Pricing Pictures

Today is the one year anniversary of Fixed to Flexible. There have been almost 17,000 reads of the ebook and I have been contacted by people all over the world who were helped.

I launch a new project today called Pricing Pictures. What I wanted to do was show in a very simple way that pricing has a multitude of dimensions and those dimensions create opportunities for new business models, continuing the message I started in

Hope you enjoy Pricing Pictures and share it with others.

P.S. Happy Groundhog’s Day!

Update (Feb 3 6:30AM PT): Pricing Pictures is being featured on the homepage of Slideshare as the Top Presentation of The Day. We just past 2600 views.

Idea Arena Podcast – Practically Radical by William Taylor

In this interview, I talk with Bill Taylor, author of Practically Radical: Not So-Crazy Ways to Transform Your Company, Shake Up Your Industry, And Challenge Yourself.

Taylor is always on the lookout for individuals and organizations who are practicing a better form of business. He is searching for leaders who are taking a different path and finding success.Taylor did the same thing when he was at Harvard Business Review and when he founded Fast Company Magazine with Alan Webber. Practically Radical is full of stories about large organization who are finding ways to reinvent themselves, a kind of journalism that is rare and sorely needed.

I am sitting in cavernous ballroom at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. A sense of anticipation fills the air. I am about to witness, along with six thousand other members of the audience, the world premiere if a production by theater icon Robert Brustein, former dean of the Yale Drama School and founding director of the Yale Repertory Theater and the American Repertory Theater. The Playbill offers few details about the story, but the cast is impressive: F. Murray Abraham, who won an Academy Award for his role as Salieri, Mozart's archrival, in Amadeus; Emmy winner Tony Shalhoub, best known for the long running, hit television series Monk; and Brooke Adams, who has appeared in countless stage productions and films such as Gas Food Lodging and TV shows such as Thirtysomething and Lace.

What makes the production so intriguingis that it's not some experimental performance at an arts festival or an out-of-town test of a Brodway show. Rather, it's the keynote presentation at the 20th Annual National Forum of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI)–one of the most impressive professional gatherings I've seen, organized by one of the most unlikely forces for change the medical world has known.

Practically Radical Interview with Bill Taylor

Interview Length: 42 Minutes

Check out my other Idea Arena Podcasts.

Book Review – Seizing the White Space by Mark Johnson

Not much gets written about business models. I don’t know if it isn’t sexy enough or it somehow gets bucketed into the sleepfest of most strategy books. The only book I can think of, in recent years, to broach the subject was the self-published Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur.

Seizing the White Space: Business Model Innovation For Growth and Renewal is a fine exception. Author Mark Johnson co-founded Innosight with author and HBR professor Clay Christensen, and while Christensen has been publishing niche extensions on disrupting education and health care, this book is a wonderful addition to the broader ideas of Innovator’s Dilemma and Innovator’s Solution. Both of the latter books were incredibly important in explaining how companies lose edge in the marketplace and are often blindsided by innovation, but there were some barriers to understanding exactly how to apply the concepts. Johnson does a great job of taking that next step in Seizing The White Space.

The book is squarely focused on showing companies how to build new businesses in area that are outside their current business models. This could be through replacing an existing business, building new models where there are barriers to consumption, or by filling gaps in the market. The final section delivers roadmap on how to go about the redesign and implementation of your new business model. Cases include Tata Motors and Hindustan Levr (India), Xiameter that grew out of Dow Corning, and Better Place, the Israeli start-up trying to change the automotive business model with electric cars.

Seizing The White Space is surprisingly short at 150 pages which makes the book very accessible. The language and concepts also match that accessibility. The book is worth a quick look, a reminder of the unconscious parts of strategy that you too often take for granted.

Idea Arena Podcast – The Power of Pull Interview with John Hagel

In this interview, I talk with John Hagel about The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion, a book he co-authored with John Seely Brown and Lang Davison.

Hagel and his cohorts at Deloitte’s Center For the Edge, a research center based in Silicon Valley, have being doing research to understand what they call The Big Shift.  Their work has uncovered a variety of insights, but the most telling is the reduced profitability of today’s corporations versus their counterparts forty years ago. We talk about how information, networks, and execution are changing the way individuals and institutions compete.

