Leadership and Organizational Management Book Reviews


Mastering Civility: A manifesto for the workplace

Christine Porath, Hachette Book Group, 2016

Incivility is a big problem in todays’ workplace. Christine Porath, Associate Professor of Management at McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University has written a book that shines a light on what incivility is and why it is a problem.

Porath has split the book into four sections. In the first section the chapters highlight what incivility is; costs to the workplace which often go undetected; and the benefits of a civil workplace. Part two explores your personal level of civility and strategies to enhance your own civil behaviour including: knowing your biases, sharing resources and practicing e-civilty in online communication.  Porath moves from the individual to the group level in section three with chapters discussing recruiting for civility, coaching, performance metrics and feedback. The final segment of Mastering Incivility talks about dealing with incivility when you are the target.

Incivility is a challenging issue as it generally stems from ignorance rather than malice and the recipient determines if the actions or words are civil or not. The costs of incivility in the workplace are high and often unseen. In addition to the individual who receives uncivil treatment there is a ripple effect. When bystanders are exposed to rudeness they are less likely to help others.

If you are curious about your level of civility check out this link and take the questionnaire.


As Porath notes, incivility is on the rise around the globe. It can produce devasting effects on workers and customers alike. If you read this book and practice some of the ideas shared it will go along way toward making a larger change.

Fern Richardson MBA PHEc


The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business

Charles Duhigg

Doubleday Canada, 2012


In The Power of Habit, journalist and author, Duhigg takes us through the role of habit in individuals, organizations and society. The book explores each areain detail.

In the first part of the book, the habits of individuals, Duhigg describes the habit loop. He explores the three step loop used by the brain to reduce effort and energy. This section also discusses how to create new habits and some of the challenges that need to be overcome during habit change.

The habits of successful organizations form the focus of part two. All organizations have habits or routines. It’s important for organizations to develop positive keystone habits. These good habits make for small wins which accumulate to big wins. For example, create opportunities for workers to have a sense of agency and control. Genuine decision making authority can help support this. Organizational habits can be created by accident or design. If an organization struggles with ineffective habits, a crisis can provide the opportunity to change.

Habits and society is the focus of the last section of the book. Duhigg describes how social movements develop. He also explores the idea that habits represent choice. The appendix provides a framework for how to change a habit.

I found The Power of Habit a worthwhile read. The exploration of individual, organizational and societal habit was thought provoking. It complements a number of excellent reads on decision making. Check out other book reviews on this website for further exploration: The NOW Habit at Work, The Art of Choosing and Practical Wisdom.

Fern Richardson MBA PHEc


Payoff: The hidden logic that shapes our motivation

Dan Ariely

TED Books, Simon and Schuster, 2016


Motivation is that elusive something we seek for ourselves as well as on behalf of others.  In Payoff Dan Ariely shares some of his research findings on motivation.

Areily describes many things we commonly do that actually demotivate others. We use pay as an incentive. This can work in some scenarios however people are willing to work longer at a task when they find pleasure and purpose in the work. Additionally when people receive even a small acknowledgement of their efforts it is reflected in positive motivation.  Things that organizations do that decrease employee motivation include:

The second chapter explores how we become overly fond of things we have made ourselves. Think about the flush of pride you feel every time you walk by the IKEA bookshelf you put together. Our work becomes a part of us and our identity.  We may choose to avoid experiences that require effort but we appreciate the results more if we rise to a challenge. Sweat equity provides meaning.

Ariley’s research on money as a motivator is the focus of chapter three.  We are poor at predicting what motivates us. We think about work on a longer time scale than a day-to-day transaction. Before a task we over focus on extrinsic motivators like money. In the midst of a task we focus on the joy of the task, an intrinsic motivator. Good relationships built over time are the basis of dedication and loyalty. Opportunities for employees such as an investment in employee’s education, health benefits for a future commitment, personal growth and workplace promotions create a longer term time frame of relationship, commitment and loyalty.

In his final chapter the author touches on the importance of literal and symbolic immortality. Our time horizon may include the legacy we leave behind through our effort.

In the epilogue the author acknowledges that motivation is a complex and intricate process.  Money is not the incentive we previously thought it to be. We want to believe our lives matter and we are more driven by intangibles and emotional forces: need for recognition, ownership, sense of accomplishment, security of long term commitment and shared purpose.

Areily writes with a sense of humour and affection for humanity. Payoff is a quick read that provides insight into Ariely’s research on motivation. It provides practical ideas that can be implemented in the workplace.

Fern Richardson MBA PHEc


Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives

Tim Harford

Riverhead Books, 2016


Today’s workplace likes to focus on lean and organized. In Messy, author Tim Harford, an English economist and journalist, explores another viewpoint. He makes a case for the benefits that come from less rigid ways of operating.

In his chapter on creativity Harford discusses how to stay productive.  One way is to change subject areas. Work with something new and unfamiliar can create greater alertness. It’s a good strategy to work on multiple projects at different stages. If you hit a road block in one project you can seamlessly switch to something else. This also allows for cross pollination of ideas between projects.

Other chapters offer thoughts on the value of mess in collaboration, workplace environments, improvisation, winning, the use of incentives, automation, resilience and life.

In his chapter on workplaces, Harford shares an experiment on workspace personalization. Researchers created four different workspaces. The first one was bare bones. The second space was enriched with plants and prints. Workers in this space were 15 % more accurate and productive than those in the bare bones space. The third space supplied the enrichments and employees arranged these items in their space. This resulted in workers who were 30 % more accurate and productive than those in the bare bones space. The last space was called disempowered. Workers were told they could organize the space. Later it was switched back to the standard enriched format. Workers were up in arms.

