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10 January 2010

The most impactful books of the last decade

Filed under: books — David Wood @ 2:08 am

My love affair with books and book reviews grows out of my admiration for the collective knowledge, insight, and wisdom that human civilsation is accumulating.  Knowledge grows through the process of books being written, reviewed, criticised, and (where appropriate) treasured.

Over the last ten years, many books have struck me in various ways, causing me to revise key parts of my own worldview, or to gain valuable new ways of making sense of trends in business, technology, society, and culture.  In short, these books have made me wiser.

In this posting, to mark the start of a new decade, I list the books I remember as making the biggest impact on me personally, over the last ten years.  They’re all books that stand the test of time, with continued relevance.

I’m saving the single most impactful book for a later posting – it’s excluded from the list below.  I’ve arranged the remaining books below in alphabetical order by title.

All but two of the books are non-fiction.

Breaking Windows: How Bill Gates Fumbled the Future of Microsoft – by David Bank

This book is probably as relevant today – when people are pondering the seeming declining influence of Microsoft – as it was in the days near the start of the last decade, when I first read it.  I remember a sense of wonder at how Microsoft placed so much emphasis on one principle – emphasising the Windows APIs and brand presence – at the cost of significantly hurting other products which Microsoft could have developed.  That’s the sense in which, according to the author, the future of Microsoft was “fumbled”.

Microsoft’s relatively poor performance in the smartphone OS world can, arguably, be traced to decisions that are documented in this book.

Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society – by David Sloan Wilson

This book has sweeping scope, but makes its case very well.  The case is that religion has in general survived inasmuch as it helped groups of people to achieve greater cohesion and thereby acquire greater fitness compared to other groups of people.  This kind of religion has practical effect, independent of whether or not its belief system corresponds to factual reality.  (It can hardly be denied that, in most cases, the belief system does not correspond to factual reality.)

The book has some great examples – from the religions in hunter-gatherer societies, which contain a powerful emphasis on sharing out scarce resources completely equitably, through examples of religions in more complex societies.  The chapter on John Calvin was eye-opening (describing how his belief system brought stability and prosperity to Geneva) – as were the sections on the comparative evolutionary successes of Judaism and early Christianity.  But perhaps the section on the Balinese water-irrigation religion is the most fascinating of the lot.

Of course, there are some other theories for why religion exists (and is so widespread), and this book gives credit to these theories in appropriate places.  However, this pro-group selection explanation has never before been set out so carefully and credibly, and I think it’s no longer possible to deny that it plays a key role.

The discussion makes it crystal clear why many religious groups tend to treat outsiders so badly (despite treating insiders so well).  It also provides a fascinating perspective on the whole topic of “forgiveness”.  Finally, the central theme of “group selection” is given a convincing defence.

Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime – by Aubrey de Grey and Michael Rae

Does it make technological and political sense that there are people alive today who could live as long as one thousand years?  Or are any such ideas just naive and irresponsible fantasy?

This book probably provides the most serious positive answer to this question.  In part, it comes across as a polemic, but the large majority is a set of suggestive ideas.

There is no definite prescription in this book for how to “end aging”, but it contains many details of a program which, if given more research priority, could well come up with such a prescription, within a small number of decades.

Some of the technical suggestions can be criticised, but no doubt the program, if it gets properly underway, will generate additional ideas and workarounds.

As ideas go, this is about as big as it gets.

First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently – by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman

Two things still stand out in my mind about this book, many years after I first read it:

  1. The sad but oh-so-often true remark that “people join companies but leave managers”, meaning that bad managers frequently cause good employees to want to leave the company;
  2. The famous list of the “G12” or “Gallup 12 questions” that can be asked of employees, on a regular basis, to give a reliable indication of the degree of engagement and enthusiasm of the employees.

The G12 questions don’t cover things like salary or stock options, but instead address “Do I know what’s expected of me at work” and “Do I have all the equipment and materials I need to do my work right”, etc.  In short, to be a great manager, you need to “break a few rules” of conventional wisdom, and focus instead on getting your employees to be able to give positive answers to more and more of these G12 questions.  And it’s all backed up by lots of Gallup research.  As such, this book is perhaps the single best guide on what managers should be doing, to improve the working environment of their employees.

