Paul Miller’s seven favourite business books
January 2021 will see the publication of “Nature of Work: The new story of work for a living age”, co-authored by DWG’s Founder and CEO, Paul Miller, and Director of Knowledge, Shimrit Janes.
This innovative book considers the key importance of 12 essential workplace elements, including health, habitat, regeneration, intelligence, relationships and purpose, through the lens of nature, all underpinned by real-life stories of organizations and people already on this journey to new ways of working.
“Nature of Work” will be Paul Miller’s third book exploring how we work, and follows on from The Digital Workplace: How technology is liberating work and The Digital Renaissance of Work: Delivering digital workplaces fit for the future.
As we prepare for the book’s launch, Paul describes seven business books he loves and which have influenced him profoundly (in chronological rather than preference order).
1. Drucker on Management (1972) – Peter Drucker
As the years roll on, I can now look back rather a long time (for better or for worse) and consider the books that made a significant impact on me when I first read them, but which have also stood the test of time (and future events). This book from Peter Drucker confirmed my then hunch that work could be far, far better and more rewarding than had been the case for most people for the previous 200 years.
Rather than this book per se, it was Drucker himself (who had invented the concept of modern management during the Second World War, also giving birth to the notion of the “knowledge worker”) that really influenced me.
In the 1980s, I was a freelance speech writer and journalist, and was fortunate to have a regular newspaper column, in which I would interview this new category of experts called “management gurus” – and Drucker was the father of them all. This ultimately led to the rather strange but incredible experience of accompanying Drucker around the UK; it was 1989 (he was 80 at the time) and he was giving a series of talks. I would carry his bags and soak in the wisdom. Drucker showed me that the future was fluid and could be organized far better than we knew.
It was only when a friend noticed my stash of business books that he said to me: “You’re not a journalist, you’re a management consultant”, to which I replied: “Really?”.
2. In Search of Excellence (1982) – Tom Peters
Peters described an idea that I fell in love with – empowerment. This was the belief that power could be taken from the top of any organization and given to everyone across the company at some level, and that this would release potential energy and freedom at no extra financial cost but to the greater good of all.
Now, I admit there is a thread of hero worship in me and I guess my first “business crush” was Peters, who not only writes with a directness and enthusiasm, but could also hold a crowd in the same way. He became a rock star of his field. It was quite a moment for me, when 10 years later, I found myself in a bar late at night with him and the UK’s alternative to Peters, Charles Handy (the man who coined the term “portfolio career”) – kicking round ideas like we were all best buddies.
3. The Media Lab (1989) – Stewart Brand
This book changed my life forever. Not only was it written by Brand, who was the force behind the “Whole Earth Catalogue”, which many cite as a key influence on what became the world wide web, but it also described the inside story of the crazy minds of the new-fangled Media Lab at MIT. Headed by my then new hero, Nicholas Negroponte, this book inspired me in seeing that there were people designing our future, spurred on by their genius and zeal for innovation, extending human experience through technology.
A year after its publication, by now a jobbing speech and ghost writer I was inspired (again for better or for worse) to launch a new magazine called “Wave – A New Consciousness” – bringing together new thinking on science, business, art and technology. This flame burned brightly for a while before Fast Company and Wired created magazines with the endurance that “Wave” sadly lacked.
4. Managing on the Edge (1990) – Richard Tanner Pascale
Some books I’ve read affected me at the time but now I can barely remember why. Others (and this one stands above the rest) hit home through introducing ideas that still ripple through my life and work to this day. Pascale is a legendary management guru, having brought the ideas of Japanese management to the West.
What grabbed me in this book was the concept of “paradox”. Pascale explained that all organizations function by balancing the tensions of opposites. We want to scale but also not to lose what has made us strong; we need to empower people but also to retain strong leadership, and so on. He extended this analogy to that of an elastic band; take the band and feel the tension. If we only focus on the start (where we are) we remain static, but if we only focus on the goal (where we want to go) then we ignore where we are now. But hold the two and the tension creates energy and pull.
This has remained part of my life and business philosophy. Know exactly where you are now but don’t rest there. Have a vision of a better tomorrow but don’t get lost in an imagined future. Hold the balance and you will be taken effortlessly forward through energies you can only feel but not fully understand.
5. Alone Together (2011) – Sherry Turkle
Looking back, I must have spent 20 years or so trying – with varying degrees of success – to turn these ideas I grabbed onto in the 1980s into viable entrepreneurial ventures. Post “Wave” magazine, through Tom Peters, I met a client of his, an equally passionate devotee, John Mitchell. Together we launched the change communication consultancy, The Empowerment Group (TEG) in 1991, and then, through TEG, the Intranet Benchmarking Forum (IBF) was formed in 2001.
As CEO and Founder of IBF, in 2008 I introduced to the IBF team a crazy idea to run a 24-hour live webcast around the world – and we needed high-profile guests. Turkle came onto the third annual IBF24 experience after her seminal book “Alone Together” had been published. This presented another game-changing new perspective. She suggested that: “Yes, we are together on the [then quite young] world wide web, but it is making us lonely.” Years before “FOMO” became a thing, Turkle relayed an emotional, vulnerable and human story of our online lives.
The title is so powerful. For me, she opened the realm of emotion, wellbeing, digital fatigue and just how strange this online world was and still can be for us in both work and broader life. This book gave me permission as CEO, and us as a growing consulting firm, to show our humanity and vulnerability. We are all still wrestling with the paradox Turkle exposed and, in 2020, has the phrase “alone together” ever been more resonant?
6. Sapiens (2014) – Yuval Noah Harari
Perhaps inevitably as time moves on, the books that shape my work have changed (dare I say evolved). I notice more recently that my source material tends increasingly to come from podcasts, which I have devoured for the last 15 years. “Sapiens” has been for many people a compelling tale of our species. My interest in this book comes from my growing appetite for books that can change how I live and how we function as communities – whether in work or life.
Stories define us. But we believe these stories to be far more fixed than they are. As well as being just endlessly fascinating as a history of our species, this book opened my eyes to what my own and other companies could be.
As CEO of DWG, these days I find I am less concerned with what technology can do for us in work and increasingly interested in the relationship between humans, work and technology (which we invent), plus the challenges and opportunities that these fields exert on each other. As we move more fully from an industrial age to a living age, our organizational structures are having to evolve yet again.
7. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2018) – Shoshana Zuboff
As my reading, listening and watching have expanded, I am drawn to where I can learn in ways that will change me as a person and have wider applications for the organizations and people I meet and work with. This book is about what we are failing to notice and address in how technology is colonizing and commercializing our attention. Zuboff says that the final area where capitalism is taking over is inside our own heads and minds. Scary for sure.
What I like about this is, yet again, a new level of insight into what is real but little noticed. The more we are aware, the more power we can regain as we enter a living age where AI and intelligent systems will play profound roles in our lives and workplaces. What do we do when the algorithm knows us better than we know ourselves?
I asked myself this question after YouTube recently suggested I listen to a meditation teacher that I now love – and that I would not have found were it not for the algorithm. Should I resist or appreciate this insight?
‘Nature of Work: The new story of work for a living age’ by Paul Miller and Shimrit Janes will be published on January 14, 2021 – Pre-order your copy now at www.natureofwork.com