Strategic inflections and creative construction, machine intelligence and crazy ideas … the best business books of the year

November 6, 2019

As a business author, I love books. Not because I particularly enjoy the process of delivering 80,000 word manuscripts to my publishers (I’m half way through my next book right now). But because writing, and indeed reading, makes me think. It is the best way in which I take a step back, and inspire myself to move forwards – to find new ways to help companies grow, leaders to learn – and through my keynotes and workshops, books and projects, to add more value to the business world.

That’s why every year I look forwards to the the November edition of Strategy+Business, which brings together their view of the year’s best books – not just the titles and authors – but what the ideas really mean, why they matter to business right now, and how they connect to build on each other. S+B starts with an interesting thought:

How do you get to the commanding heights?

It is rare to hear modern business using a phrase straight from the mouth of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The Soviet Russian dictator used it to refer to the group of key industries that make the economy function. Whoever dominates them, Lenin argued, calls the shots. But there’s another, more useful definition of the evocative term. Perched at a great height with a 360-degree view of the territory you have the most effective defence against disruptive invaders. In a world of relentless change, disruption and newness – whether we work in business, politics or sport – we should all aspire to the commanding heights.

Which is why business books are such a great inspiration, to elevate us above the pressure and priorities of everyday tasks, and the focus on delivery of projects and performance. Instead, step back and take time to reflect, reenergise and rethink.

My favourite book of 2019 is Rita McGrath’s, but there are many other fabulous ideas and inspirations too:

The Best Books on Strategy in 2019

Seeing Around Corners: How to Spot Inflection Points in Business Before They Happen by Rita McGrath … on how leaders can spot inflection points and then set up their businesses to benefit when the change comes and new markets materialise. The secret is to take a broader view of the “arenas” customers play in, rather than being limited by the products they buy. I remember Rita at the European Business Forum talking with me about how “snow melts from the edges”, by which she meant that we need to look to the edges of markets for change, change that is initially slow, but can then have a big impact.

Creative Construction: The DNA of Sustained Innovation by Gary Pisano … tilts against the conventional wisdom that scale is an impediment to innovation. Rather than wait for creative destruction to upend their businesses, leaders can create capabilities for transformative innovation. “Construction” is a refreshing word, particularly when there has been so much overuse of words like disruption and destruction in recent years. The real point is for big businesses to seize their advantages, to keep riding their S curves, keep moving forwards, rather than resting on old models of success.

Connected Strategy: Building Continuous Customer Relationships for Competitive Advantage by Nicolaj Siggelkow and Christian Terwiesch … moves away from transactions and services and towards building strong relationships with customers, by seeking to help customers achieve an outcome they’re passionate about, often with the help of technology. My own example of this is with Nike+ which is the suite of digital services and devices which Nike has evolved over the last decade. I love my Apple Watch fused with Nike Run Club, and inspires me daily on my morning runs. The strategy has been key to their “direct to consumer” strategy too, which now accounts for over 30% of revenues.

The Best Books on Innovation in 2019

Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries by Safi Bahcall … a loonshot is an attempt to take on a problem that is, as Polaroid founder Edwin Land put it, “manifestly important and nearly impossible” to achieve. These are the kinds of problems that we want companies to go after, but are difficult to achieve. We’ve all heard of Google’s moonshots, the approach to thinking bigger, 10x rather than 10%. Safi has brought together great examples of what this means in practice, in every kind of business.

A Human’s Guide to Machine Intelligence: How Algorithms Are Shaping Our Lives and How We Can Stay in Control by Kartik Hosanagar … as much about human behaviour and psychology as it is about technology, because it’s human behaviour that AI algorithms seek to alter, and human psychology that drives our response to the concerns they provoke. Working with Microsoft over the last 18 months, I’ve been struck by how absolutely core AI is to future innovations, but also the huge responsibility which we in business have to ensure that it is used in ethical and positive ways.

Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World by Clive Thompson… the kind of people who write and devise the algorithms that are coming to govern so much of our lives are not, at the moment, necessarily the kind of people who care all that much about their negative effects. So building on the Microsoft example, it’s time for technologies in general, Silicon Valley culture in particular, to become more human. Last year we saw the Copenhagen Letter published, a manifesto for tech to think more about people, and to harness the power of humanity.

The Best Books on Marketing in 2019

Unlocking the Customer Value Chain: How Decoupling Drives Consumer Disruption by Thales Teixeira … is a thought-provoking look at what’s really leading to all this innovation. And, no, it’s not technology. That’s just an enabler. It is a new approach to digital disruption, one rooted in the disciplines of marketing and consumer behaviour. “Decoupling” is a great way of rethinking what matters, and equally recoupling in new and better ways. Generally though, it is fantastic to read some new thinking on customer centricity, to move the discussion beyond service and experiences!

The Age of Intent: Using Artificial Intelligence to Deliver a Superior Customer Experience by P.V. Kannan … describes intent as “the fundamental unit of interaction for a virtual agent system.” The first step in activating such a system is defining a list of intents — such as finding a store or scheduling a technician visit — that a virtual agent can respond to quickly. Do you love chatbots? No. But they are shaping the way in which we interact with brands. Directly, interactively, personally, instantly. I think they need some more development before I warm to them, and Kannan describes how.

Agency Mania: Harnessing the Madness of Client/Agency Relationships for High-Impact Results by Bruno Gralpois … a comprehensive manual detailing virtually every aspect of the client/agency relationship, to be kept on the office bookshelf (or iPad) and pulled out (or tapped on) as needed. Having worked in the marketing world for the last three decades (I used to be CEO of the world’s largest professional network of marketers!), I’ve always been a proponent to marketers in companies to think more themselves, not to outsource their creativity to agencies. Agencies need to add more value in new ways.

The Best Books on Leadership in 2019

Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It) by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic … Inept leadership has become epidemic despite the widespread recognition that organisations can survive only if they retain, engage, and motivate talent. Given that most leadership positions are still occupied by men, is this the reason? I’m currently working with the Danish Diversity Council, and specifically with many of Denmark’s female leaders. What they always say is that its not about the sex quota, much more about the values and attitudes which leaders have. Time for us all to get more female.

The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growthby Amy Edmondson … interest in creating psychological safety in organisations has exploded in the wake of Google’s Project Aristotle which sought to determine what common factors distinguished its most effective internal teams. Amy’s passion for this subject is incredible. On a panel at a Thinkers50 Gala with her, I loved how she championed the role of teams, and now the importance of creating safe spaces in organisations so that people really can be human, creative, and find personal and organisational growth that is not limited by politics and prejudices.

Imagine It Forward: Courage, Creativity, and the Power of Change by Beth Comstock … tells her personal story of how she flourished for nearly three decades within GE, sharing that company’s exceptional highs and lows between 1986 and 2017, and why she believes leaders need to work harder on having the courage to imagine and create the future. Whilst this is Beth’s story, I think it is much more. GE of course is a great case study in what has gone right and wrong with innovation over recent decades. The real message is for leaders to look forwards not back, to have the courage to create better futures for us all.

Time to shape the future

Time to find your commanding heights. How will you embrace the best ideas of a changing world? How will you take inspiring concepts and turn them from book pages into business practice?

My own work is this month focused on a recoding of business – exploring the DNA of the 21st century businesses that are succeeding, compared to the 20th century laggards who largely still dominate – and the DNA of a new generation of business leaders who will take them forwards. This is not just based an academic ideas, but on a huge survey of business leaders in partnership with IE Business School, and deep dives into some of the world’s most exciting and innovative businesses right now.

The new book is currently in its research phase, and half written. Next year it will emerge, with new keynotes and business school programs too. It will bring together the best new ideas for business leaders to make sense of our changing world, to innovate and grow in ways that could not have been contemplated a decade ago, and to with more positive impact for society too.

It will be Business Recoded.