Book Review: Simply Brilliant by William C. Taylor

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“Insanity is doing things the same way and expecting a different result.”

I’m sure you’ve heard that line, or something like it. I’ve heard it attributed to Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, and “an ancient Chinese proverb.” Whoever said it first captured an elemental truth in a single pithy line. It could be the tagline for William C. Taylor’s book, Simply Brilliant: How Great Organizations Do Ordinary Things in Extraordinary Ways. The basic premise is: “The first rule of strategy is that how you think shapes how you compete.”

Taylor is one of the founders of Fast Company magazine. That publication is associated primarily with Silicon Valley and what we commonly call “technology.” The examples in this book are from outside Silicon Valley and mostly in businesses that aren’t based on “technology” of any kind. Taylor put it this way:

“Simply Brilliant is addressed to leaders who are determined to thrive, not just survive, who aim to write compelling stories of success no matter their industry or field of endeavor.”

Those examples include decidedly low-tech businesses like supermarkets and the manufacture of welding machines. Simply Brilliant is about companies that are doing things differently and successfully. They all think differently, and therefore have their own unique view of what strategy means for them.

In one sense, this book is a lot like Scott McKain’s excellent Collapse of Distinction. On another front, it’s very much like David Burkus’s excellent book Under New Management. Those books would make great companion reads to Simply Brilliant.

Who Should Read This Book

I’d recommend this book to almost anyone in business, because it will stimulate your thinking and help you see your own situation from different angles. That said, there are a few people that I think would really get a lot from this book.

If you believe that innovation is something that involves technology and not much else, you need this book to understand what the real world is like outside Silicon Valley and the technology bubble. Two of the great examples here have been around for more than a century, and their innovation isn’t as much about technology as it is about how they organize and think about the people who work at the company and the people who are their customers.

If you’re just starting out in business, Simply Brilliant is an excellent antidote to all the lightweight writing about innovation and strategy. It’s an excellent look at how real companies in the real world are doing things that work.

What’s in the Book

The book is organized into four sections with two chapters in each section. The first part is the suggestion to “Stop trying to be the best; strive to be the only.” Part two is “Don’t let what you know limit what you can imagine.” Part three is “It’s just as important to be kind as to be clever.” Yes, if you recognize that, it is based on Jeff Bezos’ commencement address.
Part four is titled “The allies you enlist matter more than the power you exert.”

One thing I liked about Simply Brilliant is that you don’t have to read it straight through. You can read each of the sections independently. Whatever you decide to read, and whatever you decide to read first, make sure to read the prologue and the epilogue. They set up everything else in the book and bring things full circle. The epilogue helps put the reading from the rest of the book into perspective by asking a series of questions to help you think through where you are and where you might want to go. Here they are.

  1. Can you develop a definition of success that allows you to stand apart from the competition and inspires others to stand with you?
  2. Can you explain clearly and compellingly, why what you do matters and how you expect to win?
  3. Are you prepared to rethink the conventions of success in your field and the logic of your success as a leader?
  4. Are you as determined to stay interested as to be interesting?
  5. Do you pay as much attention to psychology and emotion as you do to technology and efficiency?
  6. Do the values that define how your organization works reflect the values proposition around which it competes?
  7. Are you as humble as you are hungry?
  8. Are you prepared to share the rewards of success with all those who had a hand in achieving it?

Bottom Line

Simply Brilliant: How Great Organizations Do Ordinary Things in Extraordinary Ways is an excellent mind stretcher of a book that will be especially interesting to people who think about how their organization works. Some people may not like the fact that there are very few prescriptions here and no bulleted lists of action steps. Instead, there are inspiring examples. That’s good enough for me, and it may be good enough for you, too.

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