Pull is a very different approach, one that works at three primary levels, each of which builds on the others. At the most basic level, pull helps us to find and access people and resources when we need them. At a second level, pull is the ability to attract people and resources to you that are relevant and valuable, even if you were not even aware before that they existed. Think here of serendipity rather than search.

Finally, in a world of mounting pressure and unforeseen opportunities, we need to cultivate a third level of pull—the ability to pull from within ourselves the insight and performance required to more effectively achieve our potential. We can use pull to learn faster and translate that learning into rapidly improving performance, not just for ourselves, but for the people we connect with—a virtuous cycle that we can participate in.

Download Idea Arena Podcast – The Power of Pull Interview


The Questions Haven’t Changed

Any businessman who can answer certain basic questions better than his competitors has a major strategic advantage. Most of these questions are asked constantly., in one form or another, in virtually every company:

  • What are my competitor’s costs?
  • Why do I make so much money on one product but lose money on an equally good one?
  • How shall I price this new product?
  • How much is more market share worth for a given product? Alternatively, what are all the costs of losing market share?
  • Should I lower prices? When? By how much?
  • How much capacity shall I add? When?
  • What will prices be next year? Five years from now?
  • Why have my prices broken so sharply? Where will the decline stop?

All these issues are part of a single fundamental question: Why does one competitor outperform another (assuming comparable management skills and resources)? Are there basic rules for success?

From the introduction to Perspectives on Experience by The Boston Consulting Group, 1968

Too Much Can Be Good

I want you to watch this episode of Wine Library TV.

Gary V. talks with the guys from Three Thieves. The 20 minutes or so is not about tasting wine, but rather how these three built their business.

Their company name comes from the fact the guys buys excess, premium wine from wine producers, create their own blends, and sell most of their wines for under $10. These three have been particularly innovative in their packaging and marketing.

The Newspaper Club in the UK founded their business on a similar excess. After developing a short run newsprint project, the founders discovered that most newspaper production facilities go unused during the day while the day's paper is being put together. Again, excess capacity creates a business model.

Every industry has their version of excess whether it is a machine waiting to be used or product that never found a customer. Is there an opportunity waiting there for you?

Cool Tools Reviews The 100 Best

Cool Tools is an awesome site for finding things to help get jobs done, whether silicone spatulas, a map of world history, or the lightest items for backpacking.

Today site founder Kevin Kelly reviewed The 100 Best Business Books of All Time. Here is a small excerpt from the review:

[T]heir book is much better than a simple list, and their list is better than most. The two have reviewed, abstracted, and compared all the best 100 in the context of thousands of similar books, unlike say your average Amazon reviewer who may have only read one other business book in his or her life. You get context instead of content. Reading Covert and Sattersten’s summaries of these classics is often better than reading the book itself, and the review is always useful in pointing you to the few books or authors you might actually want to read in full.

The sales of The 100 Best have been up the last couple of weeks, and that doesn’t include all the remaindered/discount copies that were cleared off Amazon when Fixed To Flexible was released.

It is just great to see continued interest in the book over a year later.

P.S. As Kelly points out in his review, we included his 1995 book Out of Control just to make clear any conflicts of interest.

P.P.S. I just posted these additional links on the Hacker News thread:

  1. Here is a bonus chapter about industry books that wasn’t included in the book.
  2. There is also a website where you can submit your favorite business book whether it was included in The 100 Best or not.

Idea Arena Podcast – Priceless Interview with William Poundstone

In this interview, I talk with Bill Poundstone, author of Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It).

Poundstone says he started researching a book about Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two of the most important researchers in the area of decision making over the last fifty years. What he found was that pricing was a good point around which to tell their story and Poundstone covers much more than that Priceless. The narrative takes us from the field of psychophysics to a $72 steak in Amarillo, Texas, all along the way teaching us how easily we can be swayed one way or another.

Supermarket consultants leave few stones unturned in determining what boosts consumers' willingness to pay. One of the more intriguing of recent findings is that shoppers open their wallets wider when moving through a store in a counterclockwise direction. On average, these shoppers spend $2 more a trip than clockwise shoppers.

Priceless Interview with William Poundstone

Download Idea Arena Podcast – Priceless Interview


The Convenience of Good Enough

Robert Capps wrote a great piece for Wired in September called The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple Is Just Fine.

