I’ve read a couple of business novels recently, and I confess that I hadn’t properly appreciated the genre before. I’m not going to stop reading nonfiction or anything, but it seems like a quite decent way to learn something about an area that I don’t want to currently pursue in depth. Which is the case for most business topics – I want to figure out what I can do to help increase the chance that the product I’m working on will succeed, and there are doubtless skills I don’t have that I should be thinking about, ways of looking at situations that I could productively be informed about. But that doesn’t mean that I want to delve into these areas in depth: for now, I’m just browsing for ideas. So the lack of depth in these novels doesn’t bother me (and, for all I know, these topics might be situational enough that learning more theory wouldn’t have a huge payoff, though that’s probably my bias showing), while I’m surprised to find how much having a bit of a plot to follow helps keep my interest.

I’m currently in the middle of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Pactrick Lencioni. (Almost done with, actually, even though I started it yesterday and have done several other things in the intervening time; admittedly, it’s a quite short book, a little over 200 pages with very little text on them.) Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see any of the various teams I’m a part of being particularly dysfunctional; the book was actually a little comforting in that regard. Having said that, there are certainly scenes described here that are pretty familiar, and if I were more at ease with conflict, I could doubtless do a better job of helping us get productively aligned. A fun, fast read; I’ll probably check more of the author’s books out of Sun’s library.

The Goal, by Eliyahu Goldratt, however, was completely and utterly absorbing: I brought it home and spent more than one night reading it rather later than I normally consider wise and then lying awake for way too long after turning off the light trying to figure out what, if any, concrete actions I could take. It’s about queue theory, or the theory of constraints, or leanish ideas, or something; basically, taking a manufacturing plant, figuring out what results are actually important to the plant, and figuring out how to alter the behavior on the floor (and elsewhere) to dramatically increase the quality of those results. With some quite surprising twists, if you haven’t seen this sort of thing before; I really should dig up a link to a Theory of Constraints simulator that I found somewhere and try playing with some variables.

Which is all pretty interesting, but what kept me up at night was: what does this mean to me? One of the basic principles, for example, is that, when considering the productivity of a system, the bottlenecks are almost all that matters. So, for example, keeping people working on non-bottleneck tasks just for the sake of looking busy probably isn’t doing you any good and may in fact be actively counterproductive. Which is pretty interesting, and I can imagine trying to apply that on a manufacturing floor. Does it apply to a software team, though? I’m pretty sure the answer is “yes”; how do I then go about identifying the bottlenecks that determine my team’s effectiveness?

There are probably several lessons to be learned here: my difficulty in even starting to figure out how to identify the bottlenecks is a warning sign in itself, for example. (There are other related warning signs, e.g. the fact that I have no clue in how to draw a value stream map for our situation.) But of course that’s the wrong place to start: following the title of the book, the first question I should ask is: what is the goal? Which my boss and I had a talk about recently, and it turns out that we came up with the same answers: that alignment is certainly a good sign, and it’s greatly clarified some decisions that we’ve had to make this month.

So what are other interesting novels out there on topics that would normally be covered in nonfiction? What other nonfiction genres does this work with? (I have a hard time imagining learning, say, algebraic geometry by reading a novel.) I am curious.

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