Two-way communication

The Coffee Break MBA message:

* get ambitious employees reading and learning

* harvest the good ideas through intentional meetings

* identify the ambitious, capable and under-utilized employees through incentives

makes a lot of sense from the employee side. Opportunity to shine, to get noticed, and to contribute.

But what about from the C-suite?

It may be that the CEO knows the weaknesses that the company needs to improve on. Wary of splitting the company's focus, he or she is continually over-communicating the one big idea that the company needs to get right (h/t to Verne Harnish and "The Rockefeller Habits").

Reading Jim Collins, Michael Gerber, Lencioni, Christensen - sounds like a bunch of distractions. Let's say the Harnish model is front and centre in the executive's mind. Wouldn't it make sense to give everyone in the company a copy of "Scaling Up" (Harnish's updated book) and get some synchronization?

No, and I'll tell you why.

1) Monoculture. Get a field full of genetically identical plants, and one virus can wipe out a crop. In a natural ecosystem, the field will contain the virus and continue to flourish because of diversity. Don't be afraid of competing viewpoints - but be able to evaluate them and discard weaker viewpoints.

2) Simplicity. If you need a whole book to teach the primary concept to the team, you haven't understood the concept. Narrow down your focus and teach the Big Idea through everything you do. Frame employee learning in the context of the Big Idea.

3) Practicality. Using the Big Idea/Great Idea framework (organizing principle vs. situational pattern), as an executive, you need to focus on the Big Idea. Your staff need to implement the Big Idea in multiple situations, so having access to multiple patterns that can be used will be a positive.

There is nothing stopping you as a manager from over-weighting your #nextbook selection with books that are in your philosophical camp. Of course, that means you need to have some familiarity with the business literature. Feel free to check out #nextbook for yourself, join my mailing list (1 book, 1 tool, 1 idea per week), or just start blocking out time in your day to read. In the long term, that may be the most strategic thing you do.

And if it makes sense for the boss, wouldn't it also make sense for the employee?

Let's turn your company into a Learning Organization. Go ahead, set up an appointment for a free consultation.

Categories: Books , Business , Methodology

Business Reading without the Reading

Coffee Break MBA. It has a fatal flaw.

Many of you need a change in your career. You need to grow and try new things. You need to believe in yourself and see the value that you can provide.

There are leaders, coaches, and teachers that can help. There are great ideas that will open up new perspectives for you. There are stories that will resonate so deeply that you will see the world in a new way.

But they're locked in books.

Maybe you were never a reader. Maybe you digest words for a living, and the thought of adding to your workload by reading is a special kind of torture. Maybe you're in the middle of an epic fantasy series and you have nine more volumes to get through before you will allow yourself to read anything else.

Well, let's not give up. Let's not hit pause on your career. Let's just get creative.

1) Audiobooks. First up, get the audio version of the book, listen to it on your drive, or during your workout.

2) Podcasts. If the author is podcasting, subscribe. Work through their Big Ideas by listening in 20-30 minute bites.

3) Youtube / TED Online / author's online site. If you want to check out the author, do a YouTube search and see if they have lectures online. I was introduced to the "Job-to-be-done" Big Idea through a Clayton Christensen YouTube video (h/t Ash Maurya). If you are looking for Big Ideas, you'll probably be able to find a video of the author describing his or her Big Idea somewhere. Set up a playlist, listen during a workout (you can probably skip the video outside of a couple of graphics without missing much).

Now, we need to crowdsource a collection of links. For every book in my #nextbook collection, there should be at least a great Audiobook edition and a good set of videos. For many of them, there will be relevant podcasts on iTunes. If you find good links, email them to me or leave a comment here. I'll collect them and add them to #nextbook so we leave no non-reader behind.

Let's become learners- it's the one thing we can do our whole life.


Categories: Books , Business

Big Ideas and Great Ideas

Seth Godin, in the Startup School podcast, said something like that all business non-fiction books can be read in 5 minutes. I wish that were literally true, as I work through the stack of books I need to read to stay current with the North Creek Mailing list (1 Book, 1 Tool, 1 Idea, every Thursday).

But the kernel of the idea is that a good business book is built around a single Big Idea. Two Big Ideas mean the reader might miss both of them. So the author, the editor and the publisher make sure the stories, the data, the frameworks - the whole book supports one Big Idea.