He uses the Flip Camera, the MQ-1 Predator, and micro health clinics as examples of products that find huge success for providing the minimum level of capabilities to get the job done:

The attributes that now matter most all fall under the rubric of accessibility. Thanks to the speed and connectivity of the digital age, we’ve stopped fussing over pixel counts, sample rates, and feature lists. Instead, we’re now focused on three things: ease of use, continuous availability, and low price. Is it simple to get what we want out of the technology? Is it available everywhere, all the time—or as close to that ideal as possible? And is it so cheap that we don’t have to think about price?

This gives further support to Trade-Off framework with Capps’ Good Enough equating to Kevin Maney’s Convenience.

There is one thing I didn’t include in the original review of Trade-Off. Maney says technology is constantly pushing the outer edges of both convenience and fidelity. Capps’ piece illustrates that well.

Book Review – Trade-off by Kevin Maney

Tucked in Neal Stephenson’s wonderful book Snow Crash is this comparison in a fictional future where all highways are owned by corporations:

CSV-5 has better throughput, but Cal-12 has better pavement. That is typical—Fairlanes roads emphasize getting you there, for Type A drivers, and Cruiseways emphasize the enjoyment of the ride for Type B drivers.

Author Kevin Maney recognized that we make comparisons and choices like this every day, sometimes taking for the fastest route while other times opting for the best ride. Maney says in his book Trade-Off the only path to success is for companies to concentrate on one of two those needs. Pursuing both is the path of failure.

Maney uses the words convenience and fidelity to describe the opposing needs. The wide availability and low cost creates convenience, while fidelity combines the experience of purchase with the prestige of the brand and the way it reinforces our identity. Our choice of easiest versus best is complicated, flipping back and forth based on the needs of the moment.

Think about hiring an employee. A call to Kelly Services will conveniently fill the open position tomorrow. Pick up the phone, dial Spencer Stuart, and they’ll start a comprehensive search for the best candidate in the world. Both approaches fulfill the need in completely different ways and with understandably different results.

If this sounds familiar, the convenience/fidelity trade-off is another route at the well worn discussion of transactional versus relationship-driven businesses. Others have described the tension as price versus prestige. John Hagel and Marc Singer went as far as suggesting that companies should be broken up along the lines of infrastructure management (convenience), product innovation (fidelity), and customer relationships (fidelity) because the demands of each where so unique.

Maney addresses the challenge of trying to do both, describing it more as an impossibility. In the dual pursuit of convenience and fidelity, Maney says companies chase a mirage and over time are sucked into a place of increasing irrelevance where customers understand less and less why they need your products. 35mm film, movie theaters, and Starbucks all serve as anecdotes.

Some are going to read Trade-Off and say they have seen this play before. Maney is surely tapping a recognized strategic tension, but the updated vocabulary and examples are refreshing, a good reminder to the challenge that all companies face between satisfying the convenient now and the high-resolution, 700 horsepower, oceanfront, 24K gold plated image floating in their customers’ heads.

Book Review – What Would Google Do? by Jeff Jarvis

In 1995, Robert Spector wrote a book about a Northwest upscale department store chain that embraced the idea of customer service. Spector popularized the famous story of a customer returning a set of tires to a store and the associate happily accepting the return even though the chain didn’t sell tires. The Nordstrom Way was a defining title for the customer service trend of the 90’s. The bestselling business book used the teach-by-number format made popular by In Search of Excellence, but what Spector really did was use Nordstrom as a metaphor to remind companies how customers (and they themselves) want to be treated.

Jeff Jarvis does the same thing in his book What Would Google Do? He uses the Internet giant as a metaphor for what is to come and again what is so successful about this device is that we recognize instantly the point and how familiar it feels. The temptation with WWGD? is to think that Jarvis is describing some far-off future. He’s not. The foundation has already been laid and somehow we are waiting for everyone to catch up.

If I have already lost you, read the first 225 pages carefully. Networks and platforms are the new game. And it’s not mimics of the closed, monopolistic telcos and mass-media operations of the past. Open-source creation and abundance-based thinking feed a whole new set of platforms. Wikipedia, Facebook, and Twitter are the headliners of the next act. “Can I use your platform to build my own business?” says venture capitalist Fred Wilson when Jarvis brings a business associate to visit. “And before you answer, let me tell you, the right answer is ‘yes.'”

