficulties she overcame with the support of her partner and her mentors, and with her own inner strength.

This is a book about an idea whose time has come, the idea that the prevailing patriarchal system hurts women and men, and it is time to change it. In that sense this is not your Lean-In manual of 2018 but something that exhorts you to think and act altogether differently.

Helena Morrissey is uniquely positioned to have written the book. At 35, she was made the CEO at Newton Asset Management, in an industry where women fund managers are still a low double digit number. Stewart Newton was her mentor. She has given birth to nine — and by all accounts, stellar (they are mentioned in the book with their views in relevant places; one of her daughters won a prize for Sanskrit, which is how she and I first started interacting on Twitter) — children. Her children of both genders provide an interesting personal crucible in which she has been able to observe how gendered views are formed.

In 1999, when the idea was mostly unheard of, her husband Richard became a stay-at-home dad but more crucially, as it comes through in the book, remained a strong partner to her. Ms Morrissey is the founder of the 30% Club which now has chapters in 10 countries, at the time of writing this review. She has also undertaken several organisation wide researches on gender disparity. She is currently the head of personal investing at Legal & General.

Ms Morrissey argues — rightly in my view as I wrote in this Quora answer several years ago — that the patriarchal system in today’s workplaces hurts women as well as men.

Using her own experiences as well as research, citations to which are listed towards the end of the book, she has made a strong case for changing the workplace and our idea of work.

Chapter 6 is a valuable read for CEOs, and if as a CEO you read only one thing in this book, read this chapter. Ms Morrissey addresses right away the resentment of the majority who see D&I initiatives as an exercise in political correctness, and who are anxious about positive discrimination. She mentions the ineffectiveness of unconscious bias training, a tool that has gained currency — which I agreed with and have written about in Inc. She rightly points out that the past, well-meaning approaches aren’t effective any more, and citing Iris Bohnet, she makes the case for changing mindsets and work environments, and hence the need for CEOs to being a whole new strategic lens to it, starting first with a look in the mirror about their commitment to building a truly diverse organisation. Andy Haldane’s recruitment challenge that Ms Morrissey mentions is thought provoking. Since reading the book I have tested it on several corporate bigwig friends and watched their puzzlement and then delight at recognising its value. The chapter goes on to discuss mentoring, tutorials and giving innovative thinkers the stage, concluding with a practicable checklist for CEOs.

Chapter 7 is written especially for young girls and boys and is very good in my view. Like me, you may want to share it with the teenagers and youngsters you know too.

Ms Morrissey discusses in the book that cultivating one’s own network is more valuable than relying on recruiters and headhunters, something I would endorse from personal experience.

Ms Morrissey, for all her superior achievements, is still represented poorly by some of the UK’s “newspapers”. “Billion dollar babe” was one such early reference, whereas when she was made Dame, “mother of nine media favourite” was how she was described. This sort of stuff can do a lot of damage. In Chapter 9, Ms Morrissey’s daughter talks about “acting like women” which summarises the challenge of narrowly defined ideas of femininity (and masculinity), and many leadership qualities hitherto aligned with masculinity. She recommends several ways to drive change there e.g. not using the word Diversity, and also discarding use of other loaded words such as “flexible working” in favour of “agile working”.

There were however a few points where I was a little disappointed in the book. The idea of intersectional disadvantages faced by many women and men is discussed briefly but quite underdeveloped. Related to that, I found the discussion on Islamic extremism oddly overdeveloped.

Further, the main focus of women’s career challenges is framed as their role of care giver either to children or to elderly relatives. There has been no attention to the experience of women immigrants, especially women of colour, even when it is a widely known fact the trailing spouses are overwhelmingly women. In my view, the scope of this book and its impact is global not just limited to the UK, where generous visa laws allow spouses to work (who may face other challenges including racism hence my earlier comment re intersectionality). This gap was notable in my view.