This experiment shows the importance of control and choice in workspace décor and the value of some personalized “mess.”

Messy was a good read and Harford has an engaging writing style. I appreciate that the book is based on research and offers ideas to add mess into the workplace in a productive way. I use Harford’s 2015 TED Talk in my training workshop on innovation and creativity.


If you are interested in more information on creativity check out my reviews of: Let the Elephants Run, Frugal Innovation, Play, A Perfect Mess and Creative Strategy.

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc


Wired to Create: Unravelling the mysteries of the creative mind

Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire

Tarcher Parigee, 2015

If you want to understand more about the creative process then pick up a copy of Wired to Create. Kaufman, a psychologist, and Gregoire, a writer, team up to provide a research-based overview of what goes into human creativity. It seems that highly creative people do think differently than more conventional thinkers.

There are several aspects of human nature that make creative thinking a challenge. We are highly risk averse and have a natural bias to choose the practical over the novel. We also tend to conformity. This is an adaptive mode that allows us to cooperate well with others. Studies have shown most of us are uncomfortable as a majority of one. We can easily abandon what we know is true and may even change our opinion to fit in with the group. We also experience a dichotomy in our need to belong versus our need to be seen as a unique individual. The authors suggest conformists may be more driven by belonging and non-conformists more driven by the need for individuality.

In Wired to Create the authors explore various ways people tap into creativity. These include the role of play, passion and daydreaming as well as intuition, openness, solitude and mindfulness. Sensitivity and the ability to turn adversity into advantage are also important factors in creative breakthroughs.

I found the chapter on adversity especially interesting. Often through extreme adversity people find a strength they didn’t realize they had. This concept is called post traumatic growth. When we find meaning and purpose in unbearable circumstances; compassion through our suffering; understanding through loss and growth through our struggles, we rebuild our old world view in new ways that open us to new perspectives. I highly recommend reading Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning to learn more about this idea.

Whether we have a conventional or individual bent there are ideas in this book to move all of us in the direction of greater creativity. I found a number of ideas to reflect on with my own practice as well as include in my seminars and workshops on innovation and creativity.

Fern Richardson MBA PHEc


Spiders in Space: Successfully adapting to unwanted change

Todd Hirsch and Rob Roach

P&P Publishing, 2017

Spiders in Space explores how individuals and companies cope with change- the unwanted variety. The book is broken into two parts. Part one is includes fifteen stories of unwanted change and how it was overcome in each situation. The second part of the book looks at the lessons embedded in the stories. The book is not meant as a how-to. Rather it is a qualitative study of what the authors call adaptive characteristics that help when dealing with unwanted change.

I’m going to highlight three of the adaptive characteristics and hopefully whet your appetite to pick up the book and discover the rest.

Be prepared

Unwanted change often takes us by surprise and of course you can’t prepare for the unexpected. You can be prepared by taking care of the important day-to-day aspects of life.  Healthy eating, physical fitness and finding stress management methods that work for you are some of the physical ways to be prepared. Other practical preparations include: stay open-minded to new things; keep learning and develop and maintain support networks. It is also important to have a financial emergency fund.

Know Your Core Story

Self-awareness and self-reflection are important. Knowing the answers to questions like: what’s important to you, what you are good at and what you like to do, helps you develop your core story.  The more your core story overlaps with your life the better. In times of unwanted change you may need to reassess your priorities. It is vital to recognize when parts of your core story end due to the change. The more you know about yourself the better you will deal with unwanted change.

Realistic Faith

In times of unwanted change it is important to have faith in the future. This faith needs to be tempered by realism. Not all unwanted change can be overcome and so it is important to balance faith and realism.

Change and how we react to it is a special interest of mine. Spiders in Space is a welcome addition to the resource list for my workshops and seminars on change.

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc


Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals LEAD and WIN

Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

St. Martin’s Press, 2015

A leadership training seminar participant recommended I read the book Extreme Ownership. I like to share book titles that I find interesting or insightful and appreciate it when others share titles with me.  The authors of this book are former Navy Seals who share leadership lessons learned in their training and service. They link these concepts to the business world through their current consultancy work.

The authors focus first on the leader’s role.  Extreme ownership is the leader taking ownership of everything.  All responsibility for success or failure starts with the leader.  Leaders need to understand the vision, mission and goals and believe in them. Under performers deserved to be trained and mentored. If improvements don’t occur the leader needs to remove the under performers for the good of the team.  The authors see humility as a critical leadership characteristic. Egos and personal agendas get in the way of achieving the over-riding mission.

In the second section of the book Willink and Babin focus on teamwork and the importance of clear, simple communication.  Leaders must determine the highest priority task and execute it before moving on to the next high priority task. Decentralized command is another key part of successful team leadership. Teams of more than six to ten people become unwieldy for one person to manage. Ideally teams should be broken down into four to five operators with a clearly designated leader. Team leaders must understand the overall mission and ultimate goal, have clearly delineated responsibilities and know what falls within their decision making authority.

The final section in Extreme Ownership looks at the value of a standardized planning process which is clearly communicated up and down the chain. Leadership is a balancing act between a wide range of competing needs.  For example, leaders need to balance decisiveness and uncertainty as full information is never possible.