Transparency is part of this new game whose power source is everything being linkable, clickable, and searchable. Again, the digital native believes these actions to be inalienable rights alongside life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A moment of reflection on how one’s company lives up to these 21st century declarations is required. Go ahead. Take a moment.

Jarvis takes the final 100 pages to do thought experiments of what industries would look like if the terraforming nature of these forces come to pass. GoogleEats would provide menu with what was popular with prior customers and how much they turned out liking it. GT&T would provide ubiquitous service no matter where we were and if there was trouble they would use their own tools to help solve the problem (i.e. a Google Map for us to plot where we were having trouble). Imagine your Google Calendar tracking the tasks you had over the coming week suggested with best form of transport with pricing and schedules.

When executives asked me what book they should assign for their corporate retreats, my recommendation this year was What Would Google Do? The book is not about Google, but rather a new set of rules that changes what is possible.

Free Friday

In the U.S. today, we see the incredible power of price on consumer behavior as millions of people storm retail stores around the country in search of bargain.

One price point being used frequently is Free. The Apple Store will give you Free shipping and $21 off the retail price of a new iPod Touch if you order it today. Best Buy will give you a Free $30 gift card and Free shipping today and tomorrow. And ToysRUs was offering a Free $50 gift card with the purchase of an iPod Touch if you got to the store today before 1PM.

I have been fascinated with Free since the July release of Chris Anderson’s book. The concept is constantly seeping into conversations about newspapers, books, music, movies, and television. And with all of the talk, we seem no better prepared to discuss Free with intelligence. The dialogue gets bogged down in incongruent comparisons of apples, oranges, and antelopes with the collision of economic theory, legal precedent, and moral consequence.

On January 7th, the six month anniversary of Free, I am going to release an ebook about the concept of Free–my attempt at clarifying the salient points around Free and provide some paths we can all use to move forward.

The 11 Problems That Kill Organizations

Or The Eleven Focus Areas for Consultants to Sell Services.

This list is from Alan Weiss’ Million Dollar Consulting. The fourth edition of the book was released in July and about half way through the book, Weiss says that he got out of organizational consulting because all the problems started to look the same.

  1. Leadership is inept in that key people are not serving as avatars of the behavior they are seeking in others.
  2. Team building is sought when, in actuality, the organization has committees and needs committees, not teams.
  3. There are silos headed by powerful people who are defending their turf.
  4. Problem solving is prized over innovation, and “black belt nine delta” nonsense takes over people’s minds like a bad science fiction movie from the 1950’s
  5. There is excessive staff interference instead of support, typically from HR, finance, IT, and/or legal.
  6. There are too many meetings that take too long and are overwhelmingly focused on sharing information—the worst possible reason to have a meeting. The organization’s talent and energy are being squandered internally instead of being applied externally
  7. The customer’s perceptions of the organization’s products, services, and relationships are different from the organization’s perception.
  8. The reward and feedback systems are not aligned with strategy and are not encouraging the appropriate behaviors and discouraging the inappropriate.
  9. Strategy and planning are mistaken for each other.
  10. Career development and succession planning are not wedded.
  11. The organization is bureaucratic , in that it focus on means and not ends.

So, do these look like the same problems that you over and over again in the companies that you work for and with?

Insights Are Better Than Ideas

DDB Worldwide recently published a “yellow paper” titled Insights that Incite (hat tip:PSFK). The gist of their “brochure” is that it is hard to break through all the clutter and you need to find something unique and unexpected to change how people think about your brand—pretty much what you would expect from an ad agency.

This reference though reminded me how much I love the word insight, something I owe to former BBDO chairman and agency man Phil Dusenberry. He had the best definition I have ever heard for insights in his 2005 book Then We Set His Hair on Fire:

In this book, I have stressed the difference between ideas and insights. Ideas are a dime a dozen; anyone can have them. They can be good or bad ideas, saving your hide in some cases, wasting your time in others. The best thing about a good idea is that it forces you to act. Insight is rarer, and infinitely more precious. A strong insight can fuel a thousand ideas, a thousand reasons to act and make something happen. That, more than anything, should be your reason to fight and persevere for your own insight moment. When you are armed with a powerful insight, the ideas never stop flowing.

