Instruction, Evidence, Interpretation, Opinion

These last couple of weeks I’ve found myself reading through a backlog of non-fiction, mostly on teams, organizations and social complexity. It’s been a mixed experience to say the least. I’ve found the insight-to-obvious ratio the lowest for a long time (maybe I just got unlucky on the books) but it got me thinking about what I’m looking for when I read non-fiction, and what maybe some of these authors aren’t paying attention to when they’re writing.

Putting reading for pleasure aside, what I’m looking for in a book related to work - any work - that I might be doing comes down to one or more of

  • Instruction
  • Evidence
  • Interpretation
  • Opinion

Instruction is obvious, and slightly separate - learning new technology, a language, technique. The writing had better be clear and well directed, there had better be examples, the book had better be well organised so that I can both learn and go back to it for reference. Examples - any number of O’Reilly books.

Evidence - generally not documented in and of itself (unless you’re writing an oral history or edition of documentary source material), but if you’re presenting an interpretation of facts or events, you’d better give me enough of both to let me decide whether you’re being honest. Weick and Sutcliffe’s otherwise excellent Managing the Unexpected rushes through stories of firefighting, deck procedures on US Navy Aircraft Carriers, medical investigations, without doing more than describing the superficialities of the situations. I want to know more about what happens, and would have been happy with a longer book. In contrast, Edwin Hutchins’ Cognition in the Wild builds an account of distributed cognition and team learning from a marvellously detailed description of navigation procedures (again in the US Navy), making the message of the book all the more compelling.

Interpretation - following on from evidence. Like I said, make sure you’ve given me enough evidence, and trust me to come to my own conclusions. Too many authors don’t - academic writers in particular don’t seem to get this, and waste time on pages of references where one or two well-recounted stories would help. Ralph Stacey’s influential Complexity and Creativity in Organizations is frustrating - there are case studies, but again lacking in detail. Contrast this with Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody - crammed with stories, but Shirky mines these as source material in a beautifully clear way (it’s no surprise that the best books tell the stories first, rather than presenting case studies afterwards).

Finally, opinion. I don’t mind an opinionated author, as long (as always) as you have enough of a story to tell, the evidence to back it up, a reasonable interpretation, and I’m given the space to disagree. This gets to be the most personal of the factors - just look at the reviews of Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan to see how a writer can put of his readers by coming across too strong (I was OK with it, but maybe I just know lots of opinionated people…). On the other hand I see so many books and articles on management, social complexity and agile development which are pure ego and assertion, apparently unsupported by experience.

It’s rare to find a book that gets the balance of these just right.

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