Category Archives: Book Reviews

Why we need shared experiences


One of the pleasures of life is making discoveries in the most unlikely of places.

One might suggest that business-focused learning has nothing in common with the game of hurling, but I’m certain this is not correct.

While reading a real gem of a book called ‘The Club’ by Christy O’Connor, a compelling tale of a year in the life of a Co. Clare hurling club St. Joseph’s Doora-Barefield, I was captivated by this quote:

Sport at its most moving and visceral doesn’t have to involve cups and medals. It has to do with a group coming together and sharing experiences until such time as those shared experiences turn them into something else.

If you have been fortunate in life, you will have experienced this phenomenon. A powerful, shared experience can have a transformative effect on a group of people and can create a unique bond that lasts a long time.

I have been lucky to experience this first-hand in recent times with my colleagues in the UCD Smurfit Graduate Diploma in Executive Coaching. A group of seventeen people who over the course of the year were “turned into something else”. I realise the nature of the work allows for a higher quality of personal interaction, but the strength of the connection between this group is extraordinary.

We have also seen this emerge in our Smarter Egg learning groups, especially amongst the groups that have been working together for over a year. Personal and business challenges have been co-navigated with the assistance of inputs and insights from external ‘thought leaders’ as well as from within the group. ‘Transformative’ is the perfect word.

Our challenge is to continually seek out opportunities where we can engage with people at this level. Those opportunities may lie in the most unlikely of places.

Need inspiration for Christmas presents? Try these.

Books have always been popular Christmas presents. But just like other presents, many givers can completely misread the needs and likes of the recipients. We often fall into the trap of giving the most popular or most heavily promoted books. And it turns out we rarely read them.

Many people have asked me recently for recommendations for good books either for themselves or for loved ones. So, here are a few ideas for possible Christmas presents this year.


We have kicked around many books this year that have explored the irrationality of human behaviour but one that stands out as readable, interesting and thought provoking would be Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behaviour This is an ideal gift for anyone who is fascinated by how people behave.


Robert Cialdini’s ‘Influence’ is a real classic but this book, Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion, is a more up-to-date and accessible take on this material. And because it’s broken into 50 individual fascinating stories, it’s ideal for those of you who like to read in the bathroom!


Christmas time is, apparently, all about celebration and good cheer, so what better time to be reading about how to be happier! In Happier: Can you learn to be happy?, Tal Ben-Shahar shares some of the learnings from his popular class at Harvard on this very topic. This book is easy to read and provides us with some pointers as to how we can be happier. Only problem here is to make sure the gift recipient doesn’t think you’re saying they’re a grumpy so-and-so.

reality check

Once upon a time, it was very common to see a Compendium of some description given as a gift at Christmas. Just like Annuals of our favourite comics, it was the kind of book you only tended to see at Christmas. If you’re buying a book for a new business owner this year, then you could do a lot worse than this compendium of business wisdom from Guy Kawasaki called Reality Check: The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging and Outmarketing Your Competition.


As Greg Canty has been rightly highlighting, there are plenty of great Irish book options available this Christmas. There are quite a few from ‘experts’ with their views on the economic crisis. Too much of this genre is weighed down by excessive finger-pointing but one exception is Marc Coleman’s Back from the Brink: Ireland’s Road to Recovery. This is a very sharp analysis of Ireland’s recent economic history with some challenging and stimulating perspectives on the future.


And finally, to the perfect present for a father-to-be, or any recent first-time father. In fact, you don’t have to be a father to love this book. Adam Brophy writes a weekly column on fatherhood in the Irish Times and his book The Bad Dad’s Survival Guide is a gently comic walk through the stages of being a dad. If you are bothered by the question ‘what do you give the man who has everything?’, this is a good answer.

The underrated value of quitting

I quit!!

There has rarely been a better time to quit. Everything appears to be changing. And changing faster than we ever expected. Old models are crumbling. Some new ones are emerging. There’s a lot of chaos in between.

If you have been worried about the social impact of quitting, then maybe this is as good as it gets. With the impact of the economic recession now at its peak, behaviours and expectations have changed. Displays of wealth are embarassing. Frugality is the new chic. Austerity is the new religion. Or so it appears at this point, at the turn of the year, indeed the decade.

But what is it that you should quit? In The Dip: The Extraordinary Benefits of Knowing When to Quit and When to Stick, Seth Godin asks whether you are in a ‘dip’ or a cul-de-sac. And his message is simple: if you’re in a cul-de-sac, it’s time to quit; if you’re in a dip, keep going.

Most of us probably have some dips and cul-de-sacs. We are irrationally compelled to have more than one. We need to figure out which is which. And we need to do it quickly.

Many business people are hanging on. Hanging on for the recession to go away. Hanging on until the good old days come back. If you’re hanging on for the return of 100% mortgages, you probably don’t need to be told that’s a cul-de-sac. And you do need to quit.

