Stories before the fall

Stories are wonderful things. What sounds like a heroic quest can often turn out to be a tragedy, as the current unravelling of superstar blood-testing start-up Theranos has become. If you’ve been living under a rock reading those rare business publications un-obsessed with Silicon Valley, the sorry story can is summarised well in BBC article Bad blood: The rise and fall of Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes.

In The Financial Times, Andrew Hill notes the adoration by magazine cover that the company and its storytelling, story-embodying CEO attracted.

After decades of male dominance on the newsstand, Ms Holmes made an irresistible cover story. She was the bright young upstart disrupting an ugly oligopoly of laboratories that were allegedly blocking US citizens’ quest to find out about their own health. This tale, which she told repeatedly at conferences, on television, and in press interviews was one many people, journalists included, wanted to believe.

Hill points out that Inc magazine had a cover calling Holmes “The New Steve Jobs” in the same month that investigative reporters from the Wall Street Journal went public with an analysis of serious problems at the company.

Magazines don’t care if their cover-story coronation of the Next Great CEO, or The New Queen or King of Silicon Valley is prophetic or just plain wrong. The story is king. the story lives in the moment. And with the fall of Theranos, the story is still strong and the descent – as celebrity gossip writers know – is every bit as attractive to readers as the rise. Accuracy, while not irrelevant is secondary to that and as for considered analysis of what might actually happen. Then again, we’re less accurate than monkeys throwing darts at stock market data, aren’t we?

Inc. and its start-up cheering kind aren’t there to look deep into the dark hearts of businesses and tell us what might go wrong. They are bought by entrepreneurs – both actual and aspiring – to give them a shot of optimism.

Then again, maybe too much too much positive attention and media cheerleading could be a useful indicator that a company is doomed. Andrew Hill notes:

A 2007 study of two decades of Businessweek, Fortune and Forbes covers found positive stories presaged a fall in the company’s stock price, and vice versa

What is novel is the speed with which today’s cover stars rise and fall. In their haste to expand, companies cut corners or exaggerate advances. “Fast growth stresses processes, controls and the leadership itself,” says Matt Nixon, author of Pariahs, a book about hubris and organisational crises.

To a degree, she was only following the template for marketing success. “The well-told story erases scepticism by wrapping [its] meaning inside an emotion,” points out Robert McKee, superstar lecturer on the art of the story in filmmaking, in Storynomics, a new book about how to use storytelling skills in a “post-advertising world”.

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Scott Galloway on the break up of big tech – notes and video from DLD18

I’ve been mostly travelling since the DLD conference, so just catching up on my notes and reflections now.

Scott Galloway was one of the people I was really keen to see speak in Munich. His recent book The Four was one of my best reads of 2017 – I bought several copies for our office and recommend on Brilliant Noise reading lists for our digital mindset and leadership programmes.

What sets Galloway apart from most tech commentators is that he does his homework, brings fresh insights and lays out his thinking in an engaging but above all provocative style. This year’s theme of his annual DLD talk was close to the bone for many of the attendees – the break up of big tech.

Galloway repeated and build on the themes in his book about “the four” – Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple – essentially that they are now so big that they are destroying more value than they are creating. Amazon and Facebook seemed to take the most flak in the talk.

Here are some themes and highlights, depending on your point of view:

  • Facebook is a media company and disingenuous in pretending it isn’t: “[Facebook says] We can’t be arbiters of the truth and you don’t want us to be.’ No, we’d like you to try.”

The four treat fines from breaking the law as costs of doing business. In proportion to the size of deals they are getting “$25 parking tickets”.

While Amazon dwarfs all other retailers it pays hardly any tax (see below).

What happens when the most successful companies in the world don’t pay taxes? Simple, the less successful companies pay more taxes. We have opted for a regressive corporate tax system.

The four will destroy almost 200,000 jobs in the advertising industry.

These have been fantastic vessels for the transfer of wealth from the rest of the world to the United States and from the middle of the United States to the coasts.

He also used “the shitshow” of Amazon’s HQ2 location selection process. US cities effectively bid against one other to be the one that waived its tax and other. Laws the most to attract the company to settle there.

