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The 2015 Digital Tonto Reading List

2015 December 20
by Greg Satell

The past few years have been especially good for books. It seemed like every time you turned around, some great CEO or brilliant scientist was publishing a memoir.  Or somebody else you’d never heard of just comes out with something incredibly insightful and interesting that you just had to read. It was hard to keep up!

This past year wasn’t nearly as well stocked, but there were some truly excellent titles to choose from. What’s more, the somewhat slower pace gave me a chance to go back and read some great stuff I missed from previous years. So, all in all, I had no problem getting my fix.

As in past years, this list reflects the books I’ve read and written about on Digital Tonto. While this year’s list may not be as current as previous ones, there’s no shortage of great insights to be gleaned from some really smart people. I hope you find a few that you like and enjoy them as much as I did. Have a great holiday!

Book of the Year

While there are many worthwhile management books out there, it’s not very often that someone comes and offers a truly new perspective. General Stanley McChrystal, who now runs his own management consultancy, does just that in Team of Teams, and the result is one of the most insightful books I’ve ever read.

When McChrystal took over command in Iraq, he had to face a completely new kind of enemy. Although he led the most capable fighting force in the world and was winning every battle, they were still somehow losing the war against Al-Qaeda. It didn’t matter how many terrorists they killed or cells they disrupted, new attacks would emerge where they least expected it.

McChrystal decided that “it takes a network to defeat a network” and completely re-engineered his organization from one organized around efficiency to one geared towards agility. Both a fascinating story and a practical guide, the book is also highly consistent with the work of network scientists I’ve often written about.

One of McChrystal’s key insights was that most efforts to build “flat organizations” fail because managers failed to build a “shared consciousness” that is rooted in a shared sense of mission. Until you get everybody working toward the same goal, pushing decision making down is more likely to create chaos than achieve any tangible results.

If you read one book this year, this should be it!

Business and Management

There’s been no shortage of pundits warning us about robots taking our jobs, but few have any useful advice about what to do about it. That’s just one of the things that makes Geoff Colvin’s Humans Are Underrated such an interesting and important book. Thoroughly researched, he argues that we should focus on the one thing that machines can’t do: build relationships with and collaborate with other humans.

Brian Robertson’s book, Holacracy, about the management system of the same name is worthwhile even if you’re not considering adopting it. It stands up well simply as a critique of the state of business management. Gillian Tett covers some of the same ground in her excellent book, The Silo Effect, which examines how we organize things often gets in the way.

If you’re looking for insights about the future holds, three eminent McKinsey consultants offer a comprehensive guide in No Ordinary Disruption, while Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize explains how to create the future in Bold. William Thorndike, on the other hand, offers timeless concepts in his profile of CEO’s of the past in The Outsiders.

I’ve been wanting to read Zeynep Ton’s book, The Good Jobs Strategy, for a while and finally got around to it. The basic premise, that businesses can improve performance by treating their employees better, is interesting. However, I found that the underlying message is even more profound—that poor treatment of workers is actually a symptom of poor management—and she gives a great overview of her work in operations research.

One of the most bewildering trends over the past few years has been the implosion of the traditional TV business model. Alan Wolk and journalist Michael Wolff both give penetrating accounts of what’s going on and what to expect in the future in, Over The Top and Television Is the New Television respectively. I also tracked back and read Douglas Coupland’s excellent biography, Marshal McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!. I was glad I did.

I also read two excellent historical accounts. Kevin Maney’s The Maverick and His Machine tells the story of Thomas J. Watson, IBM’s longtime CEO and Jill Jonnes wonderfully written Empires of Light chronicles the rivalry of Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse in the early days of electricity. Both are more than worthwhile.

Science, Technology And Innovation

David McCullough’ s The Wright Brothers seems to be on just about everybody’s list for best books of the year, and for good reason. G. Pascal Zachary’s Endless Frontier tells the story of Vannevar Bush, who probably did more to advance science in America than anyone else. Jennet Conant’s Tuxedo Park explains how Alfred Loomis, a Wall Street tycoon, became a prominent scientist in his own right, helping to develop radar and win World War II.

