Wednesday, November 12, 2014

my favorite "business" books

Making a quantum-leap-like departure from the usual goatspeak fare, I'm going to post something vaguely related to what I do for a living...which is to say the thing that I do that allows me to pay the bills and allows me to live, or at least live the life I'm living.

Most folks I interact with outside of work know that I'm a professor, but, oddly (to me), folks don't ever seem to think I do what I actually do, even people who really should know. When I force people to guess, they most often reveal that they've always assumed I'm an English professor, "or something like that." Nope. I teach management.

Yes, indeed. Perhaps the least sexy discipline in the academy. Management. It even looks sort of lame just sitting there like that. And it's hard, sometimes, to even define what management is. But whatever it is, it should be clear that it's pretty darn important. To paraphrase someone way more famous than me, mangers (oh, say it isn't so!) determine whether society uses its resources effectively to solve human problems or does not. And when it does not, the results can be catostrpohic. So, yeah... Not sexy, but pretty darn important.

But I don't really think of myself as a management scholar. Rather, I'm a social psychologist. And I do applied social psychology. I was trained at Vanderbilt, enrolled in the Graduate School, but hosted by the Owen Graduate School of Business (they paid my bills, that's where my office was, and I was the responsibility of the faculty there), but the program was a sort of informal multi-disciplinary social psych program. I took my statistics and methods classes from sociologists, anthropologists, developmental psychologists, and operations management faculty. I took classes at the law school and taught by philosophers, political scientists, English scholars, and cultural studies folks. I worked on research projects with students and faculty across disciplines. I presented research at multi-discplinary brownbags. I blah blah blah...anyway, I was all over the place...

And now I work in a business school. I'm part of the Department of Management and Marketing, and I teach classes about working in organizations, negotiating, and, sometimes, leadership and decision-making.


Occasionally, I'm asked to recommend "a good business book." Sometimes it's hard to figure out what people are actually after when they ask that. "Business," is a lot of things. I do the people things. Not finance. Not accounting. Not supply chain. Not information systems. But the people stuff. (And not the HR or marketing people stuff.) So, with that in mind, here's a short list of some of my favorites. Saved, conveniently, so that I can simply cut-and-paste next time someone asks me for "a good business book."




(1) The Freakonomics franchise. I haven’t yet read the latest one (Think Like a Freak), but the first two (Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics) were excellent. What are they about? If there’s a central thesis (they’re sort of a collection of diverse array of sometimes only tangentially related research findings and illustrative stories), I would say that it’s about decision-making—the hardest and most important work humans do. Reading these books will raise your IQ.

(2) There are several Malcolm Gladwell titles worth reading. I’ve read The Tipping Point, Outliers, and Blink. I think Outliners is one I would most recommend. I didn’t get a lot out of The Tipping Point, but it remains hugely popular. Blink is about decision-making (obviously one of my favorite subjects), but I think it’s done better elsewhere, like…

(3) …in Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide. This is a great book. Unfortunately, Lehrer has sort of been disgraced as a journalist. I’m not sure all the details, but he was caught, I think, making up a story about Bob Dylan and, interestingly, plagiarizing himself. So he probably won’t be writing any more books like this, which is a real shame, because he’s an excellent communicator. (Another book he authored, with a very different theme, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, I also enjoyed, though it’s a bit more dense.)

(4) If your’e interested in negotiation, the seminal text is the slim, super readable, Getting to Yes. There is so much brilliance and insight captured in this one slim volume. Frankly, I believe this book has made the world a better place and, of course, would make it even better if more were to read it.

(5) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. A much more dense text, long and in-depth, but a great exploration of a fascinating psychological/social-psychological phenomenon. There are some really great lessons here for folks tasked with engineering a workplace that taps into employee’s intrinsic motivation.

(6) The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement. Written as a novel (and, as a novel, it is truly horrible) this is a wonderful book for anyone interested in work process. Simple, but very powerful ideas.

(7) Michael Lewis is a wonderful author. He doesn’t tackle social science directly in his writing, but his books are full of social science. Each book investigates a specific market. A market where something interesting has happened. Broker life in the 80s (Liar’s Poker), the credit default swap disaster (The Big Short), high-speed trading (Flash Boys). But my favorite is probably his most famous, Moneyball (hint: it’s about baseball).

(8) Moral Mazes. This text is getting pretty dated, but I don't think it's any less important because of it. Man, what a great book... Robert Jackall does an extensive ethnographic study of multiple very large corporations in the early 80s. He's specifically interested in management. The culture of decision-making in management. The ethics and values that guide decision making. But it's much more than just that. It's a fascinating peak into the phenomenon that is the modern corporate organizational hierarchy.

(9) Thinking, Fast and Slow. Again, decision-making. Good science on decision-making. Less anecdotes and storytelling (though there are anecdotes and stories) than with the Gladwell/Lehrer genera, but still quite readable. Although it is also quite long.

(10) Influence. Robert Cialdini. Good for anyone that has to work with and influence others (and for those that others try to influence, which is all of us). Including the marketeers and sales folks. In fact, if you're in sales and marketing and you want to read that kind of book, this one is probably the best on the list.