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Just-In-Time Reading: How to smash through books to solve problems

I recently changed my relationship with books I read to solve work problems. Not only has it helped me actually solve work problems, it has also freed up my personal time to read books for personal enjoyment.

Here’s the tl;dr: When you’re looking for a solution to a problem in a book, don’t read it cover to cover. 'Smash through' them instead. Details on how below.

My strategy problem

As a Product Manager, prioritization can be painful. Should we prioritize this new customer request over the roadmap story we’re already working on? Should we increase the quality of this current thing or start a new thing?

Short-term prioritization problems are a symptom of a lack of clarity, alignment, and actionability on goals and strategy.

I needed to work on product strategy. I’ve never done so before. But I would be a fool to try and figure it all out myself by trial and error. Not when many people have been doing it for years and even written books about it.

Reading books to solve work problems

The best way to solve a problem is to ask someone who’s solved it before. The second best way is to read a book.

In an article on 8 reasons to read more, Ryan Holiday writes,

How dare you waste your investor’s money by not reading and learning from the mistakes of other entrepreneurs? How dare you take your marriage or your children for granted, thinking that you can afford to figure this out by doing the wrong things first? What is the upside of trying to make it in the NFL all on your own, and not looking for shortcuts and lessons from seasoned pros and students of the game who have published books?

But even after you decide to read a book to solve a problem, actually using the book to solve your problem is not common. Why? “So often, our attitude towards information is one of consumption,” writes Tiago Forte in Just-In-Time PM #7: Interaction Over Consumption. I believe this attitude is the reason.

In the same article, Tiago suggests that the solution is to prioritize interaction with information over merely consuming it.

The old way: consumption

Turns out, I already have many on product strategy. I’ve been buying, starting, and not doing anything useful with them for many years.

  • Understanding Michael Porter – this is about business strategy
  • Good Strategy Bad Strategy – this is about strategy in general
  • Escaping the Build Trap – how to stop being a “feature factory”
  • Getting to Plan B – a systematic approach to “business discovering”
  • Cracking the PM Career – there is a section on product strategy
  • Lean B2B – lean startup when you’re building products for the enterprise
  • Empowered – how to turn feature teams into empowered product teams

My old way was to pick a book and start reading. I begin at page 1, read all the way through (or try to), and expect to become a strategy machine by page 325.

By page 15, I forget that I intended to read this book to help me solve my strategy problem. Instead, I have what now feels like an obligation to finish reading a book just because I started it. Not to mention, I have six other books that I start and dip in and out of.

This is not working. It’s how I ended up with at least 7 books on strategy and still have nothing to show for it.

It’s how I ended up with 593 books in my currently-reading shelf in Goodreads.

The new way: interaction

Now, I have changed how I read this type of book. I no longer read them cover to cover and I no longer read them in my personal time.

Here’s what I do instead:

First, I pick the most promising book. Est. time: A few minutes of thoughtfulness.

Second, I figure out quickly if this book can help me.

  • I scan the table of contents.
  • I read the introduction and the conclusion.
  • I pick 1 or 2 chapters that hint at the solution, read their chapter summaries, and decide.

If it doesn’t seem like it can help me, I abandon it. Est. time: 15 to 30 mins.

Finally, if it seems like it can help me solve my problem, I try hard to keep in mind:

This is not a story book.

It’s more difficult to do than it sounds. I am trying to break a thirty year habit of mindlessly reading books cover to cover.

I remind myself that this book is a tool to help me solve a problem. I want to use it as such.

  • I skip to chapters that would seem most helpful to me right now.
  • I begin at the end of the chapter for takeaways or suggested actions to try.
  • I flip through pages in the middle for tools to adapt for my situation such as dashboards and frameworks.

In my strategy case, Getting to Plan B helped me articulate the “leaps of faith” we are making around my product. It gave me a framework around which to form hypotheses, conduct experiments, and communicate findings. I adapted the example dashboards to my product. Lean B2B helped me fill out the “conduct experiments” part. It gave me concrete ideas on how to validate or invalidate our hypotheses.

Smashing through books

In academia, this is called skimming. To better understand what you read, focus on the text’s main ideas. Skip stories, data, and other elaboration. Instead, focus on the introduction, chapter summaries, first and last sentences of paragraphs, and bolded words.

I call it “smashing through” books. It takes about 4-8 hours spread across 2-4 days. Notably, across work days. I create work todos for it. “Smash through Getting to Plan B.” “Smash through Lean B2B.” It helps me to mindfully read a book, remembering to look out for ideas that will help me solve my problem.

By smashing through books, in less than a week, I was able to draft a proposal for how to proceed with our strategy. I was able “finish” two books and deprioritize five others. In addition, I have freed up all my personal reading time for non-work related books, guilt-free.

Thank you to Compound Writing members Ergest Xheblati, Steven Ovadia, Queen Lizzy, and Kyle Eschenroeder for editing drafts of this.