The more books I read, the more I’m convinced that every actionable book is actually two different books inside. This is useful to know, because it tells you what to look out for when you’re reading a book in this genre.
Let me clarify that a little.
When I say ‘actionable book’, I mean books that are explicitly about techniques and approaches you may apply to your life. Examples of these include:
- Never Split The Difference by ex-FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss. The book contains an effective, behavioural psychology-based approach for doing well in a negotiation, even when you have seemingly little leverage. It happens to be the best negotiation book I’ve ever read.
- High Output Management by ex-Intel CEO Andy Grove. HOM contains a collection of techniques that form the basis of a highly effective management style.
- Shape Up by Basecamp head of product strategy Ryan Singer. The book contains an alternative to the agile and waterfall product development methods that are so dominant in the tech industry. Shape Up’s methods were developed independently, within Basecamp, and have been used by the company over the past decade to a fair amount of success.
In technical fields, ‘actionable books’ are often a dime-a-dozen. For instance, in computer programming, Refactoring by Martin Fowler and Kent Beck is considered a classic, one of many in a series of books about software engineering methods. The book teaches you a bag of techniques that you may use when you want to restructure code for maintainability. It also happens to be the book that introduced the word ‘refactoring’ into the programming lexicon.
What is the common thread in each of these books? The common thread is that each book promises that you will walk away with a set of techniques that you may immediately begin to apply.
I don’t mean to say that more theoretical or philosophical books aren’t actionable, because many of them are. But I want to limit my discussion to specifically these kinds of ‘explicitly actionable’ books, because they are so common in any bookstore you walk into.
These ‘actionable books’ are really two books in one.
The first book is exactly what the book advertises on its cover. You read the book, you get the techniques. You then evaluate the book based on how effective those techniques are when tested against your reality.
The second book is about the principles that underpin those techniques. This book is usually embedded within the first, hidden in plain sight, and therefore more difficult to get at.
It is useful to know that the second book exists. Here’s an example.
Never Split The Difference is the best book on negotiation I have ever read. The book is organised into 10 chapters, nine of which focus on one technique each. I ploughed through the entire book in two sittings over two days on my first reading, but then circled back to read each chapter in detail, putting the technique in question to practice before moving on to the next chapter.
Many of Voss's techniques rely heavily on the nuances of the English language. For instance, one technique is to label the pain of your counterparty, right at the beginning of a negotiation; this technique starts with: “it seems like …” or “it feels like …” or “it appears to me that …” The chapter opens with Voss talking to a bunch of armed fugitives holed up on the twenty-seventh floor of a high-rise apartment, and to those fugitives he says things like “It looks like you don’t want to come out,” and “It seems like you worry that if you open the door, we’ll come in with guns blazing. It looks like you don’t want to go back to jail.”
Shortly after I read the chapter on labelling, I found myself at a client meeting where we had botched a deployment very badly. The client was furious. I opened the meeting with “You’re probably very angry with us. You probably think that we are terrible at this, and you’re wondering how we can still be in business.”
My opening had the desired effect. The people present looked at each other, and then the CFO said: “Yes, we are very disappointed in how you delivered your software to us. The bugs are unacceptable. But let’s try to fix them.”
I was new to Voss, and I was taken aback at the technique’s efficacy. Why did the technique work? It worked because it addressed my counterparty’s anger directly, before it could affect the rest of the meeting. Voss writes:
Labeling is a tactic, not a strategy, in the same way a spoon is a great tool for stirring soup but it’s not a recipe. How you use labeling will go a long way in determining your success. Deployed well, it’s how we as negotiators identify and then slowly alter the inner voices of our counterpart’s consciousness to something more collaborative and trusting.
First, let’s talk a little human psychology. In basic terms, people’s emotions have two levels: the “presenting” behavior is the part above the surface you can see and hear; beneath, the “underlying” feeling is what motivates the behavior.
Imagine a grandfather who’s grumbly at a family holiday dinner: the presenting behavior is that he’s cranky, but the “underlying emotion is a sad sense of loneliness from his family never seeing him.
What good negotiators do when labeling is address those underlying emotions. Labeling negatives diffuses them (or defuses them, in extreme cases); labeling positives reinforces them.
