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July 1, 2009 8:39pm
Posted in: High Empathy Companies ,Posts

As we roll into the Fourth of July weekend, we reach the real kick-off to the summer. The twelve books in this post can help you reinvent your business and make major change happen. And, not coincidentally, they’re 12 of the most enjoyable books we know of. Check them out — and let us know what you’re reading, too!

Rules of Thumb
Alan Webber

It’s hard for us to properly express the full scope of our admiration for Alan Webber. During his time editing Harvard Business Review, he helped it to reach heights it hasn’t seen before or since. The initial run of Fast Company that he put together with Bill Taylor is our favorite years of any business magazine ever. Hell, he even helped make Portland, Oregon, the fun, walkable urban center it is today straight out of college.

So it was with some delight that we raced through Alan’s first book, a collection of 52 rules he’s pulled together through four decades of work for how to be great at business — and a better person, to boot. When Alan talked about it at a book store appearance recently, he described the book as the “I Ching of business,” meant to be read in the order of the reader’s choice — and he’s dead on. Each four- to six-page chapter is a clear cogent meditation on a different facet of work and life. It’s the perfect nightstand book — even if you’re the kind of reader who falls asleep four pages into whatever you’re reading, you’ll get a fully baked, extremely relevant tip from Alan before you drift off. Our favorite rule is #8: “If you want to see with new eyes, reframe the picture,” for obvious reasons. That said, I spent a lot of time contemplating #13: “Learn to take ‘no’ as a question.” Best stop there — otherwise we’re just going to reprint all 52, which would rob you of the fun of discovering them on your own.

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions (Expanded Edition)
Dan Ariely

Technically, this fine volume was initially published in 2008, but it belongs for this summer because it’s never been more relevant. Pete read it during the last days we wrote Wired to Care, and behavioral economist Dan Ariely’s charming and sardonic storytelling style almost certainly had an impact on the final revisions of our own book.

What makes this book so much fun and such a necessity — especially in the added stories — is that it provides a completely different window for understanding the underlying forces in our minds that can lead us to make repeatable mistakes with great consequence. But rather than beating up humanity for its foolish propensities, Dan offers ways to play to the strengths of our often comically foolish brains.

The insights in Predictably Irrational are broadly applicable, from HR (be careful about market capital as social recognition) to strategy (do you really want to put all your bets on new initiatives?) to marketing (pretty much the entire book). It’s fun, fast-paced and ready to put into action. All that, and it was just rereleased in expanded form with new insights, so you can get it really cheap right now.

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
Chip and Dan Heath

With all of the focus in recent years on innovation and design, it’s become easy to lose sight of the fact that plenty of perfectly good product, service, and business ideas never get anywhere. Despite what you might have heard, marketing is about as far from dead as it’s ever been.

That’s where the Brothers Heath’s Made to Stick is such an important and fun read. Picking up where Malcolm Gladwell left off in The Tipping Point, the authors show exactly what factors ultimately determine the success or failure of any given idea. They call it SUCCESs: Ideas that are Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, and Stories will thrive when similar notions falter.

It’s a really quick read, packed with great stories and readily applicable ideas. All that, and the Emotional chapter has a couple of solid empathy tales — we especially love the Hamburger Helper story. Anyone working on messaging, marketing, or core strategic vision would be very well served to read it.

The Wisdom of Crowds
James Surowiecki

The catastrophic failures in the economy last year had many causes: extremely bad bets in finance, an unprecedented collapse in home prices, a toothless regulatory system. We’re all paying the price for bad decisions made at all levels. And the worst part of it? It wasn’t just one blunder, or a series of blunders by a small group. It was a cascading wave of mistakes made by many people in every part of the world.

What does that have to do with a book called The Wisdom of Crowds? Good question. In spite of the book’s title, what New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki writes about is not that people in groups are inherently smart. Rather, he argues that crowds become brilliant if they meet three criteria: independence, diversity, and decentralization. If you disrupt any of those forces, you can wind up with group-think.

In other words, Surowiecki gives us just what we need to understand what went wrong last year, as well as the tools to ensure that we get it right the next time around. If you work in marketing, business, government, or any other field where the thinking of a large number of people affects the success of your endeavors, this is an absolutely essential read.

Outliers: The Story of Success
Malcolm Gladwell

New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell has been justifiably celebrated for his work on the spread of ideas (The Tipping Point) and the power of intuition (Blink), but we actually believe his most recent book might be the most fascinating. In Outliers, he tries to figure out how the most successful people in the world get to be that way. Is it hard work, individual genius, good parenting, or something else?

What he suggests is something potentially deeply unsettling to Americans: hidden forces and variables ultimately shape your destiny as much or more than talent or initiative. Hockey players born earlier in the year tend to dominate in the developmental leagues because they play kids “their own age” who are nearly six months younger. Bill Gates was both a visionary and a punk kid who had regular access to computers long before most of the population did. The smartest man in the world, Chris Langan? Never found a steady career worthy of his intellect.

We think the big takeaway of this book is about creating the conditions for success in your organization. You can take the most talented people in the world, but if they aren’t in an environment that gets the best out of them, it’s a waste of talent.

The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas With Pictures
Dan Roam

Seeing is believing. It really is. Which is why it’s such a shame that we’re so often left to rely on words to try to make a convincing case or work through a tough situation. Dan Roam, a consultant, shows in a fun, high-impact book how to put visual thinking to work in your career and in your company.

What’s great about this book is that it truly democratizes visual thinking, a set of techniques usually reserved to designers and engineers. With his humble, approachable illustration style, he shows how even simple imagery can make an idea more concrete, surface challenges, and suggest possible solutions. He tracks the four different kinds of visual thinking — looking, seeing, imagining and showing — as well as the six different ways we see.

