The books we’re reading at NewCo as we prepare for the conversation at the Shift Forum this February
NewCo Shift is committed to identifying and exploring the most pressing issues in business and society through a new Shift Reads program. At the NewCo Shift Forum this coming February, we plan to discuss and debate solutions to those issues — even if the conversation is at times uncomfortable. If you’re interested in Shift Forum’s new Reads program, be sure to sign up for my weekly newsletter here.
It took me longer than I expected to read Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, and longer still to write up this review (I began reading the book when it came out this past summer). That’s not necessarily the best way to open an essay on an important topic, but at least it’s honest. While its title promises a popular history of the kind of social media activism that sparked movements like #BlackLivesMatter and the Arab Spring, the book is in fact a far more nuanced, and often academic study of the impact digital platforms have had on political change over the past two decades. But if we are to understand more recent developments such as information warfare and fake news, we must bend into the work of scholars like Tufekci.
Especially among people who haven’t traveled there, there’s still conventional wisdom that China is the land of the cheap knockoff, not just of hardware but of Internet services: Baidu apes Google, Tencent is just Yahoo, and so on. That’s not true anymore and How a Nation of Copycats Transformed Into a Hub for Innovation, by Clive Thompson in Wired, destroys that characterization conclusively.
The tales Thompson tells are very Silicon Valley: educated young adults with an entrepreneurial urge break away from steady but uninspiring positions at established firms to create something new or convince their leaders to try something new. There’s an obsession with speed. Accelerator proliferate. Thompson spies a DO EPIC SHIT sticker on a refrigerator. He explores how phone maker Xiaomi delivers highly anticipated weekly updates to its operating system that are built around user feedback.
As in Silicon Valley, the entrepreneurs Thompson interviews tend to be solving problems like movie ticketing and dating game shows that aren’t exactly world-changing. And China’s repressive political system doesn’t allow for the sort of government-challenging social enterprise that can thrive in other nations. But Thompson reveals a widespread attitude to innovation that’s way beyond the copycat caricature. After years of being accused of stealing product ideas from Silicon Valley, China’s latest success may come from grabbing select Silicon Valley values and grafting them onto its unique culture.
Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan’s first book, The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office, served as both a powerful critique of how organizations and a spirited defense of what organizations can do. Their new followup, The Inner Lives of Markets: How People Shape Them – and They Shape Us, goes even deeper and lays bare the markets that make all those orgs possible.
The basic idea behind The Inner Lives of Markets is that markets encompass much more than what we usually think they do and that they’re much more than financial: they’re contracts for how to behave, with wide-reaching implications when the rules change or are ignored, as happens all the time.
Self-help books and business books have a lot in common. In particular, all but the best of them seem more interested in proving why the author’s theory of life or work is right in a wide variety of circumstances than helping people or organizations solve problems.
That’s why The Achievement Habit is such a welcome surprise. Written by Bernard Roth, a founder of the Stanford d.School, the book is focused on a simple but profound question: How can we do more and still feel in control? It offers some big ideas but it’s grounded in the practical: getting things done. It’s not a full-fledged theory like, say, David Allen’s GTD, but a series of approaches readers can take to change how they do what they do.