Business Management


Christmas Reading

Good reads for the holiday season.

Christmas Reading

At Serious we spend a lot of time reading & we have collected a list of eight of the books we read in 2015 that made the biggest impact on us.

In no particular order……… 





Bargaining with the Devil - When to Negotiate, When to Fight - Robert Mnookin

This book by the head of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation is unsurprisingly case-study based.  The studies range from the historical and political (Hitler, Churchill and Mandela ) to the world of business (IBM and Fujitsu) and the more personal realms of divorce and inheritance.  The studies illustrate Mnookin’s key message that negotiation should always be considered as an option.  Specifically, we should always “systematically compare the expected costs and benefits” of every conflict; this point is frequently missed when emotions are raging and/or moral judgments have been made. I am afraid I still haven’t figured out the correct pronunciation of the author’s name.

A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra)  - Barbara Oakley

Engineering Professor Barbara Oakley has written this simple to understand book on how to improve your ability to learn.  Using evidence based research she highlights techniques such as chunking, tackling difficult problems first and letting your diffuse thinking work on difficult problems overnight.  This is a valuable addition to your library especially if you are studying or have children at school.

Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother's Boyfriend - Barbara Oakley 

The second book in this list from Barbara Oakley deals with very different subject matter but displays all of her polymath abilities, diverse life experience and considerable humour.  Oakley draws on research from brain imaging to explore the relationship of genes, emotions & behavior in so called “Machiavellian” individuals.  She weaves the science with the stories of well-known sociopaths such as Slobodan Milosevic and Mao Zedong and with the personal story of his (Mao’s) own sister.  What is most useful is that the book highlights how to identify similar individuals in our own lives and thereby avoid suffering at their hands or harbouring any unrealistic expectations about the likelihood of them changing.

Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth About Success - Matthew Syed

I first came across ex Table Tennis world champion and now Times columnist, Syed in 2011 with his excellent first book “Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice”.  He broadens his scope here to cover the subject of failure across almost the entire gamut of human activity including the fields of politics, engineering, education, medicine and the law.  Syed covers how we should change the way we view failure and most importantly how we must systematically use evidence to extract and implement learnings to avoid continually repeating errors.


Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies- César Hidalgo

This is one of the most ambitious books I have ever read and it deserves to be widely read.  It is essentially a (very credible) attempt to integrate Physics, Math’s, Information & Communications Theory and Economics in order to explain human development!

Hidalgo has an easy style which makes the sometimes complicated subject matter very accessible.  That said he admits to having reordered the chapter flow several times as he wrote the book and I am not sure there is a right answer as the field he is covering is so huge.  Notwithstanding this he has managed to synthesize several previously unrelated fields and a large body of cutting-edge work into what will develop further into a unified theory of human growth.

Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference & why it matters - Richard Rumelt

This 2011 book is now my answer whenever I am asked what book I recommend on strategy and before that I could never answer the question with a single book alone.   Good Strategy Bad Strategy is an essential read for all involved in any kind of long term thinking or planning (whether it is called Strategy or not).  One of his key messages is that most things that are called “strategy” are not!  Rumelt details how to run the gamut of “fluff”, muddled thinking, goal obsession and other common strategy traps.  His prescription is essentially ”less is more”, with a simple three-step process that has a strong (and very necessary focus) on execution.

Zero to One – Peter Thiel.

This book made it to #1 on the NYT books list. Peter was one of the founders of Paypal and is a good buddy of Elon Musk. He is worth several billion dollars and in his book he evangelizes how one should go about crating something from nothing. Clearly Peter is an INTP and this is an INTP perspective of how you should create and run a company.  While I can understand his perspective I am not sure I agree with all he has to say. Luck plays no part in his success (according to him) and of course “to the victor goes the spoils” he gets to write about history.

