Aiming for Excellence? 3 Books to Help You Get There

What we work towards at Open Door Teams is nothing short of excellence. And that requires the willingness to learn, to be wrong, to try again. It requires effort and focus, assessment and sacrifice. Excellence isn’t achieved in a vacuum. So we take advice. We try out the suggestions of those who have gone before us. Then we keep what works in our context and press on.

The following  books contain some of the ideas and strategies that have proven most fruitful for us recently. These titles have earned top spots on our required reading list, and we recommend them heartily to anyone chasing excellence in just about any field. 

Creativity, Inc. | Ed Catmull

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If you’re in a position to set or influence your organization's culture, read this book first. Catmull explains how to build a culture that inculcates and nurtures creativity at every level. That's important for almost any business. Because, at its heart, creating value is creative. It doesn’t matter if what you create is lines of code or lines of prose, stellar customer support or technology for interplanetary travel. Value is, by nature, a creative pursuit. Which means it’s a risky one too. Errors will happen. Mistakes will be made. There’ll be some feeling your way through the dark. (There’s a whole section in the book about Pixar’s attempt to finalize the Finding Nemo storyline before production—a seemingly worthwhile goal—and how that turned out to be a terrible idea.) A certain amount of discomfort, in other words, is part of the bargain.

But oh, the payoff.

Knocking it out of the park—it being anything from that customer service call to the piece of software your team just built—doesn’t just feel great. It builds reputations. It invigorates teams. It gives us the confidence and humility to keep taking risks. Not to mention, because it delivers value, it pays the bills. Which is worth some discomfort, isn’t it?

The Lean Startup | Eric Ries

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Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Ries’s bestselling book is that pride and fear, not quality control, are the real reasons we build process-castles in the sky, and that they cause the very failure (and embarrassment) they’re employed to avoid.

It starts innocuously enough: we want to make something great. And where’s the harm in that? But then the goal bends to serve the ego: we want to make something great without having to look foolish at any point along the way. So we think long and hard before doing anything. We research and plan and discuss and consider. Then when we finally unveil our work, sure, we may meet with some success. Or we may discover that all that time and energy spent trying to make it perfect robbed us of the chance to make it useful.

Ries argues that there’s a better way: experimentation. Instead of waiting until the planets are aligned just so, try something now. Pay attention to the results. Modify. Try again. In doing so, you get closer and closer to real value. There’s plenty of time to make the valuable glamorous once it’s out there earning its keep (and yours). 

Deep Work | Cal Newport

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The trouble with days is that they’re limited. Just twenty-four hours is all any of us have to work with. Allotting for time spent eating and sleeping and showering and commuting, that leaves fourteen, give or take. 840 minutes with which we can repeatedly check our phones, scroll endlessly through our social media feeds, read and respond to emails as soon as they arrive in our inboxes, and otherwise stay harried and distracted. Or we can work deeply.

This is essentially the choice that Newport lays before us: do you want to feel busy or do you want to generate value? If it’s the latter, then focus—not busyness—is what’s required. And focus takes effort.

To work deeply in an increasingly distracting world, you need strategies and tools. In this his fifth book, Newport offers advice on both. And not all of it goes down easy. (We’d expect nothing less from a computer scientist who advises approaching technology like the Amish.) But this is a guy who, in just the decade after graduating college:

  1. Published four books
  2. Earned a PhD
  3. Authored peer-reviewed academic papers
  4. Got a tenure-track professorship at Georgetown University

Clearly he knows a thing or two about how to make the most of those twenty-four hours each day brings.

Risk. Try. Focus.

Catmull tells us how to create an environment in which we can bravely risk failure and follow Ries’ advice to just try something already. Newport reminds us that generating real value is deep, hard work worthy of the sacrifice it demands. Together they exhort us to take our pursuit of excellence seriously enough to make the scary, difficult, sometimes ego-bruising steps to get there. It’s not easy. But none of them claim it will be.