The Best Business Books of The Corona Year 2020
In March I was not sure I could compile this year’s list. I did buy, loan and start loads of books, but just as on any year. But I had difficulty following the text. Everything felt lame, in contrast to the surrounding reality.
There was only one topic in the world (Covid-19), only one emotion (fear) and all the books in the world were written before it all happened.
Only after the scale, economic consequences and duration of the pandemic became clear, I was able to start reading again.
Here are the best of the lot:
1. John Kay & Mervyn King: Radical Uncertainty
In March we did not know how dangerous the virus would be, or how fast it would spread. When there was no knowledge, assumptions were made, and mathematical models build based on those assumptions.
The mathematical models predicted when hospitals would be full, when we would run out of respirato, and when the infections would reach exponential growth.
The same models were used for political decision making, when borders would be shut, schools and restaurants closed. And companies used these models to figure out the effects on demand, on the supply-chain and on cash.
What if one of the key numbers in the models was faulty? What if the model represents reality in a one-sided way? These are questions John Kay and Mervyn King attempt to answer. Both are distinguished
British economists. They warn us, not to put too much trust on a single model. Instead, we should always use multiple models. And we should ask the question “What is going on here?”
Highly recommended to anyone interested in data, measurement and leadership.
2. Adam Kucharski: The Rules of Contagion
Kucharski’s book also became topical thanks to the virus.
Kucharski is an English mathematician and epidemiologist who has researched ebola, stock crashes and viral phenomena in the social media.
Would people want to read about contagion and the underlying principles? How diseases, panics and social media crazes begin? How they spread? How does the contagion peter out or become squashed?
It is to Kucharski’s benefit that the book was written before the Covid-19 pandemic. As he writers, “each pandemic is different, but underneath there are laws and regularities that teach us about humans and nature.”
3. Rebecca Henderson: Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire
Rebecca Henderson is a charismatic Harvard professor who talks passionately about a new, better capitalism. In this reimagined capitalism companies set ambitious environmental and social goals, in addition to their economic goals.
It is a familiar story, everybody from Larry Fink of Blackrock to a Financial Times editorial are talking about it. But seldom is such a frank manner. Henderson is a former top consultant who is familiar with the cut-troath nature of business on the highest levels.
The strength of Reimagining Capitalism lies in its directness, it’s blunt analysis and tough love. It understands that new ideas are resisted. And still, it urges us on.
4. Gary Hamel & Michele Zanini: Humanocracy
In order to change, a company should be agile and bold. Such companies are, however, few and far between. The cause is bureaucracy. Rules, processes and the need for control have taken over. Employees leave their brains and hearts at home. The company and everybody working there suffer. There, in a nutshell, is Humanocracy’s message.
The alternative is a much more autonomous corporate culture. This is not some idealistic la-la land, but already a reality in many companies. At Handelsbanken local bank managers make their own loan decisions. They are also responsible for the consequences. Other examples include the French construction company Vinci, the Chinese appliance manufacturer Haier, Google, 3M and steel manufacturer Nucor.
The examples are convincing, and the writer’s attitude is contagious. At www.garyhamel.com you can share your bureaucracy stories and make a test where you can find out your organization’s bureaucracy index.
5. David M. Rubinstein: How to Lead
How should one lead during these strange times? It would be nice to ask Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson, but they might not have time to chat. Fortunately, there is this wonderful audiobook of interviews by David Rubinstein.
The list of interviewees is impressive: Bezos, Gates, Phil Knight, Oprah, Condoleezza Rice, Bush, Clinton, Branson, a total of 31 top names. And most importantly, Rubinstein manages to capture something essential form each interview.
Listening to the audiobook version is recommended, since all the interviewees are themselves talking.
6. Erik Larson: The Splendid and the Vile. A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Blitz.
At the end of this year the internet is full of Annus horribilis 2020 memes. They make you laugh and get you thinking. It was a shitty year, but far from the worst in history.
