The Great Mental Models, Vol. 3: Systems and Mathematics by Rhiannon Beaubien and Rosie Leizrowice

A lone person stands on a grid with a set of mountains in the background.

I’ve been listening to the Knowledge Project podcast for a number of years now. It is put out by an organization called Farnam Street. As part of their mission they have published a series of books called The Great Mental Models. I’ve most recently read the third volume in the series. Each volume covers a few areas that it focuses on. For volume 3, these are systems and mathematics.

The book is divided into two section (systems and mathematics, naturally). Each chapter delves into a particular aspect with examples for how it is applied as a model. These are written in clear, easy-to-understand prose.

While I liked this volume, I feel like I didn’t really learn much new. As a result, I don’t rated as highly. But I highly recommend this volume and the previous two for building up a set of models for how to look at and interact with the world. These might be particularly helpful to teenagers.

My rating: 3/5

A Product Management Guidebook

Escaping the Build Trap book cover

Originally published at

Escaping the Build Trap: How Effective Product Management Creates Real Value by Melissa Perri was recommended by the agile coaching office where I work. They came back from a product conference raving about it. After reading it, I’d say their attitude is well warranted.

I have read many product management books in the last ten years. Most of these focus on what the product manager needs to do to succeed. This one does too but goes further. It also addresses what needs to happen organizationally to support the entire enterprise becoming product-led.

This change requires more than simple order taking or building features like crazy. It takes a top to bottom curiosity for what the customer problem is, seeking it out, and looking for the best solution to that problem. And this isn’t done once but over and over again to make sure you really dig it and find the root problem.

Any team looking to be better product managers and help their company make better products would do well to read this book and discuss it.

Language and Process for the Modern Workplace

Leadership Is Language book cover

I read Leadership Is Language by L. David Marquet after reading Turn the Ship Around! by the same author. This book is an elaboration of the method he shares in that previous book.

In this newest book, he shows the need for combining both focused work and strategic planning across organizations. In our industrial past, these tasks were separated by role. Blue collar workers got the work done that the white collar workers planned. In our information age world this no longer makes sense.

The author calls focused work redwork and planning work bluework. Then he advocates a cycle of bluework-redwork-bluework where everyone on the team engages in both kinds of work. This matches well how agile software development works, so it really resonated with me.

Throughout the book he gives both good and bad examples of putting this into practice. In addition, it lays out a framework for moving from the old language of the industrial age to this method that works better in a world where we all need to be involved with both planning and executing. I look forward to using this process to help my team both plan and work better.

Stick With the Original

Turn the Ship Around! Workbook book cover

After I read Turn the Ship Around! by L. David Marquet, I told my boss about it and suggested that we read it as a team. He loved the idea and asked me to lead it. In my preparations to do that, I came across a workbook that was published to go along with the book. It’s called The Turn the Ship Around! Workbook. I bought it to help me prepare for our meetings. I recently finished. I don’t recommend it.

It covers the same material as the book it is based on, even following the same chapter format. It includes some additional content which is valuable, but the book is largely repetitive. The questions at the end of each chapter in the workbook are the same as in the book.

While I did bookmark a few of the exercises as valuable, they weren’t enough to justify the cost of the workbook. I would recommend simply sticking with the source book itself. It has plenty of powerhouse ideas to discuss and implement.

Sanity in the Workplace

It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work book cover

A lot has changed about our work spaces since the COVID-19 pandemic started in 2020. Before this, very few companies considered allowing any portion of their employees to work from home. Then we were all forced to figure out how to do so if it was at all possible. Now, as the pandemic starts to wane, businesses are trying to figure out how to manage with the new expectation of working from home.

Just as the pandemic has challenged employers to revisit their attitudes toward their employees working from home, so have the authors of It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work challenged traditional views of how companies should be run. Their company (Basecamp) is 100% remote and has been since it started. And in this book the authors outline many other aspects of how they run their successful company (it has been profitable from day one).

In short essays, they talk about how they run their business. Here is a sample of some of the subjects covered.

  • Paying for their employees’ vacations
  • Limiting work to only 40 hours a week (32 hours in the summer months)
  • Paying everyone in the same job the same salary
  • Doing less but doing it better

The writing in the book is straightforward, funny, and approachable. But perhaps my favorite aspect of the book is that they state right up front that they developed these ideas as they went. That some things that worked when they were a small company of only three people didn’t work when they were a company of fifty people. I find it refreshing—that kind of perspective and willingness to change policy and procedure.

So while not all of the ideas in this book may appeal to you or your company, the thinking behind these ideas is worth you time to contemplate and consider.

A Guide for Going Agile

Doing Agile Right book cover

My company is in the midst of an agile transformation. We’ve pretty much got it working at the tactical level, but we are struggling a bit at the strategic level. We are getting there, but progress is slow. So I went looking for a book to educate myself with the goal of being more of an asset during this transition. What I found was Doing Agile Right: Transformation Without Chaos by Darrell Rigby, Sarah Elk, and Steve Berez—and it was a good find.

I love that it starts out by showing how agile really works and how agile is scaled across a large enterprise before moving on to the details of agile transformations. Along the way the authors ask questions, never making any assumptions. For instance, they ask, “How agile do you want to be?”, pointing out that agile is definitely not the solution to every business problem.

My favorite chapters were chapters four and five about leadership and planning respectively. Leadership must buy in and, more importantly, model agile principles. Furthermore, they must be practiced in the finance process – planning and budgeting. Every chapter ends with a summary of five key takeaways.

Perhaps most importantly, the foundation for the book is the case studies throughout it that are the basis for the thoughts and conclusions expressed. I took a lot of notes reading this book, and I am looking forward to putting the principles I learned into practice.