Superforcasting: The art and science of prediction – Philip E Tetlock and Dan Gardner

Along the lines of Thinking Fast Thinking Slow, this book chronicles the activities of Superforecasters, a group of people whose ability to make accurate predictions far surpasses (statistically) that of professional forecasters, futurologists and intelligence agencies. What do these people have in common? They understand math especially statistics, they make frequent changes to their predictions based on timely information, and they consider both sides of the probability that is what is the likelihood of something occurring and what is the likelihood of it not occurring.  A good read for anyone in the field of decision making and planning.   

Posted in Business Management


Developing Empathy to Increase Emotional Intelligence

Developing Empathy to Increase Emotional Intelligence

The ability to understand why people behave the way they do is a critical component of emotional intelligence, and it is a skill that can be taught. To be successful, it helps if you can develop empathy towards the person or people whose behaviour you are trying to understand. The psychoanalyst Theodor Reik (a student of Sigmund Freud) defined empathy as a process involving four components:


  1. Identification - focusing one’s own attention to another and allowing oneself to become absorbed in contemplation of that person.
  2. Incorporation - making the other’s experience one’s own via internalizing the other.
  3. Reverberation - experiencing the other’s experience while attending to one’s own cognitive and affective associations to that experience.
  4. Detachment - moving back from the merged inner relationship to a position of separate identity, which permits a response to be made that reflects both understanding of others as well as separateness from them.

Steps 1 through 3 involve the ability to put your self in the shoes of the other while step 4 requires that you detach yourself from the situation so you can present a “rational” and “objective” response.

Without being able to do steps 1 to 3 you can’t accurately do step 4, and as my experience has born out, it is not so easy for people to do steps 1 to 3. That is, people have great difficulty putting themselves in the shoes of others.

So what can you do to develop this ability? There are a few techniques that can be used such as:

Emotional attribution tasks where participants are presented with short stories describing emotional situations and asked what the protagonists might feel in those situations;

Faux pas task where participants are read a story with the occurrence of a faux pas and asked if they detected the faux pas—that is, a socially awkward situation;

Being assigned to groups that differ in terms of perspective-taking instructions before watching videotape or listening to an emotionally laden story and then discussing their reactions.

These techniques put the focus on developing self-awareness and mental flexibility, so you can step outside your own immediate reactions and put yourself in the shoes of the other. Empathy then is a skill that can be learned and you can use it to enhance your emotional intelligence.

Posted in Business Management


You Can't Shrink Your Way To Greatness

You Can't Shrink Your Way To Greatness

Unfortunately troubled economic times seem to bring a narrow-minded response from many businesses. Common initiatives appear to be driven by short-termism and the need to be seen to be doing something rather than really adapting to the challenges of the new economic environment.

Initially the response is often denial, hoping that a recovery will come along and that things can get back to normal. When the realisation sets in that an early recovery is not forthcoming then it is agreed that something must be done and as it has now been left late, then that something must be radical.   Usually this means cost cutting and cost cutting means that heads must roll.

Posted in Business Management


The 4 Things Great Managers Do

The 4 Things Great Managers Do

employee recognition







There is no mystery to good management, though many management consultants and Business schools may like to make it seem so. Management is about working with and getting things done through the actions of others. Here are four things that great managers do to make this happen.


1. Management By Walking Around

MBWA is a great way to increase contact between senior management and the people who work for them. The Japanese have a great term for the workplace -GEMBA and it is where the action happens, where the work takes place. Masaki Imai the great Kaizen (method of continuous improvement) guru tells a story of what Mr Toyoda (founder of Toyota Motors) used to do when hiring new engineers. He would greet them on their first day at work, take them to a place on the shop floor, draw a square or circle on the ground and tell the engineer to stand in that square all day. The next day he would take the same engineer to another part of the factory floor, draw another square and tell the engineer to stand there. The lesson of the story was that you could not make work place based decisions if you did not know what was happening on the shop floor and the starting point was to learn by watching the work been performed.


MBWA is not about an aimless walk around, it needs to be done with a purpose: to listen to people and find out what is going on in real time; to provide positive reinforcement; to communicate the latest company news; and to discover and promote ideas for improvement. Along with trust built from upward feedback tools and other team working methods, teams embrace their manager’s presence positively as a visible sign of support and appreciation of their everyday demands.


