A Reading List for Business

In the last post I offered an opinion on some of the characteristics about business books I find annoying or that I consider warning signs of potentially fluffy material.

I would like to offer-up my suggestions for things to read that I have found useful and influential to my thinking in my business career. The guidelines I used:

  1. Avoid text books that are aimed at a narrow professional niche.
  2. Select some books that are reference in nature but are relevant to a wider audience.
  3. Build a list with some things that have pieces that are shorter (such as newsmagazines) along with longer, more detailed books.

Periodicals, Newspapers and Podcasts

The web is full of stuff. When we want to know about a topic most of us open our favorite search engine, type and hit enter. However, I think that “what we don’t know”, or “what we didn’t know we needed to know” are more important than searching for topics we know we want to know about. New insights from “the thin tail” are valuable for transforming our thinking.

Because the web is full of stuff, editors and authors gain increased importance to draw our attention to the wheat instead of the chaff, to organize, and to write useful and engaging content. Those things that offer brief but substantive articles that provide insights into current events as well as longer-term issues is invaluable. My personal short list includes:

  • The Economist. Well-written, its business, finance, and technology sections almost always have insights useful to a business person. Its occasional special features on topics such as Automation are also invaluable. I used to subscribe to things like the Harvard Business Review (HBR) but found it less useful, eclectic and witty than The Economist.
  • The Guardian. For occasional business-related articles (as well as general current events) I think The Guardian is also useful and well-written. Even without a subscription one can find many useful and interesting articles.
  • The above two periodicals will probably fill quite a bit of discretionary coffee-break time. However I have also found both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times useful. As with The Economist, subscription is required if one is to get anything other than the odd free article. In my experience all four of these are not essential to have (it gets pricey as well) and the amount of content to read each day collectively is significant. But picking one or two of these is, in my opinion, worth any number of business books you might buy.
  • Scenario Magazine has 6 issues per year and is produced by The Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies. A digital subscription is Euro 60 but it is a periodical that provides a much needed break from the usual sources, is well-written and the print version is beautifully designed and illustrated. I throw this one in because I have found many of its articles thought-provoking on long-term trends and issues. Even if you don’t subscribe, I recommend reading their blog section. In some ways it is as interesting as the articles.
  • Podcasts. The number of good podcasts deserves its own blog to do a proper job of covering this exploding source of ideas. But here are a couple that I browse to find something interesting:
    • Monocle Magazine’s The Entrepreneurs. Monocle is not a “business” magazine, which is probably why it is interesting to me.
    • The Art of Charm. Stumbled onto this podcast and find it interesting and eclectic.
    • CBC Radio’s Podcast Playlist. Again, on the belief that business people are best served to get outside of their business-culture bubble now and again in order to develop better, fresher thinking, a good source of ideas is CBC’s Podcast Playlist which is a podcast about podcasts, delivering a weekly mixtape of podcast excerpts from a variety of podcasts on a theme-of-the-week.

You may notice that I did not include the journals from consultants such as McKinsey and BCG or from biz schools such as M.I.T. (Sloan) or HBR. Of course these publications often have great ideas and insights. But I am finding that in a world of ever-growing sources of ideas, the ever-finite amount of time we each have, and — most importantly — the multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural, and multi-issue nature of problems and opportunities we face today, these journals are increasingly less helpful for me in business than many non-business sources.

First, they are often focused on packaging their ideas into sell-able, marketable products such as consulting services, seminars and executive retreats. Consequently, although they are good at raising issues, they are less helpful in providing the details a person would need to have in order to tackle the problem themselves or to build new skills. In part this is due to the laudable goal of keeping the material brief, but also because providing that kind of detail would lessen the need to buy their product.

Second, many consultants and business school profs have had limited experience in the actual tasks of operating an organization or of having to live with the consequences of their numbers and actions. Having worked on both sides of the desk — about 15 years as a consultant and about 20 years at various levels of companies as an employee — the conceptual nature of mainline consulting and business school programs has grown increasingly annoying.

Books

It goes without saying that the point of such a list is to force the list maker to make severe choices, to whittle the list down to a vital few. In that spirit these are books that have helped me (I hope) to think better and more broadly.

