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Making Things Happen

Scott Berkun
Published by O'Reilly Media, Inc.
ISBN: 978-0-596-51771-7
408 pages
£ 24.99
Published: 25th March 2008
reviewed by Roger Whittaker
   in the June 2008 issue (pdf), (html)

This is a revised second edition of a book that came out a couple of years ago under a different title: the original work was called . I asked to be allowed to review it because I had read, reviewed and enjoyed Berkun's (in the September 2007 issue). I would not have chosen to read this book (or indeed go anywhere near it) under its previous title. However, I was impressed.

This book is hard to categorise. It is a bit like a “self-help” book, except for the fact that it is actually helpful. It is a bit like one of those books by management with words like “raincoat” and “excellence” in the title, but is actually readable and useful.

Berkun worked as a project manager at Microsoft for several years. Don't let that fact put you off. The book does not discuss GANTT charts or tell you how to use Microsoft Project: such things are not even mentioned.

Although the examples that the book uses are mostly from the world of programming, much of what he says is applicable to almost any situation where one person is responsible for getting other people to do something: “making things happen”. Berkun strikes me as one of those people who has had to think hard not only about management but also about all aspects of how human relationships work. He writes:

… it took me years to understand the value of talking to people in the workplace …

Here he sums up what I suspect he is: one of those rare people who goes from socially inept to personally effective through developing an intellectual understanding of how the social world works.

Berkun seems to have started out with a relatively “geeky” personality; he even mentions studying Gödel's theorem at college; he found himself in a position where he had to manage others: this book is the result of the insights he gained from that, and a lot of deep thought.

Early in the book he compares groups of people involved in various different types of endeavour: software or web development teams, kitchen staff in a busy restaurant, medical staff dealing with emergencies and people making films in Hollywood. He points out the similarites between the problems they face and the processes that they have to put in place. This is therefore a general book about management, but it is a book about management written by “one of us” for “people like us”, and using examples and experience from the world of software engineering.

Not surprisingly, having worked for a large corporation like Microsoft, Berkun is very alive to the way that the organisational culture can take over and colour and affect the whole way that people work. He stresses the importance of real communication as against the usual “corporate communications” and says:

Face to face is the best way to tell people you appreciate their work.

That sounds obvious, but anyone who has worked in a large corporation will be very well aware that it is not obvious to a large proportion of their managers.

I would like to quote with approval a lot more from this book, but here are a couple of nice section headings that I particularly liked: “” and “”.

There are exercises at the end of each chapter: some of these might at first sight appear wacky and strange, but Berkun is trying to make people look at their situation (or an analogous but quite different one) with new eyes. He explicitly mentions Zen Buddhism once or twice: the type of insight that he is trying to encourage is one that involves jumping out of the situation that you are in and seeing it from a radically different pespective.

The author's background and personality make this book a useful one for anyone who needs to manage others, but particularly for people who do not consider themselves “naturals” at management and relationships: the author is honest about the work that he had to do to break through his former naïvety and reach the point where he could write this book. Because he has gone through that process, he is in a position actually to tell us something useful.

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