I know dozens of women, whose careers were thwarted by overt and covert -isms in London – and elsewhere – at the same time as Ms Morrissey became CEO at Newton Asset Management. The American H4 visa is restrictive to say the least, while American women especially women of colour have experienced the rough end of “processes” for “aliens” in many European countries. One friend of mine, with a double doctorate and a Harvard Master’s had to prove to the Swiss authorities her doctorate was equal to a Swiss Master’s, for instance. Many such women are often forced to become independent consultants and entrepreneurs. Many I know have now been outside the corporate mainstream for almost two decades. They bring rich experience and value to boards but because they do not work for BigCo, a well-meaning organisation such as the 30% Club does not allow them membership or support. This is not a small number of people as evident from the burgeoning ranks of potential apprentices in the Board Apprentice Programme*, which now also has a joint offering with the 30% Club. The scope of the change we need is societal and wholesale, not just in BigCo.

In Chapter 10, however, the proposed Women’s Progress Pyramid goes some way to addressing that by proposing a vision that addresses some of these challenges.

Notwithstanding the limitations as perceived by me, I have already recommended the book to my 40yo sister who is a mid-senior level executive in a multinational, my 23yo niece just 2.5y into her career, and a friend-of-over-30-years who is a founder-CEO and a dad to a really smart 10yo daughter. The book has wide appeal to all those who are thinking about their own careers, their workplaces, their relationships, and their contribution to shaping the world around them through their choices and their advocacy.

It’s a good time to be a girl. And a good time to be a boy.

Because the tide of change in our workplaces and our society may finally allow girls and boys and non-binary persons to express their full humanity, without their potential being thwarted.

It still needs us all to work. If you are short on ideas, this book is for you.

Star rating: 4 out of 5 

Usefulness note: Everyone who works in any capacity, inside or outside the home, in a small or big company, male or female or non-binary, would benefit from the approach proposed in the book.

*The Board Apprentice programme surfaced me to the board of JP Morgan US Smaller Co.s Investment Trust (LSE: JUSC) where I am now a non-executive director. Needless to say it took a combination of a woke BigCo and an exceptional chairwoman to make it possible. The programme bridges the gap between BigCo and the tribe of accidental entrepreneurs and other unusual talented people, but it needs more host boards to change their minds on the issue of inclusion.

The Myth Gap

A few years ago, while teaching undergraduates in India, I noticed that I had to temper my inclination to use Hindoo mythology to make certain points. The need to temper arose from discovering that almost nobody in the classroom was familiar with those myths. Not that I fared better with using contemporary cinema references! It turned out my students did not often see the films as they came out, and if they did watch a film — usually assigned as course material — they seemed to have watched an entirely different film from the one I saw. That was my experience of “the myth gap”.

I bought Alex Evans’s The Myth Gap when it came out in early 2017, and read it in short snatches of time while waiting or on the tube in one day. This weekend of August 12-13, 2017, with the backdrop of white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville VA, which, at the time of writing, had already claimed the lives of a young woman and two cops, I re-read this book in one sitting. Even including 11 pages of references, the book comes in at under 150 pages and is a three hour read.

The book is divided into four sections and the fourth section starts with this quote from Karen Armstrong:

“A myth does not impart factual information, but is primarily a guide to behaviour. Its truth will only be revealed if it is put into practice – ritually or ethically. If it is perused as though it were a purely intellectual hypothesis, it becomes remote and incredible.”

These myths are what this book is about — shared stories about people, their trials and tribulations, change and transitions in history, things being broken and mended. While the author focuses on climate change as a narrative hook, the framework could apply to almost anything – repairing post-Brexit schisms in the UK, returning India to a place of precarious but reliable communal harmony, making America a welcoming place for all again.

In the first section “The front line”, the author makes the case for myths; in the second “Myths for a new century” he talks about the characteristics of the stories we need; in the third section “The everlasting covenant” he uses Biblical stories to illustrate the idea of a covenant and consequences of breaking it; and in the final section “And we all lived happily ever after”, he outlines the praxis of using stories to build an alternative future.

