Business books have long counseled leaders to embrace change, and for the past several years many of these titles have aimed to help readers navigate the uncertain times that have come along with dizzying technological advancements. This season, new books focus on helping leaders use change to their best advantage—and on giving them the tools to do so.
The Robot as Colleague
“Most people have heard about artificial intelligence or have experienced it in their lives,” says Angela Zutavern, a v-p at Booz Allen Hamilton and coauthor of The Mathematical Corporation (PublicAffairs, June). “But whether it’s government entities or large or small companies, very few have begun to think past the tech itself and ask, ‘What does this mean for leadership?’ ”
Through a series of case studies, Zutavern and Josh Sullivan, her coauthor and a senior v-p for analytics at Booz, show how organizations as varied as Bloomberg, Berkeley Lab, and the U.S. Census Bureau, among others, are finding ways for human creativity to coexist with groundbreaking technology. What makes each company successful, Zutavern says, is “the ability to recognize that we all have inherent beliefs about what is possible—and the ability to shatter those constraints.”
Shifts in the marketplace and the workplace may inspire a “WTF?” reaction, and that abbreviation is also the title of Harper Business book pubbing in October—but in this case, it stands for “what’s the future?” The edgy title of the book, written by Silicon Valley publisher Tim O’Reilly, captures “the worry and the wonder of this time, which leads to the confusion and open set of questions that we have to address,” says WTF’s editor, Hollis Heimbouch.
The author, who founded O’Reilly Media, draws on decades of experience covering tech to illustrate how increasingly intelligent machines are changing the way we work and how they could impact the way we address our most pressing social concerns. “People are looking very critically at all kinds of institutions,” Heimbouch says, “and asking what role we want governments, states, and individuals to play.”
One of the more charged questions surrounding the evolution of digital technology is, “Are the robots going to take our jobs or not?” says Norton senior editor Brendan Curry, who edited Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s The Second Machine Age (2014). That book, Curry says, “tapped into an anxiety that people feel and found a compelling way to talk about it.” The authors, who lead MIT’s Center for Digital Business, proposed that advanced digital technologies that make use of networking innovation and artificial intelligence will cause a revolution on par with the advent of the steam engine or electricity.
The book sold well—about 687,000 print copies, per NPD Bookscan—but Brynjolfsson and McAfee found that it inspired more questions from their readers, Curry says: “People always told them, ‘I get your argument—but what do I do with all that information?’ ”
In July, Norton will publish the duo’s follow-up, which Curry also edited. Machine, Platform, Crowd examines the rise of three phenomena: intelligent machines; disruptive platforms such as Alibaba, Facebook, and Uber; and massive global networks of data. “If you’re in business, you need to think about how all these things interact, and the implications across all industries—not just high-tech,” Curry says. Successful companies, the book asserts, will find a way for these powerful innovations to coexist alongside the more people-oriented aspects of the business world—including human ingenuity and a core network of customers.
After the Idea, the Road Map
Another well-regarded business book, Blue Ocean Strategy, has sold millions of copies worldwide since its 2005 release, according to publisher Harvard Business Review Press. Coauthors W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne’s message—that successful companies eschew competitive, overcrowded markets (or “red oceans”) and instead pursue untapped markets (or “blue oceans”)—still has global appeal; the concept is now taught in more than 2,800 business schools, says Mauro DiPreta, publisher at Hachette Books, who edited the book’s follow-up, Blue Ocean Shift (Sept.).
Books that succeed on the level of Blue Ocean Strategy can appeal to anyone along the spectrum of employment, DiPreta says. “It could be a middle manager, a chairman, the owner of a mom-and-pop shop. It doesn’t matter: You’re still looking at the same issue.” He admits that he was skeptical that there was more to say on the subject, but says he realized that the book’s readers needed help applying it to their reality.
“Renée said that the biggest question [readers asked] was, ‘Okay, what if we’re fighting in a hotly contested marketplace—what do we do?’ ” DiPreta says. “I could relate to that as a book publisher: we’re all fighting for the same readers.” Blue Ocean Shift, he says, addresses “the five steps I can take, right now, to look at my business differently.”
Simon Sinek’s Find Your Why (Portfolio, Sept.), another practical follow-up to a bestselling business book, is a workbook that enables readers to apply the lessons of Sinek’s Start with Why (2009), which has sold 567,000 print copies, per BookScan. Start, which uses a simple formula to help people articulate and understand their motivations, has sold more copies year over year since it was first published, according to Portfolio publisher Adrian Zackheim.
“At some point, [Sinek] started conducting sessions with individual and business clients to help [them] figure out their why,” Zackheim says, “and this evolved into an online product that has become very popular.” Find Your Why, which will be released as a paperback original, mirrors the Why Discovery courses that Sinek facilitates alongside colleagues and coauthors Peter Docker and David Mead.
Firsthand Accounts from the Future
One powerful example of Sinek’s thesis—that a well-defined purpose is written into the DNA of leading companies—is evident in electric-car-maker Tesla’s goals for sustainable-energy innovation, first in automobiles, and later in homes and beyond. This fall, as Tesla prepares to release the $35,000 Model 3, its first mass-produced, lower-priced electric car, Dutton will publish Insane Mode (Oct.), written by San Francisco journalist Hamish McKenzie, who spent just over a year as a writer for Tesla.