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t – by Jim Collins

This book distills a number of very important principles that are likely to make a big difference to the long-term growth of a company.  Each chapter is a gem.

For example, I still vividly remember the principles of:

  • A “level 5” CEO, who combines “personal humility and professional will”;
  • Get the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus);
  • The culture of realistic optimism: “confront the brutal facts”;
  • Find the hedgehog principle for your company – simplicity within three circles.

With the passage of time since the book was written, some of the companies described in it as “great” have suffered reverses of fortune.  However, this doesn’t diminish the value of the advice.

Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning – by George Monbiot

This was the book which helped move me from “concerned about climate change” to “deeply concerned about climate change”.  It combines passionate urgency with an incisive critical evaluation of numerous options.

The author demonstrates lots of fury but also lots of serious ideas.  It’s hard to remain unmoved while reading this.

How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities – by John Cassidy

Free markets have been a tremendous force for progress.  However, they need oversight and regulation.  Lack of appreciation of this point is the fundamental cause of the Great Crunch that the world financial systems recently experienced.  That’s the essential message of this important book.

I call this book “important” because it contains a sweeping but compelling survey of a notion Cassidy dubs “Utopian economics”, before providing layer after layer of decisive critique of that notion.  As such, the book provides a very useful guide to the history of economic thinking, covering Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, John Maynard Keynes, Arthur Pigou, Hyman Minsky, and many, many others.

The key theme in the book is that markets do fail from time to time, potentially in disastrous ways, and that some element of government oversight and intervention is both critical and necessary, to avoid calamity.  This theme is hardly new, but many people resist it, and the book has the merit of marshalling the arguments more comprehensively than I have seen elsewhere.  See my review here.

Influencer: The Power to Change Anything – by Kerry Patterson et al

This book starts by noting that we are, in effect, too often resigned to a state of helplessness, as covered by the “acceptance clause” of the so-called “serenity prayer” of Reinhold Niebuhr:

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference

What we lack, the book says, is the skillset to be able to change more things.  It’s not a matter of exhorting people to “try harder”.  Nor is a matter that we need to become better in talking to people, to convince them of the need to change.  Instead, we need a better framework for how influence can be successful.

Part of the framework is to take the time to learn about the “handful of high-leverage behaviors” that, if changed, would have the biggest impact.  This is a matter of focusing – leaving out many possibilities in order to target behaviours with the greatest leverage.  Another part of the framework initially seems the opposite: it recommends that we prepare to use a large array of different influence methods (all with the same intended result).  These influence methods start by recognising the realities of human reasoning, and works with these realities, rather than seeking to drastically re-write them.

The framework describes six sources of influence, in a 2×3 matrix.  One set of three sources addresses motivation, and the other set of three addresses capability.  In each case, there are personal, social, and structural approaches (hence the 2×3).  The book has a separate chapter for each of these six sources.  Each chapter is full of good material.

As I worked through chapter after chapter, I kept thinking “Aha…” to myself.  The material is backed up by extensive academic research by change specialists such as Albert Bandura and Brian Wansink.  There are also numerous references to successful real-life influence programs, such as the eradication of guinea worm diseasee in sub-saharan Africa, controlling AIDS in Thailand, and the work of Mimi Silbert of Delancy Street with “substance abusers, ex-convicts, homeless and others who have hit bottom”.

Leading Change – by John Kotter

This is the definitive account of why so many change initiatives in organisations go astray – and what we can do to avoid repeating the same mistakes.

As Kotter describes, the eight reasons why change initiatives fail are:

  1. Lack of a sufficient sense of urgency;
  2. Lack of an effective guiding coalition for the change (an aligned team with the ability to make things happen);
  3. Lack of a clear appealing vision of the outcome of the change (otherwise it may seem too vague, having too many unanswered questions);
  4. Lack of communication for buy-in, keeping the change in people’s mind (otherwise people will be distracted back to other issues);
  5. Lack of empowerment of the people who can implement the change (lack of skills, wrong organisational structure, wrong incentives, cumbersome bureaucracy);
  6. Lack of celebration of small early wins (failure to establish momentum);
  7. Lack of follow through (it may need wave after wave of change to stick);
  8. Lack of embedding the change at the cultural level (otherwise the next round of management changes can unravel the progress made).

See my review here for more details.