Through the story of how climate change activism on the verge of winning some essential victories was hamstrung by the emergence of the Tea Party movement in 2009, Evans shows how for a political idea to gain steam, it is important to build a movement, build it around small groups and have a terrific story to tell. He also shines a light on the problem with “enemy narratives”, which divide us instead of uniting for personal transformation as well as demanding more of our political leaders. Stories, not policy statements and evidence based arguments, provide what we need except we don’t have any — the myth gap of the title. Consumer brand marketing has stepped into this gap — the myth being “we are what we buy” — but that has been destructive especially in the context of climate change, driving collective over-consumption, waste, and environmental degradation. Timothy Snyder, whose book “On Tyranny” I have read and reviewed, and recommend highly, has written about how history teachers us the fear of resource scarcity. This is the danger — collapsitarianism — which has been successfully used to incite panic and exploited by many through history. This collapsitarian thinking has its ritual too, he writes — “prepping” — evident in Silicon Valley billionaires seeking other citizenships or buying bunkers.

Utter collapse however is also a chance for renewal and innovation, Evans argues, and I was reminded of the exact sentiment found in Bhagwadgita, a Hindoo religious tome, or a myth you could say I am familiar with.

यदा यदा हि धर्मस्य ग्लानिर्भवति भारत ।

अभ्युत्थानमधर्मस्य तदात्मानं सृजाम्यहम् ॥४-७॥

परित्राणाय साधूनां विनाशाय च दुष्कृताम् ।

धर्मसंस्थापनार्थाय सम्भवामि युगे युगे ॥४-८॥

This is Krishna speaking to Arjun who is expressing his doubt about the war against his elders and his cousins and clan: “O Bharat, whenever Dharma (a complex construct implying righteousness, duty, religiosity) declines, I manifest myself. To protect the sages, to destroy the evildoers, and to re-establish Dharma, I return again and again through the ages.”

The myths we need require a collectivist view, a longer view of the future, and a better purposeful vision of our future together. Citing Michael Ventura’s The Age of Endarkenment, about adolescence and need for purpose, the author says that to create a sustainable future, we need to grow up, become adults as a species. In the interim there is the existential grief, that James Hillman has written about, arising from what we are doing to our planet. This grief may be repressed, as we often do, which causes more harm. Or it may be projected, say through enemy narratives. There is a need to acknowledge this cycle and to “atone”, Evans writes, which would encompass not just repentance but also reparation and restorative justice.

Oddly for a book about stories, I found the third section, where Evans actually uses biblical stories to make his point, too long drawn, although Margaret Baker’s turning upside down of the Ark of the Covenant story is fascinating. My reaction however illustrates his argument for the need to find myths that resonate with us personally and then for all of us to find agreement and put together “a quilt of compatible myths”.

The message is clear. Even though what we see as evil is as much personal as it is structural, what we say and do in our daily lives can have global implications. To that extent, dialogue is essential and Evans writes that dialogue with active listening on both sides is often better conducted in relatively small groups. Even as many of us reject religion and politics as bases for joining collectives, our need for belonging remains, and the emerging collectives, with their shared identity, interests and projects, can drive meaningful change.

While all too brief, the chapter titled “Technology and the future of myth” interested me greatly as it discussed how the advent of AR/ VR/ MR technologies can change how we tell and participate in the myths in the future. The book finishes on an idealistic, optimistic note on the Eden 2.0 we can yet choose to create.

On re-reading, I found the book much more dense and richer than I recall from the first reading. It is an exhortation to change, to drive that change meaningfully, to build a sustainable future together. It is a book written with expertise, empathy, exploration at its core as well as optimism for the future. It is thought provoking and could serve as a great personal manifesto for driving meaningful change.

Star rating: 4.5 out of 5 

Usefulness note: While fires burn around us, we have to make two simultaneous choices — to douse the fire, and to plan to rebuild a structure that is fire-proof to the best of our abilities. This weekend was tough for optimism but it also is the reason why all of us, who want a different future from the one unfolding in front of us, should read it.

On Tyranny

Timothy Snyder, the author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century, is  Housum Professor of History at Yale University. At the simplest, this timely book draws parallels between the Trump administration and the Third Reich.

In the prologue, Snyder reminds us that history does not repeat but that it does instruct, that it can familiarise and it can warn. He mentions that the western tradition considers history when the political order seems in peril, and that European history shows that democracies can fall and ethics can collapse. He reminds us how fascism and communism both were responses to globalisation, and why recent developments are a good reminder for us that we are not any wiser now than people were back then.

