Steps to Running an Effective Book Club

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 02-16-22

A long time ago I was running an off-shift in operations. Late at night, we didn’t have any resources coming to train the team, and so if we wanted to learn, we were on our own. We began reading and applying books, beginning with two books from Kiyoshi Suzuki, The New Manufacturing Challenge and The New Shop Floor Management. Besides my naivety that everyone was as enthusiastic about the process as I was, we learned together and ultimately turned what we learned into action. 

Book clubs can be an effective way to learn, engage employees, and drive improvement action. There is plenty of knowledge in books. However, scattered employees reading books independently does little to affect change. Running your own book club can provide the structure and the critical mass necessary to drive the wealth of knowledge in books to high leverage in your organization. 

Here are 4 tips to structure your company’s book club. 


1. Engage in-tact teams

It is easy to follow the “pull model” whereas those most interested are allowed to engage in a book club. The same is true for training programs. However, when an individual goes off for training or a book club, they get filled with good ideas and skills but then have to return to an uninitiated team. They are tasked with the challenge of either becoming the teacher or going alone. If they become the teacher, they are often met with resistance and at best have to sacrifice the spirit of what they are teaching in order to gain acceptance. If they go alone, the potential impact of applying what they have learned is severely limited. 

By only engaging in-tact teams, there is comfort knowing that you don’t have to go alone. There is a great deal of contextual learning as the team can examine together how what they are learning applies to their work. A sense of group conviction can grow during the learning and will build momentum that carries the learning into action. I feel quite strongly about this factor, and when running my own workshops with a client, insist on this ingredient. 


2. Leader-led 

There’s nothing wrong with having a trained and experienced facilitator. They bring perspective and process. For training, which is more complicated, this is a more important factor. But for a book club, the primary ingredients are reading the book and reflecting on what you read. This is a loosely structured discussion in most cases. Leaders of the in-tact team can run that discussion. 

The key point is that anything you lose from lacking an experienced facilitator is more than made up for by having the commitment of the leader. The whole team knows that the topic is important and that they will be supported by however they decide to implement what they learned. That is a worthwhile trade-off any day. 


3. Provide a structure 

There is more to it than reading a book and talking about it. You need to plan and have a structure to get the most out of the process. A structure I like to use is Learn – Apply – Reflect – Commit. The Learn step in this case is reading the book. This might be done by reading the whole book, or if it is action-packed, then it could be one chapter at a time. I actually prefer a book that has actionable steps in each chapter, in part because I prefer the learning cycles happen more rapidly and in smaller increments. But the book will drive how you handle the process. 

The Apply step is determining how to put the learning into action. Ideally, this will be done on real work that really matters, although also small enough to be willing to fail and learn. The more we can reduce the risk of applying something new, the more willing we are to take the step and benefit from the learning. 

Reflection is about converting what you have learned and applied to real insights and beliefs. It requires examining what you have done and stress testing it against the reality of experience. This is best done through dialogue among the team, and the leader can provide a structured set of questions to generate the deepest insights. 

Finally, the Commit stage is where the leader can provide the greatest impact. You must find leverage in how you will sustain what you learned. This could be new standards, new habits, or changes to systems of work. This is why being leader-led and having in-tact groups can be so effective because this is what makes the learning have a real long-term impact. 


4. Be action-oriented 

While this is baked into the structure I outlined above, overall you must have an action orientation. Reading books for fun is great. Doing it to make you individually smarter, more interesting, or just entertained is a wonderful way to invest your time. But investing your organization’s resources into a book club requires a more purposeful standard. 

Besides the obvious conclusion that actions drive results, it should be noted that they also drive learning. There have been more than a few books I’ve personally read that have useful lessons that don’t immediately stand up to the realities of application. They require integration with other knowledge and adaptation to specific circumstances. Said another way … action is what drives true learning. You may have read a book, but you don’t really understand it until you have applied it. That’s the true test. 

Book clubs can be both a powerful and an incredibly inexpensive way to drive learning, engagement, and improvement in your organization. If you embrace the lessons shared with this framework, your organization will be stronger from the effort.