Appearing in In The Black magazine, July 2017
Megatech: Technology in 2050
By Daniel Franklin
Profile Books, $33, 242 pages, ISBN 9781781254622
It was Winston Churchill who said that the future will be just one damned thing after another. True, but this has not stopped people from trying to foretell what is coming down the road. Franklin is the executive editor of the Economist magazine, a position which allowed him to corral thinkers as varied as Nobel Prize-winner Frank Wilczek, philanthropist Melinda Gates and sci-fi writer Nancy Kress. Each of the 20 essays in this book seeks to extrapolate existing trends, looking not just at technology itself but also its broader implications.
A number of writers point out that past predictions have often turned out to be hilariously wrong, but they nevertheless chance their arm to examine the future of biotechnology and bottom-up patterns of innovation. Others delve into the way technology is likely to affect agriculture (big but risky advances) and energy (renewables look good but there are still bugs in the system). Several contributors focus on the impact of megatech on humanity, including the ethics of artificial intelligence. The tone is generally optimistic but everyone acknowledges that there will be losers from all this fast-wave change.
This is interesting stuff, and enjoyable to read. Perhaps we will reach 2050 and look back at this book and laugh, but in the meantime it offers good food for thought.
Red Teaming: Transform Your Business by Thinking Like the Enemy
By Bryce Hoffman
Piatkus, $33, 279 pages, ISBN 9780349410418
If only we had thought about what might go wrong. It’s a common refrain in everything from failed military campaigns to disastrous product launches. In this fascinating book, Hoffman argues that a ‘Red Team’, with the mandate of questioning assumptions, gaming alternatives, and asking what competitors might do, can do much to reveal crucial flaws.
The idea comes from military and security agencies, although there are a few businesses that have started to apply the lessons, so there are enough cases from which Hoffman can draw lessons. Good Red Teamers are usually people with quick intellects and sceptical perspectives, although they need a firm leader and a clear brief to keep them on track. Hoffman examines cases where Red Teams have helped companies avoid major blunders, as well as cases where, had they been used, disasters might have been averted.
Most of all, there has to be buy-in and support from the top, both for the concept and the team. Senior executives must also understand that Red Teaming is not a way to avoid taking any action but a means to make plans better.
Earning It: Hard-Won Lessons from Trailblazing Women at the Top of the Business World
By Joann Lublin
Harper Business, $50, 304 pages, ISBN 9780062407474
As the business news editor of the Wall Street Journal, Lublin is in a good position to see how much progress women have made in the corporate world in the past thirty years – and how much remains to be done. In Earning It she interviews 52 women who have risen to the top, including Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard; Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors; and Brenda Barnes, former CEO of Sara Lee. All of the cases are American but there is a sense that the experiences of these women are universal.
Most of these stories are about success against the odds, and there are recurring themes of sexism and discrimination. The response of these women was to work hard (harder than the men, several say), know the business to the last detail, and make tough life choices. Lublin often discusses her own experiences as well, giving the book a personal dimension.
These women are admirable but younger women might have trouble with the idea that the answer to sexism is to out-play the sexists. Lublin’s advice regarding harassment – avoid the men doing the harassing – might also rankle. Nevertheless, there are many inspiring stories here, and without these pioneers there would not be a path for others to follow.
The Talent Delusion: Why Data, Not Intuition, Is the Key to Unlocking Human Potential
By Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
Piatkus, $33, 283 pages, ISBN 9780349412481
In the war for talent many people are fighting unarmed, says Chamorro-Premuzic, a HR consultant who specialises in scientific analysis of recruitment, promotion, and retention issues. There are plenty of tools available but many senior executives ignore them, trusting their gut even after it has been repeatedly wrong.
Chamorro-Premuzic notes that psychometric testing has developed to a very sophisticated level in the past decade, and he provides a good round-up of the academic research. He also cites analyses of corporate performance which shows that a relatively small number of outstanding people are responsible for the organisation’s success. The key is to locate them early and nurture them to bring out their best. Unfortunately, many companies fail at measuring job performance and so have little idea of who has solid potential.
Chamorro-Premuzic supplies some important metrics, noting that the common attributes of good performers are likeability, ability and drive. Psychometrics are useful at the recruitment stage but for promotions better tools are formal interviews, performance assessments, and personality tests. In particular, strong performers respond well to structured coaching, with measurable improvements in results.
Some organisations might find Chamorro-Premuzic’s ideas hard to apply but his basic thrust is sound. After all, good management requires good measurement.