Tiger Woods was a product of the "10,000 hours rule" © Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Tiger Woods was a product of the "10,000 hours rule" © Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Six books to make you smarter in 2020

19 December 2019

It’s easy to be cynical about business books. Bookshops are full of them – and some fly off the shelves (Dale Carnegie’s How To Make Friends And Influence People has sold more than 15m copies) – but is there any compelling evidence that companies are any better managed as a result?

Time is also increasingly precious that it can be hard to remain open to new ideas? At Supply Management, we have a read a slew of books that, in different ways, are relevant to the procurement function, and selected six titles that could change the way you think, work and manage. For your convenience, we have listed them by topic.

Innovation

If people hadn’t dared to challenge conventional wisdom, we wouldn’t have radar, statins or the anti-cancer drug pembrolizumah, argues physicist, consultant and entrepreneur Safi Bahcall in his much-lauded book Loonshots: How To Nurture The Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases And Transform Industries. The trouble is, his research indicates, that “loonshots” fail three times before they succeed and, in today’s unforgiving corporate environment, that almost invariably damages careers, in some cases permanently. He also makes a compelling case that management techniques such as Six Sigma, which focus on efficiency and execution, deter innovations – especially breakthrough innovations, which seem messy and inefficient at first. The lack of creativity in business is not caused, Bahcall suggests, by a dearth of creative ideas, but an organisational structure that reflexively rejects such ideas as too risky.

Personal development

In Range: How Generalists Triumph In A Specialist World, David Epstein suggests that our focus on specialising early and working terribly hard – what Malcolm Gladwell called the “10,000 hours rule” – can be bad for business. It might work for Tiger Woods, who famously played golf on US TV when he was only two, but for most managers, Epstein argues, “not all information is available when you have to make a decision and typically you’re dealing with dynamic situations that involve other people and judgements, feedback is not automatic and when you do have feedback it may be partial and inaccurate”. Arguing that “we learn who we are in practice, not in theory”, he encourages people to dabble, experiment, dare to fail and broaden their intellect through curiosity. Epstein’s argument is especially timely as procurement seeks to reskill itself for the future.

Sexual discrimination

Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women: Data Bias In A World Designed For Men, introduces readers to the concept of ‘Reference Man’, the prototypical body which cars are designed to suit. This concept stands as an indictment of the automotive sector – it is a significant reason why women involved in collisions are 50% more likely to be seriously hurt than men – and of the way developers and designers in many industries use data in what Criado Perez calls a “one-size-fits-men” approach. This in-built, often unconscious bias affects everything from voice recognition devices that don’t recognise women’s voices, heart disease (because women’s heart attacks don’t follow the same pattern as men’s they are often misdiagnosed) and the design of uniforms (in 2011, 35 years after women began serving in the US military, the Pentagon finally got around to designing uniforms that accommodated women’s breasts and hips. Worse may yet be to come as the very same bias is built into the algorithms that companies are relying on to make decisions.

Agility

“Every ‘overnight’ shift is actually the final stage of a process that has been subtly building over time,” writes Rita McGrath in her book Seeing Around Corners: How To Spot Inflection Points In Business Before They Happen. McGrath championed agility long before the term became ubiquitous and has returned to the fray with an eloquent clarion call for companies to envision what is “unknown, uncertain and not yet obvious to the competition”. True agility, she contends, is often not driven by the wisdom of top level of management who, physically, psychologically and socially, rarely get out of head office, but by the real insights that come to people on the coalface. The urgent task for senior management is to create the room for those insights to flourish and to understand the long-term implications of these changes for the taken-for-granted way of doing business.

Climate change

“No one will be spared”. That remark, by a victim of California’s wildfires, encapsulates the grim message of Bill McKibben’s compelling, passionate book Falter: Has The Human Game Begun To Play Itself Out? After outlining just how much trouble we are in – and identifying the culprits (Exxon Mobil and American right-wing theorist Ayn Rand come in for heavy criticism) – he concludes: “We can wreck the Earth as we’ve known it, killing vast numbers of ourselves and wiping out entire swathes of other life … But we can also not do that.” Resigned cynicism, he argues, will not help us ameliorate climate change but a massive investment in solar energy – and the power of non-violent mass protest – could yet save us.

Leadership

“Will you live your life on autopilot, or will you lead with intent?” That question is at the crux of Kevin Kruse’s Great Leaders Have No Rules, an entertainingly contrarian assault on 10 shibboleths of modern management, outlining the pitfalls of an open door policy, the uselessness of ‘to do’ lists (41% of the stuff we put on these lists never gets done) and why it pays to play favourites (“People who perform better and are better engaged deserve to be treated better”). Kruse’s propositions make for a bracing read – his definition of leadership as “intentional influence” is particularly intriguing – and, as the man himself might say, there’s no rule that says you have to agree with him.

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