At one point he suggested that the Chinese response to big tech had been effective from a national security point of view – ban the US company, support local versions of e-commerce, search and social and effectively lock them out. “There haven’t been any concerns about Russian hackers interfering with elections in China.” The fact it is a totalitarian regime probably helps too, though, right?

At times, then, you could think that Galloway was completely in tune with the protectionists of the hard left and right. In fact, he showed a clip of him being introduced on a Fox News show as a socialist – although one suspects that Fox’s owners would love to Google and Facebook hobbled or broken up by governments. But Galloway insists that his call for the four big tech giants to be broken up is driven by capitalist logic. Like Microsoft in the 90s, he says, the big tech companies are shutting down challenger companies – think Facebook’s assimilation of Snap’s features – and need to be constrained to allow the next generation of tech innovators to emerge. Without the anti-trust suits against Microsoft, Google and Facebook might never have emerged.

This claim was categorically denied by The Second Machine Age author, Andrew McAfee on a later panel that morning. Microsoft was beaten in some markets by the Four because it failed to execute fast enough or well enough in search or mobile, says McAfee, and the responsibility to deal with their excesses is down to citizens and consumers.

Will it happen? If it does it will be the EU leading the charge, since US regulators seem to have no interest in hampering companies that hoover up the world’s cash and data so efficiently. Also, Galloway’s says: “The break up of big tech will not be easy because Jeff Bezos is smarter than all of us.”

You can watch the whole session here:

Lastly here are Galloway’s predictions for 2018. He started the session by showing all of the things he called wrong last year – but he still has a pretty good hit rate.

Authentic leadership and digital transformation: Herminia Ibarra at DLD18

People struggle when they move up a leadership level – they find all sorts of reasons to do their old job and avoid the new one. It’s a subject that London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra has been studying for some time – and one she expands on usefully in her brilliant book Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, which was deeply useful to me personally as a CEO.

This week I had the privilege of being able to meet Professor Ibarra and hear her speak at DLD18 this week in Munich.

One of the problems we struggle with, she says, is wanting to be authentic, but making the mistake of thinking this means acting the same way we have always done.

“People say they have to be true to themselves to be authentic. But which self? Being authentic is about self-determination, having agency, being willing to try new things, new ways of being.”

This reminds me of my favourite definition of the duty of leaders, laid out by the Warren Bennis in the 90s:

”It is the individual, operating at the peak of his or her powers, who will revive our organisations, by reinventing both self and them.”

You have to brave enough to explore who you could be, the selves you might need to draw on in order to be the leader your company needs.

Ibarra also invoked the concept of growth mindsets (I can learn and change) and fixed mindsets (I am good at some things and will never be good at others) as explored by Carol Dweck in Mindset.

She expanded on the importance of this willingness to try out different ways of being for leaders:

“It’s about being playful with your sense of self, a kind of design thinking with the self.”

It’s a kind of seeking mindset then, in which the individual doesn’t just believe that they can change but is actively engaged in exploring different ways of being.

It’s a crucial difference and one that matters deeply to leaders in the digital age. When organisations need to adapt constantly, so do the leaders – so, in fact, do most of its employees, but you have to start somewhere. We need to train our people, prepare them for a world of constant disruption and change – and the skills training organisations often default to is insufficient.

”[Preparing for digital transformation] is somewhat about technical skills, but it is more about emotional skills. Dealing with fear of change, of obsolescence.”

Fear makes people conservative, revert to old versions of themselves, old behaviours that are less likely to work in the face of radical change. So fear doesn’t just bolster inertia in organisations, it corrodes the ability of its people to even consider changing their own behaviours, a necessary prerequisite for adapting.

This connects with our work at Brilliant Noise around leadership in the digital age and our digital mindset model. Actually, it adds questions and ideas that I am keen to explore with our clients.

DLC18 has helpfully posted videos of all of its sessions – so here’s Herminina Ibarra’s if you’d like to hear more.

