THE INC. LIFE

10 Brilliant Business Books of 2017

The list includes a candid story of sex discrimination in Silicon Valley and a big chewy book about scaling.

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BY Leigh Buchanan - 05 Dec 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Among the best business books of 2017 are some excellent new titles by journalists; a candid, lived-it story of sex discrimination in Silicon Valley; and a big chewy book about scaling that is mind-blowing if not necessarily practical. Many new releases--including several mentioned here--make compelling reading for non-business audiences as well. Here are our picks for 2017:

Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy
By Tim Harford
(Riverhead Books)

Among the best books of 2006 was The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World, an unexpectedly captivating tale about a simple idea that changed everything. That book, by Marc Levinson, was epic and full of detail. The new release from journalist and economist Harford--reimagined from a 2016 podcast--comprises quicker hits. But for innovation aficionados there's a satisfying accretive effect to this parade of origin stories for stuff we take for granted, ranging from management consulting (government regulation played a surprising role) to chemical fertilizer (the backstory includes the Battle of Ypres and a brilliant woman's suicide). Fifty Inventions also demonstrates that some innovations produce fateful secondary consequences: for example, the bar code tilted the playing field away from mom-and-pops and toward big boxes. While not a deep book, Fifty Inventions is a provocative one, reminding aspiring disruptors of the many, many ways to make their marks.

Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction
By Derek Thompson
(Penguin Press)

Two ideas underlie this entertaining look at the creation of blockbusters, by a senior editor at The Atlantic. First, people like things that are at once boldly different and comfortingly familiar. Second, the popularity of hits begins with a single source that reaches many people at once. Thompson's research-based treatise takes on many creators' and marketers' assumptions: among them that quality is sufficient (exposure matters more) and that anything actually goes viral, in the way we understand that word. And luck, he concedes, can never be discounted. Rock Around the Clock debuted in 1954 to relative crickets. A year later serendipity landed the song in the movie Blackboard Jungle and theatergoers were dancing in the aisles. Hit Makers coats science in compelling story, a device so common in this genre that it is itself an example of the familiarity theory. Thompson confesses as much. And he warns: don't put too much stock in a great yarn.

If You're in a Dogfight, Become a Cat: Strategies for Long-Term Growth
By Leonard Sherman
(Columbia Business School Publishing)

Among the better strategy books of recent years, Dogfight, by a professor at Columbia University, argues that costly battles in mature marketplaces are not inevitable. Rather, smart companies that compete on their own terms instead of locking horns can sustain profitable growth over time. In-N-Out Burger's less-is-more approach, for example, has allowed it to sidestep McDonald's new-menu-item proficiency. Yellow Tail thrived by taking the mystique out of wine to win over those who don't drink the stuff rather than those who do. The obligatory analysis of Apple is unusually thoughtful: Sherman explains how that company might combat the law of large numbers and outgrow the market in the long term. For young entrepreneurs without MBAs, Dogfight offers a quick master class in recent business history (gurus, concepts, iconic companies) along with its high-level guidance on strategy and product.

Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked
By Adam Alter
(Penguin Press)

This new evils-of-technology exposé is among the genre's darkest and best. Alter, a professor of marketing and psychology at New York University, introduces the idea of "behavioral addiction" to which we are even more vulnerable than substance addiction, thanks to the proliferation of digital sirens. Societal critics have long bemoaned that apps, gadgets, and social media are harmful to our relationships, health, and productivity. Alter reiterates that argument and then explains the design principles that exploit our vulnerabilities. For example, Netflix popularized the time-suck that is binge-watching by automatically loading the next episode in a series, a strategy that plays to our vulnerability to cliffhangers. Video games like Tetris and Super Hexagon glue players to screens with escalating challenges and the tantalizing promise of mastery. Gamification, which encourages learning and healthy behavior, largely gets a pass.

Janesville: An American Story
By Amy Goldstein
(Simon & Schuster)

Three years ago, the excellent book Factory Man chronicled the near decimation of a Virginia town by the collapse of the U.S. furniture industry and the heroic efforts of one multi-generation family business to put things right. In the equally fine book Janesville: An American Story, by Washington Post reporter Amy Goldstein, it is the citizens of this Wisconsin town who struggle to hold things together after the nation's oldest operating General Motors plant shut its doors in 2008. The GM workers--many of them lifers--find themselves scared and adrift, as do their families and the shop owners and service people and construction workers whom their jobs supported. Job retraining, a panacea touted by both political parties, is barely effective. By the book's epilogue unemployment is back under 4%, but real wages are down and manufacturing has not returned. The town's close-knit community spirit is riven by a new "optimism gap." Job security, the majority believes, is gone for good.

