The Pile for December 29, 2009

The Pile is our weekly guide to what we’re reading to become better managers.

wired logoWhat's the best way to win? Why, to lose, of course. That's the argument in a special report in the January Wired, called "Fail! Why Losing Big Can Be a Winning Strategy." Your editor has been interested in this topic for a long while and there may be nothing more universal in management than screwing up. We read the report so you don't have to.

The problem with most of the journalism about failure, management and otherwise, is that people tend to be more comfortable talking about their failure after they've followed it up with a victory. The Wired package is no exception: cover boy Alec Baldwin has made many bad choices (My Best Friend's Girl, The Cat in the Hat, marriage), but he's comfortable talking about them because he is now riding a hit TV series and movie. Similarly, the luminaries comfortable talking about their greatest mistakes are people like Bill Clinton and Meg Whitman who have lived through even greater triumphs. And Oracle's mid-'90s network computer flop is getting attention now because it was a decade before his time. More interesting is the one story of real failure, one company's inability to get a videogame out the door. For the most part, editors only want to tell the stories of losers from the point of view of winners. But that's only part of the story.

A few weeks ago we encouraged you to read an 800-page book. This week our goal is more modest: a slender book you might actually have time to read. Small books, reference and otherwise, have served as useful, portable inspiration. Writers often are not far away from their copies of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style or Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. Businesspeople and optimists of all stripes could do much worse than have Brenda Laurel's 112-page Utopian Entrepreneur nearby. Engineers and designers have a pair of tiny, elegant IDEO hardcovers worth perusing for inspiration, among them Andrew Burroughs's Everyday Engineering: What Engineers See and Jane Fulton Suri's Thoughtless Acts?: Observations on Intuitive Design. The trend has a downside, of course. There are series of books intended to appeal to self-identified "dummies" and "idiots," and many elite business journals sell at-a-glance versions of their articles to time-pressed readers. Someone somewhere may have tried to reduce Good to Great or Getting Things Done to haiku. But compact volumes that make sense of complex issues are particularly valuable in the current era of overflowing inboxes, physical and virtual.

statistics book coverLike many, we were first made aware of Darrell Huff's How to Lie with Statistics long ago while in college trying to understand t-tests, ANOVAs, and the like. The book is more than half a century old now, but it doesn’t feel dated. At a time when chartjunk and data that appears to be based on analytics but is in fact based on a gut feeling seem to rule, Huff's warnings and Irving Geis's amusing line drawings ring truer than ever. (Geis’s drawings are dated—note the smoking doctor and baby—but still entertaining.) Huff doesn't want to direct readers to lie with statistics; rather, he is offering some common-sense tools for knowing that the stastistics you’re using to make a decision may be lying to you. Like Edward Tufte's spiritual ancestor, he alerts readers to the dangers of "The Gee-Whiz Graph" and how information visualizations can yield incorrect decisions, regardless of whether the misleading visualization was come to by nefarious or incompetent means. "Nothing has been falsified—except for the impression it gives," Huff notes of one graph: even the correct information can push you in the wrong direction if the context is off. "Suppose you wish to win an argument, shock a reader, move him into action, sell him something. For that, this chart lacks schmaltz." How to Lie with Statistics is an enjoyable, worth-returning-to-regularly, equation-free primer and reminder of how best to see beyond the schmaltz, not make a bad decision because the data "clearly" pointed to it, and make sense of what you see.

And, finally, we're spending this holiday week with the latest publications from the Academy of Management. We'll offer translation services in next week's "Pile."