Quick & Nimble: A book review by Bob Morris

Quick and NimbleQuick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation
Adam Bryant
Times Books/Henry Holt & Company (2014)

“The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.”
Damon Runyon

I have read Adam Bryant’s “In the Corner Office” column since it was introduced by the New York Times in 2009. Frankly, I have envied his access to those he has interviewed and admire the consistently high quality of the material that has been produced thus far. His first book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, was published in 2011 and now we have another in which he shares lessons to be learned from leading CEOs on how to create and then sustain a culture of innovation. He draws upon information, insights, and counsel shared during about 140 interviews conducted during a March 2009-May 2013 timeframe.

As Bryant explains, “Each chapter is structured much like a dinner party conversation with a large group of CEOs. I will introduce the themes, make some broader analytical points to steer the discussion, and then let the CEOs share their insights, lessons, and stories, in their own words.” This is a brilliant approach, executed with meticulous care. Whereas when reading a “Corner Office” column the focus is limited to one CEO’s responses, with Bryant serving as a surrogate asking questions his readers have, Bryant functions in this book as a symphony conductor or a choreographer of dance, coordinating without intruding on a lively and cohesive process. Yes, he guides that process throughout its duration but the CEOs who participate appear and reappear whenever appropriate, from one chapter to the next.

He divides the material into two parts. In, Part One, “Setting the Foundation” (Chapters 1-7), Bryant and respondents collaborate on a context within which to create or strengthen a culture on innovation, then in Part Two, “Taking Leadership to the Next Level” (Chapters 8-16), they explain how to sustain one. These are among the dozens of basic lessons that Bryant shares:

o “A successful culture is like a greenhouse where people and ideas can flourish — where ever body in the organization, regardless of rank or role, feels encouraged to speak frankly and openly, and is rewarded for sharing ideas about new products, more efficient processes, and better ways to service customers.” (Page 11)

o “A clear plan that creates shared goals will get everyone moving in the same direction and foster a sense of teamwork so the company can execute its plan quickly, and then shift direction when the need arises. Effective leaders recognize that their job is to provide employees with a simple answer to a simple question: ‘Where are we going and how are we going to get there?’ They also know that getting this right is harder than it looks.” (30)

o “The trick, when asking people for their opinion, is to signal to the room that people are expected to be concise by framing phrases like, ‘What’s the ten-word pitch on that?'” (171) In this context, I am reminded of Albert Einstein’s observation, “If you can’t explain an idea to a six-year-old, you really don’t understand it.”

o “The companies that will thrive over the long haul will understand that culture is a key element of their strategy — for attracting and training the best talent, for encouraging employees to bring their best selves to work, and for fostering an environment in which everyone feels motivated to innovate. As the global economy presents more challenges to leaders, those who create a quick and nimble culture will emerge as winners.” (237)

I was tempted to quote several of the CEOs but concluded that their observations are best revealed in context because, as indicated, Adam Bryant offers what indeed resembles “a dinner party conversation with a large group of CEOs.” The pace of its narrative is itself quick and nimble as well as innovative. Those who accept his invitation to attend this “banquet” of information, insights, and counsel will receive intellectual nourishment of the very highest quality. Bon appétit!

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