The book’s editor, Stephen Morrow, says that Insane gives readers a close look at CEO Elon Musk’s “invention and inspirational leadership.” While it might not fit the traditional model of a business book, Morrow says, the strength of the narrative comes in part from the author’s outsider perspective: “[McKenzie] was a tech reporter, having long reported on Asia. He’s this unassuming kind of guy. Being an outsider like that gives a story a sense of integrity and honesty.”
A large-scale shift in the automotive industry still seems far off, but we’re already living in a world in which ordering almost anything online is as commonplace as buying it in a store. This particular revolution has been led by U.S. companies such as Amazon and China’s juggernaut Alibaba—one of the world’s largest e-commerce companies, with a market capitalization close to $300 billion. Six Billion Shoppers (St. Martin’s, Oct.), a combination of reportage and advice, posits that we in the U.S. can learn a lot from the way that e-commerce is growing in developing countries such as China, India, and Nigeria. Its author, like Insane’s McKenzie, has intimate knowledge of his subject: Porter Erisman served as v-p and head of marketing for Alibaba before leaving to produce a documentary about the company, Crocodile in the Yangtze, and writing Alibaba’s World, which St. Martin’s published in 2015.
In the advertising industry, the much-discussed phenomenon of disruption has been so profound that today’s most impactful ads have no resemblance to their forebears, according to Andrew Essex in The End of Advertising (Random/Spiegel & Grau, June). The book’s editor, Emi Ikkanda, says that The End “opens with a very provocative challenge to the ad industry: innovate or perish.” Essex, now executive director of Tribeca Enterprises (responsible for the Tribeca Film Festival and other film-related projects), charts the decline of traditional advertising through his own career trajectory, from magazine publishing positions at the New Yorker and Interview, among others, to leading award-winning agency Droga5, which has worked with clients as diverse as J.P. Morgan Chase and Jay Z.
“There’s a lot of hand-wringing in the ad industry, and bizarre nostalgia, and this idea that the shifting ground is something to stop,” Ikkanda says. “Essex is able to step outside the doom and gloom in the industry and say, ‘This tech is game-changing and it’s thrilling—it’s forcing us to be creative.’ ”
Fulfilling Our Potential
If the technological ideal, as many of these books suggest, is to give each of us the space and time to make the most of our own ingenuity, then the next task is to explore how best to define ourselves, as workers and as leaders.
In Radical Transformational Leadership (North Atlantic, Nov.), physician and longtime United Nations adviser Monica Sharma illustrates how leaders can ensure that inspirational talk becomes effective action. “There is a lot of literature on the people who have disrupted something,” Sharma says, but “there is a distinction between a disrupter who is primarily using technology and one who is using technology based on values.”
Through a combination of case studies and advice, Sharma challenges corporate and nonprofit leaders alike to move beyond self-promotional, headline-driven “let’s-fix-it ideas of the month,” as she calls them, and to ask themselves to find purpose in their work at the personal, team, and organizational levels.
Then there’s the question of the right amount of work—as well as the right combination of information, technology, and human interaction—all pondered by Julia Hobsbawm in Fully Connected (Bloomsbury, June). The book argues that in this “age of overload,” as the subtitle puts it, our social health—the health of our networks and our relationships—is as crucial as our physical health. Maintaining it, Hobsbawm writes, takes a combination of time, information, and network management.
Some workers see technology as a threat, encroaching on available jobs or cannibalizing attention; some see it as an enabler, empowering people to move seamlessly between work and life; still others see it as both. Regardless, there’s no doubt that technology has changed the definition of “work.” In the introduction to Thriving in the Gig Economy (Career Press, July), author Marion McGovern defines a gig as “a job of uncertain duration in any field.” McGovern, founder of professional-services firm M Squared, offers independent consultants advice on how to manage a digital brand and footprint, name their price, and sell and deliver the work. She also advocates for government and workplace policies to support the growing number of people working outside the bounds of traditional employment.
This isn’t to say that full-time entrepreneurship is the only way to find fulfillment through work. “Not everyone wants to quit their job or can quit their job,” says Chris Guillebeau, who in Side Hustle (Crown Business, Sept.) offers a 27-day plan for launching a project that can coexist alongside a full-time position elsewhere.
He draws from his experience pulling together a varied career based on his passions, including travel (he’s visited more than 175 countries), which he detailed in 2012’s The $100 Startup. Unlike that book, which focused on creating a small business from scratch, Side Hustle, Guillebeau says, is “about creating an asset that has the potential to earn money while you’re doing something else.”
The idea that career advancement isn’t only about one’s job also figures into Passion Projects for Smart People (Quill Driver, Nov.), which aims to help enterprising professionals and academics push the boundaries of their careers through research projects, applying for grants, and pursuing other low-cost, high-energy opportunities. Author Michael R. Wing, a California high school science teacher, has pursued fieldwork across several continents and has collaborated with organizations including NASA and the National Parks Service.
Once a person factors in all of her side projects, burgeoning skills, and other extracurriculars, it can be a challenge to answer the question, “What do you do?” Tell Me About Yourself (Berrett-Koehler, Sept.) offers a six-step action plan to help readers better position themselves in today’s workplace by creating compelling, well-rounded autobiographical stories.
“Some people reduce themselves to one thing, [such as,] ‘I’m a writer,’ ” says author Holley Murchison, whose San Francisco–based communications agency, Oratory Glory, trains students, activists, and organizations to understand and articulate their personal stories. “But as so many move into freelance work, we need to more intentionally approach the question.”
Sarah J. Robbins is an independent writer, editor, and content strategist.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated Insane Mode author Hamish McKenzie's position and length of service at Tesla. He was a writer there for just over a year.
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