The 12 Best Business Books of 2005

Hands-Off CEO Ricardo Semler at a coffee shop near the HQ of Semco in Sao Paulo, Brasil. Photo by Rogerio Reis / Blackstar. Semler is one of my business heroes and author of Maverick and one of last year’s best business books, The Seven Day Weekend: Changing the Way Work Works.

Armed with the list of the 32 nominees for best business book from S+B magazine, I recently made my annual trek to the book mega-store to browse the nominees, and my own selections, and arrived at the following 12 Best Business Books of 2005, listed by category:

The Future of Business: I was much less enamoured than most with Friedman’s Earth is Flat, which S+B really liked. They had seven nominees in this category, one of which was in my opinion the best business book of the year in this category: James Kunstler’s The Long Emergency, which explains the complex and interwoven series of crises businesses will have to cope with in this century, and their implications for commerce and the (non-)viability of our current pseudo-market economy. Bottom line: We have to learn to live, as producers and consumers, with much less; and we need to get past our “cultural unpreparedness” and “entertain the possibility that industrial civilization will not be rescued by technological innovation”.


Innovation, Technology & Strategy:
I agree with the S+B list that the best book in this category this year is Kim & Mauborgne’s Blue Ocean Strategy. I’ve talked a lot about this book this year, and I especially like its two innovation enabling models: The Strategy Canvas (see example for Southwest Airlines above) that shows how innovative companies deliberately choose how to differentiate themselves from competitors by things customers really care about, and the Customer Experience Map, which walks you through how the customer experiences your innovation, and shows how that connects with the things you do internally in the organization to create that experience. I reserve the right to add Kelley & Littman’s Ten Faces of Innovation, from two of the IDEO guys, to this list when I’ve finished reading it.

Globalization: S+B liked Jeff Sach’s The End of Poverty best, but I preferred another of their nominees in this category, John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, an insider’s quirky story of how the global political and business elite conspire to disrupt and corrupt all the world’s political leaders and economies to their own advantage, and, in particular, how they lend money to struggling countries and then, when the debtors inevitably can’t repay, take their economies hostage. An even better book in this category was not even nominated (perhaps either because it was Canadian, or too radical in its thinking): John Ralston Saul’s The Collapse of Globalism, a scathing review of the history of our infatuation with globalization, and the mounting evidence from the past decade that the ideology of globalization has not only failed in almost everything it has tried to do, but is in rapid retreat in the areas of the world where the economy is most robust. The answer, he says, both politically and economically, is ‘positive nationalism’ (see my review of this book for more details).

Management, Governance, People & Productivity: I agree with S+B’s choice in this category of Kurt Eichenwald’s Conspiracy of Fools, the true, and riveting, story of power, corruption and greed in the highest corners of American and global business and politics that was Enron. Anyone who believes that, post-Sarbanes Oxley, this couldn’t happen again (and probably already is happening) needs to read this book. It is perhaps telling that more and more of the books in the business management category are about deliberate mismanagement. The S+B list excluded an entire sub-category from its nominations — self-management — that included three of what I thought were among the best business books of the year. Adam Kahane’s Solving Tough Problems explains how to address complex business problems that defy traditional analytical solutions. I’ll be reviewing this book in more detail next month. Kahane also had a hand in Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski and Flowers’ Presence, which presents a complete model for dealing with complexity, and which I reviewed in detail here. And most recently, Dick Richards’ Is Your Genius at Work? focused brilliantly on helping each of us identify our personal gift or genius and our personal purpose, the reason we’re here, and then align them better so we’re more effective, and happier, during the large part of our lives we devote to what we call ‘work’.

Sales, Marketing, Economics and Consumer Studies: In this category I also agree with S+B’s top pick, blogger Nick Wreden’s Profit Brand, which appreciates that the shift of power in the marketplace from producer to consumer is well along, and which therefore recommends stressing reputation, customer attention and customer retention in marketing strategy. Conspicuously missing from the S+B nominee list is the year’s most entertaining and best (I think) overall business book, Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics. Love it or hate it, Freakonomics makes you think differently about cause and effect, about correlation, and about how false perceptions cloud our appreciation of reality, of what’s really going on in business and in our world. Pattern recognition, which is what this book is all about, is going to be an essential business skill in the future. Two major 2005 books on the history of economics were also overlooked by S+B: Jared Diamond’s celebrated Collapse and the darker, shorter and, I think, better book, Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress. Wright summarizes and analyzes six spectacular civilizational collapses from throughout our history, and reads us the riot act about what we need to do now to avoid another collapse, this time a global one.

Entrepreneurship: No nominees from S+B this year in this category. It’s been slim pickings recently for books about entrepreneurship. I appreciate that the trade press wants CEOs to buy 5000 copies at a time, one for each of their employees, of their favourite management books and ego-boosters, but surely they could put out a few books about how to start and run small businesses effectively. My favourite this year in this category: Neil Crofts’ Authentic Business, which tells you how to decide what business to go into, starting with what you love doing, and then provides pointers on starting and running your own business. My review of the book and a contrast with my own Natural Enterprise can be found here.

Finance and Investing: No nominees from S+B this year in this category, and none from me, either. We’re just sitting tight waiting for the Ponzi scheme that is our stock markets to collapse.


In general, it was another disappointing year for books about business. The lack of imagination and courage among book publishers seems to be endemic, and the approach seems almost formulaic — give us a big name cult-of-leadership CEO and let’s bask in his wisdom, or give us a book about some intriguing new management theory, but make sure it sounds like it’s been thoroughly tested out in the real world by dropping the names of familiar Fortune 500 companies who allegedly have deployed this theory — even if they really haven’t. When will publishers, and business book buyers, realize that there are no guarantees, best practices or cookie-cutter implementation methodologies for anything? We should read books to get interesting and useful ideas, and then draw upon our courage and the wisdom of crowds — our employees and customers especially — to decide which ideas to pursue, experiment with them, and then decide how to implement them in the unique context of our own organizations.

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