In 2011, 41 books taught, challenged and entertained me (down from 43 in 2010, a worrying trend). This was how it played out.
Straw Dogs was recommended to me by a close friend and it was a book I promptly disagreed with. Its central thesis was that man was still a slave to animal passions and thus, still ruled by violence, had not advanced in any way. I contrast that with the world I see in which slowly, painfully we have consistently enlarged our circle of care from family to tribe to include those who would have once been persecuted for beliefs and practices foreign to ourselves. It is imperfect and unevenly distributed, but, particularly if you read Orlando Figes on the casual brutality of pre-revolution Russian peasantry, that any part of the world we live in today is utterly different to that horror says something about our ability to progress.
Epictetus and Musonius Rufus have had more effect on me than any other writers I think I have ever read. Their outline of stoicism is something I had begun to delve into last year and now consider to be core principles to abide by. As with all philosophy, one should not just put on the full mantle of stoicism without questioning or challenging its parts (and some parts do invite challenge), but as a pathway to a more honourable, happier life it has been supremely valuable. I’d recommend William Irvine’s a Guide to the Good Life as a great introduction to stoicism.
Michael Porter’s classic is incredibly dense with useful information and perspective, so much so that it can occasionally become a challenging read. It’s hugely important for understanding the importance of where you are in your industry with regard to its evolution and your competitors. One of the most enlightening and refreshing concepts was that strategy within an industry is often ideally about making moves that do not have a negative impact on your competitors; negative impacts = retaliation = diminishing margins. Porter’s work also ties nicely in with my stoic reading as his exhortation that the key to every company is that it live in harmony with its industry and environment is almost word for word the mantra of stoicism that man should live in accordance with nature.
In contrast to Porter’s heavy prose, Rumelt’s Good Strategy, Bad Strategy is beautifully written and accessible. It is also iconoclastic and brilliant. Rumelt dismisses most companies mission statements and vision as just so much indistinguishable blather; instead he asks that we focus on the kernel of good strategy: diagnosis of the environment, development of guiding principles and a coherent set of actions that spring from these principles. Michael Raynor’s Strategy Paradox is fascinating, particularly for its placement of uncertainty at the core of managing strategy. He points out that those strategies with the greatest profit potential exist at the edges of the cost leadership-product differentiation continuum. These same strategies are also those most vulnerable to uncertainty and disaster. If his formulations for overcoming this seem less concrete than his diagnosis, it merely exemplifies the seriousness of the challenge.
Rackham’s classic is one of the few sales books based on actual data rather than personal anecdote. It draws upon data gathered from 35,000 sales people to piece together the components of successful sales. It’s dismissive of the aggressive close techniques taught elsewhere and I’ve made it required reading for my sales team. The Leaky Funnel takes a ‘business book as novel’ approach to teach its message. It’s interesting in the way it focuses on the connection of sales to the rest of the business entity and is a fast read.
Sales and Marketing the Six Sigma Way is interested in sales in a far more macro fashion than SPIN selling and as such is a useful complement. It was the book that helped me to better understand the function of marketing and how much of successful sales is structural rather than based upon personal ability.
Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From and Rich’s Skunkworks both delve into the history of innovation; Johnson looking at the factors that come together behind innovative advances and Rich giving a detailed history of his time leading the original Skunkworks at Lockheed. However, the beasts that blew me away this year were Gotham and Lies my teacher told me. Be warned Gotham is gigantic, but as a book that constantly surprised and taught me about my adopted city it is highly recommended to every New Yorker. Whenever I think that the pace of startups is frenetic, I can reflect on just how recent so much of New York is and the incredible pace with which it was built would put almost every modern entrepreneur to shame.
Lies my teacher told me takes aim at the way school textbooks have burnished lesser men into heroes and fudged facts in order to get the nod from partisan school boards. Among other things, it outlines the atrocities of Christopher Columbus and the veil that has been drawn for so many over the origins of the civil war (yes, it was principally about slavery, not states rights). Give it to your children and watch them lay down some knowledge on their high-school history teachers.
Management and Organisation
High Output Management is a great practical read for management at all levels. It lays into the problem of co-ordination between departments while ensuring knowledgeable management and makes a good case for a matrix reporting structure within organisations. It also doles out advice on people management that I have found helpful over the last year. The Goal is, like the Leaky Funnel, a business book written as a novel and succeeds well in its mission. It focuses on the Theory of Constraints and condenses the problem of businesses down to Throughput, Inventory and Operational expense. It’s obviously aimed at bricks and mortar industry but I found the lessons valuable for my own more ephemeral business.
The Balanced Scorecard was a whitepaper with 200 too many pages in it, though maybe my harsh judgement comes from the fact that its focus is on far larger businesses than I am involved with. I had high hopes for the Fractal Organisation that were immediately tarnished by the churlish tone the author adopted in his introduction, however looking beyond that there were good nuggets of information around the problems that organisations find when facing the need to adapt to environments of greater and greater complexity.
The debate over Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic still rages, and I’ve read my fair share of the combatants around this, but nothing gave me the same insight as Scott’s own words. His passion for science and his essential humanity burn through and his last words to his family are choking. Johnson’s Big Dead Place gives the alternate view of Antarctica: that of the life of modern day base workers. It’s a highly engaging book that suggests that whatever scientific purpose is proclaimed by the Antarctic authorities, it is stifling bureaucracy (and alcohol) that rules in the south.
The Steve Jobs biography has been dissected by others and we don’t need another one here. Othmer’s Adland was not quite what I expected and thus I got the sense I was reading it for the wrong reasons. Nevertheless it is an engaging look at one man’s journey through the advertising world; here be dragons.
Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny
Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins
The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
Snuff by Terry Pratchett
The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connolly
The Drop by Michael Connolly
11/22/63 by Stephen King
Lord of Light is a classic fantasy I return to at least once a year, and I am fooled into believing I know more about hinduism than I really do every time. What comes through Michael Connolly’s books is his expert grasp of the minutiae of his subjects; this is a guy who knows the LA crime beat. I read the entire Hunger Games Trilogy in one evening, which testifies to its popcorn readability; it was fascinating to see how Collins had brought together utterly disparate worlds with ease (think Project Runway meets Deliverance). Snuff was, as always with Pratchett, a diverting read but not up to par with some of his other discworld novels and 11/22/63 was both a fascinating meditation on time travel and paean to the late 50s and a simpler time.
I finished the year on Skinnny Legs and All by Tom Robbins and it was the best work of fiction I read all year. A fascinating look at art, the divine Goddess and the Middle East conflict.
Lessons learned is a compendium of Eric Ries’ blog posts and is full of useful lessons that are probably more ably organised in his latest book. Venture Deals is a useful primer, but if you’re interested in this kind of stuff I would highly recommend The Entrepreneurs Guide to Business Law by Bagley and Dauchy as a more comprehensive read.
Liars Poker by Michael Lewis
Moneyball by Michael Lewis
Be the Pack Leader by Cesar Millan
Naval Miscellany by Angus Konstam
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
A Geography of Time by Robert Levine
Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You by Marcus Chown
Talent is overrated by Geoff Colvin
Everything is Obvious (once you know the answer) by Duncan Watts
I won’t go into detail here about all of these. Everything is Obvious was a fascinating look at how we deal with information and The Hero with a Thousand Faces drew some fascinating parallels around our various myths and legends. Michael Lewis is always good value and my wife swears that she keeps me in line with the lessons from Cesar Millan’s books.
Looking at these books it feels like this year was dominated by me trying to understand my business better and myself better. I hope I can put what I’ve learned here effectively into practice.