Conscious Culture

The Culture Code book cover

The Culture Code by Danile Coyle uses practical examples and research to show how culture can be consciously developed. This comes from the cultivation of three skills in particular: building safety, sharing vulnerability, and establishing purpose.

Building Safety

The buzzword often heard around this concept is psychological safety. This is the simple but profound idea that we are safe and connected. This builds a strong sense of belonging and needs continual, purposeful cultivation. This skill is the foundation of building successful culture.

Sharing Vulnerability

This skill is perhaps best summarized by the phrase, “Tell me what you want, and I’ll help you.” It doesn’t presume to know what is best and puts itself out there in service to the team. And by doing this, it invites others to do the same. So while vulnerability can feel scary and perhaps weak, it is in reality a strength that invites others into the process of solving the problems of the team.

Establishing Purpose

Every team has to have a shared list of priorities. And these need to be share over and over, *ad nauseam*. Many organizations have a credo or mission statement that is delivered from on high. Instead, the team needs to be involved in creating such statements or at least revisiting them and consciously buying into them. Then everyone has to be invested in sharing them regularly and living according to them. Interestingly, there is a difference in how to lead teams for proficiency (when the tasks are well-known and repetitive and how to lead teams for creativity (when the tasks are creative and determined by those doing them).

Ideas for Action

At the end of each section covering these skills are robust action lists derived from the activities of successful cultures. These can be used as take away crib notes to remind the reader of how to continually work at building results in your organization or team.

Goals vs. Strategy

Good Strategy Bad Strategy book cover

Good Strategy Bad Strategy by Richard P. Rumelt is a primer on corporate strategy, why good strategy is so hard and why we have so much bad strategy. Here are some highlights.

Bad strategy has many causes. One of the most common is confusing goals for strategy. And one reason we have so much bad strategy is an inability or refusal to choose. When given a choice, leadership says “I want it all”. That isn’t strategy.

Good strategy requires making hard choices and comes in three parts — the diagnosis, the guiding policy, and coherent action. These are all covered in depth.

The book is filled with illustrating examples of both good and bad strategy. These go beyond the standard “case study” and include the thinking processes of the executives and/or the instructor. I found that small addition increased their value immeasurably.

In addition to outlining what good strategy is and isn’t, the second part of the book outlines methods for how to build a good strategy. I expect to be using the ideas, principles, and illustrations in my career for years to come.

Success Through Failure

Book cover for Adapt by Tim Harford

Throughout my life I have been told that mistakes are okay and to learn from them. However much of my experience has taught me very differently. In school, mistakes were bad and led to low grades and poor performance. At work, mistakes can lead to reprimands, demotions, or the loss of a job. So contrary to much of what I was taught, mistakes felt like something that should be avoided at all costs and certainly should not be accepted as a normal part of life. In his book Adapt, Tim Harford turns this on its head, showing not only how to learn from mistakes but arguing that, as it says in the subtitle, success always starts with failure.

The key takeaway is what Hardford calls the Palchinsky Principles after a Soviet scientist who was sent to Siberia and later executed by Stalin for daring to point out adaptations that would not work. These principles are variation, survivability, and selection. Adaptation starts with trying lots of things that might work, but which are unlikely to cause a catastrophic failure. After seeing what fails (most attempts) and what works, select the change that best meets the need.

A key to this process is to make sure that you know when you have failed. That may seem obvious, but we humans have a way of talking ourselves out of our mistakes. We deny they were mistakes at all by telling ourselves a story that somehow turns them into successes. Sometimes when we fail to admit our mistakes we continue on a failed course, wasting time that could be spent pursuing a more successful solution. And sometimes we just convince ourselves that it really wasn’t that bad even when we know better.

Throughout the book, the author uses examples to illustrate learning organizations (the US Army in Iraq), creating ideas that matter (solving the problem of locating a ship at sea), finding what works for the poor (building wells in Africa), and many others. By using such case studies, Harford explores in a practical way how to successfully change and adapt. In a world where it sometimes seems that innovation and change are happening for their own sake with no consideration of unintended consequences, this is a book with a method that could help create change that better solves the problems we collectively face.

How to Create Leaders

Turn the Ship Around! book cover

Turn the Ship Around! by L. David Marquet is a leadership memoir that tells of the author’s experience as the commander of a submarine in the United States Navy. He tells of his process moving from a leader-follower model of leadership to one of leader-leader – a process which builds mindful leaders rather than thoughtless followers.

I learned of this book as I read Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek. In that book Sinek tells of Marquet’s year-long preparation to command a well-run submarine. At the last minute he learned that he would instead be taking command of an underperforming submarine of an entirely different class. Lacking the time to study this new sub type and her crew, he racked his brain to figure out how he could successfully command this new vessel. He decided to give as few orders and possible,  to empower his knowledgeable and capable crew

The example that Sinek gave is what led me to read this book. Traditionally in the US Navy, one asks the commander for permission – “Request permission to submerge the ship!” Marquet changed this from a request to a statement of intent – “I intend to submerge the ship!” – thus giving agency to his crew. And the book details how he worked with the leaders on his ship to develop a process for turning a crew with one leader and 134 followers who mindlessly take direction into one with 135 leaders actively thinking about what they can proactively do to achieve the ship’s mission.

To dig further into the ideas of intent-based leadership, Marquet published another book in 2020 titled Leadership is Language. He also has a website with a video of him giving a talk on the ideas in Turn the Ship Around!

For anyone searching for how to move from simply managing what happens to being a leader and developing leaders, you can’t go wrong reading Turn the Ship Around!