Tag Archives: William C. Taylor

What Makes A Good Writer? It May Start With Being A Good Reader – Consider Barbara Tuchman

What makes a good writer?  It may start with being a good reader.

And what makes a good reader?  It may start with a love of books.

And what creates a love of books?  That’s tougher to answer…  But for those who are lucky enough to love books, we have our champions.  Like Barbara Tuchman.

Barbara Tuchman

Bob posted this earlier: Summer Reading Picks from Dan Pink, Seth Godin, Eliot Spitzer, and More.  It was written by William C. Taylor, co-founder of Fast Company magazine and coauthor of Mavericks at Work. His next book is Practically Radical.  Taylor asked Pink, Godin, Spitzer, and others about their favorites.  And then he shared a couple of his own favorite books.  This is about his second choice:

My second choice is The March of Folly by historian (and two-time Pulitzer winner) Barbara Tuchman. She looks at some of the great failures of leadership in history — the Trojan War, British reactions to the American colonies, Vietnam — and teases out lessons that illuminate more current leadership crises.

So, who is Barbara Tuchman?  Tuchman twice won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction, first for The Guns of August in 1963, and again for Stilwell and the American Experience in China in 1972.  A renowned historian, she was first and foremost a lover of learning, which flowed from her love of books.

In Practicing History, she tells the story of “the single most formative experience” in her career.  It is about a moment that happened in her first trip into the stacks of a great library.

In the process of doing my own thesis – not for a Ph.D., because I never took a graduate degree, but just my undergraduate honors thesis — the single most formative experience in my career took place.  It was not a tutor or a teacher or a fellow student or a great book or the shining example of some famous visiting lecturer – like Sir Charles Webster, for instance, brilliant as he was.  It was the stacks at Widener.  They were my Archimedes bathtub, my burning bush, my dish of mold where I found my personal penicillin.  I was allowed to have as my own one of those little cubicles with a table under a window, queerly called, as I have since learned, carrels, a word I never knew when I sat in one.  Mine was deep in among the 9425 (British History, that is) and I could roam at liberty through the rich stacks, taking whatever I wanted.  The experience was marvelous, a word I use in its exact sense meaning full of marvels.  The happiest days of my intellectual life, until I began writing history again some fifteen years later, were spent in the stacks at Widener.  My daughter Lucy, class of ’61, once said to me that she could not enter the labyrinth of Widener’s stacks without feeling that she ought to carry a compass, a sandwich, and a whistle.  I too was never altogether sure I could find the way out, but I was blissful as a cow put to graze in a field of fresh clover and would not have cared if I had been locked in for the night.

This is primarily a blog about business books, authors of business books, ideas found in business books, and general observations about business and life.  But every now and then, we need to reconnect with the starting point – a pure love of books.  Barbara Tuchman was captivated — won over — by the stacks at one of the world’s great libraries.  It is a feeling I understand.

a look into one library's stacks

(The Woes of MySpace) The Future is Utterly Predictable — it is a Future of Constant Innovation

Boy, those old staid companies sure do get in trouble because they fail to innovate.  Yes, the times are changing, and companies better learn how to stay fresh, keep improving, keep changing.  When they’ve been around forever, it is awfully easy to get set in their ways, and watch the competition sweep right on by them.

Take that old venerable company known as MySpace.  It has been around forever.  It was way back in August, 2003 when they launched.  Times were different then.  And what they set in place back in those long-gone days just doesn’t seem to work anymore.  So the CEO Owen Van Natta, in a letter to his employees in which he announced and explained the decision to lay off 30% of their workers (400 workers), included this sober assessment:  “We need to become a more innovative company.” (read about the layoffs here, and the entire letter from the CEO here).  (Here’s a little more of his letter:  “The future success of MySpace is dependent upon us operating as a nimble and entrepreneurial company with the adaptive mentality of a start-up…  I believe this is the first difficult step toward a major turnaround – a step that will not only shore us up in the short term, but position us for long term success. We need to become a more innovative company.  Becoming more innovative is an ongoing responsibility for all of us, not a one-time effort”).

It does sound a little ludicrous, doesn’t it?  I mean, I can understand that a company as old and established as GM might get a little behind in the innovation contest.   But MySpace?  This company is only six years old.  It’s been less than six years ago that you could not have built your own MySpace page.  And yet, here it is in stark, sobering words:  “We need to become a more innovative company.”  Competitors like Facebook, and now Twitter, have just swept right on by MySpace because they are more innovative.  Who would have thought?