Taking back the future – DLD18 notes from Day One

I’ve already posted about Paul Daugherty of Accenture’s session on AI – the following are some themes and notes I picked up through the rest of Sunday at DLD 18 Munich

Yesterday at DLD began with Facebook’s VP Communications and Public Policy, Elliot Schrage, defending the company’s critics. What is Facebook going to do about Facebook was his theme, where everyone else is asking what are we going to do about Facebook — and Amazon and Google and – maybe not so much – Apple.

There were two lines of attack from questions in the crowd – Facebook is to blame for fake news skewing elections and Facebook had the media industry help build it as a publishing channel and now is going to screw them.

The fake news question – Kara Swisher asked if underinvestment in prevention was a management issue – was responded to along the lines of hands up, sorry, but the government, the CIA and FBI missed it too. A US questioner, responder and company involved explains the US-centric response there, even if he was on stage in Munich. Similar questions hang over Facebook ads and algorithms and influence over Brexit, the Catalonian revolution. Still, when you’re being blamed for Trump getting elected in your own country, I can see why those other elections might seem peripheral.

Image: Kara Swisher in Sarah Connor mode at DLD18 – glasses doubtless to shield against the ferocious brightness of the enormous LED displays on stage.

On publishing, Schrage also acknowledged the criticism but stressed that the company was interested – in fact Zuckerberg himself was especiallly in doing right by users:

“Mark is committed… to helping promote strong communities and an informed public. Trusted publications will benefit.”

Later in the morning, documentary filmmaker and artist, Hito Steyerl offered a direct critique of Facebook’s new policy to weed out fake news sites by asking users which sources they trusted:

“As a trained documentary filmmaker, I can tell you a credible source is not defined by popularity.”

Andrew Keen, long time critic of Silicon Valley and the tech sector’s power, was on stage following Facebook in conversation with Paul-Bernhard Kallen, CEO of Germany’s Herbert Burda Media.

Immediately invoking the concept of surveillance capitalism, Keen asked why the big US tech companies won’t accept their responsibilities as media platforms, something Kallen attributed to legal liability loopholes during the Clinton administrations laying of the benign legislative landscape that made possible the growth of the GAFA (Google Amazon Facebook Apple) or the Stacks, as Bruce Sterling named them when he spotted their developing dominance about six years ago.

In Kallen’s analysis the next generation of online services would be far more responsible in how they understood and managed their influence on society. Whether that generation of services came from the incumbent tech giants or new players, he couldn’t predict. Disrupting models like the blockchain and decentralised web forces could make these future companies very different to the ones we see today – take a look at platform co-ops and ownerless blockchain powered corporations for hints of what might come to pass.

Image: Hito Steyerl

In the session that featured Hito Steyerl, whom I mentioned earlier in this post, there was some expansive and edge thinking from both her and Evgeny Morozov, well chaired by the Serpentine Gallery’s Hans Ulbrich Obrist. This session seemed to suffer from small migrations of executives leaving – bored, confused or just hungry (it was running into lunchtime at this point). It was one of the least crowded of the sessions int he main hall, which was a shame as the ideas were deeply relevant, if very challenging.

Here are some of the threads from Morozov and Steyerl that I want to pick up for more research and thinking later on:

  • The digital intermediation of everything: this is the title of an essay by Morozov looking at how the economics and power of big tech companies owning your data will play out.
  • Techno-religiosity: Something that Yuval Noah Harari explored in Homo Deus and a Google talk which Steyerl referred to. Steyerl says: “The more advanced the technology, the more likely people begin to discuss it in religious or spiritual terms” – think AI, especially.
  • Orbis theory: The theory that in the 1600s the mass colonisation of the Americas caused a lowering of CO2 levels globally, as 50 million indigenous people died and forests reclaimed their farmland and the trees processed more carbon.
  • Owning your own data: The importance of this is huge when looked at it in the economic and political context. I recall the vendor relationship management movement that began ten years ago and similar efforts, but now GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) in Europe is creating a legal push for it. Morozov also alluded to the idea of states nationalising data to protect its citizens from corporations.
  • Access to people’s data was about better advertising, now it is also about fuelling AI:The big tech companies are using the data they get from people in return for free services (search, social networks, convenient ecommerce) to develop their machine learning abilities.
  • Benevolence can turn to indifference – and it would hurt us: Services from Google and Facebook feel like, and for now are, a social good – so many people wouldn’t be able to afford what the tech giants give us for free. But if they no longer need the data from users, that benevolence would likely turn to indifference. Effectively Morozov is saying, what if advertising wasn’t the main revenue stream for these companies and they got their money from B2B services? What would happen to the services they provide?
  • The coming machine learning monopoly: Morozov said that if he were in business he would be worried about the growing power of the four giants as the sole providers of machine learning. Once they are the best, they will dictate terms of access to others.

