Simply Brilliant: A book review by Bob Morris

simply-brilliantSimply Brilliant: How Great Organizations Do Ordinary Things in Extraordinary Ways
Bill Taylor
Portfolio/The Penguin Group (September 2016)

How and why “the thrill of breakthrough creativity and breakaway performance” belongs to all who can reimagine what they do and how they do it

The title of one Bill Taylor’s previously published books, Practically Radical, correctly suggests the thrust and flavor of how he thinks. He is a world-class empiricist with a highly-developed mindfulness; also, he is a diehard pragmatist with a determination (obsession?) to understands what works in the business world, what doesn’t, and why. In each book, his objective — as is his mission in life — is to share what he has learned with as many people as possible. With rare exception, the best business books answer an especially important question or solve an especially difficult problem. That is certainly true of Simply Brilliant. Its subtitle indicates that: “How do great organizations do ordinary things in extraordinary ways?”

It is no coincidence that the companies annually ranked among those most highly admired and best to work for are also among those annually ranked the most profitable, with the greatest cap value in their industry segment. Leaders of great organizations “sweat the little stuff.” They know that so-called “soft skills” produce high-impact (i.e. “hard”) results.

According to Taylor, “The most successful organizations are no longer the ones that offer the best deals. They’re the ones that champion the most original ideas, and do things other organizations can’t or won’t do.” I have worked with dozens of such organizations and presume to suggest other communion attributes: Everyone thinks and speaks in terms of first-0person plural pronouns and everyone has what I characterize as “dirt under their nails.” There is never a call for volunteers. If someone sees the need for something to be done, they either do it or recruit someone better qualified to do it.

These are among the key people (listed in alpha order) who provided significant leadership to organizational initiatives or had significance influence with them:

o Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Pages 90-93)
o Steven Cannon (153-158, 160-161, and 226-227)
o Thomas Crosby (45-50 and 91-92)
o Douglas Eby (122-123 and 144-147)
o John W. Gardner (6-7 and 102-105)
o Dan Gilbert (53-57 and 222-223)
o Katherine Gottlieb (118-121, 124-125, 142-144, and 146-148)
o Lee Hein (186-188 and 190-192)
o Vernon Hill (16-19, 220-23, and 30-34)
o Tony Hsieh (165-175)
o Gary Ridge (105-111 and 225-226)
o Rosanne Taggerty (67-71, 83-86, 103-104, and 176-177)

Taylor focuses on organizations such as these (listed in alpha order) to illustrate what can happen when a workforce and its leaders reimagine what they do and how they do it:

o Downtown Project/Las Vegas (Pages 166-175)
o John Lewis Partnership (194-202 and 211-212)
o Lincoln Electric (7-8 and 211-219)
o Mercedes-Benz USA (153-161 and 226-227)
o Metro Bank (12-19 and 30-34)
o Nuka System of Care/Alaska (116-119, 122-125, and 143-144)
o Pal’s Sudden Service (41-52 and 91-92)
o Quicken Loans (53-59 and 222-223)
o Southcentral Foundation (115-125, 142-148, and 223-224)
o Nuka System (116-119, 122-125, and 143-144)

These are among the several dozen other passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Taylor’s coverage:

o Creativity (Pages 1-2, 75-76, 166-167, and 170-171)
o Technology (1-4, 72-73, 95-96, 165-166, and 226-227)
o Extraordinary in ordinary situations (6-7, 45-46, and 78-82)
o Banking: customer service (13-16, 53-56, and 58-59)
o Media (16-17, 78-79, and 98-99)
o Training employees (45-50, 53-59, 144-145, 150-152, and 158-160)
o Homelessness (64-71, 83-86, 103-104, and 176-177)
o Community-focused companies (66-67, 78-81, and 167-175)
o Strategic initiatives (72-73, 106-108, and 178-179)
o Business models (83-84, 132-134, and 194-195)
o Breakthroughs (105-106, 109-110, and 177-178)
o Alaska Native people (115-125, 142-148, and 223-224)
o New definitions of success (117-118 and 221-222)
o Employee-customer connection (131-132, 141-143, 146-147, 150-156, and 226-227)
o Allies (176-180)
o Democratic workplace (195-202 and 210-212)
o Creating value (204-207)

Who will derive the greatest benefit from absorbing and digesting, then applying the material hat Taylor provides in this book? First, C-level executives who are determined to achieve breakthrough creativity and breakaway performance” and are both eager and able to re-imagine what they do and how they do it. Of equal importance, they will inspire those for whom they are responsible to do that, also. Long ago in Tao Te Ching, Lao-tse observes:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

This book will be of incalculable value to those now preparing for a career in business or have only recently embarked on one. Finally, I highly recommend Simply Brilliant to those who lead teams that are charged with formulating initiatives that will help an organization to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. I share Taylor’s high regard for an observation he cites, expressed by James F. Lincoln: “The Actual is limited. The Possible is immense.” Most human limits are self-imposed. Therefore, opportunities for improvement are limited to the extent people think they are. Bill Taylor wrote this book to help those who read it to close their own “opportunity gaps” — the difference between what is and what could be — which really is “the work of innovation, transformation, inventing the future. Merely surviving is not the same as truly thriving.”

Ultimately and inevitably, extraordinary performance by otherwise ordinary people is the “secret sauce” of business success. At all levels and in all areas of the given organization, they complete ordinary tasks — often tedious and boring tasks — in ways and to an extent that these efforts achieve breakthrough creativity and breakaway performance.

It’s as simple and, yes, as difficult as that.

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