Wood texture from photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

We are halfway through 2021, and I wanted to share my top 10 books so far of the year. I’ve achieved to read 35 books, which is much better than by 12 books last year at this time. It’s 34 Kindle books and 1 Audible Audio book.

Here I’ll share my takeaways from the top books and also include a worthwhile Youtube video on the book.

10. Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon

Austin Kleon is a recent acquittance of mine. His book Steal Like an Artist talks about how all the great creators, inventors, entrepreneurs and artists, where all thieves of ideas.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book.

“Instead, chew on one thinker—writer, artist, activist, role model—you really love. Study everything there is to know about that thinker. Then find three people that thinker loved, and find out everything about them. Repeat this as many times as you can. Climb up the tree as far as you can go. Once you build your tree, it’s time to start your own branch.”

And “plagiarism is trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own. Copying is about reverse-engineering. It’s like a mechanic taking apart a car to see how it works.”

Get the book by going here.

9. Working Backwards by Colin Bryar and Bill Carr

“We have an unshakeable conviction that the long-term interests of shareowners are perfectly aligned with the interests of customers.”, Jeff Bezos, in a 2010 letter to shareholders

Working Backwards covers insights from Jeff Bezos’ decisions and the reasons behind the decisions.

1. Principles

Amazon’s Leadership Principles can be improved at any time. A key tenet is “Unless you know better ones.” There are 14 principles. “if a company’s principles must be memorized, it’s a warning sign that they aren’t sufficiently woven into the fabric of that company.” Amazon principles and practices can be applied in any company.

Amazon obsesses over systems. “Good intentions don’t work. Mechanisms do.” If you don’t change the underlying condition that created a problem, you should expect the problem to recur.

Amazon’s version of #[[Independent teams]] is called the single-threaded teams. “These teams keep the company nimble, moving quickly with a minimum of external friction, but their autonomy must be paired with precise goal-setting to align each team’s independent plans with the company’s overarching goals.”

Amazon focuses on long term compensation for employees since it encourages collaboration.

2. Bar Raiser

The Bar Raiser process: seasoned interviewers help teams hire people “Bar Raisers are trained to become experts in every aspect of the interviewing process. There is a group of senior Bar Raisers that manages the program, known as Bar Raiser Core, composed mostly of VPs and directors”

“The effective Bar Raiser uses the Socratic method, asking questions that jump-start the critical thinking process, to lead and guide the dialogue with the goal that everyone, or at least the majority, will arrive at the same conclusion about the candidate.”

“The most important goals of the interview process became clear: to assess how well a candidate’s past behavior and ways of working map to the Amazon Leadership Principles.”

Ramping up to Independent teams meant that Amazon wanted to hire fewer coordinators but more builders and innovators.

3. Amazon’s independent teams

Amazon has a process called single-threaded leadership, where one individual runs a major initiative with their Independent teams.

The team’s work got support from the leadership and CEO and was focused on encouraging more building and less communication. Bezos wanted API-like communication versus emails and meetings.

Amazon’s greenlight process for new projects was called New Project Initiatives (NPI). Then came the two-pizza teams. “What was originally known as a two-pizza team leader (2PTL) evolved into what is now known as a single-threaded leader (STL).”

And so became the single-threaded team. The team and the leader aren’t working on anything else and aren’t dependent on others. “Can the team build and roll out their changes without coupling, coordination, and approvals from other teams? If the answer is no, then one solution is to carve out a small piece of functionality that can be autonomous and repeat.”

“Ownership and accountability are much easier to establish under the STL model, keeping teams properly focused and accurately aligned with company strategies. While all these positive outcomes were possible before the first autonomous single-threaded team was created, now they have become the natural and expected consequence of this very Amazonian model for innovation.”

Things just keep getting better in this book. Get the book by going here.

8. The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen

I had been postponing the read on Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma for years. I’m so happy that I finally picked it up.