And in this passage the second book reveals itself.
Voss’s book — like many other books in this genre — really consists of two bits. The first bit is simply the stories and descriptions of the technique in action (in this example, Voss names this technique ‘labelling their pain’). The second bit are the principles behind why this labelling technique even works in the first place.
This distinction is important to understand if you want to apply Voss’s techniques to another language. When I read Never Split The Difference, I was meeting clients in Singapore but running the engineering office of my company in Vietnam. This meant that applying Voss’s techniques required me to straddle a language barrier — occasionally, I would have to speak Mandarin to Chinese businessmen clients; other times, I would be in Vietnam, and speaking to team members who spoke English only as a second language.
Voss’s techniques do not map easily to these other languages. To use them well, you must pay close attention to the underlying principles that Voss describes in each chapter. I had, however, good reason to believe that Voss was applicable to other languages and other cultures — as I read and reread the book, I began to realise that Voss was describing a framework for using human psychology to one’s advantage. Much of the book’s techniques centred around shaping System 1 responses in order to motivate System 2 reasoning in one’s counterparty. In other words, if you understood these principles deeply enough, you should be able to come up with new techniques of your own, in whatever language you so desired.
(As a total aside, a couple of months after this experience, a friend told me that he had bought Voss’s book for his entire team, and one of his interns — a Thai graduate — had returned to Thailand to work for her dad. She was being groomed to take over the family business. She told my friend that Voss’s techniques worked on her uncles, and that she was having a much easier time adapting to the business than she had first imagined. “Voss in Thai”, I thought to myself, “Imagine that!”)
Some books are easier to divide into two parts, however. Never Split The Difference is actually really easy; the split between techniques and principles are clear from the introduction onwards. It is also helped by its subject matter: negotiation techniques are relatively easy to put into practice, compared to, say, techniques that demand organisation-wide transformation. And because English is the global language of business, it is also rather easy to apply Voss’s techniques to your work (assuming, of course, that you communicate in English); it also becomes clear that you must grok the principles — the second book, if you will — if you want to go beyond vanilla application.
But other books are not so easy to split into the two books. Any book that talks about techniques within the context of an organisation is usually quite difficult to apply. Take Shape Up for instance — or any other book about agile software development methods. Books like these depend heavily on the organisational context you wish to apply them.
Basecamp developed Shape Up’s techniques within their context: that is, a multi-million recurring revenue Software-as-a-Service business with the complete freedom to define their own software development cycles. Shape Up’s techniques become difficult to apply if:
- You work in a dysfunctional services company, and you have no control over what sales promises to clients.
- You work in a slightly-less dysfunctional services company, and are tasked to maintain old client projects.
- You are a hardware company, delivering packaged software with your products, and subject to immovable shipping deadlines.
- You are a three-man startup, and you do not know if your product is worth anything.
- You write software for medical devices, and do not have the luxury of self-defined feature development.
Does this mean that Shape Up is useless? No, of course not. Shape Up’s techniques might not be immediately applicable to your organisational context, but the underlying principles in the book are universally applicable. At the very least, you should walk away with one or two principles that you may test in your company. It just takes some work to figure out how to apply them.
All of this is to say that if you work in a company where it is difficult to apply shaping techniques, then your job when reading Shape Up is to uncover the second book, and use the first book’s descriptions of techniques as an example of how those principles look like when applied to Basecamp’s unique situation.
I’ve used Shape Up as an example in this essay because a) the book is free, which means you may skim it after reading this piece, and b) the book is actually rather light on principles. This is why I say you have to ‘uncover’ the second book as you read it, and why the knowledge that two different books exist within every actionable book can prove to be rather useful.
Other books, like Never Split The Difference and High Output Management, are more transparent about their principles. Voss goes into great detail about System 1/System 2 psychology, while Andy Grove spends whole chapters talking about the ‘Principles of Production’, from which he organises his management ideas around.
I’d like to think that books that make the effort to generalise their principles are better books — but really, this doesn’t matter as much. The goal is to extract as much as possible that is useful from each book that you read. The next time you find yourself sitting with an ‘actionable’ book, read for the techniques, but highlight for the principles. You might be surprised at what you'll find.
Originally published , last updated .