As a businessperson, finding the Big Idea in the book shouldn't be hard. The reason the book is 250 pages instead of 250 words is that the Bid Idea needs to be (a) sold to the reader, and (b) translated for the reader.

You can save a lot of time and skip the sales section if you grant the thesis, the Big Idea of the book. Let's figure out how to apply the book to me! But if you are unfamiliar with the Big Idea, you may need to go through the process of being sold, so that you can answer the objections others will put in front of you when you start to sell them on the Big Idea.

If you are not in a senior management role, the Big Idea may not be that much use to you. Without the authority to make changes, implementing the Big Idea might be out of your reach. Is it a waste of time to read the book?


Once you understand the Big Idea, the sales process, and the translation process, you can filter that out and look for the Great Ideas the author has included in the book. Great Ideas are practical techniques or approaches that are used by the author to support his or her Big Idea. They are not Big enough to support a whole book, or broad enough to build a whole company around, but they can bring huge advantages to situations where they are relevant.

A Great Idea is not universal. It may not be helpful at all in your circumstances. But having that Idea in your mental toolbox may come in handy when a new situation arises.

Great Ideas are often illustrated in stories or case studies. Since they are situationally relevant, they are easier to communicate within a sample situation. Whenever the author tells a story, look for the Great Idea that is being explained or supported.

Sometimes Great Ideas are frameworks, visual tools, or ways of thinking about a problem. Whenever there is an illustration in a book, it's a clue that there is a Great Idea there. Many analysts love to combine two adjectives, make a grid, and create 4 quadrants. It is immediately apparent that you want to go up and to the right. That grid may be describing a Great Idea.

Great Ideas don't require a lot of authority to implement. You can start trying out a new way of analyzing a problem immediately. You can go to work, watch a process, and start placing it on a grid within a day. Companies are usually managed according to a small set of these Great Ideas, communicated explicitly or implicitly throughout the organization.

As you read a book, keep a notebook handy. Make a page just for the Big Idea of the book. Note the sales process the author uses to sell you on the idea. Note the target audience the Big Idea is translated for. After you've finished the book, see if you can write a paragraph describing how the Big Idea could be translated for your company.

Then make a whole section of your notebook for the Great Ideas in that book. Every time you encounter a technique or approach that the author uses to solve a problem, write it down on a new page. Note the kind of problem the Idea solves. Draw the picture if there is one, or summarize the story or case study. Then spend a few minutes translating the Great Idea to your situation. Don't worry about the whole company (unless you are the CEO). Instead, apply the Great Idea to your work life, right now. If there is no immediate application, leave it blank, but make a note of the problem type. When you encounter that problem type in the future, your notebook will contain an approach that has worked for other people in the past.

If you are a manager, imagine if your people were creating and sharing notebooks full of Big Ideas and Great Ideas. Imagine if there was the opportunity for people to filter those ideas up to their leaders, so that the whole company could learn. Great companies coalesce around a few Big Ideas, but no company can ever have enough Great Ideas in its toolbox. North Creek Consulting will partner with you to install this approach into your company. Starting with the classic business books, your people will be exposed to Big Ideas that will expand their understanding of the market. They will also start to pick up Great Ideas that can give your company marginal improvement in lots of areas at the same time. You're only one person - get more people reading, learning and growing. Partner with me and let's turn your company into a Learning Organization.

Excited to keep learning,

Professional Learner
North Creek Consulting

Categories: Books , Methodology

Really, who needs Coffee Break MBA?

Coffee Break MBA- it's a bit of a fanciful name, but it expresses the idea pretty well.

But while it is a long slog for a worker bee, climbing out of the cubicle 15 minutes at a time, there is a different perspective for business owners.

Imagine each of your people as an idea vacuum, constantly learning and adapting to the inputs that come into his or her mind. Imagine adding a diverse set of Big Ideas and Great Ideas (2 different kinds of awesome!) to their mental menu. Every person who signs on to learn will grow in their perspective, in their skill set, and in their productivity.

But what if you intentionally sponsored that growth - and in tens or hundreds of different directions at once?

For some companies, the CEO goes to a conference, hears a keynote, and buys a case of books written by that speaker for her 'team'. That one Great Idea gets transmitted through the organization, and within a few months, the useful parts are integrated into how the business functions.

