In this week's review of great business books: The power of enlightened non-conformity and how to make the most of all the brains in the room. Also: Give employees your numbers and they'll give you their best work.

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Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World
Adam M. Grant 

The 18th century economist Richard Cantillon coined the word entrepreneur, which means literally "bearer of risks." Wharton professor Adam Grant wouldn't question that entrepreneurs accept more risk than most. But in his new book, Originals, he challenges the conventional wisdom that they thrive on it.

"As much as they may seem to crave risk, [entrepreneurs] really prefer to avoid it," writes Grant, whose examples include current entrepreneurial icons like Warby Parker. He goes on to question our veneration of entrepreneurs, inventors, artists and other innovators as some exotic, awe-inspiring species.

In fact, very few original thinkers are geniuses and most are actually far more ordinary than we realize. That's good news for those who worry that they lack the creative gene. "This book," writes Grant, "is about how we can all become more original."

Grant believes that most people recognize opportunities for improvement and can concoct ideas that are both novel and useful. The challenge is to break out of conventional thinking: to reject what "they say" about what will work and what won't.

He introduces intriguing concepts: for example, advising problem solvers to think not in terms of déjà vu--seeing something new that seems familiar--but rather in terms of vuja de--seeing something familiar in a different way. (I'm reminded of the moment when Mary Kay Ash realized that leather softener applied to saddles and gear could eliminate the wrinkles on her skin.)

Grant offers dozens of examples of ordinary people who accomplished extraordinary things, from creating great art to overthrowing repressive regimes. His message is optimistic: as long as people think differently and stand up for those differences, they can make the world a better place. Grant acknowledges that marching against the crowd can be hard and lonely.

But ultimately his message is hopeful. "Becoming original is not the easiest path in the pursuit of happiness," writes Grant. "But it leaves us perfectly poised for the happiness of pursuit." 

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Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking with People Who Think Differently
Dawna Markova and Angie McArthur
Spiegel & Grau 

There's an interesting debate in academic and management circles about whether individuals actually perform better than teams, which for decades have been organizations' building blocks of choice. The answer, of course, is that it depends upon the team.

Markova and McArthur are, respectively, founder and CEO of Professional Thinking Partners, a network of consultants specializing in collaboration and leadership. In Collaborative Intelligence, they explain how thinking can be practiced almost like a team sport, in which performance depends on how well participants understand one another--their approaches to framing questions and approaching challenges, for example.

"We take for granted that intelligence occurs within our own minds," the authors write. "What keeps us from collaborating effectively is that most of us don't know how to think with people who think differently than we do." As a result people brought together around a specific objective often devolve into arguments or seek comity at the expense of a thoughtful weighing of divergent opinions.

Collaborative Intelligence explains how to leverage all the intellectual capital in a room, raise the team's collective intelligence and, as a result, the quality of the outcome. The authors pay particular attention to leaders, who must become more aware of how they think, speak, and act themselves in order to forge those around them into productive, dynamic units.

Diversity is increasingly embraced within organizations as a social good. The economic benefits appear when teams use their differences as tools of creation rather than division.


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And from the backlist

Open-Book Management: The Coming Business Revolution 
John Case
?HarperCollins (1995)

Open-book management--revealing a company's financials and other critical data to employees and educating them on what those numbers mean--still seems pretty revolutionary to many companies. That's surprising.

More than two decades after this book was published (and 24 years after Jack Stack and Bo Burlingham wrote The Great Game of Business--about the success of OBM at Springfield Remanufacturing Corp.) -- hundreds of companies have used the practice to improve employees' engagement, sense of ownership, and creative thinking on everything from new products to cost efficiencies. (And yes, payroll can stay under the kimono.)

It sounds like common sense that if employees understand how their employer operates and how their own jobs contribute to the success of that operation, then they can work smarter and better align with the company's goals. If you're still dubious, Case explains persuasively why, as well as how, it all works.