If you are interested in leadership skills this book could add to your understanding of leadership essentials. These concepts work across different spheres as evidenced by both the military and corporate boardroom examples. If you are a podcaster check out Willink’s podcast. http://jockopodcast.com/

Fern Richardson MBA PHEc


The Knowledge Illusion: Why we never think alone

Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach

Riverhead Books, 2017

The term knowledge illusion keeps cropping up my work reading these days so this book title caught my eye.  The Knowledge Illusion, authored by two cognitive scientists, explores the underpinnings of how we think, ways our thinking can be flawed and how to apply improved thinking.

The first chapters in the book examine our thinking as we deal with a complex world. We actually understand little outside our own specialty.  We suffer from the knowledge illusion (we think we know what others know) and also the curse of knowledge (we think others know what we know). Ultimately, most of our knowledge of the world is superficial and yet we believe we know more than we do.

The middle chapters of the book discuss ways we interact with different sources of knowledge including our bodies, other people, science, technology and politics.

The final chapters explore what the authors call a new definition of smart. They make a case that the larger community is really responsible for knowledge and individual genius is less important than how individuals contribute to the team. A new concept of collective intelligence is being explored.

The authors share some thoughts on making smarter decisions which include:

Human beings are built to collaborate. This book provides insights and helpful ideas on how to get the best from our thinking and that of others. Additional book reviews on this topic include:  Thinking Fast and Slow, The Art of Choosing and Future Babble.

Fern Richardson MBA PHEc


Originals: How non-conformists move the world

Adam Grant, Viking, 2016

Originals by Adam Grant, tackles the concept of creativity and innovation, a subject near to my heart as I offer workshops on fostering creativity and innovation. I first came across Grant’s work in his book on reciprocity, Give and Take.  (Check out my review of Give and Takehttp://www.edmontontraining.ca/give-take/)

Grant defines originality as introducing and advancing an idea in a particular area that’s relatively unusual and has the potential to improve the field. Originality begins with creativity but also needs initiative and action to become reality

In chapter two Grant discusses how to develop and recognize original ideas. Creative people may not be the best judge of the potential quality and success of their idea. A good feedback mechanism is a must. He recommends developing lots of ideas. Quantity leads to quality. We produce the most original output when we generate the greatest volume of ideas.

Once a great idea is recognized, others need to be brought into the fold to help the idea become reality. Chapter three provides suggestions on how to influence others.

Successful original ideas go through many iterations and refinements. Chapter four looks at ways to stay open to creativity while we test and refine ideas.

The idea of the creative genius working on his or her own is unrealistic. It generally requires many people to see an idea through to fruition. In addition to influencing others, coalitions may be required. Chapter five discusses ways to develop these groups. Originals often find the best allies are people who started out against the idea and now support it.

In chapter six Grant discusses the role that family and parenting can have on the capacity for original ideas. It seems latter born children have a bit of an edge in creativity. Birth order is only one factor however. Other aspects include family size, parental flexibility, styles of praise and choice of reading materials.

The impact of group think and diversity in an organization is the subject of chapter seven. For example, it’s important to support productive debate to improve the quality of ideas. Members need to feel their colleagues are looking out for the group’s best interests.

In chapter nine Grant addresses how to achieve a balance between the status quo and a culture of innovation to create organizational success.

If you are looking for “ideas on ideas” pick up a copy of Originals. You’ll find something to get your creative juices flowing.

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc


Five Minds for the Future

Howard Gardner

Harvard Business School Press, 2006

In Five Minds for the Future Howard Gardner explores the five kinds of thinking he believes are critical for future workplace success. Gardner, a prolific author, is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I first came to his research through his writings on multiple intelligences. In Five Minds for the Future he lays out his rationale for these five kinds of thinking: the disciplined mind, the synthesizing mind, the creating mind, the respectful mind and the ethical mind.

The disciplined mind is our ability to be a lifelong learner and to practice what we learn. This thinking allows us to look at things from different perspectives and rid ourselves of ineffective ways of thinking.

The synthesizing mind lets us take an idea and explore it in another context. The process of synthesis includes: a goal to achieve; a starting point on which to build; the selection of a strategy or approach; the development of multiple drafts and quality feedback.

Gardener describes the creating mind as one perennially dissatisfied with the current work, current standards, current questions and current answers. An important part of the creating mind is some comfort being different from others and the ability to fail and recover.

The respectful mind accepts differences, learns to live with them and values people who belong to other groups. True respect offers the benefit of the doubt to all human beings. This level of respect occurs every day even when no one is actively watching.

The ethical mind is grounded in good work. Good work is excellent in quality, ethical and responsible to the wider community as well as engaging and meaningful work.

Gardner suggests organizations hire for the five minds. Organizations should provide role models and continue to challenge and sharpen employees` thinking. Gardner offers three suggestions if an employee fails to progress: reassign them somewhere that the problem won`t impact the organization; coach them with appropriate goals and regular feedback; or remove them from the organization.

I’ve incorporated a number of Gardner’s ideas about the five minds in my training seminars and workshops on innovation, emotional intelligence and critical thinking.

Check here for my review of another of Gardner’s books: Changing Minds.

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc


Reclaiming Conversation: The power of talk in a digital age

Sherry Turkle

Penguin Press, 2015

Sherry Turkle is a Professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She studies how technology shapes our relationships and communication. Her book, Reclaiming Conversation, builds on her research highlighted in Alone Together.

We all recognize the effect communication technologies have on how we work together. Sometimes we miss the impact these tools have on our productivity.  Turkle provides practical, research-based ideas for effective technology use. Here are a few ideas from Reclaiming Conversation.


