Marina Gorbis has studied the future of just about everything. It’s her job. Since 2006, the Ukrainian-born social scientist has been the executive director of the Institute for the Future (IFTF), a Silicon Valley–based research and consulting nonprofit founded almost a half-century ago to explore the future and create organizational tools and programs for successfully navigating it.
Recently, Gorbis has been focused on the future of work and learning. Her book, The Nature of the Future: Dispatches from the Socialstructed World (Free Press, 2013), which was named as one of the year’s best business books by s+b in 2013, explored the economic, political, and educational ramifications of the large, distributed networks of individuals that are forming with the help of social technologies. In the IFTF’s Future of Learning project, Gorbis is leading an effort to map the disruptions that are reshaping education and the future scenarios they might produce.
Gorbis previously created the Global Innovation Forum, a project comparing innovation strategies in different regions, and the IFTF’s Global Ethnographic Network, a multiyear research program aimed at understanding daily lives of people in Brazil, Russia, India, China, and Silicon Valley. She is an active speaker and writer whose work has appeared in Fast Company and Harvard Business Review, among other publications.
When I asked Gorbis to share a few books that business executives should read, she said, “I have to tell you the truth. I hate business books and rarely read them.” But then she called out three titles that examine human nature and networks — essential knowledge for anyone who leads people.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari (Harper, 2015). “This book, by an Israeli historian, widens our perspective on humanity. It explains where we came from and how we got here, and what distinguishes us from human species that did not survive. The big takeaway for executives is that Homo sapiens survived because of our unique ability to come together around ‘fictions,’ that is, shared ideas such as capitalism, communism, and religion. That’s why the systems you build and the narratives you create around them as an executive are such a powerful determinant of organizational success. They are a key to bringing people together and enhancing collaboration and innovation.”
“The systems you build and the narratives you create around them as an executive are a powerful determinant of organizational success.”
Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are, by Frans de Waal (Riverhead, 2005). “Frans de Waal’s book about primates offers leaders insights into themselves, the people they manage, and their organizations. He uses our closest living relatives — chimpanzees and bonobos — to teach us about ourselves. And he shows us that many of our traits, including the ways in which we approach conflict, power, sex, and violence, are biologically hardwired. More importantly, de Waal teaches leaders that they can choose which of their innate traits to exercise — and that they can build companies that support and reflect their choices.”
Diffusion of Innovations, by Everett M. Rogers (Free Press, 1962). “The late Everett Rogers introduced us to the concept of early adopters, and he doesn’t get enough credit for his groundbreaking work. Everything that I’ve read on innovation adoption in the 20 years since I first read this book seems to derive from it. Rogers pulled together a lot of research to describe the qualities of a new idea or product that cause it to be adopted and the decision process that adopters go through. I found his thinking on the roles of communication, opinion leaders, and social systems in the diffusion of innovation most insightful. If you want to change your company or the world, you should read Rogers.”