At the end of the first day of DLD 18 there was blood in the water and no one was sure whether it’s theirs or Facebook and Google’s… or both.

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HUMAN + MACHINE = SUPERPOWERS – notes from DLD18

This post originally appeared on Medium.

Visiting a new conference is always slightly unnerving at first – frankly, will this be useful or will it be waste of my time. But DLD 18 Munich has hit all the right notes in the first morning. My energy is up, my notebook is filling and I’m looking forward to more.

Day one started with volley couple of fascinating sessions, the public policy head for Facebook standing his ground in the face of political and publishing industry ire, Andrew Keen talking with one of Germany’s biggest media companies about the future of the internet, and a panel kicking around whether apps or agents will be more important in the coming years.

Then came Paul Daugherty, CTO of Accenture to talk AI. He is one of those fast-talking guys who wants to tell you everything and who you almost wish could talk even faster and download it all in 25 minutes on stage. As it, what he covered in terms of insights and questions was provocative and compelling. I’ll just list them out here for now:

  • AI is the fastest growing business:He’s never seen anything grow so fast.
  • Job skills are more of a problem than job destruction: Something like 6 million people are unemployed in the US and there about the same number of jobs vacant.
  • We need to train many more people in AI: Estimates that there are only 10,000 people worldwide with the right level of skills and knowledge in AI are probably correct – we’re going to need a lot more.
  • Tech can help people work better: If we look at how work happens we can implement tech to help people work better. He cited a major US manufacturer that is using augmented reality (AR) headsets to help employees operate machinery better (I imagine a bit like the virtual hands teaching piano learners how to hit the right notes).
  • Business processes are the main issue for AI: Daugherty calls the AI wave of innovation in this area – Business Process 3.0.
  • New jobs are being created in training AI: AI needs to be trained and supervised – for instance to make sure that customer service bots and interfaces are reflecting the tone and values of the company in their interactions and decisions.
  • Leadership is a key issue: CEOs and board level people need to learn about AI. Echoing our own digital leadership mindset work at Brilliant Noise, Daugherty also said that it was more than just AI they needed to learn about: “People need to invest in skills for leaders to move through [successive] generations of technology.” 85% of leaders say AI is something they will be investing in but only 3% are investing in training.
  • Silo-busting is a must: AI is most effective when it is at the core of new business processes, not added to the periphery.
  • Chief Artificial Intelligence Officers (CIAOs) are a good idea: The CIAO should own the three areas key to making AI successful in an organisation: 1. Data, 2. Talent, 3. Responsible use.
  • Responsible use of data and AI: There needs to be oversight in this area to watch out for the unintended consequences of AI and automation. There will alway be hidden biases in algorithms.
  • “Data is fuel for AI”: Companies that will find it difficult to succeed with AI are those with unstructured and disconnected data sets. AI needs data to be effective.
  • Absorbative capacity: A useful term from economics, absorbative capacity refers to how quickly an economy can take advantage of innovation.
  • Productivity needs better measurement: If we can measure it better we can figure out where to boost it.

Paul Daugherty has a book – Human + Machine – on this topic coming out in March – it’s going to be top of my reading list as soon as I can get a copy.

Side by side on an AR keyboard…

With an iPhone app and a £3,000 headset you can explore a whole new way to fail at learning a musical instrument. Music Everywhere is one of those rare examples of AR that makes me think – yes, that could actually work. While Microsoft Hololens is currently an expensive way to do this, prices will lower over time and there’s a Mira version in the works soon. Mira headsets cost just $200.