Imagine if there were fifty readers, scattered throughout the company. Imagine if they were paired up, 2 to a book, so that there was some accountability and encouragement around finishing the book. Within a month, the company would have 25 Great Ideas or Big Ideas that could find some application in the company. With some competent management, those new ideas could be vetted and integrated from the bottom up.

One person can impose a vision on a company. But are you willing to bet your company on your vision not having any blind spots? Spreading the search around will expose the company to so many more ideas.

North Creek Consulting is developing a framework for you to turn your company into a learning organization. is the public face of this framework - a simple site that recommends books and pairs readers across the internet.

North Creek will spend some time connecting with your management team, identifying your vision, your goals, what drives your company, and what your challenges are. I will customize a booklist for you that spans perspectives, prescriptions, and approaches. I will work with you to develop a process for learning from your employees. Your staff will be empowered to change your processes, your priorities, your strategy, and your bottom line - by learning from the smartest minds in business and life.

Contact me, Dave Block (, 780-604-2602) to set up a free initial consultation. Prepare to build a corporate library, prepare to invest some time in your employees, prepare to learn.

Turn your company into a learning organization, one coffee break at a time.



P.S. Go ahead and call me (780-604-2602), I'll work with you personally to set this up so it works for your company. If you have a training budget, buying a whole library costs about the same as sending one person to one conference!

Categories: Books , Business , Methodology

Business-wide Learning from the Great Books

At some workplaces, the priority is to get the work done. The ideas have been thought up, the contracts have been signed, and the people and equipment are in place. Now turn the crank, get the work done.

Some places are more fluid than that. New ideas are constantly being introduced by upper management, the market, competitors, new technologies. Staff are given guidelines, but rather than following instructions as in a fast food franchise, they are adapting to change, making decisions, and trying to fulfill the company's goals by using their best judgment.

Which of these two is closer to your workplace?

I'm not smart enough to come in and solve your problems, improve your processes, and make you more money. But some really smart people have written about how they have done exactly that, and those great ideas are just sitting there, in books.

Now, based on Pareto's law, I estimate that you can get roughly 80% of the value of the great idea out of those books. The last 20% is why the authors make thousands of dollars an hour consulting. But 80% of a great idea is still pretty valuable.

What if there were lots of 80% values being added to your company regularly? What if you used your staff to hunt for great ideas by giving them all great books to read?

If you sponsor a "Coffee Break MBA" program at your company, great ideas will filter into your staff. You will be able to identify people who can grasp new ideas and translate them into improvements for your company. This makes the program a great management recruitment tool.

Your company is going to be investing in your employees, making it more attractive to job-seekers, and improving your retention.

New ideas coming in will solve some of the problems your company faces. Given permission to learn and apply those ideas at your company, some employee is going to introduce something that will make a huge difference in your bottom line. It might take 6 months, but I guarantee that you will see a difference.

I want to help you see that happen in your business.

I will help you set up a corporate training program. It will not be based on my ideas, but on the Great Books of Business. I will help with the infrastructure, matching employees with books, setting up reading partners, and working with managers to integrate new ideas into their processes (again, using ideas from Great Business Books).

Pricing will depend on the size of the business, but will be very reasonable.

Example Setup:

50 Staff
50 Kindle app downloads (free)
50 Business books purchased (half Kindle downloads, half hardcovers for the corporate library): $1500

Ongoing Business Library Purchase budget: $500/month for 3 additional months, then ~$200/month to supplement library.

20 minutes sponsored reading time after lunch daily, for everyone in the company.

1 30 minute meeting every 2 weeks, by team, to discuss and share the ideas from the reading time.

North Creek Consulting: $2000 for the first month, $500/month for 3 months to help establish processes, then $50/month for #nextbook subscription (curated reading lists with new books and classics, tailored for your business, by role, goal, challenge).

Total Investment (first 4 months): $6500

Ongoing Investment (monthly): $250

You retain: Corporate Learning Library, Learning Processes, Empowered Staff, #nextbook subscription

This is just a sample. Contact me (, 780-604-2602) for a detailed quote based on your situation.

Let's not leave the accumulated wisdom of the last 100 years behind - let's turn your company into a learning organization!