  • The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Thomas S. Kuhn. One of the most influential books of the last century, its ideas and words — such as “paradigm” — are used (and misused) in mountains of business books and by business people everyday and yet few have read actually read it. I list this book first because it sets a bit of a tone for what follows in that I think that although it is useful to read other people’s opinions about things like paradigm shifts and revolutions in thinking based on Kuhn’s book, it is better for each of us to read Kuhn directly and use it to inform our own thinking.
  • The Essential Drucker (2001). Peter F. Drucker. In this book are 26 essays on the themes of management, the individual, and society. Before reading a lot of new stuff I suggest spending time in the company of one of the great thinkers on business and management. His work puts most of the “new” material either to shame or provides a richer context of current events and ideas. Here are 3 of the essays: “Management as Social Function and Liberal Art;” “The Second Half of Your Life;” “Citizenship Through the Social Sector.” These titles hint at the breadth of his thinking; his observations also, in my view, have extremely long shelf lives. The Essential Drucker is essential.
  • The Wright Brothers (2015). David McCullough. I reviewed this book in an earlier post and it remains a great example of how business people often suffer from amnesia. To hear it, today is an unprecedented period of transformational change with breath-taking advances in new technologies by entrepreneurs. This brief and readable book shows how the pace of change was as rapid over a hundred years ago and provides a useful tool to think about how things might unfold in our time. Sometimes the best perspective on the future is from the past.
  • The Tao of Coaching (1996). Max Landsberg. The version I have of this book, from 2003, is 126 pages long including index. The current edition is described on Amazon as 224 pages in length. That length is still acceptable but I must say that the earlier book’s length was admirably concise. That said in either book there are many practical tools and ideas about coaching others in a business context.
  • Strategy Safari (1998). Henry Mintzberg, Bruce Ahlstrand, Joseph Lampel. I generally find books on strategy over-rated. That said, this book is an exception because it is less about a particular approach to strategy than a tour (a safari if you will) of ten strategic schools of thought. In reading this survey one gains a healthy perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of many approaches rather than focusing on one approach that purports to be “the Answer.” It provides a framework that helps you to look at “new” strategic approaches and assess whether they are truly innovative or just old soap in new packaging.
  • Requisite Organization (1989). Elliot Jaques. This blog has addressed the work of Jaques in several other posts such as The Continuing Importance of Elliot Jaques’ Requisite Organization Work, Leadership Levels, Time Horizons, and the War for Talent Part 2 and Part 3. Jaques is not an easy read; his ideas might have gained wider recognition had he found a way to communicate his ideas in a more user-friendly version. That said, this book is well worth the energy. I don’t want to suggest that it is the answer, but every organizational theory about structure, roles, and recruitment that I come across I assess through the lens of Jaques thinking. Given how few people have actually read his material, having even a basic understanding of his thinking is a big advantage.
  • Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk (1996). Peter L. Bernstein. I have dozens of business books on counter-intuitive thinking, risk and probability. Titles like Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos; Struck by Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities by Jeffrey S. Rosenthal; Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner; Gut Feelings by Gerd Gigerenzer; The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in the Markets and in Life both by Nassim Nicholos Taleb; What the Numbers Say by Derrick Niederman and David Boyum; The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow; MoneyBall and The Big Short, both by Michael Lewis; The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver; and many, many others. Frankly, all of these books have useful and interesting things to say. But if I were to read only one, my choice is Against the Gods because of its historical breadth, stories and examples, and his coverage of essential concepts such as the Central Limit Theorem in ways that I think are accessible. Strategy, leadership, operations, finance — these functional disciplines must deal with or are subject to the whims of probability/risk. Indeed, business is really just an organized way to deal with risk in its broadest sense. Consequently every business person, especially leaders in larger and more complex organizations, needs to know as much as they can about risk in the general sense as well as the mathematical, otherwise they are just whistling through the graveyard of chance.
  • Now You See It: Simple Visualization Techniques for Quantitative Analysis (2009). Stephen Few. I’ve spent over 30 years suffering through terrible presentations, reports, and PowerPoint decks filled with awful charts and tables. As much as possible I have fought the good fight for both better quantitative analysis as well as better visual representation of such analyses. Edward Tufte was one of the original thinkers on the topic of effective use of visuals to display quantitative information, but I think that this book by Few is even more useful as he gets into specific examples involving the uses and misuses of current software such as Excel, Spotfire and Tableau. He shows specific examples of best and worst practices that will help the consumers of these reports, dashboards, and decks as well as those who need to create these end products. This book should be mandatory reading in every business school and in every company management training course.
  • The Mask of Command (1987). John Keegan (1934-2012). Keegan was a British military historian, lecturer, writer and journalist. One of my guiding principles is that it is perilous to try to shape the present, much less the future, if one does not have a descent grasp of the past. For example, the number of books, theories and gurus on the topic of leadership is staggering. Even the subset of military leadership is filled with many books and speakers. The value of Keegan’s book for me is that it is a clinical analysis of four well-known historical military figures — Alexander the Great, the Duke of Wellington, Ulysses S. Grant and Adolph Hitler — that provides a vivid contrast in approaches to leadership as shaped by context and technology as well as personality. Keegan himself does not spell-out implications for business leaders nor do I advocate using this book as a literal guide to leadership in the business realm. Rather, I recommend the book because beneath the specifics of these four individuals lies universal themes today’s leaders should consider: the nature and limits of the heroic style of leader; the lessons to gain from how Ulysses S. Grant managed his armies; the theater of leadership, and so on.
  • The Machine That Changed the World (1990). James Womack, Dan Jones, and Daniel Roos. This list has books that address strategy, leadership, and other topics. But things need to be made; services need delivery. The reality of the enormous world of work, whether in services or manufacturing, whether public or private, is consumed by process, by the way we are organized and led to do things. This book was the first popular description of the Toyota Production System or “lean.” It is not the list not because of its focus on cars or manufacturing or even Toyota, but because it is an essential introduction to the ever-pressing question of what is the best approach to leading and designing organizations to do things better with less waste of material, energy and, most important, human potential and talent.
  • The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership (2011). Jeffrey Liker and Gary L. Convis. If The Machine That Changed the World describes the origins and basic nature of “lean,” then this book describes the leadership and cultural implications of a lean organization. This is not a technical book, but rather a thought-provoking vision of how to achieve organizational effectiveness and resiliency.