Using the Duolingo app, I’ve learned Spanish to a higher level than any of the three other languages I attempted while in formal education. So I’ve got a soft-spot for app-based learning that looks compelling – and this does. It will be interesting to see how it develops…

Source: VR Scout

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Highlighting books for serendipity

Image: Notes in the margin of a Mallorcan noble’s book printed in 1748. Kind of like a mind map, isn’t it?

When I was younger I tried briefly to keep books nice and neat, ready to display, post-use, on a bookshelf – it seemed like that was the thing to do, the way to be. respectful of the text and to have display to the casual browser of one’s shelves not only that you were well-read but were also able to look after nice things.

Over time I came to know myself a bit better. I’m a reader who loves books – I want to get in and consume them – and I’m always starving for more. In the end I decided, switching metaphors, that my books worked for a living. They weren’t show-ponies, kept looking their best and worthy of rosettes fro presentation – they were going to be put to work in the employ of my bookish appetites.

Once I was over the keep-them-neat syndrome, I was much happier to mark them, to highlight things that I wanted to remember. I settled on a system of scoring horizontal lines with my thumb under passages and then indicating that there was a highlight on the page buy dog-earing the bottom of the page. That way I could review the key passages easily without having to worry about taking notes or inserting marker slips or post-its.

When e-books came along, the highlighting of text was a one of my favourite features of this format. In non-fiction books, I’ll often highlight up to a 100 or more passages (fiction books, even ones I enjoy, I tend to highlight less – and then only passages where the language or an idea has stopped me in my tracks).

Like the paper scoring and folding approach to highlights, the highlighting was probably as much about pausing and noting the text as setting down markers that I would ever return to – and while this was useful enough, every now and again I would need the ideas from a book for a project and could seize it and go quickly through the highlights to find useful reminders of ideas or pointers for further research.

Image: A highlight from the must-read chronicle of the first 200 days of the Trump administration, Fire and Fury.

Every now and again, when a book seemed especially important to my work, I would use the highlights to help me fillet it and share the key ideas and insights with colleagues and clients. I read a lot more books than a lot of people, but still can’t read all the books I want to – – I think of The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Creativity, Inc., The Checklist Manifesto and, recently, The Four by Scott Galloway – sharing fillets or excerpts I realised was a lot more useful than demanding that everyone should read a certain book. When I simply couldn’t wait for everyone to read them they needed to know about these ideas now and a briefing on the book might not only urge them into reading the whole thing, but at least have a clue about why I was suddenly obsessed with certain concepts.

There was a function in the Kindle notes and highlights website – I read most e-books, indeed most books, on the Kindle platform – where you could create flashcards of text that you’d highlight. Using a learning algorithm based on how many times you need to be exposed to a text to remember it. This was great – I created a short-cut on the home page of my phone to be able to review it.

There were two powerful bits of magic at work here. First, I was reminded of passages – ideas, bits of data, advice – that I’d read and loved but since completely forgotten. Second, it was a brilliant way to make my brain lucky – to recall things at a moment that would be incredibly fortuitous. It’s amazing when this happens, and it has happened to me a lot – a key quote popping up a day or so before delivering a big speech, or a bit of hard-won experience from an entrepreneur popping up just as I am in the jagged grip of a decision-making dilemma.

As a side note, getting lucky with knowledge and ideas is incredibly motivating. It seems to me that it pushes you into a “toward state” – seeking, curious, engaged – and that can be incredibly helpful.

The problem with this approach was that I often drifted out of the habit of using it – usually after a burst of clearing away clutter from my phone’s home screen.

Recently, an app was released and has been developed nicely, that takes your highlights. Readwise sends you a daily email with a handful of quotes to review. You can also click through to a web app which allows you to tag quotes, and share them with other apps.

Image: Reviewing a quote in Readwise. 

I’ve also been using it as a relatively a passive way of collating quotes and research for my new book idea’s outline. I share the quote to my task-app Omnifocus as an action to add it to Scrivener, a powerful manuscript editor. When I have a spare moment, or a few Scrivener tasks have built up, I open that app up and have a few minutes slotting the quotes into the structure and thinking about how the book outline is shaping up.