Consider how screens are used in meetings.  A screen will distract anyone in a meeting who can see it. Does the person beside you have a laptop open or their phone on the table? Are meeting notes placed on a screen as the meeting progresses?  These are all potential distractions that can result in less depth of discussion and a less productive meeting. Turkle suggests a “no phone” policy at meetings where phones are checked at the door. To implement this idea be sure to give the group a ten minute phone break for every hour of meeting. It is better to have everyone checking messages at one time than have people randomly checking in and out of your meeting every time they get a message notification.  When the meeting  information is straightforward and quick consider a short, stand up meeting.

Individual work

The average office worker is distracted every 3 minutes and takes an average of 23 minutes to get back on track. To do our best work we need private time and space. When focusing on high value work shut off all interruptions for a predetermined period of time. Focus solely on what needs to be done. It helps to break your work routine into times when you are on line and off line.

Management’s role

It is important for management to support and model these effective behaviours daily.  If you chose to work late and email others during that time, let them know you don’t expect an immediate response. Consider writing a draft and put in a file to send the next day during business hours. Another idea is to batch emails and send them when it is convenient for staff to receive them.

Reclaiming Conversation provides many practical ideas for managing communication technology in both work and personal life. Thoughtful use of these tools will make us their master and not servant. Turkle’s book gives us information to do just that. I’ve been able to use many of her ideas in both my personal and work life as well as to share it with others through my training seminars and workshops.

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc


Let the Elephants Run: Unlock your creativity and change everything

David Usher

House of Anansi Press, 2015

David Usher is an artist, author and entrepreneur.  I came across his book, Let the Elephants Run, while doing research on creativity and innovation for a new training workshop.  The book is visually entertaining as well as an opportunity for Usher to share his views on creativity and the creative process. The book has three sections: Freedom, Structure and Conclusion.

It is important to realize that creative thinking is not a specific kind of thinking available only to a gifted few. Creativity happens across all domains. It is a learnable skill and like any skill, it benefits from effort and discipline. Creativity is not passive and requires us to take action. Think of all the creativity that has gone into the environment around you. Be open to your creative insights. Usher recommends you keep a notebook or tablet handy to capture those creative thoughts.

The author compares what he calls straight line and curved line thinking. Straight line thinking gets the job done quickly, cheaply and on time. This is a worthy goal however it stifles creative possibility by placing limits on time needed for exploration and play. Curved line thinking is messy, inefficient, and meanders, needing multiple iterations and sometimes a complete change in direction. Creativity asks us to step outside our normal, comfortable patterns of behaviour and change even one small part of the pattern. Curves are where creativity happens.

Freedom isn’t the whole story. It needs to be partnered with structure. Usher’s structured process includes:

Here are two simple actions suggested by the author to support your creativity:

There are many great ideas in Let the Elephants Run. If you are want to tap into more creativity in your own life I think this book will provide useful insights and practical ideas from a man known for creativity across many different spheres.

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc


Thinking, Fast and Slow

Daniel Kahneman

Doubleday Canada, 2011

Daniel Kahneman is the world’s leading thinker on decision making. Thinking, Fast and Slow is the culmination of his life research. It is a weighty tome, or what I might call a great honking book, full of insights into how and why we make the decisions we do each day.

He believes the brain has two systems that help, and sometimes hinder, our decision making. System One or the automatic system, operates automatically and quickly with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System Two or the effortful system, directs our attention to tough mental activities including complex calculations.

System One relies on familiar situations to make decisions and is accurate with short term predictions. This part of the brain reacts quickly to challenge. It also has many biases that can’t be shut off. System Two follows rules and compares objects on multiple considerations. It is the part of the brain that makes deliberate choices between options.

The intricacies and interactions of these two thinking systems are explored throughout the book as Kahneman describes the research that contributed to his decision making insights.  Along the way he helps us understand the unique aspects of both System One and Two. For example, System Two can be lazy and follow the Law of Least Effort. All our voluntary effort, whether physical, mental, or emotional, draws on a limited amount of mental energy or willpower. Using our willpower or self-control is tiring. When we use lots of willpower on one decision the next one will be harder as our self-control is drained. Not all System Two thinking is an effort.  You may have noticed how time flies and work feels easy when you are in the flow.

Kahneman explains many of our mental biases and how they affect our decisions. One example is the hindsight bias. You know the one I mean, when you say, “I knew it all along.” We revise our belief in light of what happened before we actually change our mind. It seems once we adopt a new view of something we cannot recall much of what we used to believe. Kahneman says the hindsight bias is especially tough on those who act on behalf of others such as doctors and politicians. These people are often blamed for good decisions that turn out badly and are given too little credit for moves that seem obvious after the fact. Actions that appear right in foresight can seem negligent in hindsight.

I found Thinking, Fast and Slow heavy going in some chapters but overall I considered it to be a good decision. It was worth the effort to use System Two thinking and better understand how we make decisions, whether big or small. I have a few juicy new ideas to add to my training and seminars on critical thinking and decision making.

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc


Frugal Innovation: How to do more with less

Navi Radjou and Jaideep Prabhu
The Economist in Association with Profile Books Limited and Public Affairs, 2014

Frugal Innovation is a book that outlines how to restructure organizations to design, build and deliver sustainable and affordable solutions for the long haul. It’s also about encouraging employees to develop new ways of thinking because ultimately it is people who innovate. The authors share their insights on frugal innovation and provide examples from companies around the globe who embrace these ideas.

The authors provide six principles of frugal innovation which include:

  1. Engage and iterate
  2. Flex your assets
  3. Create sustainable solutions
  4. Shape customer behaviour
  5. Co-create value with prosumers
  6. Make innovative friends

The authors believe it is critical to talk directly with customers to find out what they need and how they use your product. They give examples of companies who go into the customers’ homes to see how the product is used. Many times products are over-designed with features customers don’t want. “Good enough” can be a mantra for frugal innovation.