If everyone in your organization reads The Back of the Napkin, there will be a lot less confusion about which decisions are being made and who’s on the hook for which actions. All that, and you’ll have a lot more fun sketches around, which everyone likes more than PowerPoint documents, anyway.

Me 2.0: Build a Powerful Brand to Achieve Career Success
Dan Schawbel

If you’ve ever spent any time on Twitter, you’ve probably encountered Dan Schawbel, a sage of personal branding who dishes up insights for how to thrive in today’s job market so rapidly and so thoroughly that it’s a wonder he ever sleeps. Plus, he runs a very prolific blog on Personal Branding that goes into depth with authors and topics of interest on a daily basis. Basically, he’s a giver.

And he gives a whole lot in Me 2.0, his manifesto for the era of the Brand Called Me. Only 25, Dan understands how to define, hone, and promote a self-image for yourself that can help you to win jobs and promotions and make your employer thrive, to boot. Not surprisingly for a rising star in social media, Me 2.0 is written in a quickly digestible format that delivers a ton of ideas in a very few words. Besides offering a four-step process for building your personal brand, Dan’s book is at its best when talking about the changes in society and the business world driving the rise of personal branding. Chapter two, “Millennials Enter the Workforce,” is absolutely essential reading, as a result.

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things
William McDonough and Michael Braungart

For decades, the environmental conversation has been largely about doing less bad. If companies and people just managed to use less waste, fewer harmful materials, and just use less stuff, then our impact on the rest of the world won’t be quite so bad. Architect and designer William McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle. Challenges that assertion on its face. What good is recycling if it creates materials inferior to what went into the original products being recycled?

Rather than thinking about finding some way to reuse what we consume, he argues, we need to set up virtuous cycles in which everything we make can be made into something else that is as good or better than what it’s being recycled out of. In an absolute worst case, create truly biodegradable substances that can be turned into fertilizer. And, to make his point, the book is waterproof and made out of a synthetic paper that was made without the use of any wood pulp. If all of this is done, these cradle-to-cradle products (instead of cradle-to-grave) will be inherently profitable, removing the need for onerous regulation to make the world a better place.

What’s perhaps most motivating about reading Cradle to Cradle is that it’s incredibly practical and concrete for a big idea book. What McDonough proposes is truly radical and a challenge to supply chain orthodoxy in most of business. But it’s also something that can be started today. We’re some unknown distance from the world described in the book — but parts of it already exist. And your business can help make it more widespread.

The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century
Thomas Friedman

One of the most prevalent and wrong-headed ideas of the earlier part of this decade is that the United States was losing its ability to compete. This wasn’t a problem of talent, dedication, or hard work — it was structural. According to the argument, costs were simply so low in China and India that the U.S. was destined to lose manufacturing and service jobs, never to be seen again. Outsourcing is inevitable and permanent.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman offers a sharp rebuke to this entire notion. He recognized that the developing countries of the world would soon be developed, and wages would rise to the point where it no longer made sense to outsource, say, technical support to India. The most important question wasn’t how the U.S. should work to cut its costs and compete on costs with the rest of the world. Instead, we need to come to grips with the fact that new technology has truly leveled the playing field. You don’t need to be based in New York to be a top-notch ad agency or start in Silicon Valley to build a tech empire. You can do it from anywhere.

This is a really big idea, and a much more important one than figuring out how to slow outsourcing. The global economy is now truly global. Your customers live all over the world, as do your competitors and allies. Decisions don’t exist in a vacuum anymore. What is your company doing to come to grips with the realities of the new market?

A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future
Daniel H. Pink

The debate between art and science is as old as modernity. Though great thinkers of every era from the Pleistocene to the Renaissance recognized the value of expertise across disciplines and fields, this link got cut some time in the late 19th Century. Art and science went their separate ways, and then science won as reason, analysis, and provable facts were exalted above all else.

Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind is a wonderful ode to what got lost in the process. He articulates six senses of the right brain — design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning — that add context, color, and connection to everything that we do. In so doing, Pink makes a compelling case for how to reshape our educational system, corporations, and other institutions to embrace both sides of our brains. It’s not that the rational left brain is superior to the emotional right brain or vice versa. It’s that we’re smarter when we can join the two together. Smart and fun. Creative and critical. Heart and mind.

Be on the look-out for Pink’s next book, Drive, as well. It should be out in December, and it speaks to what truly motivates people to achieve. We fully expect it to provide a nice follow-up to Whole New Mind. One teaches you how to unlock the creative side of your brain, and the other shows you how to inspire greatness. That’s a pretty killer combo.

Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters
Matt Ridley

Few discoveries in history hold as many implications for understanding ourselves and how we work than the recent mapping of the human genome. It has the potential to reshape medicine, politics, and even education for the better. And it also has the potential to wreak havoc.

Journalist Matt Ridley unravels the implications of this amazing new science in the simply titled Genome. The book takes 23 chapters (the same number as humans have chromosomes) to walk through, in clean accessible prose, the many ways in which genomics will ultimately impact our society. Each chapter focuses on one of our chromosomes, shows how it affects our lives today and suggests how it might be harnessed in the future. It’s a fun device, and it paints a vivid picture of what’s coming next.

Genome also offers lots of food for thought for anyone involved in business. The mapping of the human genome started a massive social change that we won’t see the full extent of for at least a decade. But once it’s complete, life might look very different. What new opportunities does it create, and how might you take advantage of them? The clock is ticking for this seismic change. This just might be your handbook to get ready for it.

Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy
Dev Patnaik With Peter Mortensen

We promise this one will knock your socks off.

Seriously.

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