Leading Lean Software Development: Results Are not the Point – by Mary and Tom Poppendieck

The Poppendiecks have co-authored three pioneering books on Lean Software Development, describing the application of “lean” manufacturing thinking (pioneered at Toyota in Japan) to software development.  Each of the books has been full of practical insight, that often initially strikes the reader as counter-intuitive, before the bigger picture sets in.  And the bigger picture is what’s important.  Here’s an example principle:

“The biggest cause of failure in software-intensive systems is not technical failure; it’s building the wrong thing” – Mary Poppendieck

Mary and Tom travel the world consulting and presenting on their ideas, and each new book benefits from two or three extra years of the ideas being reviewed, elaborated, and refined.  The one I’ve picked for this collection is the most recently published.

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die – by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

This may be the best book on communications and presentations that I have ever read.

It’s full of compelling explanations about how to ensure that your messages are thoroughly memorable.  Messages should be:

  • Simple,
  • Unexpected,
  • Concrete,
  • Credible,
  • Emotional,
  • Stories.

Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies – and What It Means to Be Human – by Joel Garreau

This is probably one of the best books written about transhumanist themes.  It makes a fine job of introducing numerous personalities and ideas.

The book is arranged in three parts:

  • “Heaven” – mainly concentrating on the potential upside of the radical application of technology to humans
  • “Hell” – analysing the potential downside of radical new technologies
  • “Prevail” – mapping out a plausible (and exciting) “middle of the road” scenario.

Scaling Software Agility: Best Practices for Large Enterprises – by Dean Leffingwell

There’s been lots of talk about how to make Agile practices work in larger software development projects.  This book is the best account I’ve seen of how to make this work in practice.

The material is very clear, covering:

  • A summary of Agile principles, viewed from the advantage of passage of time since they were first introduced;
  • A description of what happens to these principles, when they need to be applied in larger projects;
  • A series of additional methods, which can be introduced to support the application of agile principles in larger projects.

Many of the development practices inside Symbian Software Ltd were influenced by this book.

Schrödinger’s Rabbits: The Many Worlds of Quantum – by Colin Bruce

This book covers the same subject as I was researching for my doctoral studies in the philosophy of science during the 1980’s.  Reading the book a few years back, it reinforced my views that:

  • The question of the interpretation of quantum mechanics remains controversial and difficult, being beset with problems, more than 80 years after the subject was introduced;
  • The so-called “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics has (despite strong first impressions to the contrary) the best potential to solve these problems;
  • Nevertheless, the “many worlds” interpretation still faces many issues and challenges of its own.

One day I may return to this subject 🙂

For more details, see here.

The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence – by Ray Kurzweil

This is an intellectual romp, through the 21st century, decade by decade, looking at the likely evolution of the interactions between computers and humans. There’s some mind-boggling ideas (in both senses of the phrase “mind-boggling”, since what may well happen to the human mind in the future is, well, mind-boggling).

Kurzweil wrote this book several years before his later book, “The singularity is near”.  Of the two, I much prefer “The age of spiritual machines”.

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason – by Sam Harris

Over the last few years, I’ve read a string of books by the so-called “new atheists”, and learned from each of them.

The audio recording of “Letting go of God” by Julia Sweeny is probably the most touching and personal of them all.  It’s both funny and moving.  However, in terms of seriousness of purpose, I pick the Sam Harris book as being particularly significant.

It’s not just a book with reasons to be intellectually distrustful of religious faith.  It’s a book about why dreadful actions arising from religious faith (such as the “terror” mentioned in the title) are likely to continue happening – and can be expected to become even worse, in an age where “weapons of mass destruction” abound.  The book makes a strong case that faith, itself, is the most dangerous element of modern life.

The First Immortal: A Novel Of The Future – by James Halperin

The writing in this book is sometimes a bit laboured, but the central ideas are extremely well worked out.

It looks at cryonics and revival – very low temperature preservation of the human body until such time in the future as the diseases that were killing the body can be cured. It looks at these themes from numerous angles, through the different characters in the book, and their changing attitudes.

Some of the ideas and episodes are very vivid indeed, and remain clearly in my mind now, quite a few years after I read the book.

I understand that the author conducted thorough research into the technology of cryonics, in order to make the account scientifically credible. The effort has paid off – this is a plausible (though mind-jarring) account.  It made me take cryonics much more seriously.