We should have known it was coming.  We’ve been warned.  The business books of the last 12 years have all said it, loud and clear.  The future is coming, and it’s going to be different from the past.  Constantly different.  Perpetually innovating.  The world is changing faster and faster and faster…  Here’s just a sampling of quotes:

“If it seems like your world has been topsy-turvy over the past few years…  Consider what’s coming…  Technology is not kind.  It does not wait.  It does not say please.  It slams into existing systems, and often destroys them – while creating a new system.”  (Juan Enriquez, As the Future Catches You).

“It’s finally happened.  I’ve seen a company where I can imagine working!”  Innovation is it, for the foreseeable future…”  {Tom Peters, from the foreword}.  (Tom Kelley, The Art of Innovation:  Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm).

“You want to wake up your organization to the need for a strategic shift and a break from the status quo.”  (W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne,  Blue Ocean Strategy:  How to Create Uncontested Market Space and make the Competition Irrelevant).

“Even the world’s “most admired” companies aren’t as adaptable as they need to be, as innovative as they need to be, or as much fun to work in as they should be…  To put it bluntly, management innovation pays…  Remember the old saw about the tendency of generals to refight the last war rather than the one at hand?”  (Gary Hamel, The Future of Management).

“The premise of this book is a simple one:  that breakthrough innovations come by recombining the people, ideas, and objects of past technologies.  The implication, recalling William Gibson, is that the future is already here – it’s just unevenly distributed.”  (Andrew Hargadon, How Breakthroughs Happen:  The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate).

“When it comes to thriving in a hypercompetitive marketplace, “playing it safe” is no longer playing it smart…  the more you do something, the more important it is to challenge the assumptions and habits that built your success so as to generate a wave of innovations to build the future…  Remember, the most effective leaders are the most insatiable learners. (William C. Taylor and Polly LaBarre,  Mavericks at Work:  Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win).

“To change is to take a risk – to give up a current state in an attempt to reach a potentially more desirable one.  We tend to resist change…  In this new (postmodern or post-Web corporate world) hypercompetitive environment, market transitions are a lot faster, and the cycle of innovation has gotten increasingly shorter…  new products and services started appearing more and more frequently, resulting in even more competition.  (including:  real-time information).  Reengineering found itself outdated.”  (Benham N. Tabrizi, Rapid Transformation:  A 90-Day Plan For Fast And Effective Change).

“I held only positions that did not exist before I had them…  Conceptualizers see the future.”  (Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leadership:  A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness).

Everyone needs to think differently about the future, a future that is riddled with change, challenge, and risk.  It is a new kind of future, not the steady plodding of progress from one moment to the next, punctuated by brief bursts of innovation that characterizes much of history.  Now we face a post-9/11 future.  The future of our lives, of our work, of our businesses – and most of all, the future of our world – depends on us gaining a new understanding of the dizzying changes that lie ahead.  I call this future-readiness…  The coming Innovation Economy will herald an age of rapid, dramatic change, one in which ideas that create value, offer solutions, and fulfill needs will thrive, sweeping into the recesses of memory the comparatively primitive ideas, products, services, and processes that came before.  Innovation will be the prime source of productivity, prosperity, competition, and potentially even peace.  Innovation will be recognized as an empowering force that will drive individual prosperity and global competition.  (James Canton, Ph.D., CEO and Chairman, Institute for Global Futures, The Extreme Future:  The Top Ten Trends That Will Reshape the World for the Next 5, 10, and 20 Years).

“Never get comfortable with where you are.  Anticipate the inevitability of having to modify or change how you do business to meet your customers’ needs…  Organizations that refuse to change their methods to meet demands are likely the same stubborn organizations that are slowly going out of business.  Change is never over, said Jack Welch.”  (Ron Hunter Jr. & Michael E. Waddell, Toy Box Leadership:  Leadership Lessons from the Toys You Loved as a Child).

So, let’s all let the MySpace story be an object lesson for us all.  If we are not constantly innovating, the competition will simply pass us by.  Remember the warning from Gary Hamel:”  Every business is successful — until it’s not.”

(To purchase my synopses of many of the books quoted, with handout + audio, go to our 15 Minute Business Book site).