I love reading, and books deeply influence how I work and think about the world. So, I tend to refer to favorite books in workshops and meetings. With ill-disguised frustration after one-too-many verbal references to books, a client suggested I write down a list of them. Recreating a DB Kay library is an exercise I hadn’t done in years, so I agreed—and finally completed the task.
Most of the business books I read don’t leave much of an impression. These are the ones that did. I’ve divided the list into broad categories: People, Process and Skills, and Business.
Thinking About Knowledge and Thinking
- Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room. Weinberger, David. A deftly written and profound examination of knowledge in an era of knowledge that’s (too) abundant. Curation, Cluetrain contributor Weinberger argues, must be replaced by an unbounded network of links from assertions, to facts that support them and challenge them. These are big ideas that are fun to read.
- Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Shirky, Clay. A thoughtful and optimistic view of the world that can emerge in an environment when the cost of connection approaches zero and people have spare time to think and create. Turns out, there’s more going on with the Internet than fake news, trolling, and kitten videos.
- A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. Pink, Dan. As automation and globalization are swiftly transforming the nature of work, Pink attempts to identify the skills and aptitudes that will let people continue to have meaningful and remunerative jobs. His conclusion: the combination of analysis and empathy, left and right brain, is the hardest thing to replace.
- Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman, Daniel. We think we make decisions and take actions logically, but the work started largely by Kahneman and his long-time collaborator Amos Tversky proved over and over again that we’re mistaken. Much of the time, we do our thinking fast: we use shortcuts that have evolved over millions of years that often work, but sometimes don’t. Through experiment after experiment, Kahneman demonstrates how these shortcuts can be especially dangerous in today’s complex world.
- Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Pink, Dan. The leader’s quick and practical guide to what psychology, behavioral economics, and other research tells us about how to engage people at work. Spoiler alert: for knowledge workers, it’s not carrots and sticks.
- Influence: The Psychology of Motivation. Cialdini, Robert. Why does the car salesperson make a point of buying you a $2.00 soda when he’s trying to sell you a $30,000 car? Why does the webinar email say “Space is limited,” when it clearly isn’t? Cialdini exposes the techniques people use to influence you without your being aware of it, reducing their power over you in the process.
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. An absolute classic exploring states of optimal experience. It’s cited by many of the other books on this list. It’s not quite as breezy to read as many of the others, but it’s good to know this Flow meme straight from the source. BTW, his name is easier to pronounce than you might think.
- KCS Coach’s Guide. Haggett, Beth. This is the reference we use when we do KCS coach training, and the one we recommend when our clients do it themselves. I’ll let this be the only recommendation in the Coaching category, as Beth lists many, many other books covering specific aspects of coaching in this Guide.
- Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, followed by Irrationally Yours, The Upside of Irrationality, and others. Ariely, Dan. It’s rare that an actual researcher is so good at communicating what he discovers, but Ariely is that exception. These books (and his Coursera class) are more approachable than many popularizations of behavioral economics but are written from the perspective of a leading practitioner (with a compelling personal story).
- The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds. Lewis, Michael. If you like Kahneman and Tversky’s work as much as we expect you will after reading Thinking Fast and Slow, you may appreciate the context Lewis’s double biography provides on the two men’s backgrounds, personalities, partnership, and the tension in their relationship.
- The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. Sutton, Robert. Doesn’t this describe the team everyone wants to be on? This is a great how-to for leaders and team members alike. You know that person no one likes working with, but they’re so good at their job that you just put up with it? Don’t do it. It’s not worth it.
- Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams. Demarco, Tom; Lister, Tim. “Somewhere today, a project is failing” is as good as opening lines get, and the rest of the book tells you why it happens and how to fix it. While the book focuses on software developers, its lessons are important for anyone managing knowledge workers. It relies heavily on the concept of Flow (listed above).