Think about the really great business concepts. Porter’s Five Forces Model is an insight. Each one of Covey’s Seven Habits is an insight. Control Your Destiny or Someone Else Will, the title of one of the definitive books on GE, is one of many insights Jack Welch used when he was CEO of the company.

If ideas are intellectual lightbulbs, insights are 10,000 watt searchlights. Insights illuminate a wide range of paths to take. They provide the “why” which lead you to a plenitude of “hows.”


Side note: Then We Set His Hair On Fire didn’t sell well in hardcover and was released in paperback under the title One Great Insight Is Worth a Thousand Good Ideas. Even with the better title, the book has some identity problems. At times, it is a biography and at other times a how-to with case studies. If you can look past those conflicts, you’ll hear the inside stories of brands built like Pepsi, Visa, and FedEx. Dusenberry’s book is one of my favorites of the last five years.

Review: The Core Trilogy by Chris Zook

You are a witness to strategy playing out all around you. When the local newspaper runs its yearly story about which restaurants have closed, it is really reporting on failed strategies. Every one of those restaurants felt they could draw a sufficient number of customers to sustain a business…and they were all wrong. Our publisher, Portfolio, in deciding to publish this book, made a strategic decision, one based on the belief that this book could compete with others on the retail shelves. Strategy is not some arcane methodology limited to discussions around a boardroom table. Strategy is about competition and determining a course of action based on the realities of the market.

There are a nearly infinite number of choices when it comes to determining strategy for a company, department or even PTA. The bad news is that once a leader decides on a course of action, there is only a one-in-four chance that action will be successful. That is a sobering statistic and explains just why so many restaurants close within the first year of business. So, what if you could get a hint about which action might be more apt to succeed? What if there was some trustworthy information that could improve your odds?

Chris Zook, head of Bain’s Global Strategy practice, has been looking at where growth comes from for over seven years and he has written three books that detail his work. The first, Profit from the Core, summarizes ten year’s worth of research and proves that successful growth comes from focusing, not diversifying. Beyond the Core takes the next step, and in it, Zook argues for companies to make adjacent strategic moves leveraging their core for growth. The third book, Unstoppable, explains how the need to redefine a company’s core strategy may be the only option and how to make the transition successfully.

These three books can be read together or individually. A specific problem may lead you to read a specific title. The key insights appear in all of the books, but receive varying degrees of emphasis. Let’s start by getting you excited about what Zook has to say.

The Reality of Growth (Say No to the Status Quo)

Companies have to grow: Competitors are in a constant battle to steal customers and their precious dollars; Inflation eats away at steady profits; Investors expect better-than-bond returns. Growth metrics indicate the health of a business and its strategy.

In Profit from the Core, Zook and his team defined reasonable growth levels (at least 5.5 percent growth rate in both sales and earnings) and analyzed market data to determine how many companies meet the criteria. Only one in eight companies met the growth criteria over a ten-year period. It gets worse: a study of strategic planning processes showed 90% of companies believed they would.

To explain the disconnection between strategic hopes and market realities, Zook examined over 160 reports on the topic of growth and found these sober statistics:

  • The success rate for new products is about 30%.
  • The success rate for startups is below 10%.
  • The success rate for joint ventures is about 20%.
  • The success rate for related acquisitions is about 30%.

These numbers could be a strong argument to embrace the status quo, but taking no action at all can be just as dangerous. One-third of the top 500 companies did not survive the 1990’s, disappearing through acquisition or bankruptcy. Of the 350 companies which did survive, nearly one-half changed their primary business strategy. Taken together, six out of ten companies faced significant challenges to their core business and only half of them survived the ordeal.

King of the Hill

Let’s revisit those companies who did manage to grow significantly over that ten-year period. They showed an interesting commonality: almost 80% had a single-focused core business. Zook believes defining and distilling a company’s core is the key to long-term growth.

There was something else interesting in the growth group: these companies were all market leaders in their industries. Market leadership brings with it enviable benefits:

  • In a typical multi-firm industry, the top player captures 70 percent of the profits.
  • Market leaders earned a return on capital twice that of parity players and three times that of followers.
  • Market leaders’ market-to-book values are double that of followers.

