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 / Winter 2009 / Issue 57(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books 2009: Management

In Search of the Silver Lining

Geoff Colvin
The Upside of the Downturn: Ten Management Strategies to Prevail in the Recession and Thrive in the Aftermath
(Portfolio, 2009)

Henry Mintzberg
(Berrett-Koehler, 2009)

John C. Bogle
Enough: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life
(Wiley, 2008)

George Friedman
The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century
(Doubleday, 2009)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us....

The descriptive start of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, a story of the havoc that revolutionary change wreaks on the lives of people, seems eerily apt today. Radical change is upon us, the systems we knew and believed in have fallen apart, and whether we are corporate leaders or employees, fund managers or investors, laid off or relatively secure, the uncertainty and contradiction evoked in the quote are probably familiar feelings.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more dispiriting subject to write about than business management during this year of business failures, plunging corporate profits, and public distrust. Some writers have handled this challenge by dissecting the failures and extracting their lessons; others hold up the shining examples of survivors or find fixes for our problems.

The authors of the books in this review are of the latter variety. They perceive, as did Dickens, that even in the midst of the chaos and despair brought about by radical change, there is always the hope for something better and the possibility that new opportunities are hidden in the upheaval and destruction.

I agree, and it is more than optimism that steered me in this direction; it is the conviction that the prevailing ethos of management has reached a tipping point. After more than a decade of making the case for integrating corporate profitability and social value in a new sustainable business model, I’m finding that people are ready for a conversation about the purpose of business, the definition of business success, and the time frame for measuring that success. In fact, the conversation is already taking place, in corporate settings and business schools, among leaders, employees — and business writers. The books I have chosen see the potential, enhanced by the destruction around us, for making daring changes in the way we manage our companies and in the way we look at the role of business.

Here’s Your Burning Platform

In this year’s best management book, The Upside of the Downturn: Ten Management Strategies to Prevail in the Recession and Thrive in the Aftermath, Geoff Colvin, senior editor-at-large for Fortune, argues that tough times are the right time to make big changes in an organization. “Step one in every consultant’s advice on how to lead change is ‘Create a burning platform,’” writes Colvin. Well, here it is, he adds. The “platform really is burning. If ever people were ready to be led toward new ways of doing things, they are now.”

Doing things differently will be crucial to business survival in this century, Colvin asserts, pointing out that the world has already begun to change in “several big, long-lasting ways.” These changes include a reduction in consumption to the historic norm as consumers pay off mountainous debts, and a cultural shift toward thrift. “Forces in today’s society are already being adapted to clothe thrift in modern dress,” he writes. “One is environmentalism; the mantra of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ is a formula for saving money, while wasting resources is not only personally profligate, it also harms everyone by hurting the planet.” The dual anxieties of health-care costs and impending retirement for a large segment of the population will also fuel this shift, and Colvin sees traumatized consumers and investors being risk averse for a long time to come.

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