Your Summer Reading List

Free-Range Thinking | June 2000

Heading towards the beach, mountains, or some other quiet getaway spot this summer? Here are a few good books to stimulate your thinking (preferably the free-range variety) and help you gear up for the next good fight.

Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut
by David Shenk (Harper, 1997)

If you want to get the lay of the land – and by that I mean the media-saturated environment we all work in – this is the best place to start. Shenk, a frequent commentator on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” quantifies the problem of information overload and helps us understand why it’s increasingly difficult to get any message through the clutter. Even though the purveyors of data smog have grown exponentially since the release of this book 3 years ago (thank you, World Wide Web), it remains the definitive overview of this thoroughly depressing subject.

“The psychological reaction to such an overabundance of information and competing expert opinions is to simply avoid coming to conclusions. As the amount of information and competing claims stretches towards infinity, the concern is that we may be on the verge of a whole new wave of indecisiveness: paralysis by analysis.”

– from Data Smog


The Social Life of Information
John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid (Harvard Business School Press, 2000)

For those interested in diving a bit deeper into the downside of the information age, Brown (the Director at Xerox PARC) and Duguid (a UC Berkeley research specialist) offer this scholarly analysis. There are interesting nuggets throughout – including the excerpt below, which is worth pondering before launching your next “public education campaign” – but this is a book you can skim until you reach chapter 7, “Reading the Background.” Observations in this section on how the physical presentation of information affects the reader’s perception of its importance, reliability, and authority are absolutely invaluable.

“Learning is usually treated as a supply-side matter, thought to follow teaching, training, or information-delivery. But learning is much more demand driven. People learn in response to need. When people cannot see the need for what’s being taught, they ignore it, reject it, or fail to assimilate it in any meaningful way.”

– from The Social Life of Information


Diffusion of Innovations
by Everett Rogers (Free Press, 4th ed., 1995)

When I wrote about this book in the November ’99 issue of free-range thinking, I called it “an enduring manual for changing behavior,” and I haven’t backed off that opinion. If you’re in the business of introducing new ideas and convincing many people to try them, Rogers will give you five time-tested guidelines to follow. One caveat: this is not a breezy read. There are long sections worth skipping (chapters 2 and 3 on the history of diffusion research are positively sleep-inducing), but Rogers’ analysis of why some new ideas catch on while others don’t may provide the key to making your next new idea stick.

“Innovations that are perceived by individuals as having greater relative advantage, compatibility, trialability, observability, and less complexity will be adopted more rapidly than other innovations. Past research indicates that these five qualities are the most important characteristics of innovations in explaining the rate of adoption.”

– from Diffusion of Innovations


The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
Malcolm Gladwell (Little Brown & Company, 2000)

Think of Malcolm Gladwell as Everett Rogers Lite. Where Diffusion exhaustively dissects literally thousands of innovations to support its conclusions, The Tipping Point bounces jauntily from one anecdote to another whistling a similar tune: there are reasons why things change, and if you understand them, you can become a more effective change agent. While Gladwell’s collection of stories do not add up to a convincing thesis (especially in comparison to Rogers’ work), there are many worthwhile stops along the way. Chapter Four includes the two card games that demonstrate how abstractions tend to confuse us (profiled in my April ’00 issue), and there’s a wonderful story about Princeton seminarians who literally jump over homeless people on their way to delivering a speech about The Good Samaritan (part of a study confirming the powerful influence of immediate context over our behavior.)

“.it is safe to say that word of mouth is – even in this age of mass communications and multimillion dollar advertising campaigns – still the most important form of human communication.”

– from The Tipping Point


Tainted Truth
by Cynthia Crossen (Touchstone Books, 1996)

Last month, I extolled the merits of polling for helping public interest groups craft their messages. Hold that thought, but read Cynthia Crossen’s blistering book, too. A reporter and editor for The Wall Street Journal, Crossen surveys the surveyors and finds most of them wanting. Too often, she claims, research results are massaged or edited to meet the needs of the poll’s sponsor, a survey’s questions are written (or arranged) to deliver a predetermined outcome, or the process is handled so carelessly as to render the results meaningless. More than just a broadside at the burgeoning business of polling, Tainted Truth is a plea for more careful and ethical practices, and includes valuable recommendations that can help you measure public opinion with greater accuracy.

“Polling looks scientific because the way the results are expressed – percentage points, cross-tabulations, margin of error, statistical significance. But much of a soft science built on the shifting sands of human language and psychology.”

– from Tainted Truth


 free-range follow-up

For Meetings Mavens

I heartily recommend Sam Kaner’s Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making. Presented in the style of a workbook with plenty of graphics, charts, and bullet points – in fact, Kaner intends for readers to photocopy pages and use them as handouts – this guide serves a far wider audience than “facilitators”. It can help anyone understand how groups come to a decision, the natural barriers we all encounter in this process, and what we can do to remove or surmount those barriers. At times the book is remarkably insightful, particularly when Kaner describes the critical transition period in meetings when divergent thinking (e.g. brainstorming) must turn into convergent thinking (e.g., decision-making). At the same time, it can be absurdly mundane, unless you believe that learning how to master the “chartwriter’s grip” for holding 4 markers at once is important. But that’s really a quibble. If you want to improve the meetings you run or attend, consider this a must-read, too.