On the Dot Dot Dot bookshelf: 10 things to read to understand the business we are today

From our founder, Katharine Hibbert

At Dot Dot Dot we make no apologies for being geeks.  We think hard about housing, about social impact, and about how to be a successful business which makes a useful contribution to both spheres.  Many of our approaches and views come from our hands-on experience of housing nearly 2,000 people over the past decade, supporting them to give time worth more than £4m to good causes.  But just as important is what we’ve learned from books – and here are the top ten things to read that have shaped my thinking on our work. 


Where Will We Live?

James Meek (London Review of Books, 2014)

How did we end up in the situation where there is, as Meek puts it, “a huge, growing, unsatisfied need for housing that doesn’t require you to earn above an average income to afford”?  This essay – published by the London Review of Books and available for free – tells the story of how we ended up here through the prism of the housing situation in Tower Hamlets, the borough where Dot Dot Dot was launched and where we still work today.  It explores the human, social and economic impact of Right to Buy, beds in sheds, the bedroom tax and more, and is an indispensable read for anyone trying to understand why it’s so difficult to find a reasonable place to live.

The People of Providence: A Housing Estate and Some of Its Inhabitants

Tony Parker (Hutchinson, 1983)

Oral historian Tony Parker spent 18 months talking to residents on a then-newly built housing estate in South London – listening to stories of everyday life from mothers, vagrants, policemen and a 75-year-old widower who spends “an hour or two in bed each week with one or other of about twelve different ladies I meet at our church”.  Parker has an incredible ability to get people talking, and then to turn each person’s private thoughts and experiences into a compelling and enlightening chapter-length story.  The People of Providence is a window into what housing means to individuals and how it shapes their lives.  Written for a contemporary audience in the ‘80s, it’s just good a read today.

Estates: An Intimate History

Lynsey Hanley (Granta Books, 2007)

Part memoir, part history, Hanley’s book tells the story of social housing in the UK in a personal and even-handed way.  While admiring the early ambition of council house builders to create homes for heroes, she is critical of later developments of huge estates made up of poor-quality, badly located homes, like the one she grew up in herself.  Going back to visit her parents – who still live in the same estate, just outside Birmingham, she calls it “a clean, wide-open prison”.  She ends the book with recommendations for improving estates – centring on the need to give residents a say in how they’re housed.

Social Impact

Refinery29 money diaries

Dot Dot Dot’s mission is to provide housing that makes it easier for people to do more good, and this regular feature published by Refinery29, an online magazine aimed at Millennial and Gen Z women, shows why this is needed.  Every week, one woman documents in detail what they earn and spend during a seven-day period.  Week after week, it highlights the stresses and trade-offs involved in paying for housing, other living costs and a bit of fun on an ordinary wage, especially in London.  Few contributors have meaningful savings, and those who have managed to buy a home have usually had significant help from their parents.  I read it every week to find the motivation to keep working on providing inexpensive homes to people who’ll use the reduced financial pressure to make a contribution to their communities – and I also read it for the nosiness value. 

FREE: Adventures on the Margins of a Wasteful Society

Katharine Hibbert (Ebury Press, 2010)

My own book, telling the story of the squatters and scavengers who get by on what the rest of us throw away, sparked the ideas that became Dot Dot Dot.  Working on it helped me to understand why homes sit empty in the UK and to see a new opportunity to fix the problem, as I’ve blogged about here.  But it also gave me the motivation to build a solution that would contribute to community-building and neighbourliness in the areas where we worked.  The history of squatting contains some great stories of people getting together to fix the problems they faced using the resources that were at hand – many of today’s housing co-ops grew out of the squatting movement in the ‘70s.  Researching this history made me feel able to just get on and build something that didn’t exist yet – other ordinary people had got together to do it in the past, so why shouldn’t I?

Radical Help: How We Can Remake the Relationships Between Us and Remake the Welfare State

Hillary Cottam (Little, Brown, 2018)

Should we solve the social problems we face today by shrinking the size of the government to empower the private sector to find market solutions?  Or should we raise taxes and pump money into the existing system to make sure everyone gets what they need? Cottam, a serial social entrepreneur and academic, argues that the answer is neither – instead, she says, we should invest in structures which enable citizens and communities to work together to help each other alongside making sure that the state provides what is needed to make that a reality. 


Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most

Bruce Patton (Penguin, 2011)

It’s impossible to avoid difficult conversations – especially when dealing with people’s homes, jobs and money, as we do every day at Dot Dot Dot.  This book is the best guide I’ve ever read to making those conversations go as well as possible.  Its lessons – such as how to actively listen and make sure you’ve understood what your counterpart is saying, to think in terms of how each person (including you) contributed to the situation rather than trying to apportion blame, and to appreciate that people can agree on all the facts but still see things very differently – apply to any kind of difficult conversation, not just professional ones.  But they are so relevant to our work at Dot Dot Dot that I bought a dozen copies for the team last Christmas.

The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right

Atul Gawande (Profile, 2009)

The premise of this book is simple – almost every task can be achieved more reliably and with fewer errors by using a simple but well-designed tick-list.   Because Dot Dot Dot aims to provide a consistent, predictable and reliably good quality service to everyone we work with, and because we work with so many different kinds of buildings in different areas housing different people, it’s essential that we get the basics right every time.  We’ve moved away from paper checklists on clipboards, onto a bespoke system that all of us can access from the cloud, but we employ a full-time member of staff to look after our data and make sure we know if things aren’t as they should be.  Gawande’s commitment to systematising tasks is a good back-to-basics reminder of the importance of getting things right every time, and how to do so.

Getting To Yes

Roger Fisher and William Ury (Cornerstone, 1981)

This book gives me optimism about the world by making a money-driven business case for being a basically decent person when negotiating.  It argues that the aim of any negotiation should be to explore opportunities to “grow the pie” – to listen carefully and think laterally to find things that you can do for the other party which will be of greater value to them than their cost to you.  It also reminds negotiators that such deals are rarely one-offs, so relationships and reputation matter.  And – importantly for a social enterprise committed to behaving ethically – it advises on what to do when faced with a counterparty who isn’t playing fair.   This book, a deserved classic, is readable and short and should be read by everyone who ever has to negotiate over anything – in other words, all of us.

Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big

Bo Burlingham (Penguin, 2006)

So much of the narrative around entrepreneurship is focused on achieving vast scale.  This book presents the alternative to “go big or go home”, arguing that doing a great job for a bounded group of clients is often a better route to business success than trying to be all things to all people.  Our focus at Dot Dot Dot has always been on winning projects in contexts where we can do our best work, rather than picking up as much volume as we possibly can if doing so dilutes our quality or social impact.  This approach – built into our decision-making process – has served us well for the past ten years, and Burlington’s work explains why it is likely to continue to do so into the future.

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