HBR’s 10 Must Reads 2015: A book review by Bob Morris

HBR's 10 (2015)HBR’s 10 Must Reads 2015: The Definitive Management Ideas of the Year from Harvard Business Review
Harvard Business Review Editors
Harvard Business Review Press (2015)

Here’s an abundance of cutting-edge thinking to help business leaders solve today’s critical challenges

Harvard Business Review Press now publishes several series of anthologized articles that first appeared in HBR. One of them is the HBR’s 10 Must Reads series on which the focus is on a general subject such as Essentials (my personal favorite), Change Management, Collaboration, Communication, Emotional Intelligence, and Leadership, a total of twelve thus far. To them we can add another focus: a calendar year. All but two of the articles in HBR’s 10 Must Reads 2015 were published in 2014. Dan Goleman’s “The Focused Leader,” a bonus, and David A. Garvin’s “How Google Sold Its Engineers on Management” were published in 2013. In December, HBRP will publish HBR’s 10 Must Reads 2016: The Definitive Management Ideas of the Year from Harvard Business Review (with a bonus article, William Lazonick’s McKinsey Award–Winning article, “Profits Without Prosperity”).

As the HBR Editors explain, “Some management challenges never go away (the mysterious art of managing talented people is chief among them). Others are solved for one generation and then crop up years later in response to new market conditions. Still others really do get settled — at least for one set of people in one place. Our hope is that the pieces in this volume — the big themes they raise, the big ideas they put forward, and the practical guidance they detail — will help business leaders solve today’s critical challenges in their own jobs and organizations.”

In this context, I am again reminded of an incident many years when one of Einstein’s colleagues at Princeton gently chided him for asking the same questions on the final examinations each year. “Quite right. Each year, the answers are different.”

Briefly, the material in this volume can help business leaders to:

o Lead by focusing their attention on the tasks, issues, questions, problems, etc. that are most important
o Identify, locate, and establish new (better) management practices that will strengthen the given organization
o Manage much more effectively one of any organization’s most precious resources: time
o Evaluate and rethink vital functions such as HR and marketing
o Complete a transition from a yearly planning cycle to formulating a winning strategy
o Make better long-term organizational decisions with an eye to national and global economic trends

Several of the contributors to this volume have earned and deserve their prominence in thought leadership. Clay Christensen (“The Capitalist’s Dilemma”), for example, as well as Goleman (“The Focused Leader”), W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne (“Blue Ocean Leadership”), and Roger Martin (“The Big Lie of Strategic Planning”).

However, in my opinion, some of the most valuable material in this volume was contributed by several with whose work I was previously unfamiliar. For example, Julian Birkinshaw, Tarun Khanna, and Patty McCord. Here are three brief excerpts (i.e. samples) from their articles.

“By taking deliberate steps to understand other companies’ innovations and how they relate to your own firm’s ways of thinking and functioning, you better discern which experimental concepts are worth your while. With thoughtfulness and care, you can increase your chances of success when you borrow ideas and, in the process, acquire new knowledge that will improve your business in the long run.” Julian Birkinshaw, “Beware of the Next Big Thing” (Pages 1-13)

Lessons to be learned from Birkinshaw: Channeling Marcus Aurelius, the best approach is to extract the essential principle from a management innovation — its underlying logic — by asking a series of questions about it such as “How is your organization significantly different from the source of the innovation?” Best practices seldom travel Well

“Understanding the limits of our knowledge, which is at the heart of contextual intelligence, is a very basic component of human comprehension. Yet it’s also a profoundly difficult, complicated process that has vexed philosophers from Plato to Isaiah Berlin, who distinguished between [begin italics] knowing the facts [end italics] and [begin italics] making a judgment [end italics] in a widely read 1996 essay…We need to understand so many things better than we currently do [before entering a new market]: How do [consumers in that market] prioritize spending, given their extremely limited resources? What forms of communication will they respond to? How can they accumulate capital in the absence of collateral? The answers to these questions will differ from Mumbai to Nairobi and from Nairobi to Santiago.” Tarun Khanna, “Contextual Intelligence” (59-75)

Lessons to be learned from Khanna: The first steps in adapting to unknown realities is to jettison assumptions about what will work and then experiment to find out what actually does work. Make certain everyone buys into the idea that whatever goes wrong is not a “failure” unless nothing of value is learned from it.

“Over the years we learned that if we asked people to rely on logic and common sense instead of on formal policies, most of the time we would get better results, and at lower cost. If you’re careful to hire people who will put the company’s interest first, who understand and support the desire for a high-performance workplace, 97% of your employees will do the right thing. Most companies spend endless time and money writing and enforcing HR policies to deal with problems that the other 3% might cause. Instead, we tried really hard to not hire those people, and we let them go if it turned out we’d make a hiring mistake.” Patty McCord, “How Netflix Reinvented HR” (77-88)

Lessons to be learned from McCord: Hire, reward, and tolerate only fully formed adults. Always tell the truth about performance. Make it crystal clear to managers that their top priority is building great teams. Spare no expense to accelerate personal growth and professional development. Don’t expect excellence. Demand it.

It would be a fool’s errand to attempt to apply most or even much of the insights and counsel provided in the eleven articles. All are thoughtful and thought-provoking, to be sure, but the potential value of each will depend almost entirely on two factors: its relevance to the given organization, and, how effectively the relevant material is applied. That said, here’s my recommendation: Carefully read the “Editors’ Note” and review the Contents. Then read (and re-read) the articles that seem to grab you by the nose. Somewhere in this book is an insight — if not in that nose-grabbing article, then in another — that can help you and/or your organization to solve an especially serious problem or answer an especially important question. It’s in there. Go find it!

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