Five Must-Reads for Tackling Complex Problems

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What is a must-read book? For me, it’s a book that explores, in a compelling way, a must-know idea — one that altered my perspective long after I had forgotten the book’s narrative and details. The following five books are a small sample from a longer list of must-reads, but they have two things in common. First, they forced me to confront how superficial and inadequate my thinking was in assessing different kinds of complex problems. Second, they took the important next step of introducing more sophisticated approaches to tackling complexity, which I have been using ever since.

The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Taleb’s book is a category unto itself — it has no obvious competitors. Like any outstanding book, the scope and depth of its ideas cannot be fairly summarized, but his central argument is that we live in two worlds. The first world can be described by basic statistical analysis and a common-sense version of cause-effect relationships; it is a world in which we can make fairly accurate predictions. But the second world behaves in ways that cannot be described in the same straightforward manner, and is not amenable to reliable predictions. We are typically blind to this second world because we force-fit our basic intuitions onto it, based on the naïve assumption that we can understand it the way we understand the first world. Leaders cannot afford to under-appreciate the difference between these worlds because the second world is becoming an ever-larger part of today’s reality. It includes stock markets, economic cycles, wars, company fortunes, and career paths. Like Taleb’s example of a well-fed turkey in the run-up to Thanksgiving dinner, leaders ignore this second, head-chopping world at their peril.

Expert Political Judgment, by Philip Tetlock
Our brains are first and foremost prediction-making machines: We survive by understanding the world and anticipating its response to our actions. While many of our day-to-day predictions are dependable, an increasing number are not, because they are pitted against increasing complexity in our lives. Tetlock has studied how poor our forecasts are when it comes to making predictions in the domain of economics and politics. His research reveals, in highly analytic and rigorous detail, the ineptitude of the “experts” — in fact he shows that the more expert someone is, the less reliable their predictions tend to be. Tetlock is a must-read if you rely on any form of social-economic-political prediction in your work. You’ll never look at a pundit, prognosticator, or anyone proffering predictions the same way. Why are experts’ predictions so bad? The answer awaits you in Taleb’s The Black Swan.

The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge
If the world is more complicated than we think, and our predictions about it so often wrong, is there any hope for us? “Systems thinking” is the key. Although Senge’s book was first published over 20 years ago, it remains one of the best explanations of this approach to analyzing problems. Senge shows how the complex aspects of the world and our lives are much more productively described as systems than as linear cause-and-effect relationships — better as multiple causal factors that influence each other through intricate feedback loops that generate behaviors that are not straightforward. If you want to understand Taleb’s second world, you need to understand systems and this book is the place to start.

Emotional Intelligence
, by Daniel Goleman

The authors of the first three books use a rational lens to improve the way we think. Goleman, in contrast, is one of the first authors to peer through a physiological lens at the emotionality of our thinking. Building on the work of the neuroscientists who pioneered this field, he uncovers one of our most significant cognitive frailties — poor management of emotion — and explores methods of mitigating it. Like Senge’s book, Goleman’s initial edition goes back a number of years; but also like Senge’s, it not only is still current, it is still one of the best overviews of this topic. Being an effective human being, never mind leader, requires an understanding of the enormous role of emotion in our thinking, as well as a proactive employment of Goleman’s emotion-management strategies. To appreciate the enormous influence on thinking and behavior that the brain part known as the amygdala has, read this book.

The Halo Effect, by Phil Rosenzweig
The above books are enduring in the way that most management books are not. If you have read any of the archetypical management best-sellers (In Search of Excellence, Good to Great, etc.), then The Halo Effect is a must-read. First, it brilliantly reveals the flaws in just about every best-selling strategy book of the past three decades. Second, and more importantly, it reveals just how skeptical and sharp-minded today’s business leaders must be in order to avoid falling victim to the latest and greatest guru thinking. Rosenzweig exposes how convincing but faulty the logic is of the brightest and most popular business consultants. Reading his deconstruction of their research and arguments is shocking but liberating — in much the same way that a child experiences the revelation that there is no Tooth Fairy or that magic tricks are just illusions. The book excels at revealing a lesson that cannot be repeated enough: The most persuasive and researched arguments are often the most specious. Reading Rosenzweig’s book is as humbling for the reader as it ought to be for the “gurus” he targets. Not only does he cast business strategy in a new light, but in so doing, he indirectly cements the depth and value of the other four books’ ideas.

Which books would you recommend?

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