Bookshelf | March/April 2020

View a selection of reviewed books from the March/April 2020 print issue.

Leading in the Digital World


Each new industrialized era ushers in its own leadership style and organizational paradigms, says Amit Mukherjee of Hult International Business School. The assembly line system of the early 1900s spawned the authoritarian boss, while the quality control movement later in the century created empowering leaders who oversaw collaborative teams. These “epochal” transitions, Mukherjee writes, forced companies to completely overhaul their organizational structures. Today’s digital technologies are having equally powerful effects. They change the types of skills employees must possess and constantly impact the operating environment. As a result, leaders must manage diverse, distributed teams while operating under volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous conditions. “These changes enable, even require, leaders to engender creativity—the ability to look past received wisdom and traditional approaches to give form or structure to new ideas,” Mukherjee writes. He explores what skills the digital leader must possess and who that digital leader is likely to be. (The MIT Press, US$34.95)


The Power of ExperimentsTHE POWER OF EXPERIMENTS

Why do people agree to be organ donors? How can citizens be prompted to pay their delinquent taxes? What happens when employees invest the maximum in their 401k plans? Answers to these questions—and a host of others across the fields of science, medicine, and business—can be answered in large part through experiments conducted in the lab or in the field. Harvard’s Michael Luca and Max Bazerman trace the long and intriguing history of experiments that have been used to observe human behavior and determine ways to redirect it. In particular, they’re interested in the experiments at the intersection of psychology and economics that proved “people aren’t always as rational as traditional economics models assumed.” They explore how behavioral economics can be used to set public policy, “nudge” people into sound financial decisions, and improve education outcomes—but they also warn that experiments have their limitations. “Lab experiments can help us know whether and when an effect might be relevant, but won’t predict the exact effect in any particular real-world setting,” write Luca and Bazerman. “Context matters.” (The MIT Press, US$29.95)




In a closer look at how experimentation functions in the tech-driven world, Harvard’s Stefan Thomke explores how digital tools have made it possible for companies of any size and function to test hypotheses inexpensively and often. For instance, every day at the travel platform, employees run more than 1,000 experiments on the company website, testing which small change might optimize the customer experience. In fact, because of the company’s dedication to improving the user experience, all employees are empowered to design and launch experiments without permission from managers. Some proposed changes are small—should the “buy” button be red or blue?—but can have massive and often unexpected effects on the bottom line. When companies don’t experiment, they rely on their intuition, which is usually wrong. Thomke shares dozens of examples of successful experimenters, from Thomas Edison to Jeff Bezos to the New Zealand team that won the 1995 America’s Cup yacht race. He also presents general principles for carrying out successful experiments and describes the managerial roadblocks that get in the way. It’s a helpful guide to practical innovation. (Harvard Business Review Press, US$32)



The College Student Startup Guide


Entrepreneurship programs and incubators have become staples at business schools around the world, and thousands of students annually join pitch competitions and start their own businesses. Dave Gee, director of the University of Wisconsin– Whitewater Launch Pad, addresses those students directly in this honest, step-by-step guide to a successful launch. He first encourages students to write down the reasons that they want to start businesses and the milestones that will make them feel successful. “Come back to this list when times are tough, when you need to balance personal relationships, classes and your startup, when you have to fire a college friend,” he says. But he also addresses the nitty-gritty of branding the business, raising capital, and putting together a team. He doesn’t shy away from hard topics such as when and how the young entrepreneur might have to shut the business down, but he explains that even a failed business is a learning experience that can fuel the next venture. He also shares insights from his previous students who have become successful entrepreneurs and who are positioned to help the next generations find their way. (Startup Guides LLC, US$14.99)



Restoring the Soul of BusinessRESTORING THE SOUL OF BUSINESS

As technology becomes better and more ubiquitous, businesses risk relying too much on data and ignoring the input of people. In other words, they sacrifice the story for the spreadsheet, warns Rishad Tobaccowala of communications firm Publicis Groupe. When companies are seduced into believing that data is all they need, he writes, they “lose the agility, innovation, and inspiration upon which organizations thrive.” But how can companies pair “cool data” with “warm humanity”? For instance, screendominated workplaces enable team members to stay connected— but they also result in diminished communications and weakened relationships. Tobaccowala suggests that companies allow individuals to use the tech any way they choose so their communications remain authentic; continue to schedule in-person meetings; and rely on tech to promote social interactions. In other words, he advocates using technology to enhance humanity. Despite our digital advances, he stresses, we still live in a world populated by “analog, carbon-based, feeling creatures”—and businesses still need those creatures as employees and customers. (HarperCollins, US$24.99)



All You Have to Do Is AskALL YOU HAVE TO DO IS ASK

People hesitate to request assistance because they fear looking incompetent, yet research shows even strangers give aid far more readily than anticipated by those in need. The University of Michigan’s Wayne Baker offers practical suggestions for how people can develop the essential skill of asking for help. For instance, they should turn to people outside their immediate circles; and they should make sure each request is specific, meaningful, action-oriented, realistic, and time-limited (or SMART). He also provides a series of tools that teams can use to create cultures of mutual aid. For instance, in the Reciprocity Ring, workers meet in groups of about 20 and take turns making requests; the others in the group consider how they could help, perhaps by reaching out to their own networks, before tendering their own requests. Baker calculates that he’s facilitated corporate Reciprocity Rings that have generated ideas worth up to US$400,000. He writes, “As much as 90 percent of the help that is provided in the workplace occurs only after requests for help have been made.” He shows how to ask. (Currency Books, US$27)




When children in Thailand started approaching smokers to ask for a light, the adults not only refused, they recited cigarettes’ toxic dangers. The children responded by handing over notes asking why the smokers weren’t worried about their own health and offering the number for an anti-smoking hotline. Subsequently, calls to the hotline jumped 60 percent. The campaign worked because it highlighted a gap between how the smokers acted and what they would recommend for others. It also allowed people to retain agency by letting them figure out for themselves that their behavior was harmful. These are some of the critical elements involved in getting people to alter their behaviors, according to Wharton’s Jonah Berger. “The assumption is that … if we just provide more information, more facts, more reasons, more arguments, or add just a little more force, people will change,” he writes. “Unfortunately, that approach often backfires.” More effective tactics are to remove barriers to change, help people understand the costs of not changing, and reduce the risks of trying something new. These tactics work for parents, policy makers, hostage negotiators—and managers trying to change company culture. (Simon & Schuster, US$26.99)



“It doesn’t matter how much we love our family, respect our colleagues, or like our neighbors. Conflict happens,” writes Columbia’s Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler. And while a healthy amount of conflict “should remain part of a well-functioning life, team, organization, and society,” unmanaged conflict can tear all of those apart. She presents eight practices readers can use to break familiar patterns and achieve satisfactory outcomes. These include noticing and discontinuing unconscious habits, stepping back from heated situations, and designing paths to desirable new outcomes. Her calm, clear-headed suggestions are designed to work in any arena where conflict might arise. (Harper Business, US$29.99)