The New How – book review

The New How - Book cover

 Merchant, Nilofer (2009). O’Reilly Media.

The book examines the way we collaborate or the lack of it. The author argues that in a knowledge economy, the top down industrial way of thinking does not work any more. Smart people need to be co-creators and co-owners instead of simply being told what to do.

What’s wrong with the current model?

Scalability: Being the chief of all the answers is difficulty in the complicated workplace of today. Additionally, people closer to the problem can make better decisions. It’s also a bottleneck if you have to look up to one person for all decisions.

Ownership and Motivation: We want to harness the collective wisdom of our peers. When people are included in the decision making, they understand why things are the way they are… hence, they also own the outcome. Smart people want to make a difference!

There is a disconnect between the people who plan and people who execute. Strategies are made without grass roots involvement. This creates a gap – Air Sandwich between plans and reality of execution.

What’s the fix?

The author lays out a framework for fostering and enabling this new approach – in four steps.


  • The goal is to get a shared understanding of the problem. Not looking for solutions yet.
  • Involve people early in the process to solicit feedback.
  • Do not run from conflict, it’s a necessary part of the process.


  • To goal is to develop a set of options
  • Track criteria which will be used to make decisions
  • Ensure that you involve people who do hands on work since they have insights on the day to day challenges.


  • At this point we have a lot of ideas and we are asking ‘which ones make sense’
  • Refocus on what matters and sort through essential vs nice to have things.
  • Test, hypothetically apply idea(s) to the context and see how it looks. This is where rubber meets the road and ideas would be reshaped based on the outcome

Take ownership

  • By this point people should have a clear vision.
  • Who has responsibility for what?
  • What do you need to do your part well (inter-dependencies)?
  • Do things need to change for this to happen?

As a leader

Facilitate: Your job is not to control this, but to facilitate – Ask people to exercise an honest intellect. No political games.

Listen: Keep time in mind. Not an endless discussion. Remind people of the goal to keep on track. Discourage tangents which won’t matter. Keep tracks of discussions which have happened already. It has to move quickly or else people might get into the mindset that collaboration takes too much time

The leader needs to provide an environment in which people feel safe to share ideas. Keep their shields down and build on each others ideas.

As a collaborator

  • Be a co-thinker not a champion of one idea
  • Be willing to let go of your favorite idea. It’s your baby but not a real baby
  • Ask a ton of questions, improves shared understanding

Quotes from the book

Stop focusing on the giving the strategy to everyone, typically via PowerPoint and start engaging people to create the strategy.

Collaboration is not meant to be a democracy, but rather a meritocracy or a benevolent dictatorship in which the larger good of the company is achieved.

My 2 ¢

I think, the book has the right idea. Its basically ‘Agile’ for the rest of the world. It’s amazing how smart people independently come to the same conclusion. The framework provided seems like commonsense as the end, but like they say commonsense is not common. The downside is that the book is verbose and the reading can get a bit dry at times.


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