Max Boot’s War Made New about the evolution of military technology is, strangely, probably the best book on innovation I’ve ever read. Steve Levine’s more recent and timely book, The Powerhouse, about the race to create the next generation of batteries for the 21st century is a surprisingly great read about one of the most important challenges we face today.

If you want a practical overview of how big data is solving important business problems, IBM’s Rob Thomas offers a wealth of insights and case studies in Big Data Revolution. MIT’s Cesar Hidalgo also shares his ideas about how complexity drives economics in, Why Information Grows.

If you’re still chafing after your latest screw up, you might want to read Mario Livio’s Brilliant Blunders, about how sometimes even the greatest scientific minds get it wildly wrong. Two other great books are Who Got Einstein’s Office?, a wonderfully entertaining history of the Institute for Advanced Study and MY BRAIN IS OPEN, about the often hilarious life of Paul Erdös, one of the great mathematical geniuses of the 20th century

Finally, if you’re at all interested in science you should definitely pick up The Magic of Reality, by Richard Dawkins. This wonderful book, written at a level that any high school student could handle, covers an enormous amount of ground in a tremendously insightful, interesting and accessible way.

Politics and Society

In recent years there has been a enormous amount of focus on STEM skills, but Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education argues that the ability to write clearly, think analytically and express yourself in a cogent, logical manner is just as important. For his part, Benedict Carey, uses decades of research to shatter myths in How We Learn.

While in Team of Teams, Stanley McChrystal wrote about how to fight an insurgency, John Lewis’s autobiography, Walking with the Wind, gives great insight into how one is created. For those especially interested in this area, How Nonviolent Struggle Works by Gene Sharp, often called the “Clausewitz Of Nonviolent Warfare,” is a must read.

If you’re interested about America’s place in the world, you should definitely pick up Ian Bremmer’s Superpower and, with the election coming up, you might also want to check out George Lakoff’s The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant!, which gives a cognitive scientist’s view of how we frame political questions.

Also, while I don’t agree with everything—or even most—of Mariana Mazzucato’s opinions, her book The Entrepreneurial State gives an important analysis of how the public sector contributes to private innovation. While many of her conclusions and prescriptions are up for debate, the questions she asks are spot on and so for that reason it’s a book worth reading.

Finally, if you simply want to read a great story, you can do no better than Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat, which recounts the amazing journey of the 1936 US Olympic Crew team. It’s an inspiring, dramatic tale and is wonderfully written.

So that’s my list for this year. If you have any suggestions, feel free to let me know in the comments section.

I’m off for the rest of this year, but will be back on Sunday, January 3rd with my article about “3 Big Things To Look Out For In 2016.”

See you then…

– Greg

6 Responses
  1. Trevor Sworn permalink
    December 20, 2015

    Thanks for your insights Greg. I’ve enjoyed reading them this year.
    They kept me sane when writing (regurgitating) the marketing module on my MA, but improved my service delivery to clients!
    Have a great holiday season and look forward to more next year! Trevor.

    Greg Reply:

    That’s great to hear Trevor! Thanks. Have a great New Year!

    – Greg

  2. January 2, 2016

    Happy New Year Greg and thanks for your outstanding insight in 2015.

    Exponential Organizations by Salim Ismail is a book you may be interested in for 2016 if you haven’t already checked it out.

    From the epilogue:
    “Exponential Organizations are the key to managing the new age of the Collaborative Commons and the economies of Abundance. Unfortunately, and ironically, there is a scarcity of guidance for this new paradigm. Almost every business school case study today is now out of date, since each teaches (abundantly) how to optimize and manage scarcity.”

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks Justin. I’ll check it out.

    – Greg

  3. January 3, 2016

    Totally non-business, for a great cosmology and interconnectedness of the universe read, Lisa Randall’s, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs. She kind of shows off a bit, and the ideas, concepts, and insight she gives are quite astounding.

    And here’s to a Sweet Sixteen!

    Adam

    Greg Reply:

    Great choice. I’ve been meaning to look into that one. You tipped the scales. I’m buying it!

    – Greg

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