Eschewing moral panic, Snyder has managed to write a book that is deceptively simple in stating the profound lessons from twentieth century history, which are as follows:

  1. Do not obey in advance.
  2. Defend institutions.
  3. Beware the one party state.
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
  5. Remember professional ethics.
  6. Be wary of paramilitaries.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
  8. Stand out.
  9. Be kind to our language.
  10. Believe in truth.
  11. Investigate.
  12. Make eye contact and small talk.
  13. Practice corporeal politics.
  14. Establish a private life.
  15. Contribute to good causes.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries.
  17. Listen for dangerous words.
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
  19. Be a patriot.
  20. Be as courageous as you can.

As I read through the book, its broader applicability to some other well-known democracies, not just the USA, became clearer. As a person of Indian origin, I have watched the current administration campaign its way to power, where with a weak opposition, the world’s largest democracy is, at the moment, a de facto single party state. Language has been corrupted with terms such as anti-national, “libtard”, “sickular” (“sick” and “secular” twisted together) are bandied about with ease to attack those, who raise legitimate concerns about the changing face of India. These mass attacks are often technology-enabled and bot-led, so difficult to counter. Further, I live in the UK and had watched with increasing concern the Brexit campaign infested with lies. The legacy of that campaign persisted after the win, labelling upset remain-voters “remoaners”, attacked with glib comments such as “your side lost, get over it!”. Having become PM as a side outcome of the Brexit vote, Mrs May also eagerly abused language, labelling globalists “citizens of nowhere” and mouthing meaningless tautologies, such as “Brexit is Brexit”. As I write this review on the weekend of 17/18 June 2017, she is seeing plenty of corporeal politics in the form of protests at Downing Street asking her to resign.

Point no 14 — establish a private life — made me a tad uncomfortable. The way I read it, I interpret Snyder’s point to mean “don’t have anything over which you can be held to ransom”. This is a tricky endeavour. After all nearly all of us have near and dear ones, and can be forced into uncomfortable situations because of them. I was also reminded of the time when I was a graduate student of management. We had a guest speaker, TN Seshan, who is known to have been one of the most incorruptible and straight shooting Election Commissioners India has had. After nearly 25 years, one of his remarks sticks in my memory. He said not having children liberated him to live fully and fearlessly to his ideals. It is hard to have a life without a chink in the armour that a tyrannical despot and his or her minions would not be able to exploit.

One point that Snyder does not make — and perhaps it is not important enough — is that “leaders” emerging through such shenanigans remain insecure and sore winners, with easily hurt and fragile egos. This means that these leaders rarely submit themselves to public engagement or criticism, preferring either to become sound byte dispensing bots such as Mrs May or to continue attacks real or imagined adversaries as Mr Trump does on Twitter. May be that was not a lesson in history. But it is a pertinent characteristic that can be useful.

I feel the list of lessons in the book also provides an interesting framework with which to examine technological monopolies such as Facebook and Google, and the influence they may have on shaping the political discourse, about which plenty has been written since the last Presidential elections in the USA.

In the epilogue to this excellent book, titled “History And Liberty”, Snyder warns us to watch for the politics of inevitability i.e. the idea that history could only move in one direction — towards liberal democracies, and the politics of eternity, which glorifies the past with scant regard for facts. Recent developments in the USA — and I add India and the UK — give weight to his argument that this belief in the politics of inevitability is a self-induced form of intellectual coma, which stifles debate and discussion. On the other hand, the politics of eternity has fostered nationalist politicians who sell the seductive vision of a past that never existed and prevent us from thinking about possible futures and ways to self-correct.

I read the book in one sitting, with a single cafetière of coffee by my side. It is a riveting read, which is not something one could normally say about books on history and politics.

In a subsequent conversation with a journalist friend, we agreed that these points ought to be on a poster of some kind, and everyone needs to have it up where it can be seen daily.

Star rating: 5 out of 5 

Usefulness note: This book ought to be read in full. By everyone. Especially in the current political climate. Why? Because, to quote Marshall Berman, American Marxist humanist philosopher, “Whoever you are, or want to be, you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you.” 