If you highlight books on Kindle, I highly recommend trying out Readwise, it’s a simple service that can prompt all sorts of useful ideas and thoughts and, as is the case with my book idea, fit into some useful work-flows without creating extra chores.

: : Bonus Kindle highlighting tip – Diigo, the excellent bookmarking service, has recently added a feature that lets you bookmark / add to your library all of the highlights from a Kindle book. Really useful if you use that service – and if you don’t, you really should…

How I read

Image: Foyles in Soho, London.

Following on from my post about the best books I read last year – a few notes about how reading is changing for me.

Like 2016, I set a reading goal last year on Goodreads the slowly improving, delightful social network for readers of 52 books, an average of one a week. I passed that mark at the start of my Christmas holiday and after some confusing adjustments ended in 53 (a novella being the cheeky 53rd).

There are more books I want to read than I am likely to have years of life to conquer. My “Want To Read” list on Goodreads has grown from about 300 to over 390 books this year, and is probably only a fraction of the books I would like to set about reading. Seeing this data has given me pause over the past few week has made me wonder about how to prioritise what I read. Maybe that list needs a cull.

One change I have made is give up reading books that aren’t working for me more often. Awareness of the sunk cost fallacy — we tend to throw good resources after bad because we don’t like writing off investments we have made so far — and the ever-growing pile of other things I’d like to read make this feel like a habit I need to strengthen.

I did stop reading a few books sat the mid-point of the year, mainly because I was reading too many simultaneously and it was just getting silly.

The only book I declared a DNF this year was Arianna Huffington’s The Sleep Revolution. As a sometime insomniac, I am seriously interested in sleep, but this book wasn’t telling me much that I either didn’t know already or didn’t find useful.

Authors of books about sleep take note — I’d expect a large number of people who are interested enough to pick up your book in the first place are probably suffering from sleep deprivation — several chapters on just how badly your health is being affected by your current state just isn’t what you are going to find useful. SLEEP LOSS MAKES YOU DUMB AND LIVE LESS LONG. Yes, thank you. YOU SHOULD SLEEP MORE. Yes, I know. YOU ARE A DUMB ZOMBIE MAKING BAD LIFE CHOICES. OK, please bugger off now…

In terms of reading media, I am still an e-books person, although when I really love a book I will generally then buy a hard copy or several, to give as gifts or share with colleagues and add to our work library.

I have loved reading some paper books this year, and want to read more. The most beautiful book I read was Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari which I received the hard copy of as a gift. I was so taken with the typesetting and font — Dante, with headers in bold red — that I hunted down and bought a licence and created a theme for Ulysses, my favourite writing app, that mimicked the its pages.

I’ve definitely bought more paper books than i have read this year – a lot more – and I need to somehow break the Kindle habit and pull one from the pile instead of downloading a fresh new ebook from one of my lists.

When there’s a book I really want to devour, I love to get the audio version alongside the Kindle version. With the WhisperSync feature on this platform, the audio stays in sync with the text, so I can read a few pages at breakfast and then carry on listening to the text as I walk. I’ve forgotten – and cannot easily conjure in Google – the person who said something like, “You should read a good novel twice – the first time for plot and the second for the prose,” but I wholeheartedly agree.

One book I often return to is Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel. I’ve read it several times, so often that I can happily dive into a random bit of the audiobook and soak up the sad prose and enervatingly empty world she makes with it.

I don’t agonise over how I read. The only thing I want to stay vigilant about – regardless of the medium – is that I don’t waste time on reads I regret. There’s literally too many books I would rather be reading to waste more than a moment on a second-rate text.

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The best books I read in 2017

First published on Medium.

Sitting in the rear carriage of 2017 as it approached the annual terminal, I will admit to having been a little befuddled and bemused about what just happened.

There were so many unexpected and hard to believe developments in the public sphere that if 2017 had been a novel I’d think of it as a badly plotted first draft that someone really should have got some advice on before they put it into production. I suppose it might have been the difficult middle book of an epic trilogy, a kind of 21st century The Two Towers — in which case hopefully there are a pair of metaphorical hobbits struggling unseen through the outlands of Mar-E-Lago, set on delivering a figurative ring back into the fires of a firey bunker near the 18th where it was forged. Or something like that.