But some are surviving. They’re making progress, albeit modest progress. And many may not be realising financial gain. And their biggest question right now is: am I in a dip or a cul-de-sac?


The good news is that quitting the cul-de-sacs gives you more energy to push through the dips. As Godin says, we can’t be the best in the world (our world) at everything. The world needs us to be the best at something though. There we need to dominate. Elsewhere, we should probably leave.

You may well be working on your plans for 2010. You’re probably calling it a strategy. How many of those plans involve continuing down a cul-de-sac? Be honest. If you can’t, ask others. Ask your boss. Ask your customers. Ask those who won’t tell what you want to hear.

Here’s a great question: if we could start all over again from January 1st, how would we do it? Knowing now what we do, what wouldn’t we have got involved in or started?

Got the answers? Great.

Quit the cul-de-sacs. Embrace the dips. What’s stopping you?

Not dominating? Maybe it’s time to leave.


In Break From The Pack – How To Compete In A Copycat Economy, Oren Harari challenges businesses to dominate some area of their market. And if they don’t, they should leave that market.

He claims that companies that declare they intend to dominate everything wind up dominating nothing.

This makes a lot of sense to me. Yet, I’m guilty of trying to succeed in too many markets. And most of the businesses that I interact with tend to do the same. Why do we do this? Is it related to our irrational compulsion to keep options open? Or is it as a result of legacy work – just because we once did some good work in a particular space, does this mean we commit to it forever?

You might say that this is related to how large a business is or how many resources we have available. And this is somewhat true. Bigger businesses can afford to play in multiple markets but it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Jack Welch, in his time as GE CEO, famously introduced the #1 or #2 rule (if we’re not #1 or #2 in the market, then we get out of that business). And I can’t think of many companies that are larger or more diverse than GE.

Harari outlines seven steps to dominating and the one that resonates strongest with me is ‘Be a Laser, Not a Floorlamp’. How many of us are trying to spread our focus too wide – trying to illuminate the entire floor instead of focusing on a particular spot?

We spend a lot of time telling the market what it is we do. Maybe we should be thinking more about what we DON’T do. Figure out where you are not dominant, or are unlikely ever to be dominant. Ask yourself the question ‘am I better off leaving this market behind?’ And then tell the market. Here’s what we do, we’re focused and you need to hear our story. Here’s what we don’t do, we suggest you talk to others that will help you.

Do you want to be dominant? Then, maybe the first question you need to answer is ‘what market should I leave?’

Why too many options might be a bad thing

Can we have too many options?

One of the advantages of living in a free society is that we have many choices available to us. Very few aspects of our lives are mandatory, even if some of us tend to lose sight of this at times.

High value is placed on having multiple options. The more choices we have the better. The greater the possibilities we have, the more opportunities open to us, the better our lives will be.

But can we have too much of a good thing?

In Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, Dan Ariely suggests that there is a price to be paid for having many options.  He claims that we have an irrational compulsion to keep ‘doors’ open. He suggests that we ought to shut a lot of them because they draw energy and commitment away from those that we should keep open.

This resonates strongly with me as someone who’s lucky enough to have a growing business where many possibilities are opening up with every passing month. Both my energy and focus are finite entities. In a world of many doors, I can’t afford to keep every one open.

So, a question to consider: how many ‘doors’ do you like to keep open?

When was the last time you examined all of your commitments and activities and asked ‘do I need to keep all these doors open?’

If you closed half of the doors open to you now, what difference would that have on how effective you are?

So you think you know the future?

As you read this, do you think you know what’s likely to happen in the months and years ahead? Can you predict your own future with confidence?

It seems that many have perfected the science of prediction. If you read the papers, listen to the radio or watch TV, you will find a steady stream of highly scientific predictions of what the future holds. Organisations such as the Central Bank or the ESRI, and a myriad of private institutions, release forecasts for the economic environment predicting a range of outcomes for measures like inflation, GDP, interest rates, unemployment and so forth. Continue reading

Why too much jelly can be a bad thing

Imagine how different your childhood would have been if your mother was totally blind. Imagine how different your everyday routine would have been. Imagine how you would have communicated with her.





This was the dilemma facing Andy Bounds as he grew up. He recalls how as a child, he sat on his mother’s knee and asked “What’s the best way to describe this room to you, Mum? How can I explain it so you understand it instantly?” This experience allowed Bounds to realise a critical fact about human communication: the natural way you speak is not the natural way for somebody else to understand.


In ‘The Jelly Effect – How to make your communication stick’, Bounds applies to the world of business the insights in communication that his unusual circumstances have given him. In particular, he examines the art of making presentations, how to sell effectively, how to network and build new business relationships and consequently, generate more referrals for your business.


As he describes it, the secret ingredient to magic communication is his AFTERs model; audiences don’t care what you say, they only care what they are left with AFTER you’ve said it. And therein lies the real value of this book. Bounds very skillfully examines the implications of the AFTERs model for communicating, for networking and for selling.


