Jump to content

16 July 2017

Why we write—and read—books

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

There are some times when it seems that writing a book is a futile endeavor. Like when people ask me for a one page summary because they really don’t have time for books. In fact, three bullet points would really be better. Or when I am introduced as the co-author of Complex Habits for Simple Minds (this really happened!). Sigh.

But then there are the times when the years of effort that go into writing a book seem so entirely worthwhile because of what other people do with it. Rafael Lopez at Citigroup is a shining example of that.

Raf has taken Simple Habits and turned it into not only a book group, but a developmental  curriculum for a bunch of his colleagues. When Keith and I envisioned Simple Habits, we imagined people using it as a kind of curriculum, but we didn’t imagine that people would use it as a springboard for a better curriculum than ours! Raf’s group at Citi doesn’t just read the chapters together, they really work with them and add to them and make them their own. In keeping with Citi’s work supporting the development of its people—and particularly their desire to handle complexity and change with grace—they have used our book as a platform for their growth rather than simply a set of ideas to be consumed.

Raf has created a daily reflection and a daily practice for each chapter. For example, in Chapter 1 of Simple Habits, Keith and I introduce the simple habits and offer a series of different questions. In Chapter 2, Keith and I talk about the difference between the predictable and unpredictable world. Raf has put those together in a daily reflection:  What mindset* have I and the team been in during the last few hours? He asks:

  • What questions are we asking ourselves?
  • What does this mindset enable? impede?
  • Am I moving into predictable or unpredictable spaces in the next part of the day?
  • What other mindset(s)/perspectives might be helpful for the next part of the day?

And he offers this daily practice: Ask 1 question from a mindset you don’t normally use in a meeting/conversation with a colleague.

But then Raf takes the ideas even further. He adds poetry, organisational purpose, and questions about what is most important.  He combines our ideas with others from all corners: the poetry of David Whyte, the inspiration of Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, the importance of diversity at Citi.

And all of this makes me remember why we even have books in the first place—to soak in and to build on. I remember soaking in Robert Kegan’s In Over Our Heads which I have read more than any other book on the planet (other than Pride and Prejudice). I remember pouring over Laloux’s thought provoking Reinventing Organizations. The Origin of Wealth by Beinhocker really got complexity ideas into my bones. I have tried to build on all of those in my own writing, and now Raf makes me feel that Keith and I are a part of that whole lineage of ideas that stretches far into the future, a part of co-constructing the next set of ideas as others build on what we’ve built on what others have built on.

For chapter 7, Raf offers this daily practice: Find a poem and read it 3 times out loud to yourself. He says, “We typically listen with our minds. This type of listening is designed to help us analyze and ‘make sense’ of the heaps of information we’re receiving.  This is the place from which we commonly listen.”

He continues, “The listening required in a complex environment requires us to listen from more and different parts of ourselves, different parts of our experience and wisdom.  When you read poetry, it calls on the mind and other parts to listen to what is really being said…”

I totally agree with that sentiment, but it’s Raf that says it, not me. Now it’s me quoting Raf to the world rather than Raf quoting Keith and me. We build together and create the next set of practices that will help the leaders at Citi and all over the world thrive in complexity. And so to close this tribute to the way we build on things together, one of my favourite poems…


Mysteries, Yes
by Mary Oliver

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds
will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.

Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.



Seeing abundance of possible risks

  • What else could go wrong?
  • What bad thing would happen if…?


Minimizing present risks

  • What needs to be fixed?
  • What is the most important issue?


Looking for quick wins 

  • What is the very best move to make here?
  • If I had one bet, where would I place it?


Creating a better future

  • What are other ways of looking at this?
  • What if we thought about it in a new way?


PS The picture today is Keith and me at our book launch for Simple Habits. We are both much hairier now…

2 thoughts on “Why we write—and read—books”

  1. Laurie Webster says:

    I ran two virtual book clubs with people who were either involved with Cynefin and/or organizational development. I love how Raf took it one step further. Lovely.

  2. Raf says:

    Yes! …
    Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
    to be understood.

    I am grateful for encountering the book and the way life connected me with Jennifer and Keith. The ideas contained in the book have been a helpful companion on our journey at Citi. The club and its reception have afforded me the opportunity to start a new book club for a wider community in the organization on Laloux’s book.

    Thank you again Jennifer and Keith for your inspiration and warmth.

    Thanks to those who’ve written me with your interest on what we did.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.