Perhaps the difficulty of being able to string a narrative about the year together that in any way makes sense has made my reading all the more urgent, and look back over the year’s books all the more satisfying.

In the post below, rather than a list, I’m going to call out the books that really stayed with me after reading them in three loose categories – fiction, non-fiction and business.

Fiction

It has been a fine year for reading genre fiction, beginning with the incredible The Three Body Problem by Chinese author Liu Cixin and carrying on through the next two books in the trilogy, The Dark Forest and Death’s End. I want to re-read the whole trilogy now, a year later, as it still haunts me. Full of beautiful prose and dizzying ideas it is a truly incredible work of art.

Carrying on with the genre theme, I worked my way through all of Mick Herron’s Slow Horses series. Set in a kind of Craggy Island for spies, the eponymous slow horses are cast-offs from MI5, condemned to carry out repetitive, low status work under the tyrannical eye of their boss, Jackson Lamb. The stories are well told spy stories with explicit nods to the tone and style of John Le Carré, but don’t feel at all derivative. I loved them and am currently re-reading the first, Slow Horses, to savour the prose and storytelling skills of Herron.

Staying with a genre theme, after hearing a recommendation on the excellent Talking Politics podcast this summer, I read To Kill the President by Jonathan Freedland, a political journalist writing under the pen-name, Sam Bourne. It’s a perfectly constructed and written thriller in its own right, although I’m not overly tempted to read the rest of the series. What packs a punch for the contemporary reader is the plot-line about a populist US president who tries to start a nuclear war against North Korea in a fit of pique when he thinks the news channels are poking fun at him. A couple of his staff plot to kill him and mayhem ensues.

Reading this in the summer, when tensions with North Korea and an unpredictable President were in the headlines gave me a slightly thrilling sense of vertigo-like confusion – when I thought about a news story or a bit of the plot I frequently had difficulty telling fact and fiction apart.

Finally, in the fiction category, I spent a large part of the year on an expedition-like attempt to scale Jerusalem, the 1,200-page, 600,000 word Alan Moore book about eternity and Northampton, his home town. I summited, as they say, a few days ago and was largely delighted by the experience, which was accomplished in a series of three or four focused pushes with breaks to recover and let my mind un-warp itself by reading shorter, works.

There are a handful of chapters I found it hard to follow – for instance one written as a script for a play, and another in deep slang, spellings phonetic and tough to follow. In the main though, it was a seemingly unending epic, filled with small moments of awe and awe-striking insights.

Non-fiction

I’d like to read more general non-fiction in 2018 – this year’s reading was dominated by business books – see below – and I’ve a pair of history inflected books to recommended.

Homo Deus is a fantastic book and should be required reading for anyone interested in the world and where we are headed as a species. In his previous book, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari gave us a meta-history of humanity’s story to date. Homo Deus looks to the future and what things like artificial intelligence will mean for us. His thinking is fresh and even on topics you may already familiar with, the book pushes you into thinking more deeply and more long-term about what our current tumultuous technical and social revolutions will mean.

I also enjoyed Prisoners of Geography, which uses the conceit of ten maps to explain why “geography is destiny”. Like Sapiens, it is effectively a meta-history, giving context to the behaviours of governments over the ages. It begins Russia early on, which brings this idea to life. In the current geo-political atmosphere, we have a narrative in the West about a tyrant and gangster state – but seen in the context of that enormous country’s geography, Putin’s concerns and strategies appear as part of a continuum from the first Czars to the present day. The chapters on China and India stuck in my mind also.

Business

Running a growing business, business books are really important to me. They’ve shaped every part of the journey of starting and growing a company, providing in turns inspiration, how-to advice and emotional life-lines. While listening to the FT podcast about business books earlier this year, it was a delight to hear someone recommend the fabulous Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel, rather than a business book. It prompted a discussion about how many business leaders would be better served by reading fiction for its insights into humanity rather than books specifically about their field. This is true, on one level, in that being grounded and having a life of the mind beyond balance sheets and boardrooms would improve many an executive, there’s still a place for reading about business themes – as long as you find the right books.