- Silos, Politics, and Turf Wars: A Leadership Fable About Destroying the Barriers That Turn Colleagues Into Competitors. Lencioni, Patrick. While not as famous as his Five Dysfunctions fable, this one spoke very personally to me, as my younger self truly believed my team could win while other teams in the same organization failed. Silos demonstrates the power of cross-functional goals, such as the Net Promoter Score.
- Fish!: A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results. Lunden, Stephen; Paul, Harry; Christensen, John. I generally avoid books that are a little too cute, but this one, first of a series, really does contain powerful messages about work culture wrapped in an imagined visit to an enlightened fishmonger at Seattle’s Pike Street Market.
- Lessons Unlearned: 25 Years in Customer Service. Ragsdale, John. John’s delightful work memoir has an endless supply of anecdotes, heartwarming and cringeworthy, illustrating the full range of corporate cultures he experienced in service and support. This book leaves you hoping John has the time and energy to write up his next 25 years of experiences!
Process and Skills Books
Knowledge Management Practices
- Collective Wisdom: Transforming Support with Knowledge. Tourniaire, Francoise; Kay, David. Obviously, I can’t be objective about this book, but ten years on, I’m still proud of it, and we continue to get good feedback from people who find it useful!
- The Consortium for Service Innovation Library. Consortium for Service Innovation. The KCS® Practices Guide, The KCS Adoption Guide, and much more. These free web-based books capture much that we’ve learned as a Consortium over the past twenty-five years. (KCS is a registered service mark of the Consortium for Service Innovation).
- The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Gawande, Atul. Successfully using knowledge to treat patients according to best medical practice is a matter of life and death for doctors like Gawande. He describes how a simple, commonsensical knowledge artifact—the checklist—can significantly improve patient care and outcomes. More ominously, he describes why getting people to use them is so difficult. It’s written about medicine, but its lessons apply in every enterprise.
Self-Service and Web Design
- Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, and Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems. Krug, Steve. These simple, straightforward, well-written books lay out the best in web design principles and teach you how to test to make sure your users are still with you. They’re easy to read, but packed with practical wisdom. The whole time I read Don’t Make Me Think I wished I had written it.
- The Best Service is No Service: How to Liberate Your Customers from Customer Service, Keep Them Happy, and Control Costs. Price, Bill; Jaffee, David. Price was the customer service leader in the early days of Amazon, when it was drowning in customer service calls (and customers who kept asking “Where’s my stuff?”) The book presents the “value-irritant matrix,” a structured way of thinking about which cases you want to take, and which ones you don’t—and, more importantly, which cases your customers don’t want to log. More focused on Service than Support or Success.
- The Year’s Ten Best Support Websites. The Association of Support Professionals. Each of the year’s ten winners of the contest provide a twelve-page essay. These essays give you a sneak peek at a quality self-service site that you generally otherwise couldn’t see. It’s a fine resource. (Disclaimer: I’ve judged the contest for many years.)
- Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy. Rockley, Ann; Cooper, Charles. The definitive book on modern modular content management.
Voice of the Customer
- Customer Surveying: A Guidebook for Service Managers. Van Bennekom, Frederick. “Guidebook” is truth in advertising. This is a step-by-step guide to conducting survey programs, starting with setting research objectives and ending with taking action. It’s practical and useful, and Fred supplies just enough theory behind the practice to satisfy the curious reader.
- For the Win: How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business. Werbach, Kevin; Hunter, Dan. This is a very brief handbook that lays out the process we use when we engage in gamification projects with our clients. A minor quibble: I often wish business books were shorter, but this one took it to an extreme. Lots of useful details from Werbach’s Coursera class were left on the cutting room floor.
- The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. Schell, Jesse. If gamification is the “use of game design techniques in non-game contexts,” here are your game design techniques. Not all of it will be useful in any given gamification initiative, but it provides great prompts for creativity and brainstorming. Make sure you get the version with the deck of “lens” cards.
DevOps and Agile
- The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT and DevOps. Kim, Gene; Behr, Kevin; Spafford, George. No, seriously. It works both as a novel and as a tutorial on the hows and whys of DevOps.
