I read (and talk) a lot about various “management topics”. I’ve been doing this since long before I managed anything more significant than my own clothing choices, because part of my brain was swollen in a childhood bicycle accident; it deprives other parts of my brain of blood and nutrients, explaining in part why I know a lot about how decision-making processes can fall apart, but usually can’t remember to have lunch. (Part of that is true.)
I have made some important findings over the last, uh, 17 years of reading and thinking about groups. Let me show you them.
Business and management books, which are latterly bleeding over into the self-help and pop-economics spaces, have terrible names. It is not a useful filter, just as it is not for science fiction. You are as likely to find a worthwhile read in a book titled “Monkey Fighting and Tomato Plants: How To Rebuild Your Team For The Digital Economy” as in any other.
Again as in science fiction, you can apparently get published if you just have a kernel of a good idea, even if it doesn’t benefit from more than a 5-page treatment, or you can’t communicate concepts clearly to save your life. Out of every, say, 10 books I start reading in this space, fully 9.7 of them have me asking “why is this a whole book?”, or even “why is this a whole chapter?” I guess this is why there are so many of those “summarize the hot business books in 1000 words each” services around.
If you’re not reading the citations, you’re not really reading the book. (If the book doesn’t have citations…yeah.) You don’t have to read all of every paper, but you should skim the ones that pertain to the parts that are most interesting to you. That probably means the parts that trigger the strongest “wow! yeah!” as well as the strongest “no way!”. (I am sometimes not really reading the book, especially where I can’t get my hands on the papers in question.)
Sequelae (“More Monkeys Fighting More Tomato Plants: How The Social User Economy Makes Left-Handed People Obsolete”) are either a) not really sequels, just named that way, not that names matter per above; or b) terrible. There are exceptions, but you should not count on finding them.
If there aren’t people on Amazon pissed off enough to 1-star in 10-paragraph denunciations, you’re probably not going to learn anything you don’t already know, though you might find a useful reframing of something. That can be pretty valuable, in my experience, and is also the most common silver lining from trudging through the first few chapters of an otherwise lame book.
So far I’ve found at least 3 books that I would recommend strongly to people, whether they have plans to manage or not. Links are to Amazon, which I’m sure shows some sort of cultural insensitivity. They are also not affiliate-tagged, because I’m not really very smart.
“Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)”: a lot of management, in my perhaps-too-telling experience, is overcoming cognitive dissonance and otherwise getting from questions to assumptions to data to decision to understanding to execution. This book is a really accessible treatment of cognitive dissonance and some other common biases; it has made me painfully aware of my own such dissonance episodes, and made me much more sympathetic in a lot of my interactions. When I find myself clenching my jaw and wondering “why does he do that? so illogical! wtf!”, most of the time I can tie it back to this sort of thing. Also, the book has a pretty decent title, as long as you stop before the colon.
“Influencer: The Power To Change Anything”: making change possible/successful/kinda-pleasant is the other “a lot of management”, for me, so I have read…more than one book in this area in the last year. While this one does occasionally fall back on the “magic in step 2″ formulation of “create rewards”, I found it to be a pretty great treatment of different change contexts, and different ways of approaching various change efforts.
“The Checklist Manifesto”: this book in one sentence: “make a checklist and use it”. Why is this a whole book? IMO because of the amount of cognitive dissonance involved in the idea that a simple tool can make a difference in sophisticated processes, and because making a good checklist and getting people to use it are really the valuable and hard parts. Also because Atul Gawande is a great, great storyteller. (Thanks to John O’Duinn for turning me on to his previous books, which are also great.)
Bonus, not quite as good as the previous three IMO: “Switch: How To Change When Change Is Hard”: a pretty interesting dissection of why some kinds of change are hard, and what successful change efforts tend to have in common. The presented framework sounds a little hokey (“Elephant, Rider and Path”), and the example case studies sometimes feel like they’re being stretched a bit, but still pretty good. I might like it more on a re-read, even.
Comments are open, unusually.
[Updated: I didn't mean to imply that these were the only books that I felt were worth recommending!]