My books of the year 2020: Part 5: Business books

This is the fifth and final article in a short series about the best books I read in 2020. You can read the introduction here, a reflection on The Mirror & The Light here, my selection of favourite fiction here and non–fiction books here.

Let’s get right to it – my three favourite business books in 2021 were:

  1. Lessons From A Warzone, Louai Al Roumani

  2. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, by Shoshana Zuboff

  3. No Rules Rules, by Reed Hasting and Erin Meyer

Lessons From A Warzone, Louai Al Roumani

This book arrived at the perfect moment: just after the terrible phase of the global pandemic when the challenges we faced in my own business were daunting, but beginning to be tamed. The following is my original review of the book posted to Goodreads.

[I gave this book] Five stars because Lessons from a Warzone is such a singular book in the business category. 

It needed to be written because there was nothing else like it. Al Roumani looked for case studies and texts in running a business in an extreme crisis and there were none. The standard sources for business reference were not useful, the advice was not applicable to running a network of banks during mortar attacks, with the threat of ISIS fanatics taking over branches and stampedes to withdraw funds by customers. 

It needed to be read because we are suddenly all in the middle of unprecedented crises – the pandemic, civil unrest, climate change – all feeding into one another. 

I love the details of Arab culture – generosity, the importance of tea, the stories and legends that define Damascus. It grounded the accounts of dealing with operational and strategic business challenges in a real place and made me want to learn more about Syria and the Arab world.

There are two other things that endear the book to me. First, it is short, as every good business book should be. Second, the human passion, the intensity of the experience comes through vividly. The mix of drama and operational detail in the book feels so real to anyone who has been through a major crisis in a business (even if not as terrible as the Syrian War). There's no sentimentality here, but there is deep humanity. There are lessons learned, there is hope, there are flaws. 

I'm personally – and professionally – grateful to Louai Al Roumani for writing this book. I hope I never have to live and work in a Warzone, but when we face crises in our lives and our businesses there are useful emotional and practical lessons there is huge value in reading the heartfelt and honest experiences of others. 

I recommend this book with a grateful heart.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, by Shoshana Zuboff

I’ll be frank: this book is hard work and I’d only recommend it if you want to deeply understand this subject. I read it through after a couple of attempts and was glad I stuck with it, using the full free solo reader’s tool box of tricks – going back and looking up referenced concepts I wasn’t familiar with, pausing and reflecting, reading reviews and criticisms to get a handle on some of the chunkier bits. 

If you don’t read it, find some reviews or look at the Wikipedia article about the book to get a sense of the argument and key concepts. Zuboff’s important and brilliant achievement is to name and describe the process that the tech giants are applying to societies and economies through their business models. 

The essential warning of the book is: 

Surveillance capitalism’s ability to keep democracy at bay produced these stark facts. Two men at Google who do not enjoy the legitimacy of the vote, democratic oversight, or the demands of shareholder governance exercise control over the organization and presentation of the world’s information. One man at Facebook who does not enjoy the legitimacy of the vote, democratic oversight, or the demands of shareholder governance exercises control over an increasingly universal means of social connection along with the information concealed in its networks. 

Published at the beginning of last year and likely the work of several years, this is a book that is powerful because it labels and explains a new system of power. 

Surveillance capitalism has taken root so quickly that, with the exception of a courageous cadre of legal scholars and technology-savvy activists, it has cunningly managed to evade our understanding and agreement.

Totalitarianism, the system where the state demands all of its citizens, including their inner thoughts and emotions, arose before the term did. Zuboff is going through the equivalent process in naming surveillance capitalism and “instrumentarianism” her term for the power that surveillance capitalist services like Google and Facebook ads and the data they have about individuals and social groups give to governments and corporations to manipulate the behaviours of individuals:

There is no historical precedent for instrumentarianism, but there is vivid precedent for this kind of encounter with an unprecedented new species of power. In the years before totalitarianism was named and formally analyzed, its critics appropriated the language of imperialism as the only framework at hand with which to articulate and resist the new power’s murderous threats. Now surveillance capitalism has cast us adrift in another odd, dark sea of novel and thus indiscernible dangers. As scholars and citizens did before us, it is we who now reach for familiar vernaculars of twentieth-century power like lifesaving driftwood.

