Simply Complexity: A Clear Guide to Complexity Theory by Neil Johnson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I now understand more about complexity theory, but am less interested in it.

I had hoped that this would be about complexity in human organisations, with examples linked to the workplace, exploring issues such as change management, systems thinking, and game theory … but oh no, there was none of that!

Fair enough, it doesn’t have to be laser-focussed on my own interests, but I grew weary of repeated examples of traffic systems and stock exchanges, and even when the theories are applied to things I care about – like whether to go out to a crowded bar or not – the theory felt lifeless in the hands of such lame examples. It felt like it was over-complicating simple decision-making for the fun of doing so – and hey, I love over-complicating things, so you’d think this would be right up my street, but it felt less like a useful tool for understanding the world, and more like an odd academic plaything of little practical value.

I know that’s not the case.

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The End of Asquith: The Downing Street Coup – December 1916 by Michael Byrne

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I read this hot on the heels of Asquith’s biography (by Roy Jenkins) because I was in the mood, and because I thought it’d help me get to grips with what happened when Lloyd George barged in and took over.

It is a fictionalised account, so it mainly reads like a novel, and Byrne does a pretty decent job to keep it going considering there isn’t really enough going on to justify a novel, and we already know the ending.

It leans a lot on Jenkins’s biography, but is more critical of Asquith than Jenkins was. In this book you understand a lot more the negative side of his premiership. You see the mix of respect and frustration felt by his colleagues – respect for the man, his skills and his achievements, frustration at his drinking, distractions (female), laziness (or maybe his half-hearted commitment is a better way of saying it), and most of all his consensual approach to government by committee which was too slow and cumbersome for the needs of wartime.

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more. Not my words, but the words of the current President of the US, obviously a bit of an expert in the revered abolitionist.

This book is an account of Douglass’s life as a slave, and then as a free man, written by Douglass himself. As you’d expect for a book written around 1850, it reads a bit old-fashioned today, but it’s no chore to get through. It’s fairly short and to the point and is written quite fluently.

It describes a life that it is barely imaginable: twenty-plus years a slave, most of it fairly lucky by slavery standards, but he still had his fair share of physical abuse as well as the constant mental torture of being the property of another with no choice about his own life, and no hope for emancipation.

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Asquith by Roy Jenkins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I never got why Asquith was so consistently overlooked as a national figure.

If anyone ever talks about great Liberal Prime Ministers it’s always Gladstone this and Lloyd George that, poor old Squithy never gets a look-in.

As one of the few figures of consequence to actually come from Leeds, we should be bloody well talking him up, not letting Lloyd George overshadow him.

This biography is a bit old-fashioned and shallow. It’s good, and readable, and tells the story with minimal focus on childhood, and maximum focus on his time in Number 10, which is the right balance (reading about other people’s childhoods is almost as boring as reading about other people’s dreams).

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Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life by John Campbell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A very good book, but more than that, a very interesting and inspiring subject – much more so than I realised.

Two things in particular: first he was someone whose politics were remarkably similar to my own; and second he had the concept of living life to the full, “a life well lived,” which is something I never quite worked out for myself, but aspire to.

I remember Roy Jenkins from my own childhood. Not very well, but I knew who he was. I clearly remember the SDP and thought he was the stuffy old one who looked a bit out of place next to the glamour of the much younger David Owen and David Steel. Later when I studied politics properly, he cropped up as a big name in Harold Wilson’s first period in office (Home Secretary, then Chancellor), but I didn’t know the detail, and he seemed to peak way back in the sixties, and then wander off to Europe before returning to split Labour and melt away into obscurity.

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Change: principles of problem formations and problem resolution by Paul Watzlawick, John H. Weakland, and Richard Fisch

This isn’t an organisational change book.

It’s about individual problem solving from the perspective of psychology and therapy – but the underlying ideas are applicable to change management anyway, and for this reason the book is a useful addition to the change manager’s bookshelf.

Change is an individual journey anyway.

All change management models I can think of: PROSCI’s ADKAR, Kotter’s 8 Steps, William Bridges Transitions model, Lewin’s unfreeze-change-freeze (that really needs a better name), change equation, Peter Senge’s approach … they all focus on the individual (less so Kotter perhaps).

So a psychological approach is useful, but we have to be careful. If we’re not trained psychologists, we have to be cautious with using the little bit of knowledge we get from this sort of book, and make sure we don’t overreach into territory we’re not qualified to operate in.

So I’m not going to talk about all parts of the book, I’m going to twist this review toward organisational change management and learning and development … so if you’re interested in this from a therapist’s perspective, this review won’t float your boat.

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Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a man blindly careering toward a midlife crisis, I was interested to read a book that sought to explain how people transition from one life phase to another.

I was particularly intrigued to learn how to do so in a healthy and reasonably normal way (not that I ever aspire to normality, but as I’m talking about territory that is personally uncharted, I’m happy to hold hands with someone who knows the best way through).

I wasn’t disappointed.

At least not initially.

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Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Overlong and outdated, this story is interesting to read because it was, and is, so influential on politics and – to a lesser extent – on organisational leadership, but it doesn’t really stand up on any other basis.

It starts quite well. It’s well-written and I enjoyed the early chapters about the challenges of running a railroad in 1950s America. However, the story soon deteriorates into a nonsense argument between the heroic industrialists who are talented and achievement-orientated, and the fake straw men who are spineless, stupid and corrupt.

The philosophical premise that informs this (and Rand’s theory of Objectivism) is so damn clumsy it gets quite infuriating.

The central argument is so simplistic and loaded it insults the intelligence. The good guys are hard-nosed, hard-working, focussed, and clever. They unashamedly make money and don’t apologise for it. So far so good; no problem with that. What they go on to do is reject most human relationships as unnecessary – Dagny Taggart, the most human of the “good guys” (who I quite fancied), at least admits she needs butch and uptight Hank Rearden in her bed and doesn’t mind saying so – Rearden, who needs a good slap if you ask me, insists (and insists!) that he’s only doing Taggart for his own pleasure and does not give a jot for hers. This seems very important to him. She sees this as a good thing.

Someone needs therapy.

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Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a fast-paced high-energy onslaught of short choppy chapters that shout the argument that we are all members of tribes – groups of like-minded passionate people – and that tribes are where the energy and enthusiasm is.

Godin uses this concept as the basis for a discussion on game-changing leadership. It’s about how “heretics” can passionately and determinedly fight for what they believe in, and that if they are right, people will follow them. The point is not to seek people to lead, but to seek a disruptive idea and make it happen; the people will follow.

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Leading Change by John P Kotter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a book that changed my life. It got me interested in things like organisational psychology, change, management, and leadership, things I’d previously never considered worthy of my attention.

Kotter’s main thesis is to set out an 8-step structure for organisational transformation, a structure that maps clearly onto Lewin’s Unfreeze-Change-Refreeze change management model.

The main value in Lewin’s model is the two ends: unfreeze and refreeze, these are the phases that get least attention as most organisations simply rush to change things (without unfreezing) and then fail to embed the new way of doing things in the culture (refreeze).

This is why change management is not project management – the change project is the easy, the bit in the middle, but achieving organisational change is the whole piece.

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