Business authors in 2020 must feel like travelers who packed for the beach and arrived to find the coast pulverized by a tsunami. Some with new books hastily cobbled together forwards or epilogues addressing current events or shoehorned Covid-19 paragraphs into their introductions. But we'll have to wait until next year (and more likely later) for the deep thinks on what has changed and how to adapt. Meanwhile, 2020 produced some fine titles on leadership, strategy, and innovation. As usual, Silicon Valley hogged much of the attention.
1. Always Day One: How the Tech Titans Plan to Stay on Top Forever, by Alex Kantrowitz
The title comes from Jeff Bezos's exhortation to employees: Approach each day as if it were Amazon's first, because on day two comes "stasis, followed by irrelevance, followed by excruciating, painful decline, followed by death." That powerful--if ominous--philosophy undergirds the Amazonian culture of innovation: a culture that is one of five secret sauces in this book of recipes for success. Tech journalist Kantrowitz acknowledges that his subjects--which also include Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft--currently occupy the public hot seat for their abuses of power. But that dominance was born of creative and operational excellence. This book explains how they do it.
2. Billion Dollar Brand Club: How Dollar Shave Club, Warby Parker, and Other Disruptors Are Remaking What We Buy, by Lawrence Ingrassia
With tumbleweeds blowing across the retail landscape, direct-to-consumer brands are among the few winners of 2020. Ingrassia, a business journalist, recounts the stories and strategies of some of the most successful; explores their appeal to funders and fans; and describes the false steps of the legacy brands that never saw them coming. Read how smart companies do smart things with advertising (Third Love's home-try-on offer for bras); customer service (Warby Parker's elevation of call centers to profit centers); and sourcing (Hubble's decision to use an older but perfectly good contact lens material to better compete on price).
3. Experimentation Works: The Surprising Power of Business Experiments, by Stefan H. Thomke
When business people talk about experiments, they mostly mean A/B tests. But a variety of experiments--both online and in the real world--may provide the best answers to all kinds of specific questions about proposed management actions, says Thomke, a Harvard Business School professor. One reason Amazon acquired Whole Foods, after all, was to conduct controlled experiments in brick and mortar. The author lays out the ways results can be misleading and how to increase reliability through methods like randomized field trials. He also addresses the need to build trust, both in the integrity of the experiment and in the intent of leadership. And for those fixated on A/B tests: Thomke's best practices are exhaustive.
4. Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead an Ethical Revolution, by Robert Chesnut
Adhering rigidly to ethical codes can feel constraining to entrepreneurs, who exult in breaking rules. Chesnut, former chief ethics officer and general counsel of Airbnb, argues that acting with integrity isn't just the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing given the likelihood that transgressions will go public. To help companies draw their own bright lines, Chesnut peppers the book with mini case studies--composites of real-life situations involving everything from flirtatious texts from the CEO to dangerous compromises in sourcing materials. Those examples may start the conversation. Getting employees to discuss the issues they're grappling with and why certain rules exist will embed the lessons for good, Chesnut says.
5. Lead From the Future: How to Turn Visionary Thinking Into Breakthrough Growth, by Mark W. Johnson and Josh Suskewicz
Johnson, co-founder of the innovation consultancy Innosight, and Suskewicz, an Innosight partner, proffer a compelling argument for the power of long-term thinking. More important: They show you how to get there with practical steps for setting goals, and then working backward to establish shorter-term priorities. The authors explain how to create an "actionable vision" that assesses likely trajectories of, for example, customer demands and market dynamics. From there, leaders make a financial projection for the business by a certain date. What milestones are required to achieve that projection? What innovations and investments are required to achieve those milestones? Make this a selection for your leadership team's book club.
6. No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram, by Sarah Frier
If Aaron Sorkin wants to make a sequel to the movie The Social Network, he has his source material right here. Frier, a tech journalist, was given enviable access to Instagram's founders and other key players. The result is an inside-the-room chronicle of one of Silicon Valley's most fascinating and fraught acquisitions. A tale of luck, smarts, and strategy, No Filter also reminds us how much business depends on personal chemistry or--in the case of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Instagram's Kevin Systrom--the lack thereof. Just as intriguing is Frier's clear-eyed commentary on what the rise of Instagram culture means.
7. No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer
Netflix, now everyone's best pandemic buddy, is lauded for its ability to pivot, scale, and innovate. The company's success derives largely from a set of philosophies about managing people that Hastings, the company's co-founder and co-CEO, has codified into practices under the rubric F&R, for freedom and responsibility. Some are familiar, like the much-imitated unlimited vacation policy. Others--for example, encouraging employees to take calls from recruiters and report back on the offers--make perfect sense. Hastings and Meyer, a professor at Insead, admit the system isn't perfect. For example, Netflix fired an employee in Taiwan who claimed a $100,000 reimbursement for personal travel. But because the company does not require expense approvals, he got away with it for three years.
8. When More Is Not Better: Overcoming America's Obsession with Economic Efficiency, by Roger L. Martin
An important addition to the "whither-capitalism" conversation, this new book by Martin, former dean of the Rotman School of Management, argues that the U.S. economy, designed to operate like a machine, is showing serious component fatigue. Martin blames the relentless pursuit of efficiency--normally viewed as an unalloyed good--for accelerating wealth inequality. He argues for treating the economy as a complex adaptive system that balances forces contributing to efficiency--such as the desire for perfection--with those contributing to resilience, such as the desire for improvement. Among his recommendations to business leaders: Don't treat "slack" like a bad word. Spending more than is absolutely necessary on staffing, for example, may be the smartest thing you do.
9. Whistleblower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber, by Susan Fowler
With so much anger in the air, it may be unwise to recommend a book that will drive your blood pressure even higher. But Fowler's chronicle of her stomach-turning treatment at Uber is ultimately a portrait in courage. Uber's culture made a virtue of aggression directed both outside and inside its walls. The sexist, crude, unprincipled behavior, modeled at the top by ex-CEO Travis Kalanick, was even more toxic than reports at the time described. Fowler--already scarred from battles in her academic and earlier professional careers--was tempted to keep her head down. But she concluded that the world wasn't someone else's problem. So she became Uber's problem. The rest is gratifying history.
10. A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond, by Daniel Susskind
Talk about technology's encroachment on the human sphere is often alarmist. By contrast this book, by Susskind, an economist at Oxford University, takes an evidence-based approach to the prospect that artificial intelligence will upend much of the labor market. The automation of certain low-level jobs has traditionally elevated people to higher-cognition tasks. But A.I. is a different animal, capable of performing what is normally viewed as human-grade work as well, Susskind argues. The challenge is to leverage the good technology can do while easing the consequences of technological unemployment. Susskind concludes, intriguingly, with a discussion of work's role not just as a provider of livelihoods, but also as a creator of identity and meaning.