Wildcards

This is a list of things that I think are good but are a bit different.

  • The Missiles of October (1974). This film, starring William Devane as President John F. Kennedy, chronicles the 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis. It zeroes in on the President’s Executive Committee that debated the American response to the Soviet move to place offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba in October 1963. It is a very good film but also is one of the best demonstrations of the perils of group dynamics especially group think. I’ve used this film in the past as a supplement in some of my training courses and it has proven effective in bringing a number of leadership and group issues to life.
  • Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (1999). Graham T. Allison and Philip Zelikow. Speaking of the Cuban Missile Crisis, this is one of the most influential political science books written and is relevant to business people in that it addresses group decision-making processes and leadership actions under pressure.
  • Apollo: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of One of Humankind’s Greatest Achievements (2004). Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox. Perhaps the single best book on the development of the Moon missions including the Mercury and Gemini Programs, the story of the Saturn V rocket, the building of the organizational know-how and the politics and change issues involved in convincing people on the method to go from A to B (e.g. directly with a big spacecraft or with a ship that split in two pieces for the landing, which is what they eventually did). As a real-life tale of complex project management it is superb.
  • Leadership: Theory and Practice 7th Edition. Peter G. Northouse. So many people read materials on leadership or listen to gurus talk about it without the benefit of some background understanding of the “schools of thought” of leadership that implicitly or explicitly underpin the many books, articles and talks on the subject. This is actually a textbook, but well-written and on a topic that has wide application so I feel comfortable in listing it here. I use Northouse as my primary reference for applying a more critical eye to the nebulous topic of “leadership.”
  • The U.S. Army Leadership Field Manual (2004). The Center for Army Leadership. Not everyone is enamored with the military and sometimes the politics of military force makes it difficult for some to consider the military as a source of insight on management, tactics or leadership. But having read this manual several times and used some of its frameworks I think it is worth placing on this wildcards list. If there is one thing I like about this book is that it is a good counter-weight to leadership books that deal in vague, hand-waving concepts; this book concretely describes what good leadership looks like, for the U.S. Army, at the front line, middle and senior levels. Here is a summary I wrote on the book awhile ago.
  • Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business (1993). Fons Trompenaars  and Charles Hampden-Turner. I like this book, even though it was written by a couple of consultants (kidding). I first hired Fons Trompenaars and his team for some work about 15 years ago and found their approach to organization cultural among the most useful I’ve come across. I’m sure there are dozens and dozens of interesting frameworks out there but this is my go-to reference. Best of all they have built an impressive database over the last 25 years that has informed their perspective.

Conclusion

There are many books and articles out there that offer ideas and tools we can use to help our personal performance and that of our teams and organizations. My experience is that only a fraction of these books and articles are actually “business books;” many are books on topics that are more fundamental than business. The reason for this, I think, is due to the relatively simple nature of business per se.

Many would have us believe that business is complex and growing ever more so. It is not business that is complex or difficult to understand, it is the enduring challenge of human behavior — both at an individual, small group and collective (cultural) level — as well as our cognitive biases (human thinking) that make any enterprise challenging whether for profit or non-profit.

If you have podcasts, books, articles or other things you have found particularly useful in business that you’d like to share, xraydelta is interested in hearing from you.

Also, many big-name business people have personal reading lists. Here are a couple:

Mark Zuckerberg’s book list: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Zuckerberg_book_club

Bill Gates’ list: https://www.gatesnotes.com/Books#All


One Comment on “A Reading List for Business”

  1. […] I posted a blog about books, journals and podcasts that I think provides ideas useful in business, several people I […]


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