6 inspiring business audio books

A friend who’s not into reading asked me recently if I could recommend some great business audiobooks. Here’s a little list of some books I’ve enjoyed over the last year or two which are available as audio. Some famous ones and a few you might not have come across before. They’re all available as normal books too. Enjoy.

  1. Peak by Chip Conley. Really fun and inspiring book about creating amazing experiences for customers, employees and investors – this got me really buzzing with ideas for my own company: My review.
  2. The Icarus Deception by Seth Godin. How everyone is an artist, and can lift off their lid and be true to themselves.
  3. I Have a Dream by Rashmi Bansel. Brilliant stories about creating businesses that deliver real social good.
  4. The Go-giver by Bob Burg & John David Mann. Lovely little story about the power of giving as a way to success and happiness.
  5. Betterness by Umair Haque. Brilliant short book about the purpose of business. My review.
  6. Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh. The inspiring story of Zappos – building a business based on happiness.

The 4 most important things I have learnt about the future of business

Here are the big lessons I have learnt from the four books that have been most influential to me in my career in business.

1. Being nice is the best approach to business.

I began my business career with a hang-up that business is a selfish game and that success has to be at the expense or failure of someone else. I believed that people who had succeeded in business had all done so by trampling on others on their way up. I don’t know where this belief came from and I feel kinda embarrassed about it now, but it wasn’t until I read Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People back in 2002 that I finally got it. Being nice pays. This book spawned so many business clichés like ‘WIN/WIN‘ and ‘Synergize‘ but a cliché is only a cliché when it has been so over-used that it loses its original meaning, and this book looks deeply at what it means to be a good and principled person. It’s as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1989. Sounds quaint? Perhaps when a company like Google has a guiding principle of ‘You can make money without being evil’ then perhaps this is still a lesson that many in business still need to learn.

2. Giving power to the people is the ultimate business strategy.

In 2003 when Will left a print-out of this article from Inc magazine on my desk with the words ‘Fucking amazing – READ THIS’ emblazoned on it, I was about to discover the concept of organisational democracy – giving power and freedom to the people in a company instead of controlling them from the top-down. It wasn’t long before we both read Ricardo Semler’s book Maverick – a story about changing Semco, a medium-sized command-and-control company into a large, democratic powerhouse. We implemented many ideas from Semco as we built NixonMcInnes like having open seats for ordinary employees to attend board meetings, voting on company decisions and open book accounting so there are no secrets around anything money-related. Fast forward a decade and organisational democracy is still generally seen as quite extreme, yet more companies are finding democracy is the key to unlocking the potential of their people to drive the entire business forward.

3. The current capitalist system is fundamentally unfit for purpose and doomed. But there is a better way.

In the mid-naughties, I began following economist Umair Haque’s blog. What I will always remember from this time were his posts about the coming economic crisis. He called it the Macropalypse – the collapse of the global macroeconomic system. This was way before mainstream media and most politicians picked up on the crisis and in fact many didn’t see what was inevitable until it actually happened in late 2008. Haque still argues today that the crisis was systemic, not just cyclical and that we have not fixed the underlying causes of failure, merely propped up our failing institutions and systems through enormous debt provided by ordinary people. His thinking is laid out in his book The New Capitalist Manifesto which not only explains the causes of the problem, but sets out a wonderful and optimistic future of a better and sustainable capitalist system, using examples from large companies today like Walmart and Nike who have a very long way to go, but are starting to work towards this future in exciting new ways.

4. Employee ownership is the logical conclusion of democratic business.

When I read David Erdal’s Beyond the Corporation recently I had a sudden realisation that most democratic companies, whilst giving a lot of freedom and power to their people, are actually benevolent dictatorships. This is because the people’s freedom and power is not enshrined as enduring, inalienable rights, as they might be in a country with a democratic constitution. This means that the owners of a business still hold all of the ultimate power and can change the rules of the game on a whim, or sell out to new owners who can revoke their rights. The current situation is deeply engrained in our current economic system where there are business owners who have all of the rights and control, and then employees who are merely rented like machinery in return for a salary, with very few rights. Most of us accept this as ‘the way things are’ but there is no reason why the current system must endure forever, and with employee-owned businesses like John Lewis, Arup, Carl Zeiss and the Mondragon Network offering evidence of the power and success of employee-ownership I believe that this is the future of mainstream business. In fact I have a hunch that it could be a sweetspot between the socialist ideals of a very fair society with workers ‘controlling the means of production’ and capitalism’s promise of innovative, free trade without the need for a large clunky state.

