After this Friday, I will have presented synopses of well over 200 books over the last twelve years. This includes books presented at the First Friday Book Synopsis, the Urban Engagement Book Club, and quite a few “special commission” presentations. For a number of years, I said that The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharpe was the best book/my favorite book. Then, I shifted that assessment to Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.
My reasons for such a personal ranking are obviously quite subjective. One reason is this – after reading those books, I kept thinking about them, a lot. I remembered their stories, and I pondered their implications. Both of them became part of my thinking, and I “built” on such thinking with other books – notably, Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin as the logical follow-up to Outliers (the 10,000 hours requires very serious practice discipline/”deliberate practice” to maximize those hours), and a number of books on innovation that seemed to make more sense when preceded by the thoughts in The Creative Habit.
I think the more deeply I delved into The Checklist Manifesto, the more aware I became of just how big a challenge modern day complexity really presents. The title of the book may be misleading: “The Checklist Manifesto” makes it sound like a simple book – just create and use a checklist to get things done. But it is born of a deeper issue – complexity. For example, in the book Atul Gawande describes how for most of human history, a “Master Builder” would oversee all of the big building projects. Today, with our 80 + story high-rises, there is no “Master Builder” who could possibly know enough to get such a building built as the Lone-Ranger type expert.
Here’s a revealing excerpt:
Every day there is more and more to manage and get right and learn. And defeat under conditions of complexity occurs far more often despite great effort rather than from a lack of it.
It is not clear how we could produce substantially more expertise than we already have. Yet our failures remain frequent. They persist despite remarkable individual ability.
(our) know-how is often unmanageable. Avoidable failures are common and persistent, not to mention demoralizing and frustrating, across many fields – from medicine to finance, business to government. And the reason is increasingly evident: the volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correctly, safely, or reliably. Knowledge has both saved us and burdened us.
That means we need a different strategy for overcoming failure…
In other words, it is not the solution of the checklist that has most intrigued me about this book, although I think I am a true convert to his solution. His case is absolutely compelling. But it is his diagnosis that makes it so valuable. And, this is no surprise – Gawande is a surgeon, and proper diagnosis is sort of critical in the process of successful surgery.
Recently, I mentioned a book entitled How to Read Slowly. Let me recommend that you put The Checklist Manifesto on your reading list – and carve out a time to read it slowly. I think it is that valuable.
I love the year-end lists, like the year’s best movies, the year’s best books. And in the latest Business Week, books editor Hardy Green gives his take on the best business books of 2008. (Read his article here).
Karl and I have both weighed in with our favorite books of the ten+ years we have done the First Friday Book Synopsis. Mine was the terrific book by Twyla Tharpe, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life. By the way, you can watch the televised Kennedy Center Honors on December 30, where Twyla Tharpe joins Barbra Streisand, Morgan Freeman, George Jones, and two members of The Who, Peter Townshend and Roger Daltrey, as this year’s recipients.
But to name the best books – this is a different task than naming my favorite book. In both categories, I might go with a new book. Malcolm Gladwell’s The Outliers is the first book I have read in ages more than a month in advance of our event. I could not put it down, and was saddened when I completed it – I wanted more. It literally drew me to the next page, and then the next, and the next. It really is, as its subtitle suggests, The Story of Success. And we learn that success is more than the individual effort of the person we label as a success. Success is a group effort, dependent on time, place, opportunity, along with work ethic and skill and intelligence and…
Here is the list from Business Week, divided into two groups — the books we have done or have already scheduled for presentations at our monthly First Friday Book Synopsis, and those that have not been chosen.
We will have presented these four of the ten by the end of March, 2009:
Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions (HarperCollins) by Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Dan Ariely.
The Game-Changer: How You Can Drive Revenue and Profit Growth with Innovation (Crown Business) by P&G CEO A.G. Lafley and management consultant Ram Charan,
Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution–and How It Can Renew America(Farrar, Straus & Giroux) by Thomas L. Friedman.
Outliers: The Story of Success by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown).
Here are the ones we have not done.
Charles R. Morris’ The Trillion Dollar Meltdown (PublicAffairs),
Alice Schroeder’s The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life (Bantam)
The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs (The Penguin Press) by strategy consultant Charles D. Ellis.
Hell’s Cartel: I.G. Farben and the Making of Hitler’s War Machine (Metropolitan Books) by Diarmuid Jeffreys.
Michael Heller’s The Gridlock Economy: How Too Much Ownership Wrecks Markets, Stops Innovation, and Costs Lives (Basic Books).
Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China (Spiegel & Grau) by former Wall Street Journal writer Leslie T. Chang.
Business books, like other books, fall into numerous categories. Karl Krayer and I tend to not select what we call “finance” books, and we seldom do history or biography. We tend to seek books that deal with these issues: how can companies perform better, how can leaders perform better, how can we all think better.
I don’t doubt that we miss key books, but I am also confident that if we simply put into practice the strategies and principles that we discover in the books we choose, our lives and our companies will all be more effective.