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The 2013 Digital Tonto Reading List

2013 December 22
by Greg Satell

The winter holidays are always a great time to catch up on some reading.  Unlike any other time of the year, when you’re on vacation for a week or so everybody else is too, so there is no e-mail to get back to or urgent calls to return.

And this year, it is especially important to catch up.  I can’t remember a time when so much was happening so fast.  Sure, you can keep up with events on the news or in blogs, but to really understand what’s going on, you need the depth and perspective that you get from books.

It used to be that we would read about the future and then wait for it to happen.  Now, it seems that we read about it as it’s happening and the impact is already being felt in business, economics and society.  Just as in past years (this is my 5th list), this list reflects what I’ve read and written about over the last 12 months.  Have a great holiday!

 Books Of The Year

Last year I started a new “Book of the Year” feature to recommend the book that I thought was most important for managers to read.  Looking back, I’m pretty happy with my choice of Race Against the Machine, by MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee about the effect that automation is having throughout business and society.

I don’t think any other book has as much impact and am looking forward to its sequel, The Second Machine Age, due out next month.  However, while Brynjolfsson and McAfee ably described the potential impact of technology, they didn’t go into much detail about the effect new technologies such as big data and machine learning is having now.

This year, there were two books that did a great job of explaining how our world is changing.  The End of Competitive Advantage, by Columbia’s Rita Gunther McGrath argues that, rather than trying to build sustainable business models, the most successful companies pursue “transient advantage” and constantly adapt.

In The End of Power, political scientist Moisés Naím makes much the same argument, but for society as a whole.  “Power,” he writes, “is easier to get, but harder to use or keep.”  We used to expect leaders to grow in power over time, now we’re much more likely to see their power usurped, not by a rival, but by a collection of smaller forces.

Both books point to what I believe is becoming a central tension of the new age, that of disruption and legitimacy.  While digital technology has made it easier to rise to the top very quickly, a rapid rise does not build confer the trappings we are used to associating with powerful positions, whether it be market, political or moral leadership.

General Business And Marketing

Anybody running an organization should take the time to read Tribal Leadership, which makes the apt point that different kinds of cultures require different approaches.  The book gives an interesting taxonomy ranging from Level 1 to Level 5 organizations and offers good advice on how to move your enterprise up the ladder.

While many cast academics as out of touch inhabitants of ivory towers, the truth is that as outsiders, they often get unusual opportunities to look at what’s happening inside corporations.  Several of the best books I read this year were written by business school professors.

Roger Martin and former CEO A.G. Lafley give an in depth perspective of how strategy was done at P&G in Playing to Win.  Wharton’s David Robertson gives a lively account of Lego’s fall and rise in Brick by Brick and IMD’s Bill Fischer, along with Boston College’s Andy Boynton explain how top executives find and develop winning business ideas in The Idea Hunter.

I read a couple of good marketing books this year.  Jonah Berger’s Contagious is a must read for anyone who’s interested in what makes ideas spread. Razorfish’s Ray Velez and Bob Lord (now at AOL Networks) give a competent overview of the digital marketing landscape in Converge and Jeremy Holden gives an insider’s account into how great brand planning is done in Second That Emotion.

For something off the beaten track, Publicis’ Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval show how they built their unique agency culture in both The Power of Nice and The Power of Small and Christopher Schroeder tells the story of a burgeoning Middle East tech movement in Startup Rising.

Science, Technology And Innovation

There were some very good tech books out recently.  Big Data, by Kenneth Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schönberger is a must read if you’d like to know what all of this fuss is about and Ray Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind offers a surprisingly readable account of how artificial intelligence works.  The New Digital Age, by Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen takes a deeper look at how technology is affecting business and society.

I also tracked back and read both Wikinomics and Macrowikinomics and was glad I did. Digital Disruption, by Forrester’s James McQuivey, read a bit too much like a pitch presentation for my tastes, but gives a decent overview of the issues facing incumbent businesses and The Creative Destruction of Medicine by Eric Topol is an informative guide to how technology is changing healthcare.

If you think you can’t be creative, you should read Creative Confidence, by IDEO’s David and Tom Kelly and you might change your mind about what your capable of.  Gary Klein, the father of naturalistic decision making has a great new book out on how insight works called Seeing What Others Don’t.  I also finally got around to reading Henry Chesbrough’s classic, Open Innovation and highly recommend it.

I was very excited to read Benoit Mandelbrot’s posthumous autobiography, The Fractalist, which I found a bit self serving, but hey, it’s Mandelbrot!  I also read Adventures of a Mathematician, by Stanislaw Ulam, which gave a great insider’s look at the golden age of US science after World War II.  It was worth the time even just for the personal stories about John von Neumann.

Economics And Society

I have mixed feelings about Malcolm Gladwell and had similar misgivings about his new book, David and Goliath, but I read and enjoyed it like all the others.  The discussion about legitimacy was particularly interesting. I have a similar attitude toward Nassim Taleb, but found Antifragile also worthwhile.

George Packer’s The Unwinding gives a gripping account of how America has changed over the past few decades and The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism gives a scholarly, but very readable account of the sociological phenomenon by two Harvard professors.

There were also a lot of good recaps of the 2012 presidential election, which I won’t go into, but  The Victory Lab, which explains the part technology played will not only interest political junkies, but marketers as well.

I finally got around to reading Jane Jacobs’ The Economy of Cities and really wish I had done so earlier.  If you’re interested in innovation, economics or cities, you should really pick it up

Reading Tip For 2014

After I publish these reading lists, I often get questions from people asking how I manage to read as much as I do.  The secret is that you can’t be snobby about what you read.  I often fall into reading slumps, but after picking up a John Grisham or Dan Brown novel, I get back into the habit of reading and that “primes the pump” for more serious stuff.

I think it’s very hard to read if you pick up a book only a few times a year and try to press through.  If you make reading a habit—and again any kind of reading—it makes tackling more difficult subjects much easier.  So don’t be embarrassed, Harry Potter is wonderful! (And I should know, I’ve read them all).

In any case, that’s my list for 2013.  Please leave your own suggestions in the comments below and have a Happy New Year!

– Greg

7 Responses leave one →
  1. December 22, 2013

    The Power of Habit–excellent book.

  2. December 22, 2013

    Good one! I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t read it yet. It’s been on my Amazon cart for over a year, just never pulled the trigger.

    Thanks for reminding me.

    – Greg

  3. Olly Osborne permalink
    December 22, 2013

    Viktor M.S ‘Delete: Reintroducing forgetting to the digital age.’ Wonderful book, and beautiful concept. Needs more attention in my opinion!

  4. December 23, 2013

    Greg – agreed on many. Particularly Antifragile & Playing to Win. Must say I need to pick up “The End of Competitive Advantage”. Personally I’d add “Simple” by Alan Siegel and Irene Etzkorn and, on the geopolitic front, one of my favourites of the past few years “The Dispensable Nation” by Vali Nasr. I was also quite moved, shocked, depressed by “The Unwinding” by George Packer.

    Happy holidays my boy. Here’s to more kicks in the cranium from you in 2014.

  5. December 23, 2013

    Thanks Hilton! Happy Holidays to you too.

    – Greg

  6. December 23, 2013

    Thanks Olly. Anybody who wants to pick that book up can find it here.

    – Greg

  7. December 26, 2013

    Greg and I share a similar business philosophy. Here’s my list of must-read books:

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