North Creek

P.S. Your competitor is probably going to ignore all those great ideas in the bookstore. Why not increase your advantage by learning faster than them? Call me (780-604-2602) or email me now, before they do!

Categories: Books , Business

Coffee Break MBA

What is a Coffee Break MBA?

Lots of people work 9 to 5, then come home and parent. When things finally settle down, about 9 or so, they take out their iPad and look at the apps. They have a business book they should read, they're on page 22, it will be good for them. And they have Netflix.

50 minutes later, they've enjoyed an episode of a show they just discovered, and their brains are settled down enough that they can think about sleep.

It might be two books on the nightstand, and George R. R. Martin wins over Warren Buffett.

We know we need to fill our minds with positive, encouraging brain food that will help us at work. But honestly, at 9 pm, we're done. And at 5:30 the next morning, we are just getting through the routine, hoping to be awake by the time our butt hits the chair at work.

So here's my proposal:

Start a new habit. During your daily coffee break, when you're awake, but not completely in the zone cranking productively, take out your business book. Be obvious about it.

Now wait for your co-workers. Someone will ask about what you're doing. Here comes the tricky part.

Describe the reason you're reading that book. What's the big idea you're trying to learn from the author?

Now, if you stick to this, you'll finish your book (in fact, you'll probably get into the book enough that it will be okay to read it at night or on the weekend). Then you'll bring another good book to work.

After a few conversations, set up a coffee break book club. Just read for 15 minutes during your break, and then every week, take one coffee break to have one person share with the group what they have been learning.

If there's four of you, that means you have to finish a book and talk about it once every four weeks.

If one of the group is a manager, expand the meeting to 30 minutes, and bill it to the company training budget. Have the manager get an approved reading list (suggestions right here).

If you do this with four co-workers, and you read 12 books each, you will have assimilated 48 big ideas within a year.

There are lots of lists of suggested books. We just need to figure out how to get into them enough so that they don't feel like a chore. We need to create the habit.

Please try this. Let me know how long it takes to get your first conversation with a co-worker. I'd love to hear a manager's take on this idea.

More to come on this idea - email me if you want to keep up as I explore this idea.


Dave Block
Professional Learner

Categories: Books , Business

#HoldMeToIt #EMyth and social media

Hello again - back on this blog platform. I will be centralizing North Creek's messaging going forward - but this blog is still the best place to read what I'm thinking.

EMyth wants to raise their profile over the New Year, and I'm happy to help them out - "The E-Myth Revisited" is one of the formative books of this entrepeneurial journey, and I look forward to following through on the business design that follows from the discovery of product-market fit (from Steve Blank).

So, in January 2015, North Creek Software will launch our Beta, listen to our testers, and iterate until we have something that is really valuable to today's dynamic workplace. #HoldMeToIt.

2015 is the year that I quit relying on my wife to pay the bills and start giving her holidays! #HoldMeToIt.

Thanks for making me make my goals explicit, #EMyth!

Categories: Books , Business

Agile Software Development

So it's been a while since I updated this. It's time for another book report.
I've been working through Agile Software Development, by Robert C. (Uncle Bob) Martin, of Object Mentor, Inc. This is not his latest work, and it was a long time in the oven as it was, so the book is somewhat dated. A couple of the larger examples are in C++ (which in on my backburner for now) and were written before Agile, XP, or Test-Driven Development.
But the beginning of the book is solid - the Principles on which he measures "good" OO software, and the Practices (Agile, mostly XP) that help to create it. This stuff is kind of like normalizing a data structure - the really good DBAs know how to normalize anything, but often don't in order to optimize something besides the remote chance that data could be duplicated and then corrupted. Uncle Bob knows how to write "perfect" OO software, but then tempers those design goals with the real world of performance and maintenance. He is not lazy, and doesn't encourage laziness. Instead, he points out the trade-off of code complexity vs. great design, and chooses simplicity more often than not.
I have a feeling that this book will bang around in my head quite a bit as I write code, and as I go on to teach others to write code.
Recommended, but not my highest recommendation yet. Looking forward to the next one of his that I have: "Clean Code."
In the meantime, I have started The Art of Agile Development, by James Shore and Shane Warden. Too bad I don't work at or for a F1000 company - this stuff is excellent, but too often irrelevant for just little old me.
Updates on GUIs and Frameworks in the next post.