This isn’t an everyperson guide to the subject. What Zuboff has done is lay an intellectual framework for understanding and countering the awesome power of big tech. At the end of 2020 the US Justice Department, Federal Trade Commission and 52 states have launched the largest anti-trust action since the 1970s aimed at Google and Facebook. This was surprising to many, following years of the US system standing back while the EU tried to put limits on the tech giants’ burgeoning monopolies and power, but I would not be surprised if politicians and lawyers were not armed with Zuboff’s ideas. 

No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, by Reed Hoffman and Erin Meyer 

This is a clever business book and joins a small collection of works by business leaders who have been through the mill and are genuinely curious about what they have learned that they can pass on. (Creativity, Inc., The Hard Thing About Hard Things, High Output Management and Principles would be my other nominations for this category, books I read and re-read for support and inspiration.) 

As CEO of Netflix, Hoffman is riding high on 15 years success. It is his second business, having run the first with the logic of a software engineer – identifying and eliminating issues with increasing amounts of process – and ruined the culture in the process, he says. The future is far from assured for the company and it has to keep racing to keep its advantage in the face of well–funded companies with huge brand power like Disney and HBO, while the best–funded company in the world, Amazon, also competes with its Prime video service (which it is effectively giving away for free to promote free shipping subscriptions for everything else it sells).

A few years ago, Hoffman’s genius chief creative officer, Ted Sarandos made the most eloquent statement of strategy I’ve ever heard: “We have to become HBO before HBO can become us.” They succeeded. A reinvention from streaming platform to original content creator no less ambitious and radical than its reinvention from a postal video rental service to online. 

What drives the company’s success and ability to reinvent itself is a culture which famously eschews process and policies (including unlimited amounts of leave and no expenses policies) and giving its people a great deal of decision–making power and, despite being a publicly listed company, transparency in almost every aspect of the business.

The book is brilliantly useful for several reasons: 

  1. It doesn’t offer easy solutions. There is a formula for creating a culture like Netflix’s, but it is staged and explained carefully. 

  2. It critiques itself. CEOs are always blind to some of the realities of their business, and the best ones know it. Hoffman invited business school professor and author Erin Meyer to co-write the book by including counterpoint sections where she explains what the reality of a policy or idea is one the ground at the company, having interviewed many employees there. 

  3. It’s about the people, stupid. Despite being a tech company in many’s eyes, Netflix knows that its success relies on creative talent and so is all about how 

  4. It’s not utopia. This isn’t a template for every company in the world, but it is a detailed account of how one of the best operates and how to copy elements of it. Netflix is a growth company and has a more humane version of the reviled “up and out” policy at General Electric and other macho companies of the 90s. It “rewards adequacy with a generous severance package” as its model relies on top performers. This lack of sentimentality extends to senior management and Patty McCord who co-authored the famous culture statement presentation with Hastings developed the “keeper test” policy as it is known and then accepted that she was no longer right for the company in its next stage of growth. 

If you are involved in running a business you should make time to read this as soon as you can. If you run a creative business, you must read it immediately.

Two bonus books about learning

  • How To Take Smart Notes, by Sönke Ahrens, is a concise book relating some of the principles of note taking and indexing developed by Niklas Luhman, a prominent sociologist and a major contributor to the field of systems thinking. Ahrens and Luhman’s ideas have been influential in the development of the Roam Research wiki/database tool that was launched this year and has developed a loyal following. I’m using it myself, but tools aside, I’d recommend Ahrens’s book for anyone working with ideas and writing non–fiction of any kind. 

  • Thinking in Systems: A Primer, by Donella Meadows is a classic of systems thinking, a field I’ve been reading about learning for the last three or four years. Think of it as a serious 101 course on the subject. Even before reading 10% of the book I was applying lessons to my own business planning.

That’s all for this year’s review. Thank you for reading it. I love books and enjoy this annual chance to look back at what I’ve read and pass on some recommendations. Let me know if you have any feedback or questions. And… may all of our 2021s be a little lighter!