In exploring the fifth principle, Co-create value with prosumers, they suggest a number of roles the prosumer (a product and brand advocate) can play in helping an organization tap into frugal innovation. These roles include:

The authors offer a chapter on the what, how and why of bringing frugal innovation into an existing company. They note there is no right way to do this as it is dependent on, and must work within an existing company culture.

Overall I found the principles outlined in Frugal Innovation informative and a different way to look at how organizations, big and small, can change to operate effectively in the twenty-first century. For a brief overview of these ideas check out this TED Talk with one of the authors:

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc


Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul

Stuart Brown MD with Christopher Vaughan
Avery, 2009

By now you may have noticed that books on our creative side are a big interest for me. Play proved irresistible to me by the title alone. In Brown and Vaughan’s hands the intricacies of play are explored. The authors describe play as a state of mind rather than an activity. Not surprisingly, play can be a catalyst for creativity, imagination and innovation. What constitutes play is individual and varied and in its simplest form it just happens.

Play has a number of unique properties including:

Play creates new neural connections in the brain and then tests them. In childhood play provides us with a space for social interaction and learning where we develop social intelligence and learn about our environment. We discover and develop our innate skills and talents through play.

We often think of play in terms of children but what role does play hold for adults? Play helps us become smarter and more able to adapt to change. We can imagine and experience situations and things that have never existed as we make new cognitive connections through daydreaming and other play. We can try on new behaviours and thoughts that free us from established patterns.

Should we encourage play at work? I think the answer is “It depends.” Do you need to foster a highly creative environment? More play might be valuable. Is attention to detail critical? Too playful an environment might backfire. Do people need to learn in your workplace? Play has been described as learning’s partner. Learning and memory seem to be fixed longer when something is learned in play.

Here’s a quick work idea for some imaginative play when you are spinning your wheels looking for a solution to a problem. Ask yourself, “What would someone smarter than me do?” Then, if it makes sense, go do it. Using this playful question creates some distance from the problem allowing your unconscious to play with the situation.

Play offers us a different perspective on creativity and innovation and reminds us that to play is part of being human. Now I’m going out to play for a while before getting back to work on my upcoming training seminars and workshops. I’ll leave you with this quote from Play, “The secret to brilliant ideas is a really big waste basket.”

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc


Out of Our Minds: Learning to be creative

Ken Robinson 
Capstone Publishing revised and updated edition, 2011

I’ve been interested in innovation and creativity for many years and did my masters research on innovation in community. Recently I came across a reference to Sir Ken Robinson’s work and thought I had better see what he is all about. I’m always on the lookout for ideas to add to my training and seminars.

Sir Ken Robinson is a leading thinker in creativity and education. In this revised and updated edition of
Out of Our Minds he shares his ideas on the challenges we face in using the ideologies of the 19th century to face the challenges of the 21st. If you work in an industry that requires new ideas and ways of doing things this book will give you a sound understanding of what creativity is and how it can be supported in individuals, teams and organizations.

All people have the ability to be creative due to the gift of imagination- the ability to bring to mind things that are not present to our senses. We can visit the past, reframe the present and envision many futures all because of imagination. Creativity also requires action, the deliberate production of something. Robinson calls this applied imagination.

The creative process is composed of two parts; generative and evaluative. The generative side needs time to percolate. Original ideas occur by making unusual connections between previously unrelated ideas. Creativity often draws on different areas of intelligence and requires some skill and knowledge of the subject. Generative creativity uses divergent and lateral thinking and generally focuses on the positive as opposed to the negative. The evaluative component requires judgement and critical thinking. Evaluative thinking is used throughout the creative process accessing both individual and shared evaluation with quick assessment and long-term testing.

In Out of Our Minds Robinson explores these ideas in more detail and offers practical ways to help us tap into creativity. The chapter on being a creative leader provides nine principles to shape a creative workplace. These may get your creative juices flowing.

I believe Out of Our Minds has added substantially to my understanding of the creative process. I’ve incorporated some of these ideas into my training sessions on both Critical Thinking and Innovation Tools. You can also check out Robinson’s TED Talks for a quick overview of his ideas on creativity and our education system.

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc


The Consummate Leader: a holistic guide to inspiring growth in others…and in yourself

Patricia Thompson PhD.
Silver Lining Psychology, 2014

If you browse the list of book reviews on this website you’ll notice a wide range of titles that reflect my interest in positive psychology. I was delighted to find The Consummate Leader, a book on leadership development as seen through the lens of positive psychology. The author, Dr. Patricia Thompson, builds on the work of leading researchers in the positive psychology field and skillfully blends it with her own experience as corporate psychologist and management consultant.

Thompson offers insights into a number of areas crucial to effective leadership. The chapters are based on the characteristics Thompson believes are necessary for consummate leadership:

The Consummate Leader is a synthesis of current findings, case studies from Thompson’s extensive work experience and practical exercises to assist the reader in understanding the concepts and applying them to their own leadership journey.

Thompson writes with an engaging, conversational style. I particularly enjoyed the reflection exercises provided. They come with a dollop of encouragement to the reader to take the time and follow up on this important self-development work.

I have added The Consummate Leader to my recommended resource list for seminars and training workshops including sessions on positivity, emotional intelligence, train the trainer and of course, leadership. If you are a leader or aspire to a leadership position you’ll want to add this book to your library.

