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My Top Books of 2020 - Part 1: Business Innovation and Leadership

I like books. This is Part 1: Business Innovation and Leadership of what I’ve been reading last year. You can see Part 2: Black Lives Matter, Feminist and Politics here. I also like recommendations so leave a comment and tell me what I should be reading in 2021!

My top 3 picks

  • Seeing Round Corners by Rita McGrath

  • Loonshots by Safi Bahcall

  • Lean Impact by Ann Mei Chung

Business Innovation and Leadership

  1. Lean Impact by Ann Mei Chung - The Lean Startup for mission-driven organisations. Packed with great examples from Governments and non-profits. Chung adds another dimension to the classic lean startup approach by suggesting ‘relentlessly seek impact’ as an alternative to ‘scale fast’. This stage is still about scale but not in the way you might think; instead of scaling up operations this is about finding how to deliver maximum impact with minimum resource.

  2. Creativity Inc by Ed Catmull - the mindset and processes used at Pixar to nurture creativity. This book is packed with inspiration for helping your team and organisation be better creative problem solvers. I loved hearing about how the Pixar Braintrust works, in particular the relationship between the Braintrust and the Director.

  3. The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek - Sinek introduces the difference between purpose-driven visions (infinity games) and temporary zero-sum goals or objectives (finite games). And how treating an infinite game as a finite one kills a lot of potential. Sinek argues that business leaders should adopt an infinite mindset: advancing a just cause, building trusting teams, studying worthy rivals, preparing for existential flexibility, and demonstrating the courage to lead. The principles and stories bring together the key themes being talked about at the moment. A very worthy leadership manifesto for the VUCA world.

  4. Seeing Round Corners by Rita McGrath - This is about how to do business strategy in a highly uncertain world; how to place bets on the future, and build timing into your planning. Something I didn’t fully appreciate before is that for the truly transformational ideas it often requires a whole eco-system to be ready before ideas can really come into their own and change the world. Rita calls these inflection points -the point at which the status quo on a which a business is based starts to change. Seeing around corners is a skill and this book is packed with examples and techniques for developing it.

  5. Rebel Ideas by Matthew Syed - This latest book from the author of Bounce and Black Box Thinking makes a case for a lack of diversity being to blame for so many failures from the airplane crashes to the 1996 Everest disaster. Syed talks about what conditions the wisdom of crowds works and where it doesn’t, and why diversity of demographics and cognition is an essential component of high-performance teams. It starts out arguing that the failure of US intel agencies to foresee and prevent 9/11 wasn’t due to not ‘connecting the dots’, but rather the lack of diversity in the intel community and therefore failure to take Bin Laden seriously due to cultural differences. My key take-aways were: we need rebel ideas; we need to have the right kinds of diversity represented by understanding what kind of demographic and cognitive diversity is important for a specific task. Once we have the right kinds of diversity we need people to be able to speak up by building prestige hierarchies over dominance hierarchies to ensure those diverse perspectives are surfaced. Once we have people speaking up we need them to speak to others by networking to invent, because the vast majority of the most impactful innovative ideas are combinations. Once we have people speaking up and talking we need to be able to hear them, by building trust and staying curious to break echo chambers. Once we’re hearing people we need to treat them as individuals and not try to over-generalise to the point where the solution is built for a non-existent ‘average’ person.

  6. Loonshots by Safi Bahcall - This is a different way to think about types of innovation. A Loonshot is an idea that a lot of people think won’t work, but if it did, would pay-off big. There are two types of Loonshots: P (Product-type), which are shiny, new and usually rely on technology invention. The other type is S (Strategy-type), which is more about business model innovations. Both types can be disruptive and incremental, which is a less useful distinction. It’s packed with stories and examples and opens with a nice physics metaphor about phase transitions between different states of matter, that directly relates to how well your organisation nurtures Loonshots as it grows. There’s even a formula you can plug in your salary growth rate up the hierarchy, among other characteristics and find out if your organisation has passed the phase transition where individual career prospects outweigh systematic backing of Loonshots.

  7. Building the Future by Amy Edmondson - This wasn’t at all what I expected. I was looking for a guide on building psychological safety, this is actually a case study of smart cities startup Living Planet. Cross-functional teaming and the importance of radical candor and a win-win attitude comes out strong. Another thing that stood out to me was how starting small is critical if you want to get anywhere, but if you don’t act very intentionally keeping your big vision front and centre, it’s really easy to lose ambition.

  8. The Invincible Company by Strategyzer; Alex Osterwalder, Yves Pigneur, Fred Etiemble and Alan Smith - The latest Strategyzer book is all about how to be an invincible company. Spoiler alert: constantly reinvent yourself, compete on superior business models, and transcend industry boundaries - it’s that simple! This book contains three key canvases to help you do this: Strategic Guidance Framework, The Portfolio Map Canvas and The Culture Map. There are also a bunch of super useful checklists and question prompts. As usual the style of Strategyzer books is intended for reference but not so great for reading cover-to-cover. I have been using The Portfolio Map for a few years since I saw Alex present a beta version and absolutely love it. It's really taken off in my organisation and has helped us get our innovation portfolios in shape. The book has some great new ways to use the canvas.

  9. Radical Focus by Christina Wodtke - A practical guide to using OKRs, told as a story of a startup team who adopt quarterly OKRs. You follow them through an initial not-so-great implementation and what they do to improve next time. Packed with insights about team dynamics as well as organising work, all centered around the brilliantly simple but hugely powerful Objective and Key Result system famously used at Google.

  10. Humanocracy by Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini - Humanocracy is a set of principles for human-centered organisations. Similar to Holacracy and Sociocracy, Humanocracy is very anti-bureaucracy and theory X management. It’s about all the good things like empowerment, networks and flat structures. The case study of Chinese appliances company Haier is fantastic and shows very clearly how a large corporate can operate effectively as a collection of small teams working as a network of micro-enterprises with their own P&Ls - even core services like HR and Marketing. Radical - yes, but also possible. I also loved the example of the NHS Pledge Day events which I'm 100% going to be copying! It’s a long book that repeats a lot of stuff that’s common elsewhere but worth it for the inspiring case studies that show there is no one blueprint for this kind of company, but lots of places to look for inspiration.

  11. The Trillion Dollar Coach by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg , Alan Eagle - A load of stories about how a powerful, influential man helped his friends to be even more powerful, influential men. Fascinating insight into how old boys’ networks work. If you’re already convinced of the power of coaching as a management skill then read Radical Candor and The Coaching Habit instead.

I tend to do non-fiction on Audible so things I would have read had they been available in audio book - Pirates in the Navy by Tendayi Viki, The Really Good Idea Test by Julia Shalet.

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