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.

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.

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.

The Checklist Manifesto

Link: You can vote on my Amazon Review here.

Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right comes close on the heels of Umberto Eco’s The Infinity of Lists. Both books are about lists and both emphasise the ability of lists to bring about order and control. Both books attracted me because I am a consummate list-maker. More “practical” than “poetic”, a taxonomical distinction that Eco proposes in his book, I write my lists in blue, striking out the “done” items in red, thus also making it a motivational tool. It is therefore safe to say that the title of Gawande’s book was immediately attractive.

Despite my prejudicial preference for lists and reading about lists, it is a credit to the engaging quality of Atul Gawande’s writing that the book kept me absorbed for the 3 hours it took to read all 193 pages of it.

The author proposes “checklists” as a functional tool to deal with the limitations of human knowledge and the possibility of making mistakes in the face of complex problems. Using stories from construction management, airline piloting and disaster management, and surgery, he shows how checklists can be used to break down complex tasks into simpler steps, thus helping prevent expensive mistakes. The author delves further into two kinds of lists (Do-Confirm or Read-Do) using a story from how the airline manufacturing industry writes their “user manuals”.

Early on, he points out that checklists are not some silver bullet, and that there is judgement involved. Some situations may benefit from checklists, while others may not need any. Later in the book, he also admits that to many, lists are protocols and embody rigidity. He then proceeds to illustrate why this needn’t be so and to demonstrate the importance of team work and how checklists enable that discipline, especially in disasters.

I found Chapters 7 and 8 most interesting. The stories told so far describe the complexity of the work/ task itself but these two chapters introduce another layer, that of institutional complexity.

Chapter 7 details the WHO sponsored study to examine if checklists made any difference to safety, infections, post-surgery deaths in 8 quite disparate hospitals around the world. The settings varied from a hospital in Tanzania where 4 surgeons, aided by 5 untrained anaesthesia staff, work on thousands of surgeries; to one in New Zealand that has 92 anaesthetists for some 20,000 surgeries per year, a number also dealt with in an Indian hospital using just 7 anaesthetists. The settings were also culturally diverse adding a layer of complexity not foreseen in the design of the checklist. For instance, the author mentions a different kind of English being spoken in an English NHS hospital, and observes the interplay of gender segregation and professional responsibility in a Jordanian surgery theatre. The results – from using the checklist – regarding reduction in technical problems, complications, infections and deaths were encouraging, for all cultural settings and even allowing for the Hawthorne Effect.

In Chapter 8, much mainstream media coverage of Jan 2009’s “Miracle on the Hudson River” is debunked while the author tells the story of the pilots Sullenberger and Stiles and their calm use of appropriate procedures, while their cabin crew prepared passengers for and then monitored safe evacuation, to strengthen his thesis. The other half of Chapter 8 particularly resonated with me because I work with investors and entrepreneurs. I was fascinated by the stories of the 3 investors who have incorporated checklists into their investment decisions, favouring dispassionate analysis over irrational exuberance, so to speak.

The title is deceptively simple for this is a profound book, written accessibly and clearly. It is a defence of rational, systems-thinking approach to solving complex problems, to creating team work and collegiality amongst narrow specialists while ensuring desirable outcomes, no matter what the setting.

Managers, entrepreneurs, investors as well as professional project managers such as event planners would do well to read, ponder, internalise and practise the idea proposed in the book.

Star rating: 5 out of 5

Usefulness note: The varied examples from learned professions such as surgery, airline piloting, construction management and investing should make the book broadly readable.


The Tiger That Isn’t, or why you needn’t be afraid of numbers

Link: You can vote on the Amazon review of this book here.

“I think numbers are the best way to represent the world’s uncertainties”, “I see numbers, I question them and I can interpret them for the less numerate”, “I see numbers and I freeze”.

These three possible options are based on a rough categorisation of the attitudes I have seen towards numbers. Depending on my mood, they can amuse me or cause me despair.

In fact, I believe that, with the right degree of scepticism, and a willingness and an ability to question numbers both in absolute and relative terms, it is possible for everyone to make sense of numbers thrown at us every day. That is pretty much the premise – and the promise – of The Tiger That Isn’t: Seeing Through A World of Numbers, by the journalist Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot, an Oxford Don. The book delivers brilliantly on the premise and the promise.