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc


Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us             

Daniel H. Pink

Riverhead, 2011

Drive offers the reader thoughts on motivating people in what author Daniel Pink calls Workplace 2.0. Pink says the carrot and stick method of motivation doesn’t work effectively in the evolving world of work. Although Pink does share qualifying circumstances when the carrot and stick approach is appropriate, the target of his book is motivating employees in Workplace 2.0. Workplace 2.0 motivators are autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy is our ability to act with choice, having some independence and freedom in our work. We can have autonomy over four aspects of work: what people do (task); when people do it (time); how people do it (technique); and with whom they do it (team). Individuals vary in their ability to work with the four aspects of autonomy and there is a strong business case for helping people to become more autonomous. In one study of 320 small businesses about half the businesses had an autonomous work environment and the other half had a top down work environment. The companies with an autonomous focus grew at four times the rate of the top down businesses and had one third the employee turnover.

Mastery is our desire to develop expert skill or knowledge of a subject. Pink describes three components of mastery. First, mastery is a mindset; a goal you set for your own learning and performance. Second, mastery is a pain as it requires one to make an effort over a considerable time. Third, ultimate mastery is impossible to fully realize and joy comes from the pursuit of mastery.

Purpose is the reason behind why an individual does something. Purpose provides us with activation energy for life and work.

Pink offers the reader a number of ideas to explore autonomy; master and purpose in his/her own life as well as some thoughts for the leaders of an organization. Some suggestions for team leaders include:

If you coach, mentor, lead or are responsible for performance management of employees Drive will give you new insights into motivation. I have found a number of useful ideas to add to my training and seminars. For other ideas and perspectives on employee motivation check out my reviews of The Progress Principle and Changing Minds.

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc


The Checklist Manifesto: How to get things right

Atul Gawnde

Metropolitan Books, 2009

When leading problem solving and critical thinking seminars and workshops I find participants can underestimate the checklist and dismiss it as too simplistic and even passé. Atul Gawnde’s book The Checklist Manifesto offers a new look at this much maligned tool.

In his research to develop checklists for hospital surgery, Gawnde discovered checklists help with memory recall and set out the minimum necessary steps in a process. Good checklists used well establish a higher standard of baseline performance. Interestingly, checklists perform a communication function as well as the more obvious technical function. For example, surgery requires strong teamwork to obtain the best possible outcome. The checklist developed by Gawnde included an introduction to each person by both name and role. Studies show knowing each other’s names increases communication ratings.

The author comments on two kinds of checklists: DO-CONFIRM when we perform the task from memory and experience and then run through the checklist for confirmation;

READ-DO when we complete the tasks as we read them off the checklist.

The Checklist Manifesto provides a basic process to develop useful checklists including:

Remember checklists are not comprehensive how-to guides but rather quick and simple tools to support the skills of expert professionals. Swift, usable and modest are the bywords of a great checklist so don’t overlook this useful tool for problem solving success in your workplace.

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc


Who: The A method for hiring

Geoff Smart and Randy Street

Ballantine Books, 2008

Are you involved in hiring employees? If so, you may find Who: The A method for hiring worth a read. Smart and Street’s hiring philosophy is focussed primarily on large organizations however I think a number of their ideas can be incorporated into the hiring practices of any sized business. Admittedly the A method  is more in-depth than standard practices however the authors assert that hiring A employees pays off in the long run as people are an organization’s biggest investment.

Who starts by highlighting common hiring mistakes and the traps into which interviewers can fall. The majority of the book describes the authors’ four part A method for hiring that consists of the following:

Smart and Street say leaders spend as much as 60% of their time thinking about people and therefore people should be a top priority. For example, leadership should always be sourcing A candidates for the future. They suggest leaders ask for referrals from their professional and personal networks. After describing what their organization does the follow-up question is “Who are the most talented people that you know that I should hire?” When provided a name be sure to initiate contact with the potential A player and have a conversation. The purpose of this short call is to ensure the person would be an A player in the specific organization.

The authors provide specific questions for the selection process as well as thoughts on how to interpret a candidate’s answers. For example, they share red flag responses to watch out for such as: not mentioning past failures, speaking poorly of past employers, trying to hard to look like an expert and exaggerated answers.

Additionally, Smart and Street remind the reader that a critical part of selection is asking for references. Here again they provide two helpful questions; “Who, specifically, did you work with?” and a further prompt such as “What would they say your strengths/weakness were?” A request for contact information including the exact spelling of the previous boss’s name indicates a clear intention about completing reference checks.

For those who want to hire the best employees for their organization Who: The A method for hiring offers valuable insights into the hiring process that can make that goal a reality. Strong hiring practices result in fewer performance management challenges in the long term.

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc


Changing Minds: The art and science of changing our own and other people’s minds

Howard Gardner

Harvard Business School Publishing, 2004

Harvard professor Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist known for his work on multiple intelligences considers the challenge of change in his book Changing Minds. Gardner walks us through diverse change situations from large scale change at a national or organizational level down to changing our own minds.

The author provides seven factors that help determine the success of a change including:

  1. Reason
  2. Research
  3. Resonance
  4. Representational redescription
  5. Resources and rewards
  6. Real world events
  7. Resistance

One chapter of the book involves leading institutional change- a challenge many of us are required to do in our work. The advantage of large scale change in an organization is that employees share common knowledge and have a common purpose and destiny. A current and compelling strategic plan provides a starting place to reinforce the organization’s common purpose.

