Bookshelf | September / October 2019

View a selection of reviewed books from the September/October 2019 print issue.
Make, Think, Imagine


Former BP CEO John Browne takes a wide-ranging look at the way innovation has shaped the world to date and what marvels we might expect in the future. An engineer by training, he approaches his topic with curiosity about the way things work and how they could be made better, but he balances practicality with a call for caution. He points out that technology can be used for harm as well as good, as evidenced by the Hollerith automatic tabulator, an early precursor to the computer that the Nazis used to track down anyone with Jewish blood. But other machines, such as 3-D printers, can save lives by creating replacement heart valves and other body parts. “Innovators must continuously act to ensure that the intended consequences of their efforts outweigh the unintended ones,” Browne writes, but he staunchly believes that any harmful effects can be prevented. He adds, “I remain an optimist, because nothing can be achieved if we decide at the outset we have failed.” (Pegasus Books, US$29.95)




For the 34 million American adults who dropped out of college before receiving their diplomas, education is not the promised key to social mobility. “Many of them are actually worse off economically than if they hadn’t started college,” writes UC Berkeley’s David Kirp in this hard-hitting look at how universities fail the students who need them the most. Student retention rates can be boosted with proven interventions, such as employing data analytics to identify at risk-students, using text nudges to remind students to take important actions, and making sure students feel a sense of belonging. “But it is tough sledding for any campus leader to make student success, rather than institutional prestige, as defined by its place on the U.S. News pecking order, the top priority,” Kirp notes. He profiles a handful of institutions—including Georgia State and the City University of New York—that have had great success by experimenting with retention strategies. “The good news regarding the dropout scandal is that we know what must be done to end it,” he writes. The question is whether schools have the institutional will to make difficult changes. (Oxford University Press, US$24.95)



Economics in Two LessonsECONOMICS IN TWO LESSONS

John Quiggin of the University of Queensland takes on Henry Hazlitt’s famous Economics in One Lesson, in which the basic message boils down to “leave markets alone, and all will be well.” Quiggin takes a deeper view that he presents in his two messages: “Market prices reflect and determine opportunity costs faced by consumers and producers” and “Market prices don’t reflect all the opportunity costs we face as a society.” For instance, he posits that no market exists independently of its government and society; moreover, every market is “the product of social choices about the allocation of property rights.” Property rights are determined by governments, which regulate how individuals can use goods, assets, or land. And all land rights, he points out, were derived from grants by kings and governments, usually following seizure or conquest. Thus, those who benefit from “leaving markets alone” are those with property rights they have acquired through some official and often violent act. Quiggin also considers how conditions such as recessions and mass unemployment “are not rare disasters but are part of the normal working of a market system, unless these tendencies are offset by public policy.” The themes are complex, but the writing is clear, and the journey is rewarding. (Princeton University Press, US$29.95)




Anyone who has ever felt cynical about the literature on leadership will find kindred spirits in Mark Learmonth and Kevin Morrell of Durham University. Not only do they think that the concept of leadership is overblown, they believe the language used to discuss it is dangerous. “Leadership in corporate life has become an ingratiating mask, disguising an unseemly scramble for power and wealth. It enables corporate bosses and other elites to portray and imagine themselves as inherently virtuous,” write the authors. While the language of leadership boosts the power and status of elite bosses, they say, “it has been important in legitimating pay cuts and the precarious conditions of work for those near the bottom of the pile.” They know they’re fighting an uphill battle, but they think the first step in reversing this trend is to refuse to buy in. For instance, they provide examples of business writing in which the words “manager” and “administration” are substituted for “leader” and “leadership” with no loss of meaning. Many readers won’t agree with their conclusions, but their perspective is certainly eye-opening. (Rutledge, US$39.95)




The book’s irresistible subtitle (“why your customers hate you—and how to fix it”) signals both its breezy tone and its no-nonsense practicality. Author John R. Brandt, founder of global research organization MPI Group, defines “nincompoopery” as all the problems that prevent organizations from delivering value, such as poor customer service, badly launched products, and wasteful company procedures. To reverse the problems, he says, companies must innovate, hire top talent, and constantly improve processes. For instance, innovation should help answer the question, “How can we make our customers’ lives simpler, happier, less stressed, and more productive?” To make that happen, Brandt suggests, organizations should adopt four strategies: They should leverage delivery and logistics for competitive advantage, partner with customers in creative ways, incorporate data into the value chain, and offer “bundles” of solutions. “If that end user can’t see the value that we added,” he writes, “we did not create value.” He doesn’t make change seem simple, but he makes it seem possible. (HarperCollins, US$24.99)




Like every other business function, human resource management is being remade by the fourth industrial revolution, write Lisbeth Claus of Willamette University and consultant Lesley Arens. They predict that within five years, 80 percent of the tasks that HR professionals do today will be completed by algorithms and robots. This means that HR professionals must redefine their own value proposition. They must figure out which key legal and contractual functions they must continue to perform, while adding new ones that account for the growing presence of contract workers and the increasing reliance on data. These new “zigzag leaders” will be agile professionals who focus on organizational culture, nudge employees in the right direction, use data to drive decisions, re-engineer the physical environment to encourage productivity, and integrate knowledge from other management disciplines. It’s a big task, but the authors are hopeful. They write, “Because of technology, we are able to make better data-driven … decisions. We can personalize HR and bring the H back in HR.” (Global Immersion Press, US$24.99)




Therapists and social workers advise clients on how to overcome bad habits and improve their lives; executive coaches help business leaders achieve the pinnacles of their careers. But change agents won’t be successful if they’re coaching for compliance—simply “attempting to facilitate the person’s movement toward some externally defined objective.” Instead they must start coaching with compassion—“facilitating the discovery and pursuit of that other person’s dreams and passions.” Case Western’s Richard Boyatzis, Melvin Smith, and Ellen Van Oosten explain that significant change can’t occur unless individuals proceed through five steps. They must articulate their ideal selves, develop an accurate view of their real selves, craft a learning agenda, experiment with new behaviors, and develop resonant relationships with coaches and support networks. When the desire for transformation is intentional and internal, the authors say, people can truly change. (Harvard Business Review Press, US$30)





“The business-case approach to sustainability is not enough—and will never be enough as it is currently practiced—to create prosperity and flourishing,” write Frederick Chavalit Tsao of IMC Pan Alliance Group and Case Western’s Chris Laszlo. They advocate for business leaders to adopt deep, transformative practices of mindfulness that lead them to a sense of wholeness with the world, which in turn will drive a desire to use business only for good. While many people are familiar with yoga and meditation as practices of mindfulness, Tsao and Laszlo also suggest music, gardening, and other activities that slow the brain, increase well-being, expand awareness, and engage the whole person. They write, “Quantum leadership focuses on adaptive skills that change who the leader is being rather than only what the leader is doing.” Tsao offers details of his own journey through personal and business transformation as he fuses Western and Eastern philosophies. It’s a journey that some skeptics might not want to take, but it offers a complete and committed approach to truly global prosperity. (Stanford Business Books, US$30)