Reviewing a business book every week for the Innovation pages of this newspaper involves regular exchanges with my long-suffering postman. The number of titles produced seems to know no end and bulky packages arrive almost daily.
They contain more than their share of the dull and worthy but there are a few interesting titles too. I have two guiding principles for the books I review: Would readers find something here that might help them in their career or running their business? Does this book contain something useful that I – and by assumption other readers – didn’t know or some vignettes that are fascinating and insightful?
Would I buy it? is ultimately the leading question.
I was asked recently by the MBA Association of Ireland to address members on my recommended business reads for this year.
My first choice was Why You? 101 Interview Questions You'll Never Fear Again by James Reed, Penguin. Reed is the boss of the well-known UK-based recruitment firm that bears his family name and his book has proved to be one of the most popular self-help business titles in years.
The 101 questions can be boiled down to 15 that you can be asked with key ones including: What skills will you bring to our company? Show us how you worked in a team? How do you resolve stress and conflict?
Businesses are not especially interested in the historical aspects of your CV. Most of all, they want to know whether you are capable of dealing with fresh challenges in a rapidly changing environment – ones that even the employer can’t now predict.
A nice curveball question is, “Have you even stolen a pen from the company?” The advice here is to fess up as we all have – albeit accidently – but to turn the exchange by saying: “If you are asking me do I have a room at home full of staples and envelopes, the answer is no.”
Frugal Innovation – How to Do More with Less by Navi Radjou and Jaideep Prabhu, and published by The Economist, is an impressive volume on how to see resource constraints as an opportunity not a handicap.
With middle-class income shrinking in the US and Europe, affordability, quality and sustainability are three seemingly contradictory qualities – but bringing them together is a winning strategy in these times. Low-income Europeans, for one, represent a massive market that's being ignored.
The book looks at how new methods of design and production allow for lower production costs and how sustainable practices can result in a circular economy rather than one where products ultimately end up in landfill. Customisation, 3D printing and the sharing economy are all explored in detail with 50 relevant case studies.
Since 2008, there have been many books looking at the fall-out from the financial crisis. This year's crop includes Other People's Money by John Kay, Profile Books. Kay is professor of economics at London Business School and doesn't pull his punches. The question posed in the sub-head here reveals a lot: Masters of the universe or servants of the people?
The book argues that the financial system has become too large, too out of touch with real business and is a business that largely trades with itself. Kay laments the old-style branch banking system where the manager knew the local entrepreneur and suggests that if banks relied on human, locally-gathered intelligence as they did in the old days, many mistakes would not have been made.
In terms of business strategy books, one of my favourite this year was Your Strategy Needs a Strategy by Martin Reeves, Knut Haanaes and Janmejaya Sinha, HBR Press.
According to the authors, who work for the Boston Consulting group, there are five basic business strategy positions: classical, adaptive, visionary, shaping and renewal. There are also three dimensions to strategy: predictability – can you forecast it; malleability, can you shape it; and harshness, can you survive it?
In a more complex world relying on just one of these isn't enough. Making palette choices is the answer. Apple brought together three to create the iPhone in 2007: vision for the concept and the new chip technologies; an adaptive one to adjust components to changing consumer needs; and a classical one in achieving assembly scaler and efficiency by outsourcing production to cheap locations.
The business book genre has grown and there's plenty in the pop psychology category. Triggers: Sparking Positive Change and Making it Last by Marshall Goldsmith, Profile Books, is one of the better.
There’s a dose of home-spun old-fashioned stuff here but Goldsmith has dined out well on that for years and he’s probably right. He says we fall back on a set of beliefs that trigger denial, resistance and self-delusion.
Take one example: inserting an intravenous line in a hospital setting. If you follow a five-step process, infections virtually disappear but a US study showed that doctors thought constant reminder of this – from nurses especially – was demeaning and ignored the practice. Contempt for simplicity, contempt for instruction and faith that we know best are curses that afflict those in authority.
During the year I also get to interview authors as well as read their books and one of the more interesting subjects was Mark Kitto whose memoir That's China, chronicled his adventures in establishing a chain of entertainment listing magazines there. It's a story of bullying, intimidation, censorship and betrayal by so-called business partners. The highly personal narrative reads like a thriller and is instructive in how things really operate in China. His advice: trade with China by all means but don't think about setting up a business there. Stocking fillers: Four of the best Why Should Anyone Work Here By Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, HBR Press. How to create an authentic organisation to achieve true engagement.
More By Paul Davis, Oak Tree Press. A step-by step guide to getting sales growth in your professional practice Copy, Copy, Copy By Mark Earls, Wiley. How adaptation and mash-up can work for your business.
Losing the Signal By Jacqui McNish and Sean Silcoff, Flatiron. The remarkable rise and fall of BlackBerry.