The book looks at innovation and why incumbents always have a hard time, in any field or industry, to innovate and make drastic changes. The book is a great encouragement for startups as they will always have an edge on innovation.

The book talks about sustaining and disruptive innovation, which is at the core of the innovator’s dilemma.

Sustaining innovation improves products based on feedback from their largest customers. Reducing defects and making things faster. Improving the product performance for the largest customers. Satisfies customer’s current needs. Makes sense in short term, but can doom the company to failure.

Disruptive innovation’s key features offer low performance and there are more defects. Appearance is that disruptive is doing everything wrong. Existing customers can’t adopt such technology. Evolve to meet customer’s future needs. Dedicating valuable resources to niche opportunities can be the future of the company.

A niche market opportunity arises as the current market offering is neglecting a need. The need doesn’t care of the features or performance of the existing offering. You can look at Smartphone cameras, Wikipedia, Skype, Amazon, Netflix, Airbnb, Uber. The book labels all products, services, and commodities as disruptive technologies.

It is difficult for existing companies to adopt disruptive technologies because a successful company can’t dedicate resources to unproven offerings. The book talks about

What does it mean? Startups have lots of time to fine-tune their technology and they don’t need to worry too much about their larger competitors. They should look at niche markets, to identify potential disruptive innovations.

Get the book by going here.

7. No Rules Rules by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer

Here’s what I wrote about how I’d apply the learnings from No Rules Rules:

Freedom in a game team: once a team is picked, they get full freedom to decide on what game they will make. Internal parameters, like retention targets, are set. Depending on the stage of the company, the scope of the project will also be set. If runways is limited, the scope should be as minimal as possible. If the runway is infinite, the scope isn’t a problem.

Responsibility in a game team: accountability is in place, the team has full trust in themselves and the rest of the company, they follow the parameters and the scope, but they make independent decisions based on what is best for the company.

Let’s start with building a brand: Build a following by making a case for being a great place to work. How to do that? 1) Write about the company values, 2) Write about things that you are curious about, 3) Write about stories from your work. Signal things that a “high talent density” organization with signal to the outside. You might lack the superstars, but what do superstars want? To work with other smart people, in an environment with freedom and responsibility.

Then let’s talk about runway: in pre-revenue, you won’t be able to pay top market salaries, but you got to work towards that. First, identify people who’d appreciate equity at the pre-revenue stage. Get the best ones who are aligned on equity, then switch to high salaries when able, with both existing people and new hires. Bring salaries up. Now you can also afford the “generous severance.” Don’t be afraid to offer four or six months severance for low performers.

Work on your values. You can have dozens of them. Make it clear how the values are applied, through examples. These examples give context to new hires.

Don’t be afraid to use the No Rules Rules book as a template. In game development, no one is building their own engine nowadays, everyone uses Unity or Unreal. Why should you build your own “cultural engine” but rather take a template and start molding it into something that fits your organizational needs? Some might say that the Netflix culture is so American or “Bay Area,” but if you read the last chapter where they talk about taking the culture to European and Asian offices, you can see how the Netflix culture operates internationally. It has become very inclusive.

Get your copy of the book by going here.

6. Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke

Annie Duke wrote a book called Thinking in Bets. The book talks about poke in a totally different way. Duke goes into the details of what playing poker can teach us about decision-making. But poker isn’t just about handling learning and decision-making but handling emotions that stem from luck and uncertainty.

Why poker is such a cool game? Annie Duke says: “Once the game is finished and you try to learn from the results, separating the quality of your decisions from the influence of luck is difficult.”

She continues “Getting comfortable with “I’m not sure” is a vital step to being a better decision-maker.” “First, “I’m not sure” is simply a more accurate representation of the world. Second, and related, when we accept that we can’t be sure, we are less likely to fall into the trap of black-and-white thinking.”

Get your copy of the book by going here.

5. The Advantage by Patrick M. Lencioni

Earlier this year, I published a bigger piece on this book, as this is a book that any startup CEO and leadership team should pick up, as it offers immediate guidance into how you can create a healthy company.