The introduction of the book says, rightly, that it is written from the point of view of the consumers of numbers; in fact, it is written for the consumers of numbers, which means people like you and me. Each chapter presents some examples that illustrate a typical problem with comprehending numbers, and then proceeds to demonstrate how to see those numbers in context and how to make sense of them. There are, in addition to the introduction, eleven chapters dealing with numbers-related issues including Size, Chance, Averages, Risk (my personal favourite), Data (my favourite heading in this book “Know the Unknowns”) and Causation. While most of the examples are British – understandably because both authors are British – it is not difficult for the reader to apply the ‘lessons’ to numbers being bandied about in his or her own country.

Aimed at the non-numerate reader, the tone of the book is easy, the language accessible, the explanations lucid. Yet the book is not patronising in the least, which, in my book, is a considerable achievement in explaining apparently complex things. At 184 pages in all, it is not a hugely difficult read; the section on Further Reading will serve those, whose curiosities are piqued and whose courage with numbers restored on reading this book.

Reviewing this book is not easy. I could summarise all chapters for you, but it would be pointless. Yet not saying much about the contents of the individual chapters may make the review meaningless.

So here is a possibility.  If some numbers in the news have been bothering you, do leave a comment and I shall try and explain them in a manner consistent with that suggested by Blastland and Dilnot. It is however worth every one of the 90 or so minutes you will spend on the book.

Star rating: 5 out of 5

Usefulness note: I am known for buying books as presents for friends of all ages. This book would make an ideal present for a curious teenager, as well as those adults who have let 10 simple symbols terrify them for years. For younger readers, I would suggest conversations around the themes of the chapters so that they can get a feel for the numbers being bandied about.

Games Indians Play

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

W. H. Auden said “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.” As a consummate buyer, reader and possessor of books, I will extend that to say that some books can be remembered for being egregiously bad. My abnormal love for books means that I try to give the author a lot of rope, benefit of doubt or whatever you want to call my generosity of spirit. I have found it hard to find that generosity in me for this book which I review below.

Thanks to my lovely sibling in India, I received a copy of ‘Games Indians Play’ by V Raghunathan. I daresay that having first heard about it on a blog, I had indeed asked for it to be sent to me. Would you not have done so if you were curious about Indians and someone had tempted you by offering a game theoretical explanation of at least some of the mysteries?

Having read the 150+ page book in some 3 hours, I am now considering refunding my sibling the price of the book and apologising for the hassle in procuring it, then travelling to my cousin’s house to deliver it so it could be carried to London.

The root of the fundamental flaw in this book is explained by the author under ‘Some Disclaimers’ in Chapter 1. He acknowledges that the book is not aimed at any specific group of readers in particular, a targeting problem that may still not explain the non-uniform, almost amateurish, style of writing. In many places, the arguments are so stretched that they become rants and successfully forcing me to make a cup of tea to stay awake and interested; in other places, the language is a stretch for non-Indian readers, settle as it does into Indian style of usage.

The disclaimers also say it is not a research based book, but I think it is bordering on intellectual laziness when the author often mentions in the passing his own experiments, without clarifying how these were conducted and if the outcomes could be verified at all. One is left to guess that many of these experiments were conducted on his MBA students both at IIM-Ahmedabad (my business school) and SDA Bocconi. Either way, MBA students are hardly representative of the population and if you believe the negative press about MBAs, probably too focused on money making.

Another disclaimer says this is not a text book on game theory or behavioural economics but the contents say otherwise. There is much more theoretical discussion rather than ‘applied’ explanations of what the author set out to do according to the cover – explain ‘why we are the way we are’.

One disclaimer, where the author’s academic affiliation shows,says that the book’s conclusions are at worst conjectural and at best plausible hypotheses for further research. Having read it, I shall settle for the former.