So that’s my list. What are the books that have given you your big lessons in business?

A simple and powerful idea that everyone needs to know

Laboratory section, Japan Baptist Hospital, Kyoto, 1955

WARNING: Daft piece of terminology coming up, but don’t be put off! It’s called The pessimistic meta-induction from the history of science  from Kathryn Schulz‘ essay of the same title. I read it in a book called ‘This Will Make You Smarter‘ (I thought I could do with the help, OK?)

Here’s what it means in plain English:

Because so many scientific theories from bygone eras have turned out to be wrong, we must assume that most of today’s theories will eventually prove incorrect as well. And what goes for science goes in general. Politics, economics, technology, law, religion, medicine, child rearing, education: No matter the domain of life, one generation’s verities so often become the next generation’s falsehoods that we might as well have a pessimistic meta-induction from the history of everything.

It’s powerful and incredibly obvious when you think about it. We find it easy to look at the past and shake our heads at how wrong we used to be about taking other humans as slaves, drilling holes in the skull to cure disease, tulip bubbles, and burning people as witches. The list is endless and we wish that we knew then what we know now in order that we might have avoided the awful consequences of our naivety.

So why do senior leaders in politics and business have such strong courage of their convictions, as if they believe we’ve finally reached the apex of human understanding where we have nailed what’s right and what’s true? They act as though there’s no possibility of their ideas being completely disproved – not just being wrong, but held to be massively damaging by future generations.

If the world understood this concept it would be incredible humbling and perhaps frightening as we face up to how pathetic we will look through the lens of history. But the world would also be filled with more possibility and hope. Things can be so much better than they are today. Perhaps leaders would become more open to ideas which seem radical today, but which may become mainstream in the future. At the very least, just asking the question ‘What will seem laughable tomorrow about what we are doing today?’ would be extremely powerful.

Umair Haque talks about this same concept in The New Capitalist Manifesto. Today our economic system is mostly based to a large extent on the ideas of two men. Adam Smith believed that in the pursuit of profit, an ‘invisible hand’ would deliver positive benefits for society through the provision of useful goods and services. John Maynard Keynes believed that it was the sole duty of a company to pursue profit, and that markets will self-regulate and end up with the best outcomes. However the financial collapse of 2008, and other mega-trends like impending climate crisis are thoroughly proving these theories insufficient and harmful.

Is this really the best we can do? Do we expect to have the same economic systems in place in 100, 200 or 300 years time? Surely things will look almost unrecognisable that far into the future, and our current ways will seem hopelessly naive and flawed. But we don’t see our leaders facing up to this, and the challenge of discovering what better systems will come next.

The first step is to recognise that the way things are today is going to be proved to be almost entirely wrong. Then with this shift in attitude we can move away from fixed ideology and dogma and become open to what the future might look like, including both small and radical ideas. If we do this then we stand a much better chance of avoiding catastrophe and reaching a better future, faster.

Marketing idea: The Disloyalty Card

Umair Haque’s New Capitalist Manifesto inspired me to think of a little idea for a restaurant loyalty card. The idea would probably work in other industries too.

It uses Google-inspired logic. For example, Google make it very easy to take your data out of GoogleDocs and import it elsewhere. Unlike Microsoft with its archaic proprietary formats, Google never try to keep anyone as a customer by locking them in. Clearly this benefits the customer, but it’s also to Google’s advantage too. It forces them to focus on product innovation and customer satisfaction since users can easily move to a competitor at any time. This internal focus on constant improvement keeps the product at the sharp end, and they have a very direct feedback loop with customers because they know that if they´re retaining them then they must be doing a good job. Compare this to MS Word which has barely evolved in years and survives only because of its ubiquity, all the while being threatened by the rapidly improving Googledocs.

So I was wondering how you could apply this to a cafe/restaurant. One of the ideas I’d previously been thinking about is a monthly subscription so that customers can eat a certain number of daily specials for lunch each month or have the same amount taken off other meals.

This would be convenient and good value for regulars. But it kind of locks people in, which of course is the goal of most loyalty schemes. Perhaps people would use the subscription because it’s good value for price but it wouldn’t force quality and innovation to continually improve and it could make the place lazy and boring, at risk of disruption by a new competitor.

So I thought, how about allowing customers to use their credit at ANY cafe in the city for exactly the same value (the most basic way to do this would be to refund receipts from other cafes although that´s a bit clunky – I’m sure there would be a smoother way.)