This book is easy to read, and the key points are very clearly explained. Anyone who has recently experienced frustration with apparently ineffective communication, networking that has not created any real connections or would like more business referrals (and let’s face it, that’s pretty much everyone in this economy) would stand to benefit from reading this book and applying its smart advice.


Oh yes, why the ‘jelly’ effect? Bounds suggests that ineffective communication is akin to throwing large amounts of jelly at the intended target. Unfortunately, very little of the jelly will stick. So, next time you find yourself communicating to an audience, go easy on the jelly!


This review originally appeared in the newsletter.


Feeling the fear… or is it wrath?

One of the pleasures of working in the area of facilitated learning is the exposure to some fantastic insights from the latest thought-provoking business books. One such book, What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis is packed with ideas on how to prosper in the post-Google world.

He introduces a number of ‘laws’, which, as he describes it, interpret the wisdom of Google’s ways. One such law is “Give the people control and we will use it”. He uses his own story of how a frustrating experience with Dell customer service resulted in him posting on his blog about how ‘Dell Sucks’. This became the focal point for hundreds of other dissatisfied Dell customers and whipped up a storm of negatvity that caused serious damage to Dell. The story has a reasonably happy ending, but I guess you need to read the book!

I thought of this yesterday when I saw Leo Babauta’s post about how he had received a legal ‘cease and desist’ warning from Susan Jeffers, author of the classic book Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway. Her lawyers had objected to his use of the famous phrase in his blog post and demanded that he place the (R) symbol after the phrase and credit her appropriately. However, Leo is not for turning. He is not intending to comply with the request.

But this story is not really about the rights and wrongs of Ms. Jeffers’ lawyers or Leo’s subsequent response. It’s what happened next that is a valuable lesson for any of us who have an online presence. There was a massive response to Leo’s blog post. At present count, he has over 550 comments, the vast majority of which are very supportive. This has created a little web storm. But, what about the impact to Susan Jeffers? Just have a look at the page where customers review her book: the mob has descended and are leaving stinky reviews. No review seems to mention the legal controversy, thus making it difficult for Amazon to edit these out. Not good!

So how could Susan Jeffers have handled this differently? The laws of WWGD? would suggest that instead of hiring someone to scan the web for mentions of her magic phrase with a view to protecting its use, she should have directed that focus to engage positively with anyone who is making a reference to her work. What if she, or someone representing her, had joined the conversation on Leo’s blog? What if she congratulated Leo for his interesting post and at the same time introduced her own book and offerings to Leo’s many readers (one fascinating element of this story for me is that Leo, nor it seems most of his readers, had even heard of the book)? Would this not have resulted in more incoming traffic to her website and also more sales of the book itself?

Of course, many are enjoying the irony in the actions of the lady who has encouraged millions to act positively despite their fears but hasn’t really demonstrated that behaviour here. For what it’s worth, I’m a fan of her book. And I don’t think this controversy changes that for me. If Susan is in the Cork area next week, she’s more than welcome to join a Smarter Egg learning group as we discuss the applications of WWGD?; it seems she has already learned one of the key lessons the hard way.

Plane crashes and mitigated speech


I’m delighted to host another lunch-time session on April 21st that will focus on the lessons learned from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers; in particular the ‘Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes’, Chapter 7 in the book.

This chapter is packed with extraordinary tales of disaster and reflects on how ineffective communication can be a significant factor behind plane crashes. Of course, the focus for the participants will be how to apply these lessons to our business communication and I’m certain this will be yet another fascinating and productive discussion.

The venue is Cork’s Imperial Hotel. Please contact me directly to secure one of the remaining places.

My Top 10 books of 2009

What?! You already have a Top 10 books list after two weeks of 2009?

Not really. In fact, I have managed to finish just one book so far this year. It was a Christmas present and a pleasant read: Carole Coleman’s personal account of covering the US Presidential Election. Obama literature understandably has popped up everywhere. Not sure if it’s due to the frustratingly long transition period or the impressive velocity of the publishing industry, but it’s possible to read several books about the election before the man ever takes office.

Should I have the opportunity to compile a list of my ten favourite reads of 2009 a year from now, I wonder how many of the books that are presently at the top of my ‘to read’ pile will figure in the shake-up? I think it’s fair to expect that quite a few new or unheard of titles will emerge over the course of the year; the ‘known unknowns’ as Donald Rumsfeld used to say.

One of the pleasures of the Bookbuzz and Smarter Egg learning group work is that clients make passionate recommendations for books they have found to be very powerful, useful or just a lot of fun to read. Some of those recommendations feature on the list below and I’m always open to new suggestions (via comments below is good too!).

To the list:

Making It All Work by David Allen

The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life by Alice Schroeder

The Power of Less by Leo Babauta

The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam

Touching the Void by Joe Simpson

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

The New Leaders by Daniel Goleman et al.

Thinking for a Living by Thomas Davenport

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp

Focus by Jurgen Wolff