As we reach the year’s end, I wanted to share the best business books of 2020.
I have been creating year end business book lists for over 15 years and I have used many different methods. Some years, it was just my favorites. When I worked at 800-CEO-READ (now Porchlight Books), we created an official awards program with categories.
Last year, I started a new method that looked at the most important year-end lists and used a “wisdom of crowds” approach—were there any books that appeared and endorsed on multiple lists? In 2019, there were three books that appeared on five of the six lists I looked at. I worked with Marker at Medium to publish an article with the results.
For 2020, I had the same opportunity to do the analysis and partner with Marker on publishing the results. In total, the seven lists I looked at—The Financial Times, Inc. Magazine, Strategy + Business, The Economist, Porchlight Book Company, BookPal, and Amazon—chose 100 books. Only five titles appeared on three or more lists:
- 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.
- 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.
- Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire by Rebecca Henderson – Things are changing, lots of examples here. Appeared on three lists.
- 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.
- 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.
Since we are a publisher, I thought it would be good to share a short excerpt from each book to get a sense of the voice and an idea from each one.
No Rules Rules by Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer
“Erin Meyer: You have been in discussions with your boss at headquarters about a possible organizational restructuring that would lead to several project managers on your team losing their jobs. You are only in discussion at this point and there is a 50 percent chance it won’t happen. Will you tell your project managers now or wait until you are certain?
Reed Hastings: Tell them the truth. No one wants to hear there’s a possibility they’ll lose their job…[b]ut if you want to build a culture of transparency and you don’t tell your people about the potential change until it’s finalized, you’ll show your staff you’re a hypocrite who can’t be trusted…My advice is to lean hard into transparency.”
No Filter by Sarah Frier
“I talked to a university student in London who explained that a higher Instagram follower count means you’re more likely to be selected for a leadership role on campus. I talked to a woman in Los Angeles who is too young to drink legally but gets called up by club promoters to attend exclusive events because of her sizable Instagram following. I talked to a parent in Indonesia whose daughter goes to school in Japan, then brings back Japanese consumer goods in suitcases every summer to sell locally by posting photos on the products on Instagram. I talked to a Brazilian couple who built an entire baking business out of their apartment kitchen, drawing tens of thousands of followers, because their doughnuts come in the shape of letters that say ‘I love you!’”
Reimagining Capitalism in a World on Fire by Rebecca Henderson
“The key to prosperity for both business and society at large is to understand free markets and free politics as complements rather than as adversaries. Free markets need democratic, transparent government if they are to survive—as well as the other institutions of an open, inclusive society including the rule of law, shared respect for the truth, and a commitment to a vigorous free media. Similarly, free governments need free markets. Without growth and opportunity that truly free and fair markets provide, many societies have trouble maintaining their legitimacy or upholding the minority rights that are at the heart of effective democratic governance.”
If Then by Jill Lenore
“The scientists of the Simulatics Corporation acted on the proposition that if they could collect enough data about enough people and feed it into a machine, everything, one day, might be predictable, and everyone, every human mind, simulated, each act anticipated, automatically, and even driven and directed, by targeted messages as unerring as missiles. Facebook, Palantir, Cambridge Analytics, Amazon, the Internet Research Agency, Google—they were all incubated there.”
Uncharted by Margaret Heffernan
“It can be tempting to argue that you can’t change the future without that neat blank slate. It’s a seductive idea and often a dangerous one. In software development, there’s always a moment in bug fixing when the number of errors seems so overwhelming that the cry goes up: Wouldn’t it be better to throw this code out and start again? The implicit belief, of course, is that this time we will write it flawlessly, this time we will get it right. It never works that way; the fresh version just has different bugs, different problems. Perfection is an illusion.”