When Churchill was appointed the prime minister of England in May 1940, the situation was already worse. Hitler proceeded in Europe, France was falling and support for the new prime minister was on shaky ground.
The Splendid and the Vile tells the story of Churchill’s first year as the prime minister. Thanks to Erik Larson’s spellbinding storytelling, there is never a dull moment. The book is also a masterclass in leadership. You can find everything you need to know about communication, innovation, partnerships, even on work-life -balance in this volume.
7. Margaret Heffernan: Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future
The novel coronavirus pandemic showed how crappy we are at forecasting. The same thing happened with 9/11 and the 2007/2008 crash. A black swan came out of nowhere.
Margaret Heffernan thinks we will soon see a flock of these flying our way.
Not that we would not have any idea what is happening. Heffernan herself predicted, in her 2019 Ted Talk, that we will soon encounter a global pandemic. But that we will not know when it’s going to hit us, where it will come from, nor why then and there.
Since it is impossible to correctly forecast, we should rather build our black swan -muscles. It means Just-In-Case thinking instead of a Just-In-Time approach. We need to get our process and command-chain down for the next catastrophe.
8. Stefan M Thomke: Experimentation Works
Who or what benefits from the COVID-19 pandemic? Winners include online shopping, video conferencing, everything digital that replaces face-to-face encounters. And in this new digital world, companies that
gather and use data in the smartest manner, win.
Thomke is a Harvard professor, researching product development and innovation. He is mainly interested in experimentation and using the scientific method in business context. Instead of trusting your intuition, or asking customers, Thomke encourages you to test extensively.
As examples, Thomke uses Booking.com, Microsoft and Amazon. An approach worth testing.
9. Scott Galloway: Post corona: From crisis to opportunity
Scott Galloway is a professor of marketing, an author, entrepreneur and activist investor. After selling his successful online retail research company L2 to Gartner for 150 million, Galloway has “spoken his mind”.
Post Corona was published in September and has since been high on the Nonfiction bestseller lists.
According to Galloway, corona 1) accelerated change and 2) gave an unprecedented growth boost to the five tech giants, Amazon, Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft.
Online retail grew more during the first months of the pandemic than it grew during the previous 10 years. And these five companies reported record profits while most employees where furloughed or under threat of being fired.
10. Fareed Zakaria: Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World
What happens when we have all been vaccinated, and we will go back to normal? What can we learn from all of this? And what will happen next?
Fareed Zakaria thinks he knows. The most important thing, according to Zakaria, is that society continues to work. We need to re-open borders, make sure that there are individual freedom and opportunity to do business. People need to start listening to experts again. On the other hand, experts need to listen to people’s fears and concerns.
Fareed is a journalist and author, born in India, currently working for CNN. Wise, empathetic and far-reaching book in a year when these properties where in short supply.
These are the best business books of the year 2020. I selected these of the over 300 books that I found the most inspiring or intriguing, 139 audio books, 77 e-books and 85 physical books. I’m not counting the ones that I did not finish. This year there was more of them than ever.
Compared to the previous years, there were comparatively fewer audio books. I guess that the endless Teams/Meet/Zoom calls had their toll on my ability to listen.
There were many great books that did not quite make the list. Patrick Lencioni’s The Motive, Dan Heath’s Upstream, Reed Hastings’s No Rules Rules and two incredible books on innovation, Matt Ridley’s How Innovation Works and Jim McKelvey’s the Innovation Stack. Steven Levy’s Facebook — The Inside Story and Susan Frier’s book on Instagram, No Filter are worth a mention. As is Rosabeth Moss Canter’s Think Outside the Building.
2020 was the year of a global panic, tough emergency laws and the narrowing of individual freedom. It was also a year of compassion, accelerated digitalization and vaccines developed at record speed. It is evident that the best books on this extraordinary time are still to be written.
Until then, keep social distancing, wear a mask, take the vaccine and read great books.