Leaders should ask “Are we healthy enough to tap into the intelligence that we have?” The health of the organization is the multiplier on how smart they are.

Read my full article on the book by going here. And get the book by going here.

4. Becoming Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender

This book was so much better than Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs book from 2011. In this book, Brent Schlender, who knew Steve personally, writes a more personal story on Steve Jobs, and how he evolved as a person, a creative, and a leader.

Get this impressive read by going here.

3. The Motive by Patrick M. Lencioni

This book, The Motive, from Patrick Lencioni, book talks about the real jobs of the CEO.

Work hard on making meetings matter: The proper system of meetings comes from the CEO. The CEO owns the format of meetings. “If your meetings are bad, then your executives are having bad meetings with their teams. And it cascades from there. And the person who is responsible for making your meetings effective is you—no one else. You can’t delegate that job. It’s yours and yours alone.”

Day-to-day development of your team: confronting team about their issues, “keeping your people engaged in the most important conversations, and it’s about holding them to higher standards.”

Favorite quotes from the book:

  • “You’re not delegating. You’re abdicating.”
  • “You might be working hard, but you’re not doing it for the company. You’re doing it for yourself.”
  • “You just deal with the stuff you know about. The stuff you enjoy.”
  • “If you’re having bad meetings, you’re making bad decisions. There is no getting around that. And you’re almost certainly not talking about all the right things.”
  • “The chief reminding officer”
  • “Shay, I want to be the CEO of Del Mar because I see my job as a responsibility and a sacrifice. You’re the CEO of Golden Gate because you see your job as a reward. Like you, I used to think that way—that being a CEO was a reward for a lifetime of hard work.”
  • “You should ask yourself why you like doing what a CEO does. The day-to-day stuff.”
  • “It really should be the chief executing officer. It’s about doing the job, not just having the job.”
  • “The best of us can slide almost unconsciously into reward-centered leadership.”
  • “Many reward-centered leaders are not overtly motivated by those pride-related incentives, but rather by their desire to spend their time doing what they find to be enjoyable, entertaining, or fun. Yes, fun.”

I wrote more about the book in a piece recently. You can get the book by going here.

2. A World Without Email by Cal Newport

This is the third book in Cal Newport’s deep life “trilogy”. The first book was Deep Live, which I talked in the books I read in 2020, then there’s Digital Minimalism, which talks about using technology and social media to the betterment of our lives.

As I read A World Without Email, I understood out how a lot of the communication tools that I use are hurting me and making it harder to live in a productive way. It’s not only email, which is mentioned in the title of the book that is hurting me. It’s also Slack, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, LinkedIn messages, etc. All of them are the source of poisonous ad-hoc back-and-forth messaging.

Newport suggests that we schedule messaging for a time-block on each day. Like you want to have a thing like “office hours” in the afternoon from three to four when you reply to people. If you are in a company where people need you quickly for Adhoc things, you want to explore possibilities for having quotas or “office hours” for your team, first. Then eventually, broadening that to the entire company. Everyone will be happy if the change eventually happens.

Get this live-altering book by going here.

1. Beyond Entrepreneurship (BE) 2.0 by Jim Collins

This book definitely deserves the number one spot.

Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix says that he only rereads one book every year, and it’s BE 1.0. In late 2021, Jim Collins, author of Built to Last and Good to Great, has updated his first book Beyond Entrepreneurship to version 2.0. This is probably the best book I’ve ever read on company building and being a leader.

My favorite chapter about the book where the chapter on Vision, which pulls together the core values and beliefs, purpose and mission, under the concept of the company vision. It’s possibly the clearest concept of company vision that I’ve read and very applicable to any company of any size. Even with a few co-founders with an idea.

Get the book by going here.

Final words

That’s it for now. I’ll be back at the end of the year to review the top 10 for the full 2021. In the meantime, you can check out my previous top tens by going here:

Hope you have some great reading moments coming up!