Allowing your hard-won subscription revenue to go to competitors flies in the face of conventional logic, but I love the feedback loop it would create: Every month I could measure the percentage of the subscription that was being used in MY cafe to see if we’re doing a good job. We’d never take a subscriber’s business for granted and only make money by ensuring we were the place they come back to the most often, voluntarily. It would send a strong and different message to customers that we don’t just appreciate that they have a choice about coming to us, we actually give them MORE choice by promoting disloyalty.

What do you think?

Measuring the nation’s wellbeing

Good to see the Guardian covering some of the issues that we have been discussing here on this blog.

Although the headline is ‘Happiness at work: why it counts,’ this is about much more than just our work lives. I welcome the government’s call for a ‘Wellbeing index’ to track whether our lives are actually improving as well as simply whether economic activity (GDP) is increasing. Unlike GDP which is just a measure of income, wellbeing is more like an asset on a balance sheet because it is enduring. It is a measure of value that has been created for people and societies (human and social capital.) This forms part of the ‘National Balance Sheet’ idea that economist Umair Haque has proposed and I wrote about recently.

It seems incredible to me that this is actually a new idea. What is the point of the economy and indeed even the government at all if not to improve wellbeing over the long-term? It is about time we actually started tracking ‘that which makes life worthwhile’ as Robert F. Kennedy put it. I would like to see GDP relegated in its importance and the Wellbeing Index expanded into a full balance sheet to show the value that we are building (or destroying) over time for people, societies and the environment as well as financial capital.

There will be some shocks as the government, corporations and society wake up to the fact that much of what increases GDP actually destroys value on our ‘National Balance Sheet.’ But we need to go through this process to learn how to shape our systems and institutions to deliver value where it really matters.

‘Betterness’ – the most important thing I’ve read about business in years

Betterness‘ is an essay by Umair Haque – an economist who’s played a big part in shaping my own ideas and beliefs about capitalism and its future. It’s actually been out for a while now but because I follow his blog I didn’t think there’d be much new in there for me. Wrong! It really is an incredibly important piece of work, bringing together and clearly laying out Umair’s radical but completely sensible ideas. I urge anyone in business or thinking of starting up their own venture to read this – it might challenge some very fundamental beliefs about what business and capitalism are actually for.

Here are four of the ideas that stood out for me:

Business and capitalism have ultimately failed in delivering true wealth (not just money, but across the board improvements in health, well-being, societies, the environment and happiness.) Umair offers some stark insights and statistics to back up this point. For example the plateauing (or in some cases falling) of happiness as GDP increases in developed countries and how America has seen increases in obesity and mental illness as it has become ‘richer.’

Personally I see a parallel with personal income and GDP. When you’re very poor (either an individual or a country,) more income does have a real positive impact because you can look after your base human needs (safety, food, water, medicine, shelter) but once these needs are met, increasing money don’t make that much difference and it’s higher things (relationships, well-being, enjoying the environment and having purpose and meaning in our lives) that make us truly happy. But money is like a drug and there is a tendency to believe that what made us happier before will continue as we earn more.

GDP as the primary measure of economic success is flawed and dangerous. GDP is like a corporation focussing solely on its income and not its balance sheet. It leads to a growth of sorts, but does not grow real, long-term value which should be the goal of any organisation or country. Instead Umair suggests that countries need to focus on a ‘national balance sheet’ to measure improvements or declines in human, social, emotional, environmental as well as financial capital. Then we would see much of current ‘business’ for what it really is – an extraction of value from humans, society or the environment to make money, but actually leaving us all worse off in the areas that really matter. It would then divert attention to creating value in all of the areas that matter.

The idea that even successful, ‘good’ businesses today perform at just a fraction of their potential to generate real wealth. Using the analogy of the change in the field of psychology from how can we cure people with psychological problems and get them to a ‘normal’ state to the positive psychology movement which looks at how we can continually better ourselves and build on what’s right to reach ever higher levels of happiness and achievement. The same is true for business which is often defensive and happy to return 5-10% net profit and focus on not screwing up rather than being creative and ambitious in how it can actually deliver true enduring value.

The need for deeper meaning and purpose in business. Umair gives ‘vision’ and ‘mission’ statements a thorough working over to show how most businesses are incredibly thin when it comes to their reason for existence. He suggests that all businesses need to have a much higher purpose – something that transcends their own organisation – and delivers diverse wealth back to people and the planet.

This essay is an inspiring call to arms for how we can radically change business into ‘betterness’ for the benefit of all of humanity. Umair doesn’t believe that there is any organisation in the world that is truly living up to this potential right now. Who will be the first? I personally will give it a damn good try.