The Future of Business Books: There’s nothing new under the sun… except perhaps adjusting our mindsets?

I enjoyed the FT Live discussion on ‘Business Books in Times of Uncertainty’ hosted by the FT’s Management Editor Andrew Hill earlier in the week. I was curious to hear about new themes, workplace topics and the future of business writing. As an upcoming first-time author, I felt there might be some secrets revealed, some new topics for the future of work to start getting my teeth and thought processes into, as well as encouragement that people are still reading and interested in thought leadership.

I was delighted (and relieved) that all felt there was a bright future for business book publishing, albeit with more online events and a broader perspective on the themes and authors that should be heard. The commentary was eloquent and informed from the hugely experienced panel, ranging across academia, McKinsey and the New York Times. But when I looked back at my notes, the themes were extremely familiar: purpose, diversity, sustainability were amongst the key areas for the future, and resilience was added at the end having not been explicitly listed during the session – as if any of us in 2020 could forget the need and longing for greater resilience!

The body of literature, research and articles on all of those themes is already rich, vast and compelling. So why haven’t we made more progress on these issues in the workplace? What’s going on here? Is it the knowing-doing gap once again explaining how challenging it is for us to apply our theoretical knowledge into practical reality? Is it wilful blindness that leaves us so blind to the consequences of our choices? Or is there something else at play?

Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton’s classic work, The Knowing-Doing Gap (2000) explains why so many businesses fail to transform the extraordinary knowledge within their companies into action. They demonstrate and advocate the importance of

–         eliminating fear from the workplace, creating what now we are used to hearing as ‘psychological safety’

–         abolishing internal competition which results in so much sabotage of a company’s aims and purpose for the sake of individual advancement, and be careful about who gets promoted and why

–         measuring what matters – abandoning the game of chasing meaningless metrics, that miss out a large part of what is crucial to both engaging staff and achieving the company’s purpose over the longer-term.

Yet few organizational systems, HR processes, promotion and incentive schemes acknowledge, yet alone implement, such findings and recommendations other than as an ‘optional extra’ when times are good.

And what about wilful blindness? As Margaret Heffernan brilliantly brings alive in her book of that title, individuals and groups are repeatedly blind to impending disasters, corporate collapses and personal tragedies. We turn a blind eye in order to protect ourselves, feel safe, avoid conflict and protect our status. And in doing so, we actually leave ourselves more vulnerable, less protected and more open to failure. Margaret Heffernan’s recommendations include challenging our biases, encouraging debate, discouraging conformity and facing up to difficult or complicated problems.

Yet again, it’s hard to find common corporate cultural norms prioritizing these behaviours over compliance, operational efficiency, and avoiding conflict, challenge and discomfort at all costs. 

The recommendations above are still seen as ‘soft’ in the face of ‘hard data’ and the dominant narrative of ‘results, targets and incentives’. All the authors above highlight the importance of mindset on and over operational reality – how the way we think drives how we act and interact with one another, which determines the outcomes that follow. But in a week with an electronic calendar rammed to the rafters, where is there time to consider, let alone, develop the optimum mindset?

Whenever we have said we’d create space and time for ourselves – back in the 70s we were promised more leisure time with the advent of technology – the opposite has happened. During the pandemic, some of us were led to expect time to bake and do yoga. I suspect that the nation’s flexibility has decreased rather than increased over the last three months, mentally and physically. But if ever there was a need to get off the hamster wheel of short-term operational necessity, it is now. If ever there was a time to reconsider our purpose and find meaning in what we do at work and outside work, it’s now. If ever there was a time to reflect on what’s possible, before we realize it’s too late to have done things a different way, it’s now.

Our obsession with efficiency has been revealed during 2020 to have been shallow and short-term and achieved at the cost of preparedness for emergencies such as we have experienced. Clearly, there are many better ways of going about business and our lives beyond. The crisis provides a window to rethink, to challenge the unchallengeable, and reimagine. There are no formulas for success, no automatic answers, but with a different mindset, we might start to generate some alternative options. 

Judge Business School reader Kishore Sengupta wrote a few days ago in the Financial Times about the need for a ‘mindset adjustment’, towards an “emergent” way of thinking, ‘more like a gap-year backpacking adventure than a strictly timetabled coach excursion’. If only we could get enough time away from Zoom meetings long enough to contemplate what that might look like.

So while the old themes remain as relevant as ever as confirmed by the global experts that FT brought together earlier this week – purpose, sustainability, resilience and so on – what we need to realize is that we won’t really make inroads on those on until we prioritize how we can develop our mindsets to look at these issues through a different lens, see multiple perspectives, allow new views to emerge and co-create a different approach to success in business and beyond.

From my perspective, it’s about developing what I call Long-Win Thinking: defining success with wider criteria, a longer-term perspective and stronger sense of purpose; focusing on growth, learning and creativity over short-term results and ‘efficiencies’; and creating a more diverse, engaged and connected community in our businesses and beyond. All stemming from a shake-up in the way we think, behave and interact. Let’s start by thinking how we might schedule space for some mindset development into next week…

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