Archive for July, 2006

Five Books

Thursday, July 6th, 2006

The greatest compliment you can give another author is to tell them that you so admire their work that you wish you had written it yourself. Now, there may be a wee bit of jealousy that they sold a million copies and you sold only a few hundred to assorted friends and family, but it is still a mark of respect. Being a bestseller is not always the mark of greatness, but it does send a signal that the message has touched many in a way that is accessible and clear. That is why short little books about cheese being moved seem to do very well.

I keep a running list of books that I wish I had written, all of them are non-fiction. Interestingly, there are no books on healthcare on my short list but everyone in healthcare should read them. Here they are, in approximate rank order:

Good To Great by Jim Collins (2001). As a genre, business books are easy to write: you develop a half-baked theory, provide some cute phrases to describe the obvious, and then you add a few anecdotes. Well that’s how I’ve done it. But, Jim Collins, has a rare combination of deep research skills and the ability to synthesize and communicate the essential truth. An award winning teacher, writer, scholar, and consultant, Collins has given us brilliant insight into what makes some companies capable of greatness compared to similarly situated peers. His latest monograph on Good to Great in the Non-Profit Sector should be required reading for every hospital, foundation, and non-profit in healthcare. Collins does not just guess at answers to difficult management questions, he bases his recommendations on rigorous research. And often, he surprises himself because he lets facts and findings drive conclusions not just biases and hunches.

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (2002). It is unusual for a phrase to become an enduring part of our vocabulary. Cute one-liners come and go, fads and trends and the language that accompanies them may pass. For example, some day the Blueberry Green Tea Frappacino may be a distant memory. But on occasion, a book, a concept, a phrase, so captures a phenomenon that it becomes a permanent feature of the lexicon. Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point is such a book. It distilled and explained the magic of exponential social change that academic diffusion theorists, marketers, and culture watchers had waffled about for years. Gladwell’s contribution to the language has helped us think more clearly about change, in all areas of life, including healthcare.

Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (2005). Born from the unlikely liaison of a nerdy, obscure behavioral economist and a financial journalist, Freakonomics is a fun, mildly disconnected ride through a whole series of social and economic pheneomena, like why crime rates and abortion are connected, why drug dealers live with their mothers, and why real estate agents rip you off. But, the overarching message to me was that people respond to information and incentives in ways that might not be as obvious through the conventional lenses of micro-economics or psychology. I believe I have been a practitioner of Healthcare Freakonomics for years without knowing it, trying to combine analysis of stakeholder motives, missions, and methods with the usual analysis of who gets the money. Now I feel there is a spiritual home for all us random social scientists that try and make sense of the freaky healthcare world.

The Art of the Long View by Peter Schwartz (1996). If you had told me that you could write an engaging book about futures methodology, I would have said you were nuts. There are many yawners in this genre, most of which never saw the light of day beyond obscure academic publishers. Peter Schwartz, founder of the Global Business Network is the world’s leading scenario planner. From his early days at SRI and Shell Oil to his most recent writing, research, and consulting, Schwartz has provoked us to think about radically different futures in a world that is increasingly and perhaps permanently dangerous and uncertain. But, Schwartz’s greatest gift was The Art of the Long View, because he gave away the recipe to the secret sauce. He confirmed for fellow practitioners, like my old colleagues and I at the Institute for the Future, that what we were doing was about right and helped us do it better. But most importantly he laid out for anyone in an organization a basic road map for writing and using scenarios as a strategic planning tool. Although it was written ten years ago, you can use the methods today. Scenario planning isn’t hard to do, but it is hard to do well. Schwartz’s book can help.

How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman (2001). I am a proud Global Scot, a network of expatriate Scots who provide the Scottish Executive with a conduit for promoting trade and investment with Scotland. It’s kind of like the Scottish mafia without the violence. Arthur Herman’s book is required reading for Global Scots and it should be required reading for all Americans. Herman, an American, is a professor of history at the Smithsonian and his brilliantly researched and wonderfully written book tells the tale of how Scotland evolved from a bunch of Braveheart, claymore-wielding maniacs to being the crucible of the industrial revolution and the Age of Enlightenment. The ideas, philosophies, and people of late 18th century Scotland had a profound effect on the Founding Fathers, and on those that followed. As Andrew Carnegie (of Dunfermline, Fife) famously said: “America would have been a poor show had it not been for the Scotch.” I believe he was referring to the people and not the drink. But it is a history we Scottish-Canadian-Californians are proud of, I just wish I had written it.

I learned a lot from these book and from these authors. I am thrilled that two of these authors Jim Collins and Malcolm Gladwell will be keynote participants at the Health Forum Leadership Summit in San Francisco. I can’t wait to learn some more.

Ian Morrison is an author, consultant and futurist based in Menlo Park, California.