The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact
By Chip and Dan Heath
(Simon and Schuster)

The power of story is ascendant. But stories, after all, are assembled from moments that are expanded and shaped: their implications made manifest. The latest book from the Heath brothers (Chip is a professor at Stanford; Dan at Duke) is equally valuable to managers and marketers eager to influence behavior by creating genuinely meaningful moments. The authors explain how to craft peaks--the best and most memorable parts of positive experiences--and to identify situations in their employees' or customers' lives that cry out to be recognized or commemorated. Like all the Heaths' work, Power of Moment is rich with teachable, entertaining examples: from a hotel's white-glove popsicle delivery service to John Deere's warm welcome on employees' first days. They also make the point that not all transformative moments are positive. You may want to scrub from your mind the story about open defecation in African villages.

Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change
By Ellen Pao
(Spiegel & Grau)

The depressing saga of Ellen Pao's Kleiner Perkins sojourn and resulting gender discrimination trial should not be eclipsed by the more lurid tales spilling out of Hollywood, Congress, and the media. Pao's book came out less than three weeks before the New York Times' Harvey Weinstein exposé moved the mistreatment of women to the front burner and set it on a rolling boil. Her story places harassment in the broader context of organizational sexism: the pestle that grinds down women of promise by disrespecting, ignoring, belittling, and passing over them. Reset starts as an immigrant success story and ends on a bright note with Pao's experience setting up Project Include, a non-profit to promote diversity in tech. But it is the long, nasty middle that will horrify, anger and frustrate readers and--hopefully--give them courage to stand up for themselves and their colleagues.

Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life, in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies
Geoffrey West
(Penguin Press)

Geoffrey West's dazzling discourse on the dynamics and growth of biological and manmade organisms--including businesses--raises intriguing questions about how much even the savviest CEO can control his company's trajectory. Regardless of their industries, sizes or locations, companies scale according to surprisingly similar laws: laws that also govern biological life. West, a theoretical physicist, suggests it may be possible to develop a "science of companies," to help us understand how they grow and die (and, potentially, to help us predict their approximate life spans). Innovation helps organizations exceed natural constraints on growth by altering characteristics of their structure or composition. But innovation typically falls victim to the tyranny of economies of scale. Cities fare better, West writes. They grow. They innovate. They diversify. They don't die.

The Startup Way: How Modern Companies Use Entrepreneurial Management to Transform Culture and Drive Long-Term Growth
Eric Ries
(Currency)

Like former IBM CEO Louis Gerstner, the entrepreneur and author Eric Ries knows elephants can dance. The principle pachyderm Ries taught to foxtrot is General Electric, a $124 billion, 295,000-employee behemoth that sounds like the world's most unlikely candidate for the methodology popularized in Ries's Lean Startup. In 2011, then-chairman Jeffrey Immelt, a fan of lean, invited the author to help him make GE more nimble and competitive. Through that experience and other examples, Ries demonstrates that it is possible for even venerable corporations to adopt a "startup state of mind" and enshrine innovation at scale. The lean toolset (minimal viable products, pivots, etc.) turns out to be surprisingly adaptable and transformative within large, process-dominated functions building expensive, large-scale physical products. By making Silicon Valley's favorite toolkit relevant to everyone, The Startup Way begins to answer questions about how to keep U.S. industry dynamic.

Wild Ride: Inside Uber's Quest for World Domination
By Adam Lashinsky
(Portfolio)

Wild Ride was released in May. The following month Uber's CEO Travis Kalanick resigned under pressure, and the changes kept coming. But that doesn't leave journalist Lashinsky's book in the rear-view mirror. For entrepreneurs with more modest prospects, "Wild Ride" recreates the feel of digging your spurs into the most hard-charging of unicorns. The book relies on insider accounts--Lashinsky interviewed Kalanick and others in the business at length--to describe in detail Uber's tribulations as it grappled with regulators, competitors, and pushback on everything from its pricing structure to its treatment of women. (It begins by recounting the company's high-profile failure in China.) Kalanick emerges as central casting's vision of the unfeeling, arrogant entrepreneur, yet his smarts and achievement are undeniable. Toward the end, Lashinsky turns his attention to the plight of drivers, briefly taking the wheel himself. Read his account and you'll never again forget to tip.