The Best Business Books of 2020

You might not believe it, but there were some great business books this year. And you probably missed them, distracted by the crazed year that was 2020.

Let me talk about it in two parts :

Part I

Like last year, I worked with Marker on Medium and did a meta-analysis of best of business book lists for 2020. In total, there were seven lists I looked at. They chose exactly 100 books this year. There were five books that were selected by three or more times by those lists.

  1. No Rules Rules by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer – Selected by five of seven lists. Just a great book on the Netflix’s culture. Not sure everyone will agree with everything they do.
  2. No Filter by Sarah Frier – the best account of the rise of Instagram, on three lists including winning the Financial Times / McKinsey Business Book of The Year Award.
  3. Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire by Rebecca Henderson – Things are changing, lots of examples here. Appeared on three lists.
  4. If Then by Jill Lenore – The history of the first analytics company Simulatics and how their work still resonates today. The book appeared on three lists and was a longlist nominee for the National Book Award.
  5. Uncharted by Margaret Heffernan – Some books are written to explain a moment, other books arrive at the right moment. Uncharted is both. It was also selected three times and is my personal favorite of the whole year.

You can check out my whole article on Medium with additional links to interviews and excerpts from these books. I also have adapted versions on Instagram and Twitter.

Part II

There were three books on my list of personal favorites and there is some nice overlap with the meta-analysis. Here are longer reviews for each of them.

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

I remember being at a tech conference about six years ago and watching a set of speakers from Netflix. “No one approves our expense reports,” said one of the presenters. In a room full of corporate executives, there was an audible gasp. The speakers went on to say that no one approved the code they wrote either. Together, these two examples were meant to show that it wasn’t a question of policy or procedure. Netflix operates with a different culture.

No Rules Rules is the book that attempts to describe that culture. The book is written by two authors. The first author, to no surprise, is Reed Hastings, the co-founder and CEO of Netflix.  With Hastings, you get the direct transference of his beliefs and reasoning for why Netflix is organized and run the way it is. The second author is Erin Meyer, a business professor from INSEAD. Meyer serves two roles, one as provider of confirming research and another as the voice of Netflix’s employees. As a part of writing the book, Meyer interviewed hundreds of workers all over the world. This internating narration enhances both the traditional CEO book and standard business school thesis, as they respond to each other on the pages of the book.

Hastings says Netflix’s culture is based on three reinforcing principles. The first tenet is to build the best group of talent possible, because highly talented individuals make each other more effective. “Talent density” is increased by always evaluating if the company has the best people and by paying top of market salaries. Next, increase candor among those folks, because the highly talented love feedback that can make them better. To ensure effectiveness and no hurt feelings, Netflix trains everyone to give and receive feedback. And finally, you remove controls and trust people to do their best work. Hastings says each of these practices has challenges, but the benefits of each tenet multiples when enacted with the others.

Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Everything by BJ Fogg

If you looked at the business bookstore shelf any time in the last decade, you would have seen books on habits trying to crowd each other out. Novel scientific research provided new material to writers. The growth in the gig economy and work-from-home arrangements fueled new interest from readers adjusting to the challenges with personal accountability. And everyone found help with titles like Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, Wendy Wood’s Good Habits, Bad Habits and The ONE Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan.

I didn’t believe there was more room for another habits book until I read Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg. His research and his writings isolate the particular components of what make up habits and show people how to best utilize each to create new habits. I can’t think of a better time for this kind of book. Fogg is like a trainer you might hire if you really wanted more and better habits. He makes it simple to learn. He discerns the particular techniques that work best. And he’s also creative in how to engage them.

Only a few pages into the book, Fogg starts talking about a universal model for behavior. He says the model applies to everything, good and bad. Every behavior has three components: motivation, ability, and prompt (BMAP, for short) Simple, right? When you are trying to change a behavior, start with the prompt and ask if there was a reliable trigger for the behavior. Next, ask if how able you were to do the new behavior? Ability could affect everything from having what you need to knowing what needs to be done. The final factor to check is motivation. High motivation makes creating a new behavior easy but motivation fluctuates and can interact with other competing motivations. 

What you are getting in Tiny Habits is a 300 page workshop. There is a whole chapter with ideas on how to break habits. And a chapter on working with others on habits. And appendices with scripts, flowcharts, and lists to help you brainstorm habits for common challenges. This book is packed with tips and lessons to learn how to change your behavior and teach others to do the same.

Uncharted: How To Map The Future by Margaret Heffernan

Some books are written to explain a moment, other books arrive at the right moment. Uncharted is both. In our craving for a “new normal”, Heffernan would caution against there ever being a known future. Forecasts attempt to predict the future, but they are easily flawed with the ideologies of their creators. Memory, individual and collective, gives us the capacity to simulate the future, and we then miss the variations by creating false analogies of new situations. As our datasets grow, so does our false confidence in seeing the patterns they hold.

There are so many stories that drew my attention, the additional benefit of reading the perspectives from a European-based author. You could draw lessons from Ireland’s experiment with deliberative democracy to work with controversial topics like gay marriage and abortion. You could look to Alberto Fernandez’s work to fight corruption and reestablish a sense of ethics in his home country of Mexico. Heffernan highlights artists like playwright Henrik Ibsen and printmaker Norman Ackroyd, pointing to a different process for how one might uncover and trust what will unfold.

Uncharted read like popular nonfiction from authors like Mary Roach or Chip Heath. Heffernan mines a wide ranging cast of characters and histories. Her style favors more examples, which runs the risk of overwhelm, but never does. The throughline persists and we can see how all of these points connect into a greater understanding. Her intention is not to provide answers, but consider the questions that makes you think about how you think about the future. 

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