Gardner highlights the importance of leaders who share a compelling narrative about the change. We are profoundly moved by stories. The stories told should incorporate reason and show why previous conditions no longer apply and how the change will secure the organization’s future. Representational redescription, where information is presented in multiple ways, is another important key to communicating the change. We don’t know which message or format will work and how the messages will be internalized by staff. It is vital to monitor employees’ words and actions and adapt the message as required. Create non-threatening opportunities for employees to try out and experiment with the new ways (resources) and publicly acknowledge learning and success (reward).

The author acknowledges people require time and practice to change and backsliding is to be expected. Leaders must remember their own actions reflect their convictions about the change. Set clear cut goals and transparently act on them.

I found Changing Minds a useful addition to my knowledge of change leadership. Gardner offers solid examples to illustrate his research findings. Although I find his writing style has an academic tone there is lots of great information to be found. I have incorporated a number of these ideas into my training sessions and workshops on managing change and transition.

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc


The Progress Principle: Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer

Harvard Business Review Press, 2011

I loved this book! I first discovered Amabile’s work when I was exploring research on creativity and innovation. Amabile and Kramer have written a book that should be required reading for anyone who manages or works with people. The Progress Principle is based on their research in understanding workplace progress, employee satisfaction the importance of an individual’s inner work life

Inner work life is grounded in perception, emotion and motivation. Perception is the favourable and unfavorable impressions employees hold about managers, the organization, the team, the work and his or her self. Emotions revolve around the positive and negative feelings triggered by a workplace event. Motivation is the drive to do something or not do it. The interaction of these three factors results in a positive or negative inner work life for each person.

The authors found individual performance is closely tied to one’s inner work life. The inner work life response to an event is how we interpret the event- how we make sense of what occurred in the context of our personal library of life experience. If we do not perceive that both our self and our work are valued by a trustworthy organization then we take no pride or happiness from the work. This results in a lack of motivation to get at the work and ultimately we are unlikely to do our best work. When work is meaningful to employees, managers do not have to worry about employee motivation.

Amabile and Kramer’s research discovered a positive inner work life is critical for a person’s daily performance. Small wins can make a day and small losses can ruin a day. Employees need to believe they are moving forward on important work; that managers respect employees’ ideas and support staff efforts to do meaningful work.

The authors’ share both their research process and results of the progress principle in a highly readable and engaging way. They offer practical ideas managers can apply with staff and also how managers can positively support their own inner work life to enhance their own workplace satisfaction..

In my training seminars and workshops we often discuss how to support employees and encourage their best work. Amabile and Kramer’s research on inner work life and the progress principle is a great place to start!

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc


A Perfect Mess: The hidden benefits of disorder

Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman

Little, Brown and Company, 2006

When I’m facilitating time management training and seminars I find a lot of people believe themselves to be poor time managers because conventional time management techniques don’t work well for them. So many books extol the virtues of order therefore I’m always on the lookout for ideas offering a positive perspective on other ways of being. A Perfect Mess fits the bill and celebrates the joy and advantage of disorder.

In this entertaining and highly readable book, Abrahamson and Freedman offer insights into advantages of disorder. For example people with a messy office likely know where to find everything. Rather than use a conventional filing system they may file their projects by pile, physical orientation or urgency.

According to the authors mess accrues benefits including: flexibility- messy systems adapt and change more quickly with less effort; resonance- mess helps a system match the environment; and invention- mess randomly brings together elements in new ways, leading to new solutions;

Most of us probably have some messiness in our life. For example we may be appropriately messy as we relax on vacation. There are times when we are transiently messy putting aside our organization temporarily. I’m in a transiently messy period right now during a major home renovation! Sometimes we choose to be provocatively messy to evoke curiosity, playfulness and experimentation.

A Perfect Mess offers practical advice about “orderly” disorder. Some common mess strategies we use are: the Mini-mess- small contained pockets of mess within a larger area such as the kitchen junk drawer and the Full Moon which refers to natural cycles such as spring cleaning. One of my children favours the Archeologist, where anything and everything is crammed behind the couch, on the floor or under the bed with important items near the surface.

In the chapter on messy organizations Abrahamson and Freedman suggest any highly organized structure may be a bad fit for the expanding and collapsing characteristics we experience in today’s economy. They share some thought provoking ideas on the organized structure of computer systems which may cause us to miss important information that doesn’t fit the system.

A Perfect Mess includes chapters on messy leadership, overrated habits of time management and messy homes.

My take home message from the book is aim for an optimum level of messiness. We need to balance order and disorder in all aspects of life. There is no perfect formula so play with disorder and find your happy place! I know I’ll add this concept into my training and workshops as well as my life.

Check out the review Creative Strategy for other thoughts on this topic.

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc


101 Boardroom Problems (and how to solve them)

Eli Mina

American Management Association, 2009

As an individual offering board development and meeting skill training and seminars as well as facilitating board strategic planning, I’m pleased to find resources to recommend to my clients. If you work with boards or are a board member you will gain insights from this book. The author, Eli Mina, is a Vancouver-based consultant, meeting facilitator, mentor, coach, and Registered Parliamentarian. In this book Mina addresses problems that can affect boards of all types from volunteer and corporate boards to government bodies.

Mina states the board role is to generate quality decisions in a reasonable amount of time. The decision process involves both how the decision is made and the substance of the decision. He offers a list of both substantive and process criteria for boards to keep in mind.

As promised by the title, the book covers 101 problems. Mina defines a boardroom problem as “an individual behaviour or systemic condition that diminishes the substantive quality of board decisions.” The ten chapters include issues such as unethical cultures, procedural issues, ineffective chairs, unproductive boards and board meetings.

