Over the upcoming fortnight, as we collectively inch ever closer to the end of one year and the fresh start of another, I thought we would do something slightly different. With Covid proving to be the ever-changing face of an utter bastard, we all deserve a break, some time to sit down, take a deep breath and enjoy a favorite treat.
Habitually lost in the chaos of the pandemic is the resilience shown by people such as yourself. Despite the frustration of today and uncertainty of tomorrow, most do the best that they can with the cards that they have been dealt. It is, in many senses of the word, a historic effort, and far too little attention is given to it. You deserve credit. You really do.
So, here is sincerely hoping that you get to take some time off in the weeks to come, to recharge and reconfigure, at whatever oasis you desire.
Me, I thought I would attempt to escape into the literary world the moment my daughter allows me to, perhaps together with a tiny, tiny glass of my favorite Japanese whisky. I have always loved books, and the more I read, the more I want to read. We are all intellectual kaleidoscopes, reflecting a collection of thoughts in unique, ever-changing patterns that define us in the moment. The more colors of thought we absorb, the more we can create. Reading is therefore, I believe, in many ways a process to create beauty.
Of course, my conclusions may appear pretentious at the best of times and I am sure that the paragraph above is no exception, particularly given what is to come below. But the point, at least in broad terms, remains; most intellectual work will be built upon pre-existing foundations and end up an amalgamation of ideas already had. The quality of an analysis is often directly related to the amount of mental models at the analyst’s disposal, and the number of angles through which they therefore can view the world.
Thus, today, I thought that I would provide a list of books that have influenced me over the years. If you are looking for something to digest this upcoming holiday that is neither alcoholic nor so heavy as to put you in a coma, perhaps one of them might whet your appetite.
Starting out, we have The Halo Effect (and Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers) by Phil Rosenzweig. Originally recommended by Byron Sharp, Rosenzweig’s page-turner on the pitfalls of corporate analysis is a must-read for anyone looking to improve as a strategist. Thoroughly thought-provoking and frequently funny, it details the most common errors and pseudo-scientific tendencies in explanations of business performance. Once you have finished it, no article, column, or diagnosis will look the same.
In a similar vein, Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West’s Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World is a field-guide of sorts on critical thinking based on the course by the same name taught by the authors at the University of Washington. Although it relies on statistics and the interpretation thereof, one does not have to be a statistician to grasp the many practical examples provided, nor to take away valuable insights on how to evaluate claims, spot flawed data, identify biased samples and recognize visual manipulation. In many respects, it does for research what the Halo Effect does for business analysis.
If one is looking for something perhaps more purely to do with strategy, Strategy Synthesis by Bob de Wit sits among the best books on the topic that I have read over the years. While it may not be as entertaining as either of the two books previously mentioned – it is written for MBA students and corporate leaders – few other texts manage to cover as many aspects of strategic management and its many inherent tensions (global-local, deliberate-emergent, profitability-responsibility, competition-cooperation and so on). Do be aware that it is not a recipe book; de Wit merely provides descriptions, not prescriptions. What you do with the information is entirely up to you.
Moving on, The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics by Eric Beinhocker takes us from firms to markets and strategy to complexity. Clearly to John Kay’s liking, it details the historic events that enabled the emergence of neoclassical economic theory and, as a result, its inescapable fatal flaws. By adding break-through findings from fields as diverse as physics, evolutionary biology, anthropology, psychology and information theory to the debate, Beinhocker delivers a strong case for why economists (and, I would argue, most anyone working in a strategic role) need to shift to a complexity-coherent approach. The implications of his work are not merely far-reaching, but true to the subtitle nothing short of radical.
Finally, we get to When More is Not Better: Overcoming America’s Obsession with Economic Efficiency by Roger L. Martin. This is, admittedly, a very personal choice. My ‘discovery’ of complex adaptive systems, in no small part thanks to Dave Snowden, is one the most significant events in my career as it fundamentally changed my approach to strategy. In this book, one can see the amiable Martin taking his first steps on a similar journey. As such, although I disagree with some of his conclusions, it is a read that I can easily identify with. For any strategist looking for an introduction to complexity from a business standpoint, its first half in particular provides a good starting point.
As alluded to earlier, my own schedule is currently (and for the foreseeable future) entirely in the hands of my daughter, Idun. However, I will try to make time to read a few books myself too.
First, we have Marketing Planning and Strategy: A Practical Introduction by John Dawes. For full disclosure, I consider John a friend, but his track record should be plenty and then some to entice even the most skeptical of buyers. The importance of How Brands Grow is undeniable – in fact, so much so that I did not even put it in my list above; I expect everyone to already know about it – and in this book, John (who some have called Byron’s right hand man, though I think that is selling him very short) puts it all into practice. I strongly suspect it will prove to be a permanent addition to the list of texts that all marketers must read.
My second to-read is Gary Klein’s Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights. Worrying Malcolm Gladwell recommendation aside, Klein has consistently been one of the most interesting voices in complexity-coherent decision-making and applied psychology over the last decade. Given the obvious importance of insights in strategy (agency fetishization aside), I highly look forward to reading his take.
Lastly, we have Humanity in a Creative Universe by Stuart Kauffman. As many will be aware, I consider Kauffman to be one of the most important thinkers not merely of our day and age, but also in a broader historical context. In this book, he discusses the implications of complexity, the adjacent possible and dynamically changing constraints in biology, physics, philosophy and, by extension, our view of the world. I do not expect it to be an easy read, but one that I will keep coming back to.
If anyone wants to, so to speak, read along with me, just reach out on Twitter and we will set up a Strategy in Praxis book club of sorts.
Next week, we are going to do that most clichéd of New Year related things: a retrospective of the year that has been.
Until then, have a lovely weekend. From the bottom of my heart, I wish you the happiest of holidays.
Onwards and upwards,