The Pile for November 8, 2009

Last week, we inaugurated The Pile, a guide to what we're reading to become better managers. Here's this weekend's installment.

The most useful management reading over the past week comes from Gina Trapani, the founder of the Lifehacker website, over at Harvard Business. In A More Practical Creative Sabbatical, Trapani takes on something that has bothered us and makes sense of it. We're big fans of the work of designer Stefan Sagemeister, but a recent TEDtalk about how he takes off every seventh year to concentrate on experiments was troubling. His presentation was effective and inspiring, but it's not particularly replicable: not many among us can abandon our jobs so regularly. Trapani recognizes this and, in her usual make-every-moment-count approach, walks through ways to create "micro-sabbaticals," habits we can work into our normal workdays. Her advice is modest -- maximize your commute time, find some freedom in a repetitive physical activity, get away from your desk -- but her underlying argument is a welcome one: you don't have to take a full-blown sabbatical to give yourself some space to grow.

In the current economic climate, however, too many of us are stuck on forced sabbaticals. And it has become a truism in management circles that a downturn is no time to stop investing in research and development. Our recent special report on managing in the downturn covers this. So does Success and the Power of Research from the latest issue of Design Mind, the magazine about business, technology, and design from the Frog Design consultancy. In the article, Henry Tirri, head of the Nokia Research Center, argues that investing in R&D in an economic downturn isn't just a good idea: it's critical. He makes the usual arguments and looks back at how Finland's business R&D'd its way out of its deep early-'90s recession. Most interesting is when he elaborate on his notion that the very purpose of research is to give companies choices:

"The question then becomes, which choices should be made? As in a game of speed chess, where players have to make their best move within a strict time limit, research teams working in a downturn must focus on choosing the best opportunities they have within the constraints presented to them. Teams have to start making optimal decisions based on short-term goals rather than long-term plans. Under this sort of pressure, a good, approximate decision is better than a great decision made at the expense of time. Most researchers have a tendency to go with the most optimal decision, but economic situations create a need to move fast. This means selecting the most promising and mature projects, and accelerating the most disruptive products as well. There still is substantial risk in this process. People and companies are naturally impatient, and they don’t tolerate failures before wins. But it still may take time for the efforts of research to come to fruition. For those organizations that have the discipline, however, the benefits can be enormous."

novel image, by Robert Rodriguez, courtesy Wall Street JournalFinally, everyone wants to develop the habits that will make them successful. Everyone from Stephen Covey to David Allen offer borderline-cult-like methods for being more efficient or effective. Nowhere is this obsession with habits more blatant than among writers. What brand pencil do you use? What time of day to you write? Lined or unlined index cards? In How To Write a Great Novel, The Wall Street Journal checks in on the habits of 17 celebrated purveyors of fiction and comes up with some amusing ones: Nicholson Baker dresses up as his characters, Anne Rice insists on writing in 14-point Courier font, and MIT's Junot Diaz locks himself in the bathroom and perches himself on the edge of the bathtub. We present these tips to you not because we think you should replicate them -- they're idiosyncratic to the life of each writer -- but because of what they all have in common: a smart, committed professional trying all sorts of wacky things until he or she finds something that works. Sounds to us like an approach to management.

What are you reading to become a better manager?

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