Writing and Technical Communications
- Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works. Redish, Janice (Ginny). What a fantastic title for what so many of us need to work on! Web content is different from what we were taught to write in school—if we were taught to write well in school at all. Redish is an able guide to this new form.
- On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. Zinsser, William. The title says it all, along with the fact that he’s sold a million copies. Good, solid, highly readable guidance that practices what it preaches.
- Confessions of a Public Speaker. Berkun, Scott. Berkun uses storytelling and his experience to convey messages that we wish everyone who presents to us had taken on board. True story: this book is what convinced me to use a clicker.
- Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery. Reynolds, Garr. This book may have had more impact on my work product than any other. Presentation Zen-style slides focus the audience on you and what you’re saying…and you won’t be tempted to read your slides if they hardly have any words. (They make lousy hand-outs, however; have a different plan for that.)
If you’re wondering why I’m not including Nancy Duarte’s famous slide:ology and resonate books, I confess it’s because I haven’t read them yet. I promise I will.
- Circle of the 9 Muses: A Storytelling Field Guide for Innovators and Meaning Makers. Hutchens, David. I had the pleasure of participating in a brief workshop that Hutchens lead, and this book contains the exercises we went through and many more. Warning: this isn’t a “sit back and read” book—the only way to really get the benefit is to do the exercises, perhaps even as part of a group.
Customer Experience and Value
- Effortless Experience: Conquering the New Battleground for Customer Loyalty. Dixon, Matthew; Toman, Nick; DeLisi, Rick. Even if it weren’t a good book (and it is), we all need to be conversant with the ideas in it, because everyone is talking about customer effort, and it all started here (or, more precisely, in the Harvard Business Review article “Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers” that turned into this book.)
- The Ultimate Question: How Net Promoter Companies Thrive in a Customer-Driven World, preceded by The Loyalty Effect and Loyalty Rules. Reichheld, Fred. If Effortless Experience kicked off the Customer Effort Score, The Ultimate Question kicked off the Net Promoter Score. Give all the misuses of the NPS that are out there, it’s good to be grounded on the real theory behind it.
- Badass: Making Users Awesome. Sierra, Kathy. A trenchant reminder that no one buys your product because of its features—they buy it because of what it lets them do, or, more truthfully, how it makes them feel. Support and especially Success organizations might have different priorities if they solved for “make users feel and be awesome.”
- ADKAR: A Model for Change in Business, Government, and our Community. Hyatt, Jeffrey. No one is going to claim that this is entertaining summer reading, but there’s a reason that many of the organizations that practice change management in a formal way use ADKAR.
- Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard and Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Heath, Chip; Heath, Dan. These books, in contrast, would be great to take to the beach, as well as being informative. Understanding “The Curse of Knowledge” has been a game changer for me, and I constantly remind myself “Abstraction is the Luxury of the Expert!” (Probably not often enough, however.)
- Transforming Performance Measurement: Rethinking the Way We Measure and Drive Organizational Success. Spitzer, Dean. 66 customer reviews, 92% of which are five stars. This book really changed how I think about measures, which ones to use, and why. It also explains what I see every day at work: the culture in which measures happen matters as much as the measures themselves. There are powerful ideas in here, although I’m not going to lie: if I could rip the double quote key off of his keyboard, I would.
- The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Business. Reis, Eric. You know how you hear about failing fast and pivoting? That’s Reis’s fault. Seriously, this book has profoundly influenced how businesses here in Silicon Valley operate.
Which books influenced you? What am I missing?
Obligatory disclaimer: clicking through the links in this post and buying stuff on Amazon benefits DB Kay a little bit. Thanks in advance!
Melissa George says
Great list David, you always make good recommendations. I have some reading to do.
Ryan Mathews says
Agree David, this is very solid reading list. I strongly agree with quite a few of the selections that I’ve read already, but you’ve added a lot more value by placing them in categories like this. Really appreciate the share!
David Kay says
Thanks, Melissa and Ryan! And, fortunately, that list of books worth reading continues to grow for all of us.