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Summer reading 2020

For those who want to slow down and still keep up.

This year, perhaps more than ever, we need to take time away from our laptops and videoconferences and try to clear our minds. Here are s+b’s suggestions for recent business reads that can help you slow down and still keep up with the most compelling new ideas and insights. (They won’t hurt your RoomRater score, either).

Humankind: A Hopeful History

by Rutger Bregman (Little, Brown, 2020)

In his new book, historian Bregman assembles impressive evidence in support of his contrarian take — that “most people, deep down, are pretty decent.” He writes that it is “a persistent myth that by their very nature humans are selfish, aggressive and quick to panic.” Like all myths, this one has little basis in fact, but it remains extremely powerful.

The Power of Experiments: Decision-Making in a Data Driven World

by Michael Luca and Max H. Bazerman (MIT Press, 2020)

Experiments have been around for thousands of years, but they’ve now spread far beyond the boundaries of science labs and medical trials. Business professors Luca and Bazerman write that we are living in “the early days of the age of experiments.” Big tech companies run tens of thousands of experiments each year to bolster the quality of their decisions. Business executives across industries can learn how to follow their lead.

American Business History: A Very Short Introduction

by Walter A. Friedman (Oxford University Press, 2020)

In his very brief new book, historian Friedman provides a summary of the trends and forces that propelled the U.S. economy into the world’s leader. These include the nation’s entrepreneurial culture, openness to newcomers, mobility and adaptability, and eagerness to democratize as well as innovate — even during the Great Depression, when innovation boomed. In addition, the government has played a powerful, and perhaps counterintuitive, role in forging new industries.

Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It

by Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen (Princeton University Press, 2020)

In their recounting of a five-year field experiment conducted within a Fortune 500 company, two professors show how dual-agenda work redesign can reduce the high levels of chronic stress and ill health, feelings of powerlessness, work–family conflict, and burnout that attend employee overload — without negatively affecting corporate productivity or performance.

The Ethical Algorithm: The Science of Socially Aware Algorithm Design

by Michael Kearns and Aaron Roth (Oxford University Press, 2019)

In a slim book for lay readers, two University of Pennsylvania computer and information scientists explain the algorithmic pitfalls that can bedevil companies and outcomes, and explore the solutions offered by the emerging science of ethical algorithm design. Deciding what restraints should be put on algorithms entails human judgement, policy, and ethics. It’s a chore more appropriate for leaders than for engineers.

Don’t Fall for It: A Short History of Financial Scams

by Ben Carlson (Wiley, 2020)

Carlson delves into the psychology of why some people commit fraud — and why others become victims of it. In addition to having what appears to be enormous fun telling stories of impressive bravura and amorality, the author also has some fascinating — and occasionally counterintuitive — insights into the problems of becoming rich and staying so.

The Simplicity Principle: Six Steps Towards Clarity in a Complex World

by Julia Hobsbawm (Kogan Page, 2020)

The business cost of complexity is huge, in both financial and emotional terms. Hobsbawm explains how leaders can use the number six and the hexagon to help reorganize a complex world. “Keep it simple” and “learn from nature” are powerful maxims to help people live and work better.

The Passion Economy: The New Rules for Thriving in the Twenty-First Century

by Adam Davidson (Alfred A. Knopf, 2020)

Journalist Davidson uncovers stories of small businesses that thrive in niches. Whether in the case of an Amish toolmaker or an accountant, marrying passions to the opportunities inherent in the global economy can allow minnows to thrive in this era of great sharks.

Not Born Yesterday: The Science of Who We Trust and What We Believe

by Hugo Mercier (Princeton University Press, 2020)

Most people, this book finds, are immune to conspiracy theories and other toxic falsehoods, or hold onto them as a sort of abstract theology that has little concrete effect. To the extent that people do embrace false beliefs, it’s usually as a convenient pretext for views they already hold, actions they already intend, or because a particular falsehood is useful or at least harmless.

Agility: How to Navigate the Unknown and Seize Opportunity in a World of Disruption

by Leo M. Tilman and Charles Jacoby (Missionday, 2019)

In s+b’s adaptation from this book, the focus is on what the Allied invasion of Normandy has to teach us about the power and utility of organizational agility. General Dwight Eisenhower, the Allied supreme commander, famously observed that “plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” The planning of the D-Day operation was of extraordinary scope and detail. A crystal-clear purpose was accompanied by disciplined initiative at all levels, which led to both strategic and tactical agility.

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