Zook calls this phenomenon “leadership economics.” This incredible leverage means that market leaders can reinvest at a rate significantly higher than their competitors. (Zook found a nearly 2X difference.) This strengthens the market leader’s position by lowering costs and further improving margins.

Big Fish in a Big Pond

There is no benefit in market leadership if there is no money to be gained. Industry market size is unimportant, says Zook. Locating and properly estimating the size of profit pools within the industry is the key. These funds are what competitors are really fighting for. These profit pools can shift among competitors, flow amid steps in an industry’s value chain, or even disappear completely with step-function changes in technology.

Profit pools bring clarity to strategic discussions. Does our core exist in a market position that has a sufficient profit pool? Do other potential strategic moves have larger profit pools? Can we use our market leadership to draw profits from other pools along the value chain?

To summarize what we have learned thus far: you want to be a big fish growing in a big pond.

Who Am I? (Who Are We?)

Finding the core of your business is relatively easy—identify the customers and products that generate the most economic profit. From there it gets much more difficult. What about all the product lines that are not making any money? What about the planned distribution center in Omaha? The budding partnership with your material vendor to bring a whole new quality level to the industry?

Defining the boundaries of your core is not made much easier by reading Zook’s work. This is no fault of the author. It is simply the reality of strategic thought. The ever-changing realities of suppliers, competitors, customers, and technologies make this the most difficult part of the process. These boundaries need to be questioned and challenged regularly.

Settling on a definition for the core is followed by a round of action. Executives surveyed said they only exploit 50 percent of the business opportunities within their cores. Every action should be taken to establish and/or maintain market leadership, influence the industry’s reinvestment rate (re: make others not want to enter), and possibly shape and capture a larger portion of the profit from the extended industry (e.g., what Intel and Microsoft do in the PC market).

Right Next Door

Market leadership feels good. The company grows. Shareholders, employees, and shareholders are all happy. It is time to find the next source of growth. This is where most mistakes occur. Look back at those failure rates.

For this reason, Zook spends an entire book, Beyond the Core, discussing business expansion. Zook calls these “adjacencies” and is one of the themes that appears in all three books. His thinking and the data he shares evolves with each book, but the definition never changed. Busine
ss adjacencies are growth opportunities that allow a company to extend the boundaries of its core business through drawing on skills that already exist.

Zook’s research again helps us make better decisions about our strategic future. His research identified five dimensions (customers, competitors, cost structure, distribution and brand) to consider when planning an adjacent move. When a company uses the strengths it already possesses, the odds of success improve and the insight here is to make small moves. Changing only one of the dimensions in an adjacent move showed a 37% of success, better than most failure rates quoted earlier. Changing two dimensions shows a familiar 28% chance of success. With three dimensions changes, the success rate drops to below 10%.

Every adjacent move should be one made toward robust profit pools, and, in those profit pools, companies want to leverage leadership economics. Expansion requires reinvestment and market leadership is the only way to ensure profits needed.

Core Meltdown

Six in ten companies are going to have to redefine their core business in the next ten years because their profit pool is going to shift, be redistributed, or collapse completely. Our company faced a profit pool collapse in 1996 when Amazon entered the book business. Our robust catalog business evaporated and 1/3 of our total business disappeared in six months.

Unstoppable captures Zook’s thoughts on core renewal. The book is the broadest and most ambitious of the three. Starting over isn’t something companies do well, but Zook believes there are hidden assets in all companies that can be the basis for redefining their cores. New customer insights can reveal previously unseen habits and behaviors. New markets can appear when the company’s capabilities are identified and applied differently. Small peripheral businesses can act as a new center for a struggling core. While not all companies have these starting points, Zook stresses the importance of looking for hidden assets before abandoning everything for a new industry.

Some Help and a Head Start

No matter what stage your business is at (defining a core, growing from that core, or needing to find a new core), Zook’s research offers clear direction¬: search for profit pools, market leadership delivers the needed profits, and small, repeatable moves improve odds of success. If you can clearly identify where your organization appears in Zook’s trilogy, certainly pick up the appropriate book for your needs. However, if you are looking for broad-spectrum knowledge, at the end of Unstoppable, Zook provides a road map for how to read the trilogy together, directing the reader to the strongest material in each of the books. I am certain that reading Zook will also improve your odds of success.