Digital Economy Dispatch #016

27th December 2020

The Digital Economy Year – Six of the Best Books in 2020

It’s been a great year. Ok, well not in general, but certainly in terms of new books on digital economy topics. This year has seen a wide collection of publications on a whole host of important topics. So, I thought it might be useful to review 2020 in terms of the books that have had the most impact on my thinking throughout the year. I wonder how many of these books appear on your “best of the year” list? Let me know!

Competing in the Age of AI, Marco Iansiti and Karim Lakhani

I have a confession to make. Most AI books bore me. I know I should be interested in their technology insights and dazzled by their algorithms. But I’m not. Maybe it is too many hours spent writing useless programs in Prolog when we used to label machine learning as “expert systems”. Yes, I still bear the scars. So nowadays I always enter any dialog about AI with one key question: Why?

This book has the answer. It is the best overview I have yet found about why AI matters, why all organizations need to build a strong understanding of AI techniques, and why future solutions will inevitably be strongly grounded in AI technology. The examples are meaningful and well-described. The discussions on business strategy build realistic cases based on convincing scenarios. This book reminds me to look at the AI glass as half full rather than half empty.

Summary: Just when you despair that the hype around AI will sweep us away, a book comes along to remind you that AI matters. Read this to learn why.

The Invincible Company, Yves Pigneur, Alex Osterwalder, et al.

I have written and published half a dozen books. There is always a significant pile half-read books on my bedside table. I have bookcases crammed with books that tell the story of my learning journey across the years. Yet for all of this, I am honestly asking myself: In the digital era, what’s the point of books?

A good part of the answer can be found by looking at the series of business modelling books by Yves Pigneur and Alex Osterwalder. Their business model canvas and value proposition books are widely referenced as wonderful examples of well-presented combinations of practical strategy, analytical frameworks, with tons of illustrative examples. This latest book continues the earlier themes by exploring techniques to accelerate innovation practices in established companies. Using a familiar visual language and building on principles previously explored, the book builds a “pattern library” of innovation practices based on different contexts you might encounter.

This is a great book for those who don’t want to read a book! Instead, it offers a wide collection of graphical models and visual explanations that provide a easy-to-digest sense of the innovation contexts and alternative strategies that may apply. While I like this approach, the book is at times a bit overwhelming visually. After reading this book for an hour you may need to lie down in a darkened room.

Summary: Books need to be engaging and accessible. This series of books set a high bar for how to deliver on this. This particular book offers a great source of ideas as a pattern library for innovation.

Be Less Zombie!, Elvin Turner

A really useful book by my good friend Elvin Turner, with excellent illustrations from Richard Johnston. The focus of this book is a set of down-to-earth examples and illustration of innovation practices and approaches that all of us can apply. It’s practical, basic stuff. No long reviews or detailed analysis. And all the better for it. Just lots of practical steps you can take, frameworks to apply in your projects, and team-based activities to try.

One of the key lessons for me from this book, and in all my time working with Elvin, is to stay focused on the big innovation challenges – helping people broaden their viewpoint, move forward from their status quo, and, above all, enable them to ask better questions.

Summary: Read this book to gain lots of ideas for how to keep moving on your innovation journey.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Gary Hamel’s writing. I can take it or leave it. It always feels as if you get a bit too much “Gary Hamel” with Gary Hamel…if you know what I mean! This latest book is a good example of that. There is a strong message here. That organizations need to be focused more on purpose, people, and principle than on process and productivity. Who can’t get behind that message in our post-apocalyptic age?

The message is supported with a variety of examples and illustrations taken from several high-profile organizations. These highlight situations where bureaucracy has been reduced by moving the focus to individuals with vision, drive, and purpose. Stirring stuff. Yet, as with much of Gary Hamel’s work, I’m left with an after taste of “yeah, well, maybe”. I prefer a bit more reality.

Summary: Worth reading as a strong reminder that we need to keep the focus on people and fight unnecessary bureaucracy wherever possible. Something I know that I’ll be taking on in 2021.

No Rules Rules, Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer

I read this book with a great deal of hope. It has received a lot of press in the second half of 2020 and has been widely promoted as a game-changing insight into the reasons why Netflix has been able to grow in the last decade to be a giant media platform and the envy of large enterprises everywhere. But I don’t get it.

The book claims that Netflix success is based on a simple philosophy: Hire great people; give them the freedom to do good things; get rid of people who don’t contribute; rinse and repeat. I see nothing wrong with that. In fact, I’m sure we all see that to be good common sense. My concern is that this feels far too limited for just about all the organizations in which I have worked. It makes me wonder whether this is a fault with the book, or a fault with me. Have I become too complacent and far too willing to accept mediocre performance?

Summary: Learning why good companies succeed is important. Questioning yourself about what you see as good performance is better. This book makes me ask myself hard questions about what is acceptable and what is not.

Sooner Safer Happier, Jonathan Smart

I am becoming more interested in how organizations can deliver better software-based change in a world of rapid disruption. As a result, for much of 2020 I have returned to some of the software engineering topics that were my priority a decade ago. I am now coming back to themes of enterprise agility, DevOps, and the challenges of delivering digital transformation.

So, I was very happy to come across this book from Jonathan Smart. In this book we have a series of patterns and anti-patterns for creating a more agile organization. He spent a long time at Barclays leading their agile improvement efforts. He is now an agile change consultant and has a strong reputation as a pragmatist in leading agile change.

The book covers many of the areas you might expect, taking particular focus in the need to not be “doing agile” but on “becoming agile”. From my perspective, there are 2 interesting directions in his thinking. The first concerns his use of cynefin as an organizing framework for understanding where and when agile approaches are effective. The cynefin model is not new and has been a touchstone for many people looking at scaling agile approaches. It distinguishes the “unknowns” in a situation and guides the solution toward an optimal learning strategy based on the complexity being addressed. But this book is concise and clear. I particularly like how he describes the relationship between agile and lean approaches, summarized as “Software is an agile-created box on a lean conveyor belt.”

The second is the simple diagram that brings a clear set of metrics around enterprise agile delivery. It has Value at the centre (defined via OKRs) with Better (quality), Sooner (speed), Happier (Cx), and Safer (compliance) around the outside. I could argue a little with the details of these terms and their descriptions, but I do like the simplicity and focus this provides.

Summary: A reminder that the digital economy depends on a constant stream of quality software delivery. This book reinforces several key ideas about value, agility, metrics-driven change, and the strong alignment between business and IT.

Digital Economy Tidbits

Sustainability as a business strategy. Link.

The focus on sustainability is undoubtedly one of the key directions in business for the coming years. This IBM Institute for Business Value report lays out some of the key areas for looking at the business implication this may have.

Disrupting the disruptors. Link.

Interesting to see some new data looking at how the disruptor companies are themselves being displaced by newer organizations. They see increasing turnover, and shorter lifespans than you might expect.

Bain & Company research conducted last year of more than 1,300 companies’ performance from 1996 through 2018 shows that technology companies are 12% more likely to be disrupted than companies in retail and 25% more likely than those in financial services — two other industries that have historically gone through disruptions.

And for tech companies it is “dog eat dog” with no mercy from the pack when they catch up….

Disruption isn’t just more common in tech — it also can be more damaging and permanent. Once a technology company falls behind, it can be difficult for it to catch up.

Certainly much food for thought here.

Will robots need passports? Link.

A friend and colleague, Dave Birch, is working on a new book. The outline and motivation is fascinating. As always with his work….he definitely makes me think. Watch this space.