The Future of Management – by Gary Hamel

This is perhaps the best book I’ve read on innovation – and the best book I’ve read on desirable management culture.

I’ll cast my vote any day for the kind of pro-innovation pro-enablement management culture Hamel describes. It’s the approach that has great potential to motivate key employees.

It includes chapters on the remarkable management cultures at Whole Foods Market, W.L. Gore (makers of Gore-Tex etc), and a “small little upstart” called Google.

Here’s a quote from near the start of the book: “To thrive in an increasingly disruptive world, companies must become as strategically adaptable as they are operationally efficient”.

And here’s one from around 20% of the way in: “if you want to capture the economic high ground in the creative economy, you need employees who are more than acquiescent, attentive, and astute – they must also be zestful, zany, and zealous. So we must ask: what are the obstacles that stand in the way of achieving this state of organisational bliss?”

The rest of the book provides answers to this question.  It highlights the very large difference to a company’s success that can be made by the management culture that is in place (note: what matters is the management culture as it is actually practised, rather than what is espoused).

The Goal – by Eliyahu Goldratt

This is a novel written to illustrate the ideas in the “theory of constraints”.

As fiction, the story has its touching moments.  As an introduction to a set of powerful ideas on identifying and dealing with bottlenecks, it’s a huge wake-up call.  It shows that a large amount of effort in improving systems is actually wasted.

The Hacker Ethic – by Pekka Himanen

This book provides an illuminating contrast between the so-called “Protestant work ethic” and the emerging “Hacker ethic” which is increasingly widely followed nowadays.

If the former is characterised by the seven values

  • Money, Work, Optimality, Flexibility, Stability, Determinacy, and Result accountability,

the latter is characterised by this seven:

  • Passion, Freedom, Social worth, Openness, Activity, Caring, Creativity

This book provided my first big push towards the methods of open source development.

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom – by Jonathan Haidt

The stated purpose of the book is to consider “ten great ideas” about morality and ethics, drawn from Eastern and Western religious and philosophical traditions, and to review these ideas in the light of the latest scientific findings about the human condition. Initially, I was sceptical about how useful such an exercise might be. But the book quickly led me to set aside my scepticism. The result is greater than the sum of the ten individual reviews, since the different ideas overlap and reinforce.

Haidt declares himself to be both an atheist and a liberal, but with a lot of sympathy for what both theists and conservatives try to hold dear. In my view, he does a grand job of bridging these tough divides.

Haidt seems deeply familiar with a wide number of diverse traditional thinking systems, from both East and West. He also shows himself to be well versed in many modern (including very recent) works on psychology, sociology, and evolutionary theory. The synthesis is frequently remarkable. I found myself re-thinking lots of my own worldwide.

See here for my fuller review of this book.

The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action – by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton

This book does a demolition job on the “smart talk” culture that often prevails in companies which fail to act on the knowledge they already possess.

The book addresses the question:

“Why is it that, at the end of so many books and seminars, leaders report being enlightened and wiser, but not much happens in their organizations?”

As I reported in a previous posting, my takeaway from the book was the following set of five characteristics of companies that can successfully bridge this vicious “Knowing Doing Gap”:

  1. They have leaders with a profound hands-on knowledge of the work domain;
  2. They have a bias for plain language and simple concepts;
  3. They encourage solutions rather than inaction, by framing questions asking “how”, not just “why”;
  4. They have strong mechanisms that close the loop – ensuring that actions are completed (rather than being forgotten, or excuses being accepted);
  5. They are not afraid to “learn by doing”, and thereby avoid analysis paralysis.

The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal – by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz

This book came as a surprise to me, but its message was (on reflection) undeniable.  Namely, rather than worry much about time management, it’s energy management that should attract our big attention.

The book contains some heart-stopping stories, which should resonate strongly with many “busy people”.

The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture – by John Battelle

The book gave me, not just a deeper respect for many aspects of Google, but an appreciation of how online Search is going to have incredibly far-reaching implications.  Search is truly a large topic.

The book contains numerous fascinating anecdotes about the founders of Google, as well as other key silicon valley figures.  But the fullest value in the book is in the analysis it provides.

