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November 10, 2018
The business books that matter in 2018 aren't all business books
By: Mike Moore and Babak Moussavi

One way to know which books matter today is by looking at the FT book award. Taking our cue from the shortlist, we reflect on key business book themes over the year. Three categories stood out:

1. Grab ‘em by the patriarchy

#MeToo is a year old. As well as uncovering scandals, it has highlighted deficiencies in organizational culture. Emily Chang’s Brotopia adds to this by exposing sexism within Silicon Valley. Bias masquerading as meritocracy is dangerous anywhere, especially when those biases may be programmed into the technology we use. Accenture’s own work shows why developing more equal cultures makes business sense—as well as being right.

Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code is a more positive reflection on organizational culture. Coyle examines business cultures that engender safety and creativity, showing them to be more than just thriving environments. They also promote excellence, with tangible outcomes that should persuade even the most hard-nosed.

2. Forget what you (think you) know

If organizational culture is the micro-business theme, 2018’s macro-themes have returned to first principles. The term “value” is everywhere, but what even is it? Mariana Mazzucato’s, The Value of Everything, argues misunderstanding its origin allows actors to get rich by extracting value from those who actually create it. Her own value-add is in forcing us to question what really adds value to the economy, and how to reshape our economic order accordingly.

John Lewis Gaddis’s On Grand Strategy equally aims to retake the meaning of “strategy” for the serious-minded. While ostensibly a study of war, the primary lesson is instructive for any executive: to succeed you must prune away ego and align “potentially unlimited aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities.” Hubris is the enemy of grand strategy. And from Napoleon in Russia, to Blockbuster facing Netflix, leaders continue to make the mistake of equating past tactical success with assured future strategic dominance.

Adam Tooze’s Crashed equally warns of the dangers of hubris. Tooze forensically analyses the financial system and the catastrophic impact of the global financial crisis. Misplaced expertise, misallocated capital, miscalculated risk, misguided policies—ten years on, the causes and consequences remain dauntingly complex. Ominously, Tooze suggests that the failure to learn the lessons make us unprepared for the next one.

3. Mirroring Black Mirror

Even financial crises may not be the biggest business concern though. A final theme is new power dynamics. In the FT-shortlisted New Power, Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans, propound a new, decentralized form of power built around transparency and collaboration. Old power, characterized by formality and hierarchy, is in danger of redundancy; a wake-up call to companies using such operating models.

Kai-Fu Lee takes this further, examining in AI Superpowers how China and the US are dominating the new power of AI. Intimately familiar with both countries, Lee argues that China’s advantages in talent, capital, regulation, and data, mean it may win this pivotal contest. The implications are far-reaching. Jamie Susskind’s Future Politics offers a glimpse of these, warning about the impact on governance and society if transparency and accountability are not built into digital technology.

Given AI’s promise, this is a sobering thought. Yuval Noah Harari may be right with his unsettling contention that “soon, books will read you while you are reading them.” Future shortlists may take on a rather different character if so.

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