It’s been a good year for my reading in this area, so I’m going to recommend six that were helpful or inspirational and well above the bar set by many books in this genre, neither too breathlessly in love with a single idea, practical, and very, very readable.

Deep Work, by Cal Newport: This is a book that people had been recommending to me for a while, and indeed was on my to-read list, but somehow I’d not found myself reading until now. It deals thoroughly with one the most important subjects for knowledge workers, indeed for anyone with a smartphone who values their autonomy and self-direction in life: attention and focus. Newport brings together interesting research and personal experience of managing an academic and authorial career to suggest how we can resist the distractions of the digital age and get meaningful work done. Priceless advice.

Radical Candor was written by Kim Scott, who worked in several top Silicon Valley companies including Google and Apple. This is a book with a single big idea, but it keeps things short, to the point and doesn’t outstay its welcome for the most part. You could pick up the gist of the book by looking at the quadrant diagram that summarises it (below), but you probably wouldn’t follow through on its brilliant advice. Scott days that most people are poor at giving direct feedback – either they fall short on candour and are “ruinously empathetic”, aren’t caring enough in the delivery and become obnoxiously aggressive (an arsehole in other words), or – usualy for fear of being seen as an arsehole, avoid giving critical feedback altogether – which it calls manipulative insincerity.

Avoiding giving – and recieving well-intentioned feedback that could help people grow and improve their performance is an everyday act of cowardice that too many of us fall into on one occasion or another. That’s why I recommend this book to anyone who’ll listen – there’s nothing that would cut the crap more in the modern workplace than actually sharing honest, well intentioned feedback.

Machine, Platform, Crowd is the follow up to the amazing The Second Machine Age, by MIT’s Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson. This may be the most widely read book by my colleagues at Brilliant Noise, as I saw at least three physical copies doing the rounds in the office, and it was cited widely in our work on digital leadership with clients. I’d still recommend The Second Machine as an essential read, giving as it does a clear context for our current digital revolution as being as profound if not more so as the industrial revolution. This book does a good job of setting out frameworks and questions to understand how we can make sense of the digital age and seize the opportunities to improve the world.

Organization Design, by Naomi Stanford is a practical, thoughtful book that pushes the reader to go far beyond the org chart as a means of designing the organisation. Organisation design is fiendishly difficult, not least because, as Andy Grove of Intel once said, organisations are organic, not machines. You’re working with the messiness of culture, of human social networks and the individuals in them when you set out to re-organise or re-design them. I read Standford’s FT Guide to Organisation Design last year and there is some overlap with this book, but I was grateful for the added depth and space to explore the subject that this book offers. It is a book that every executive should read, not just those involved in operations or HR. (It also has a really cool cover, considering it’s a pretty technical business tome – see below.)

Building the Agile Business through Digital Transformation is, like Organization Design, a book for people who want to engage deeply with the subject and get things done. It was written by Neil Perkin, in collaboration with Peter Abraham, who is a brilliant curator of ideas and insights on his blog, and his famous Google Firestarters series of events. He’s also – full disclosure – been involved in the Brilliant Noise Dots conference since it started, finally taking to the stage as a speaker this year to talk about this book. It’s rich in examples, case studies and frameworks for analysis and planning change. It’s so close to my heart and Brilliant Noise’s focus that we bought at least 50 copies for friends and colleagues. It’s a textbook for getting on and changing how your organisation works with digital.

I went looking for a book about leadership and leveling up at the start of this year. Brilliant Noise has been growing quickly in the past few years and in 2017 we went from 28 to more than 40 people. Sensing the change in the company that was coming and realising its leaders would need to re-invent themselves once again to be what the company needed them to be I bought What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. If I’m honest, I was little worried and disappointed at first – I was hoping for manual on how to run a fast-growing business as it scales and what I got was a simple and straightforward guide to getting out of the way of the talented people and teams that you’ve developed. It’s a very specific book about leadership – if you’re stepping up into a new role and can feel the imposter syndrome kicking in, it is time to pick up this book. It’s about stopping the things that made your career so far and moving into a role of supporting and coaching your teams to help them succeed. So simple, as simple as the brilliant title implies, it’s a humbling, inspiring management classic.