The Slow Pace of Fast Change: Bringing Innovations to Market in a Connected World – by Bhaskar Chakravorti

This is the book that introduced the whimsically-named but important notion of “demi Moore’s Law” – the idea that products which are parts of inter-connected networks often progress at a pace roughly half of what would be expected, based solely on hardware considerations – such as the rate of improvement described by [Gordon] Moore’s Law.

The reason for the discrepancy is that a product can only be accepted (and them embellished) once a series of related changes are made in associated products.  For example, improvements to mobile handsets were historically linked to improvements in mobile networks, and/or improvements in mobile applications.

However, as the book explains, the impact of these inter-connections isn’t always to slow change down.  Once the previous network ecosystem has been dismantledand a new one established in its place (which can take a long time), product development within the new ecosystem can often proceed even faster than would be predicted by Moore’s Law alone.

The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations – by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom

This book is a sober but enlightening account of the issues of centralisation (“spider”) vs. decentralisation (“starfish”), as well as suitable mixtures of the two.

The book also shows why there’s a great deal at stake behind this contrast: issues of commercial revenues, the rise and fall of businesses, and the rise and fall of change movements within society – where the change movements include such humdingers as Slave Emancipation, Sex Equality, Animal Liberation, and Al Qaeda.

There are many stories running through the book, chosen both from history and from contemporary events.  The stories are frequently picked up again from chapter to chapter, with key new insights being drawn out.  Some of the stories are familiar and others are not.  But the starfish/spider framework casts new light on them all.

Each chapter brought an important additional point to the analysis.  For example: factors allowing de-centralised organisations to flourish; how centralised organisations can go about combatting de-centralised opponents; issues about combining aspects of both approaches.  (The book argues that smart de-centralisation moves by both GE and Toyota are responsible for significant commercial successes in these companies.)

The book also spoke personally to me.  As it explains, starfish organisations depend upon so-called “catalyst” figures, who lack formal authority, and who are prepared to move into the background without clinging to power.  There’s a big difference between catalysts and CEOs.  Think “Mary Poppins” rather than “Maria from Sound of Music”.  That gave me a handy new way of thinking about my own role in organisations.  (I’m like Mary Poppins, rather than Maria!)

The Success of Open Source – by Steven Weber

This book provides a thorough and wide-ranging analysis of the circumstances in which open source software methods succeed.

It goes far beyond technical considerations, and also looks at motivational, economic, and governance issues.  It shows that the sucess of open source is no “accident” or “mystery”.

The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization – by Thomas Homer-Dixon

A sweeping and convincing summary of the very pressing amalgam of deep problems facing the future of civilisation.

The basic themes are that:

  • The major problems facing us are intertwined, and the interconnections make things worse;
  • Things are unlikely to become better before they first become worse (and shake us into action in the process).

The Wisdom of Crowds – by James Surowiecki

On many occasions, crowds are bad for rationality.  A kind of lowest demoninator outcome results.  This is the “madness of crowds”.

But on other occasions, a crowd can end up being, collectively, significantly smarter than even the smartest individuals inside that crowd.

What’s the difference between the two sets of occasions?

This book explains, and in so doing, provides the intellectual grounding for lots of contemporary ideas about the benefits of openness and community.

Will & Vision: How Latecomers Grow to Dominate Markets – by Gerard Tellis and Peter Golder

A lot of thinking about business strategy is dominated by the idea of “first mover’s advantage”, which holds that the first company into a product category has a very significant advantage over challengers.

This book by Tellis and Golder contains a devastating refutation of that idea – both from an empirical (example-based) point of view and a theoretical analysis.

As such, it gives plenty of encouragement to potential new market entrants, and poses grounds for anxiety for current market leaders.

World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability – by Amy Chua

This book is a shocking but compelling run-through of many examples from around the world where the application of free market ideas, in parallel with the introduction of democracy, often backfires: commercially successful minorities become the victims of fierce discrimination and violent reprisals.

As such, the book is a necessary antidote to any overly naive idea that successful methods from mature market democracies can simply be transplanted, overnight (as it were), to parts of the world with very different background cultures.

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1 Comment »

  1. Great list, I’m going to order a few of these…

    I agree about The Age of Spiritual Machines being better than his next book.

    Curious about what your top book is going to be 🙂

    Comment by Shane Legg — 10 January 2010 @ 10:23 am


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