2. Set a Vision and Communicate It

All companies have strategic plans; hopefully you will get overviews and progress reports every time there is an annual general meeting. Great managers are able to take the strategic plan and specifically the vision for the business, and translate it so it becomes meaningful for their employees. Too often this is left to the PowerPoint slide master to accomplish. By that I mean all the info is put on a PowerPoint and sent out to everyone in the organisation, in the vain hope that it will be understood (if at least it gets read). That is not communication, and in fact that is downright disrespectful to your employees. Great managers take the time to discuss the vision and the strategic plan with their employees, what it means, how it affects them and what they the employees are required to do to execute the strategy and achieve the vision. Discussing the vision with employees is also a great way of understanding what concerns people may have or how they feel in general about the vision and the direction the company is taking.


3. Providing Positive Reinforcement

Most people need to be acknowledged for their efforts and receive recognition for the work that they do. If the only time that takes place is during performance appraisal time then it’s way too late. Findings of both the Hewitt and Gallup employee engagement surveys highlight the strong link between recognitions and praise to employee engagement. When you take this into consideration then you have to acknowledge that providing positive reinforcement in a way that is meaningful to each individual for those actions and results that you desire in an employee, is a no brainer.


4. Open time

Busy-ness can often be interpreted as a sign of importance or even value; that is, “I am so busy because I have so many things to do.” My take is different, If you are a busy manager then you are either doing the work of others; you are disorganised; or you have bought into a culture where “busy” is perceived to be important (or worse still some combination of all three!)

What I continually find astounding is that managers can find the time to fight fires or intervene when things go wrong, but cannot find the time to be involved in continuous improvement or value adding activities.

One of the things great managers do is find the time to meet with the people who work for them – not just via management by walking around themselves, but by scheduling time to be “available” for anyone of their employees to meet. I call this open time; a time set aside in your calendar where you are in your office but available to meet with anyone who wants to see you with out making an appointment. It is a time where employees feel they can engage you one on one without worrying about disturbing you in any way.


In conclusion, good management is not complex, however it does require the discipline to focus on some simple behaviours in a consistent fashion. Specifically, get out, meet and listen to your people, translate the company’s vision for them, recognise them when they do what you want and finally make time for your people.

Posted in Business Management


Death by PowerPoint

or how not to turn your audience off!

Death by PowerPoint

Jerry Seinfeld joked about a survey that found that the fear of public speaking ranks higher in most people's minds than the fear of death. "In other words," he said, “at a funeral, the average person would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy."

I have another type of fear of public speaking; that of listening to a speaker reading in a monotone from notes which they have projected on the wall behind them.

We’ve all experienced the cruel and unusual punishment of “Death by PowerPoint”. As far as I am concerned the ubiquitous use of this software (it’s even taught in schools now) has not only resulted in a possible cure for insomnia but also in the death of good public speaking.

Posted in Business Management


Team Development

The often overlooked ingredient for success

Team Development

Many of you will be familair with the Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing model of team development. But do you know it's origins and how to utilise it?

Dr Bruce Tuckman published his Forming Storming Norming Performing model in 1965 while doing research work for the United States Navy where he and other social psychologists were studying small group behaviour. As well as investigating actual groups he also conducted a meta anlysis of literature in the area of group development.

Posted in Business Management


Undercover Boss

Yet another management gimmick!

Undercover Boss

The urge for CEO’s to go “undercover” as employees or work safe officers in order to truly understand what’s happening on the “shop floor” highlights the disconnection between senior management and employees. If anything it goes to prove that a lack of trust exists between and within the management ranks and employees at all levels. What does it say about a company’s culture when the CEO feels he or she has to go “undercover” to understand or learn about what’s happening in the business? Clearly it is says, “I don’t trust you!”  More so it undermines the leadership of first line supervisors and managers.  If CEO’s truly feel they need to go “undercover” then it raises serious questions about how much management is trusted.

Posted in Business Management

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