The author lays a grand claim upfront that he has a 12-canon taxonomy for ‘Indianness’ – if you are an Indian, a class of people which the author says are “probably the most intelligent people in the world”, you will more than gasp at the laundry list of ills which make us look like members of some crazed despot’s army rather than citizens of a large developing nation and democracy:

  1. low trustworthiness
  2. being privately smart and publicly dumb
  3. fatalist outlook
  4. being too intelligent for our own good
  5. abysmal sense of public hygiene
  6. lack of self-regulation and sense of fairness
  7. reluctance to penalise wrong conduct in others
  8. mistaking talk for action
  9. deep-rooted corruption and a flair for free-riding
  10. inability to follow or implement systems
  11. a sense of self-worth that is massaged only if we have the ‘authority’ to break rules
  12. propensity to look for loop holes in laws

Those, who know me or read my writing on issues concerning India, probably know that my cognition sometimes impedes my ability to feel undiluted devotion for any person or entity. Far be it from me for being jingoistic about India (or about Britain, where I live) but I find these broad generalisations smacking of desperate attempts of the kind ‘Oh I have started all this so I better finish’.

Leaving that thought aside, let’s look at the book.

Chapter 2 claims that somehow an illiterate vendor who can do mental maths suggests Indians are amongst the most intelligent in the world. A logical leap at best, especially when efforts are made immediately to establish this as some kind of sacrosanct truth by comparing with systems-oriented jobsworths (a later chapter addresses why Indians do not follow systems) working in retail outside India. He then extends the argument meandering through stranger examples to say Indians are seemingly more rational and intelligent than those in Western societies, but our individual utilities do not maximise our collective utility.

Chapter 3 focuses on the Prisoner’s dilemma and the main message is the Indian inability to focus on the long-term (NPV if you are into MBA-speak) for fear of losing short-term gains. The argument is extended to explain why Indians do not champion issues citing the lament that one person’s efforts will make no difference.

Chapter 4 on iterative prisoner’s dilemma is more theoretical and focuses on explaining Axelrod’s experiments.

Chapter 5 asks if competition can lead to collaboration and many more examples are discussed. The chapter ends with suggesting how being simple, nice, forgiving and self-righteously provokable gets us ahead further. Hmm, okay!

At 30 pages, chapter 6 is the longest and asks questions about fairness, self-regulation, willingness to confront wrong behaviour in others, and incipient flouting of rules, abuse of office or authority and ironically, for a long-winded chapter, a section on long-winded arguments. It is however also the chapter that uses most stories and illustrations to advance the original aim of the book – using tools of behavioural economics to explain some Indian behaviours.

Chapter 7 is about free riding and asks if Indians are the world’s biggest free-riders. In fewer than a full 10 pages, the author discusses greed, fear and corruption as variations on free-riding. This chapter could have been longer to expand on some of the better ideas in the book. As the book progresses, the early awkwardness disappears, although not totally as it does rear its head in places.

Chapter 8 on systemic chaos, or Indians’ inability to follow systems without bending any rules is actually a compendium of various stories of corruption, bending of rules etc with air travel being a major theme and cricket, academia and private sector tussling with the government being minor stories. Not much game theory in this chapter and I could not help but notice that fewer than 10% of the Indian population uses airplanes to travel. To use a large number of cases from a minority population to generalise to a whole billion? Not ok I think, even for popular reading type books.

Chapter 9 resolves a poser from earlier in the book. Nothing upsets me more in print than avoidable errors in spelling. Repeatedly misspelling ‘Shrodinger’ in the text, when the reference in the appendix is spelt properly, is nothing but editorial laziness in my view.

Chapter 10 on Bhagwadgita is probably the most interesting but since the author says he is sharing his personal ‘awakening’ to the message of the book, I shall leave it to you to make your own mind up. Even if the book were meant for no specific reader group in particular, mixing religion and spirituality with a book purporting to be about game theory to me is just reinforcing the stereotype of Indians as beings of great spirituality.

Not enough game theory, not enough behavioural economics, not much by way of explanation either. In other words, a mistake to judge the book by its cover, the preceding hype, the fawning reviews and even the benefit of doubt given to the author, who did teach some of my best friends (but not me, me no finance major, me marketing type).

Star rating: 2 out of 5 (also 9 out of 10 marks for being the first book to have disappointed me so thoroughly)