Saturday, October 31, 2009

Book Twenty-Four: The Firefly Effect: Build Teams that Capture Creativity and Catapult Results by Kimberly Douglas

About 18 months ago I went from working alone in a basement office to sharing space with five other people and a whole new host of responsibilities. As a result I've read more leadership/productivity/business books in that time than I have in my entire previous life. Half of them were quickly disposable, and only a few have been ones I recommend to others and return to myself. The books seem to fall in three main categories. First, you have the public speakers who need a book to sell after their talks and thus try to spin a good magazine article into a book (with short chapters and large font). The result is 20 good pages with another 100 pages repeating the same thinking (see The Fred Factor and QBQ). Second, you have speakers who know how to write, but tend to build their book by stringing together one story after another after another after another. Learning the importance of a thesis would benefit everyone greatly. Finally, you have leaders who know reflect on what they know and share those lessons in a humble, yet insightful, manner (see Max DePree's leadership books or Malcolm Gladwell's "thinking" books ).

Kimberly Douglas' work falls squarely in the second category. An experienced team building consultant Douglas decided to turn her experiences into a book we can all take home. She has some good ideas and event though her firefly analogy is stretched at times, the unique characteristics of these insects do provide us with a different way to look at the ordinary. While Douglas may get good results with her customers, this book tends to lose focus and requires to many "buy ins" along the way. 

Douglas appears to be familiar with every training exercise and copyrighted team building activity ever created. The one she hangs her hat on is the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), which she says is similar (but better) than the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), another well known assessment tool. With the HBDI you end up in one of four quadrants, labeled "Blue," "Yellow," "Green," and "Red." Since Douglas uses this in her consulting she refers to it often in the book. But if you are not familiar with the tool, or are familiar and do not find it effective, many of her examples will not work.

The book also contains strings of stories of dysfunctional teams (IT departments appear to notoriously bad) and how Douglas creates a strong team out of these unique individuals. At times she breaks down the exercises in detail, even indicating what you need to put on the flip charts. Much of this may be more interesting in the context of her presentation, but in a book it sounds like a "how to present" segment which grows quickly tiring.

One of the strengths of the book is the ability to refer back to individual chapters. You can focus on creativity, which she defines as "to be do something no one else would think of," or review her thoughts on the "new role of leadership," which involves "leading through inspiration and collaboration." She spends a couple of chapters on the positive and negative aspects of conflict, others on creating a vision and direction, and more on how to run effective meetings. Even the QBQ (Question Behind the Question) book gets a plug in having team members to hold themselves accountable. Anyone familiar with these types of books will see that Douglas does not so much present anything original as much as cover familiar topics with techniques which have worked for her.

Her strongest chapter is where she lets loose with her own thoughts toward the end of the book. After sharing an interesting story in how an amateur naturalist unwittingly shocked scientists with her observation of fireflies working in sync, Douglas notes that "[w]hat this story shows us it that a single person has a substantial amount of power to truly make a difference in an organization by first believing in something, and then taking action on it." In today's world the story of the individual impacting a larger community is one that resonates and may be where Douglas should build on her next effort.

Reading Challenges
This was tough one! I was not enthralled by the book so I found returning to it at night a challenge. I knocked off a good chunk of it in one night, but after that it was a struggle. I'm also in the midst of grading some essays which took time out of this week's reading and will really impact next week.

Next Up
Rereading "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," which I read last year so I have not commented on it yet. I'm teaching it in class so the reread has a purpose. In addition, I need to read a book which looks like category one in the business books, called "Let's Have Lunch Together." A board I am on is having a retreat with this author so we need to read this before that -- short chapters and large font so it should not be difficult.

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