Dispiriting, toxic, suffocating, dehumanizing, soul-crushing, slow-witted, byzantine, inflexible. Gary Hamel of London Business School and Michele Zanini of McKinsey use all these words and more to describe the typical top-down bureaucratic corporation. Furthermore, they note that bureaucratic insistence on control and conformity stifles the very creativity and innovation that businesses need to thrive. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Hamel and Zanini profile a handful of organizations that have experienced dramatic success by relying on teams of engaged, accountable, and empowered employees to make decisions, conduct experiments, and constantly drive innovation. These include steelmaker Nucor, appliance manufacturer Haier, and one of the groups responsible for building the Large Hadron Collider. “As human beings, we are resilient, inventive, and exuberant. The fact that our organizations are not suggests that … they are less human than we are,” say the authors. Their goal is audacious but simply stated: “We want to put human beings, not structures, processes, or methods, at the center of our organizations. … Bureaucracy must die.” (Harvard Business Review Press, US$32)
In today’s crowded startup market, how can founders set their companies apart when they first launch? It’s not enough to rely on new technology or provide a great user experience, because other companies will soon deliver both, says Emily Heyward of brand consulting firm Red Antler. What’s important is crafting a brand identity that creates emotional connections with buyers, which often means developing products that align with customers’ core beliefs. For instance, the household goods company Brandless focuses on providing low-cost products that are organic, sulfate-free, and healthy so consumers aren’t “forced to choose between their values and what they can afford.” As entrepreneurs hunt for their brand identities, Heyward encourages them to ask three critical questions: Who are the potential customers? What’s missing from their lives? How will this brand solve their problems? Features such as convenience, affordability, or functionality “aren’t enough to get people to care, let alone inspire love from day one,” she writes. She also explains, “A fair definition of how to think about ‘brand’ is ‘why should people care?’” She helps entrepreneurs answer that question. (Portfolio/Penguin, US$27)
Why are some leaders successful at attracting and retaining diverse talent? According to Stefanie Johnson of the University of Colorado Boulder, they embrace different perspectives and create interdependent teams with a shared purpose—a behavior pattern she calls “inclusifying.” But such leaders must work hard to uncover unconscious bias and avoid common mindsets such as a belief in meritocracy. For instance, because white men account for 95 percent of CEOs, many of us associate leadership with white men. If we believe success derives from competence, we believe white men are more competent than women or people of color. White men who have earned college degrees from prestigious schools are seen as even more capable and are likelier to get jobs—but those same degrees do not signal competence for women or ethnic minorities. “We also need to check their publication record, teaching evaluations, letters of recommendation, looking for some flaw to confirm our feeling that they are not quite good enough,” writes Johnson. She shows managers how to identify their own failings and restructure the workplace to make it inclusive and dynamic. (Harper Business, US$29.99)
“Traditional leadership narratives assume that the vision-having, strategy-making, troops-rallying leader is the most important person in the scene,” write Harvard’s Frances Frei and leadership coach Anne Morriss. The co-authors take a different perspective. “Leadership is about empowering other people as a result of your presence—and making sure that impact continues into your absence.” They believe that leaders must first work on themselves before they can move outward to empower individuals, teams, organizations, and whole communities. Building each of these concentric rings comes with its own challenges. For instance, say Frei and Morriss, as leaders work on themselves, they must convince others to trust them, but trust is only bestowed when people believe leaders are authentic, logical, and empathetic. To develop empowered teams, leaders need to create workspaces where diverse workers feel a sense of belonging, and in this case the authors recommend committing to deep and rapid change. “Big organizational change almost always happens quickly, and our advice is to start now and slay all the dragons you can find.” Their book is generous, humane—and yes, empowering. (Harvard Business Review Press, US$30)
The topic of responsible management has become increasingly prominent in recent years, but there is still some confusion about what it encompasses. More than 80 essayists attempt to provide some clarity in this massive compilation edited by Oliver Laasch of the University of Manchester, Roy Suddaby of the University of Liverpool, R. Edward Freeman of the University of Virginia, and Dima Jamali of the American University of Beirut. In an introductory essay, the editors posit that scholars in the field engage in “transdisciplinary research drawing from the domains of sustainability, responsibility, [and] ethics” and concentrate on themes such as management processes, learning and innovation, and alternative management frameworks. Some of these “subversive and heretical” frameworks include “degrowth instead of continuous growth, collaboration instead of competition, radical trust instead of management control, or open people management instead of strategic human resources management.” It’s an exhaustive look at a complex and ambitious field that aims to achieve transformative impact on business. (Edward Elgar Publishing, US$31 in e-book format).
Are big, established companies automatically going to be left out of the digital revolution? No, says Stijn Viaene of Vlerick Business School, but they must come up with strategies that will enable them to compete in the digital world. Among their options for creating new value are growing the core business, creating growth in ways that are adjacent to the current business, or self-disrupting by creating radically new growth—which allows them to “think and act like a new digital entrant.” While determining business strategy essentially requires allocating resources to achieve the most promising future, that future is difficult to predict during chaotic eras, says Viaene. Therefore, business leaders should consider and prepare for one of multiple scenarios. “In turbulent times, business strategy will be less about positioning, and more about adaptively responding to signals which will be picked up along the way,” he writes. “Course correction needs to become routine, built into the strategy process.” Above all, he encourages leaders not to be intimidated by the “digital” part of digital transformations, which at heart are business transformations. He writes, “They are business investments that target future-proof growth.” (Amazon Media, US$31.95)