Each problem is presented through a real world example. A discussion follows highlighting potential outcomes if the problem is left unchecked. Lastly the author provides practical ideas to help the board overcome the specific problem addressed.

Four appendices are included: a board effectiveness audit; evaluation tools; information on parliamentary procedure; and meeting tools for chairs and participants.

I found the book well organized and easy to use. It is based on Mina’s practical, real world experience working with numerous boards. Whether you are a board chair, board member, CEO or Executive Director you will gain some useful ideas to help you recognize and solve board problems effectively. I know this book will be added to my recommended resource list in future training and workshops.

For other thoughts about meetings check out the review for Death by Meeting.

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc


Creative Strategy: Reconnecting Business and Innovation

Chris Bilton and Stephen Cummings

Wiley, 2010

I’ve had an interest in creativity and innovation for some time. My MBA research paper studied how community members perceive innovation in their municipality. I believe we all have the ability to be creative. In addition to offering training and workshops on innovation and creativity I incorporate innovation techniques in many of the seminars and training I provide. My interest in innovation, coupled with my work facilitating strategic planning with organizations made this book a perfect fit for my library.

The book highlights four areas of creative strategy for business including innovation, entrepreneurialism, leadership and organization. Bilton and Cummings see corporations as increasingly risk averse with too much emphasis on accountability, risk management, best practices and benchmarking. They argue this focus results in mediocrity within individual businesses and across industries. They see a need for greater innovation and creativity- the use of both and rather thinking as opposed to either/or thinking.

The authors describe six degrees of business innovation: value innovation to add something new; cost innovation to remove the extraneous; volume innovation to produce, provide, sell and move greater quantities; market innovation to change how people think about or use the product/service; boundary innovation to go beyond conventional boundaries; and learning innovation to learn from the process.

Businesses enhance their creativity through diversity, curiosity, a focus beyond best practices and naivety. Diversity and a tolerance for contradiction help the organization stay open to the unfamiliar and to discover valuable connections. Curiosity keeps the organization open to possibilities. A focus beyond best practice allows for creative failure. A certain amount of naivety helps to avoid the traps of complacency, decision paralysis and ego. The authors encourage a little more mess in organizations which can create new perspectives. (For more about the value of mess in organizations see my book  review A Perfect Mess.)

The authors use a case study throughout the book to illustrate how one organization applies the concepts of innovation, entrepreneurialism, leadership and organization in creating their corporate strategy.

If you are looking for ways to rethink how your organization leverages the benefits of innovation and creativity you’ll find some excellent food for thought in this book.

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc


How We Decide

Jonah Lehrer

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009

Lehrer’s book How We Decide explores the role of emotions in decision making. Much of our past thinking about decision making emerged from the economic theory of the rational human whose decision making was rooted in logical tools such as pro/con and cost/benefit. However, if rationality was truly at the crux of our decision making then why are there so many vehicles to choose from? Bring on the LADA. Clearly there is more to decision making than logic…enter emotions!

Emotion helps us make decisions and lack of emotion regarding a decision often results in no decision. Negative and positive feelings provide us with instinctive and anticipatory clues that we use to help us decide. Emotions help generate predictions at a subconscious level (intuition). Lehrer notes that disappointment is educational, adds to our experiences and thus enhances our intuition. Intelligent intuition comes from deliberate practice.

Although emotions are a powerful cognitive tool they cannot solve every problem. Emotions look for patterns and can’t comprehend true randomness. An example is loss aversion. Losses, which are often random, loom larger than gains in our minds. We become afraid to sustain another loss and potentially lose more.

The author offers some guidelines to help us choose an appropriate decision making process for the decision at hand:

I found How We Decide to be an insightful resource for people interested in a deeper understanding of human decision making. It is on my recommended reading list for critical thinking seminars and training workshops that I offer.

Other reviews of books on decision making include: Kluge, Future Babble

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc


Death by Meeting

Patrick Lencioni

Jossey Bass, 2004

If you are looking for a quick how-to book on running business meetings check out Lencioni’s book Death by Meeting. Lencioni has authored a number of business books which unfold as a fable. As the story develops the protagonist discovers a mentor to guide him through the management issue at hand. In this book Lencioni takes on the dreaded business meeting! (Ominous background music!)

Lencioni suggests effective businesses consider four different types of meetings- a daily check-in, a weekly tactical, a monthly strategic and a quarterly off-site review. These four meeting types are most relevant at the executive team level.

The daily check-in is a five minute touch-base to cover daily schedules and activities. The goal of this stand-up meeting is administrative. Don’t sit down, get comfortable and let the discussion wander from daily highlights.

Weekly tactical meetings should last no longer than one and a half hours. The purpose is to review weekly activities, review metrics of the business and deal with tactical issues and obstacles. In tactical meetings an agenda is set after the initial reporting because these are often emerging issues.

Monthly strategic meetings generally last two to four hours and the purpose is to discuss, analyze and decide upon critical issues that affect the business’ long term success. Only one or two topics should be up for discussion and participants need to come prepared to engage in meaningful discussion and positive conflict.

The last type of meeting is a quarterly off-site review. This one to two day meeting focuses on strategy, industry trends, competitors, key personnel and building the team. This is an off-site meeting with a strong focus on work-related rather than social activities.

Death by Meeting is a quick read and Lencioni makes some excellent points. I see the four meeting types being most useful at the executive level however the ideas can be modified for use throughout the organization. I have added Death by Meeting to the reading list I provide to participants who attend the meeting skills training and seminars I offer.

Check out other book reviews on the topic of meetings: 101 Boardroom Problems

Fern Richardson MBA CED PHEc