Categories: Books

Book Review: The Pragmatic Programmer

Well, I don't expect these to be comprehensive reviews, but just a few notes about the books I have finished.

I have begun a regimen where I read a chapter out of a book every day. This keeps a constant velocity, and lets me get through books that have been on my shelf for years. I have enough varying interests that I am reading 4 book chapters/day. This takes some time away from coding right now, but I am learning so much that I accept the cost. Eventually I will get disciplined enough to do my reading in the early morning, before the world awakes. I expect that will be later, though, when the log house is complete and I can stumble over to my office and sit in a comfortable chair.

The Pragmatic Programmer was written in 1999 by Dave Thomas and Andy Hunt. It has stood the test of time, mostly because it avoids too much specific technology and focuses on the principles of effective programming. I can see the influence of this book in the book I'm working on now, "Agile Software Development: Principles, Patterns, and Practices" by Robert Martin. "Pragmatic" has become a code word and has been branded as such in the industry. The "Pragmatic" authors have taken their own advice and started learning a new language every year, which is profitable for them, since they often get to write the book about said new language. They jumped on Ruby fairly early, if I recall. It makes sense: this book has a lot of Perl in it, and Perl is so 20th Century.

Metaprogramming is a big deal for them - getting scripts to write code. This has become standard in the industry, and .Net and Java annotations do this as part of their internal structure. However, that, and DRY (don't repeat yourself) are the big takeaways from this book.

They are fumbling about the agile way, but XP was just being articulated at the time, so things like Unit Testing and short iterations were still somewhat controversial. Now they are not controversial, just not done in practice. Hmmm.

Don't Repeat Yourself is a huge deal. If I could get my code to that level, I'd be ecstatic. Redundancy is a real enemy. It is the one thing that killed EJBs, I think. Spring is just so much more terse. It is also the reason I don't like Hibernate. I have a database schema that already exists; I don't want to repeat it in awkward XML. I also don't want to give a single application power over a database schema - often the data is much longer-lived than the application. So I want to work from the data out. That's what led me to the design for DBDB.

Getting good at an editor! What a good idea! I used to think in Emacs keystrokes, but I've been away from coding for long enough that the Mac way is more natural now. I don't know if that will stay, or if I'll get back to Emacs, which has so much more power available without lifting my fingers off of the keyboard. With this laptop, I have a touchpad not too far away, which makes things somewhat easier, but still, keeping the fingers on the home row is definitely a win overall.

I really appreciate the wisdom in "The Pragmatic Programmer," but I am nowhere near that level yet. I will keep working towards it - it feels like I may have to put this one in a rotation, and read it again in a year or so, to keep the target in front of me.

In the meantime, I have plenty of other books in front of me.

What did you think of "The Pragmatic Programmer?" What, you haven't read it yet? Or are you like I was, and felt so guilty about how you actually work that you never finished it?

Categories: Books , Software


Welcome to the North Creek Blog. This will be a record of the creation of a new software development company in northern Alberta.

My name is David Block. I am starting the company I would like to work for (Thanks for the idea, Joel). It will use agile, Test-Driven Development, and it will assemble Open-Source tools and libraries to create custom applications for small businesses that have the capabilities of much larger, more expensive commercial software. I plan to stand on the shoulders of many other giants, and see what comes of the process.

I have a few ideas of my own. I like working off of a real database engine, so I will start with a general database schema that will store most of the nouns in the program. Then, I will build a workflow solution on top of that schema that thinks in terms of verbs. The verbs will lead to the dynamic generation of the interface needed.

I have a library of database interaction code that I have developed over several previous projects, for different employers. The latest name for it is DBDB. I will use it as the ORM for my application. It is very lightweight, and requires very little maintenance to adapt to dynamic database schemas. I don't like maintaining a big xml file - flashbacks to J2EE.

I will also use a lot of Spring for setting up the project.

I will try to post reviews of useful books, projects, and libraries as I try them out.

Currently, I'm trying to read some of the books that have been sitting on my shelf for a while: JUnit Recipes, The Pragmatic Programmer, and Uncle Bob's Agile Software Development. Now I have to try to apply those principles as a small business owner, working on my own.

Hopefully I'll see you around.

Categories: Books , Business , Methodology , Software