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The New How [Paperback] by Nilofer Merchant

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The New How is not a memoir. Still, many of the ideas in this book developed gradually in my mind over the last 20 years, so writing it has been a clarifying view of what makes me believe these ways work.

This book emerged from a conversation with Harry Max in early November 2007. Having recently joined my Rubicon team, Harry and I were talking about my approach to strategy development, which I see as a deeply creative act—one that not only focuses on business concepts, frameworks, and ideas, but also the process through which strategies are formed, shaped, chosen, and made real by people.

Harry had recently written “the book” on how DreamWorks Animation collaborates internally in creating films. He raised this question: did successful business strategy really involve the same kind of creative acts as film development? And was the creative process itself crucial to successful outcomes? Of course, the answers were yes and yes.

Building successful strategies is deeply creative, and it’s when we blend the what with the how and the who that success is more likely to manifest. But this idea had a genesis long before my high-tech career. These beliefs were ingrained in me early. In 1987, as a community college student trustee, I was unexpectedly selected by my chancellor, Tom Fryer, to be given a seat at the table hashing out the future of the California community college system for a piece of reform legislation called AB 1725.

Tom was a notable national leader in shared governance, so everyone in the room—the governor, legislators, faculty leaders, and me—participated as equals. It was a completely collaborative effort. Each time we had a policy decision to make, Tom would put together a three-inch-thick binder of notes, articles, and opinions we needed to read the week before the meeting, then follow up with a phone call. He wanted to know my opinions, along with everyone else’s. He wanted to know my thoughts and the ideas his materials had sparked. I was 30 years younger than Tom, but he spoke to me as an equal, and I worked hard to have an opinion worthy of his attention. We each had responsibilities. We were deeply accountable for having and holding opinions and of course for achieving results. Because it was something we were jointly creating, none of us would have “credit,” but we would all end up having great pride in the work we did.

Tom once explained his methods at a meeting, and I was lucky enough to find the file that held those notes:

When we, as the administration, don’t talk to faculty and students as equal members, they see themselves as passive participants and victims of the decisions of the administration. As a result, they don’t understand the decisions, or feel like the decisions are theirs, and they won’t contribute themselves to the effort. Our community doesn’t exist until everybody creates something together.

Looking back on that experience, I can see the thread of my own story, and why I believe that collaboration and shared governance can create that elusive “buy-in” that every organization seeks as it innovates and sets direction. It’s when we co-own the outcome of success together that we co-create that future of success.

In my 20 years since those community college days, I’ve participated with nonprofits, educational institutions, and, of course, business. And one thing stands out across all those leaders and people involved: most of us believe in the idea of collaboration as a way to get better results. Yet most of us don’t take a collaborative approach. From that, I draw the conclusion that we don’t work collaboratively because we don’t know how. It’s not a lack of will, but a lack of way.

Finding that way has been a learned thing. Not surprisingly, it’s been a process of both successes and failures that have led to the clarity I have today. And so I’ll only refer to the companies rather than the individuals that have helped make this book possible. To my clients and colleagues at Adobe, Apple, Autodesk, Openwave, Symantec, Logitech, HP and others: thank you for being co-conspirators in creating these ideas. You have given me the opportunity to learn with you, through both failures and successes, what will work for others.

Thank you to the O’Reilly team for believing in this idea. From the original email exchange with Tim O’Reilly to meeting his capable and seriously kick-ass COO, Laura Baldwin, this company has helped to make this work a product worth sharing. Mike Hendrickson has become more than an editor to me, and without his insightful and clever guidance, I don’t think this book would ever have been completed.

I am grateful to everyone at Rubicon; no one could ask for a better ensemble of people to work with. As you already know, your ideas have shaped mine, and although my name is on the book, your ideas and values are embedded within these pages. Working together to solve the tough(est) problems in high-tech companies is incredibly fun and joy-filled, and I am grateful to do it. I don’t have anything more to ask for.

Notably among that team is Harry Max, who started this whole endeavor, as I’ve already said, and encouraged this work. And his perpetual deception—“It’ll get easier soon”—was probably needed to get me to finish.

To Hugh MacLeod, artist extraordinaire: your love for your craft shines through here.

No leader succeeds without a supportive team in his or her personal life. And I am no exception. My husband, Curt Beckmann, and I are lucky to have met in grad school. He was the first to sign me up to do this work, the first to listen to my cranky complaining that I really didn’t want a second job while I was CEO of a company, and the one to keep nudging me on. Along with him, my son, Andrew, provided unwavering support and personal sacrifice during too many nights and weekends so I could try to do this creative effort.

Special thanks go to friends, family, church community, the Vistage #34 CEO group, clients, and countless associates who endured the “book excuse” for a million misdeeds, large and small—from pushing off key meetings to forgetting the sweet potato pie at Thanksgiving. (Sorry, Jennifer Stern!)

And, finally, thanks to my many reviewers and advisors who helped me take something inherently “in my bones” and get it into the world: Gloria Chen of Adobe, William Irvine, Peter Ebert of SAP, Tammi Madsen from Santa Clara University, Kathy Chill of Citrix, Robin Beers of Wells Fargo, John Hagedorn, Eric Zarakov of Tessera, Taylor Ray, David Chun of Equilar, Brian Fitzgerald, Mary Walker, Mark Interrante of Yahoo!, Jeffrey Pugh of Sun, Sonnie Sussillo, Bill Oyler, Susan and Mark of StartWorks, Nehal Gajjar, Tony Nemelka, Genevieve Haldeman of Symantec, and Padmasree Warrior of Cisco. And, to my friend and stepdaughter, Julie Beckmann, your selfless support of this book was an incredible gift. If this work is useful to others, it is thanks to all of you, because you helped me to make what I know clear and cogent.

To the degree we’re always learning, I’m sure that what I’ve written today will seem hopelessly limited by some future understanding. Please forgive me for all the limitations held within it, and Twitter me ideas to make it better. You can find me @nilofer.

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