A good business book jolts our mind, teaching us something we didn't know or weren't sure would work. Ideally, it flows smoothly, the concepts easy to grasp, illuminated and solidified by enticing examples.
By that score, two books stand out from the pack I have been through this year: Fewer, Bigger, Bolder and How Google Works. Each challenges us to change. Each is eminently practical. Each presents notions that have worked effectively. And each is a charming read. In a year of many meritorious books, those were at the top of my 2014 list of best management books:
1. Fewer, Bigger, Bolder
by Sanjay Khosla and Mohanbir Sawhney
I leaned toward this book as the winner because it was more focused, and the ideas were effective not just at Kraft, where Mr. Khosla led the developing markets operation, but at other companies the pair worked with. The main point is to do less, making fewer but bigger bets, focusing on where you can win. With sharp focus, you can grow faster than if you get strangled by complexity that is rife in modern organizations.
2. How Google Works
by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg
A lot of what we consider normal, sensible operating practices aren't normal at Google, and its success in growing from a search engine with no revenue to a powerful, rich colossus with a series of iconic products suggests we can learn a lot from its unconventional approaches. The two company veterans take you inside and share its management secrets.
3. Left Brain, Right Stuff
by Phil Rosenzweig
The International Institute for Management Development (IMD) professor brushes aside recent research on decision making and instead calls for a melding of left-brain analytical thinking with a willingness to take large risks, as exemplified by the pilots chronicled in Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff. It's a clear, colourful and compelling work on a topic vital for executives.
4. Scaling Up Excellence
by Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao
A major corporate problem is taking successful ideas from one part of the organization and spreading the magic elsewhere – while not becoming muscle-bound by the effort. The Stanford University professors probe this tricky terrain. While not offering easy answers, the book certainly gives executives valuable insights into helping their organizations grow.
5. Thanks for the Feedback
by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen
Learning from feedback is vital for growth yet most of us struggle, treating feedback not as a gift but more like a colonoscopy – something to be endured – in the pungent description of the consultants who wrote this book. They probe the psychology of receiving feedback and offer suggestions for improvements in a sprawling, almost too-much-in-depth, look at the issue.
6. A Bigger Prize
by Margaret Heffernan
A former CEO presents a powerful, well-researched attack against an essential premise of our capitalist system: Competition. She shows how it is ineffective, in education, in health, in business and other arenas, leading companies to ruin – think of the financial debacle – or at least unhealthy, unproductive cultures in which dog-eats-dog comes true. Our obsession with capitalism deters us from honing our collaborative gifts, yet our organizations – and thus economy and education system – depend on collaboration. It's a sobering, illuminating read, for those willing to be disturbed.
7. Low-Hanging Fruit
by Jeremy Eden and Terri Long
The consulting team argues that companies too often ignore the simple and practical ideas for achieving process improvements – low-hanging fruit – and instead get locked into cumbersome, consultant-led programs that often prove fruitless. The book offers examples of ways to look inside your company, without outside help, and get powerful productivity gains.
8) Overworked and Overwhelmed
by Scott Eblin
As he has worked to take executives to the next level, this executive coach has watched his clients struggle, unbalanced and unable to handle the multiple demands on them. This, of course, is a common malady today and he helps readers to understand the fight-or-flight frenzy their lives have become, and suggests palliatives, from time-management tips to mindfulness to movement, all informed by his own battle to deal with the multiple sclerosis that attacked his body five years ago and forced him to seek optimal health practices.
by Joseph McCormack
To be effective in a world of information overload and distraction, this consultant argues you must be brief. He shows us what brief means in different contexts at work, explains why we struggle with it (cowardice, confidence and callousness among the reasons), and proposes how to achieve it, with lots of practical templates to follow in winnowing down your message.
10. Powers of Two
by Joshua Wolf Shenk
The essayist leads us on a marvellous tour of the great creative pairs of recent centuries, opening our eyes to the power that comes when two creative people find a catalytic confluence. The book lacks practical tips but if you settle back and enjoy his captivating way with words and anecdotes – and the pairs he chooses to illuminate, from John Lennon and Paul McCartney to Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger – you'll have a good time and learn.
If you're looking for more unusual reading with an economic flavour for the holidays, or a unique gift, consider The Mystery of the Invisible Hand, the latest in a series featuring fictional Harvard professor Henry Spearman, written by University of Virginia economics professor Kenneth Elzinga under the pseudonym Marshall Jevons.
Fresh from winning the Nobel Prize, the balding professor finds himself a visiting scholar in San Antonio, dealing with the apparent suicide of a brilliant young artist.
The mystery often gets lost in the constant meditations on economics, from marriage to art, but that's the joy: It's a series of well-written economics lessons combined with a decent mystery.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.