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Best biz books of 2007

The top ten lists from:

Globe and Mail

Business Week

800-CEO- Read

The Economist

Australian Institute of Management

Book review: The rise of right-brain thinking

A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule The Future

By Daniel Pink

The Berkley Publishing Group

$18

I’m trapped in a committee meeting and we’re only a half-hour in.

To sustain the illusion of engagement, I’m staring intently at the agenda and minutes from our last get-together. But my mind’s wandered to the clay figurines in my daughter’s bedroom.

Arranged along the top shelf of her dresser is a wizard, a king and queen, two princesses and something even my daughter can’t recognize although we think it could be a friendly dragon.

My daughter handcrafted these masterpieces at her day care with an assist from Joan the Artist. Every week, Joan the Artist would inspire my daughter and the other kids in the class to draw, paint, sculpt and make weird and wonderful foam core creations decorated with pipe cleaners and held together with a surprising amount of black electrical tape.

To the uninitiated, Joan the Artist was teaching art lessons to toddlers.

But she was actually giving my daughter an invaluable right-brain workout and hardwiring my offspring to think with a whole new mind.

It’s a workout badly needed on our committee.

Analysis paralysis is setting in. The left-brainers are in their functional, process-oriented glory. And the first item on our agenda has become a portal to one of the lower rings of Hades. I’d donate my left kidney if Joan the Artist suddenly interrupted our meeting and encouraged us to brainstorm with clay, foam core and electrical tape.

This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Innovative companies aren’t just hiring artists, poets, painters and storytellers.

Creative types are actually being put into positions of power, responsibility and influence. In our newly emerging Conceptual Age, author Daniel Pink says a master of fine arts is the new MBA.

"Today, the defining skills of the previous era — the left brain capabilities that powered the Information Age — are necessary but no longer sufficient. And the capabilities we once disdained or thought frivolous — the right brain qualities of inventiveness, empathy, joyfulness and meaning — increasingly will determine who flourishes and who flounders. For individuals, families and organizations, professional success and personal fulfilment now require a whole new mind."

So why are right-brainers getting the keys to the kingdom? Credit or curse the triple combo of abundance, Asia and automation. In our big-box world, there’s no shortage of stuff. "For most of our history, our lives were defined by scarcity.

"Today, the defining feature of social, economic and cultural life in much of the world is abundance." So, best of luck trying to compete with a product or service that’s reasonably priced and adequately functional.

You also need to come up with something that’s beautiful, unique and meaningful.

Hence the middle-class obsession with design and the popularity of Target, a retailer that sells clothes and household items dreamt up by world famous right-brain designers.

How else to explain a $5.99 toilet brush designed by one of the world’s most renowned architects and product designers?

Then there’s Asia with its swelling armies of low-cost left-brain knowledge workers. Here’s a sobering stat, courtesy of Forrester Research. At least 3.3 million white-collar jobs and $136 billion in wages will shift from the U.S. to low-cost countries like India, China and Russia by 2015. By 2010, one in four IT jobs in the U.S. will be offshored. The good news? It’s tough to outsource right-brain thinking through fibre-optic cables. The key to success, says Pink, is to be good at "forging relationships rather than executing transactions, tackling novel challenges instead of solving routine problems and synthesizing the big picture rather than analyzing a single component."

And if your left-brained job isn’t outsourced overseas to a cheaper version of you, there’s a good chance it’ll get automated. "Last century, machines proved they could replace human backs. This century, new technologies are proving they can replace human left brains. Any job that depends on routines — that can be reduced to a set of rules, or broken down into a set of repeatable steps — is at risk. If a $500-a-month Indian chartered accountant doesn’t swipe your comfortable accounting job, Turbo-Tax will." Again, the key to survival and success rests on firing more of the synapses in our brain’s right hemisphere.

Pink says we need to supplement our well-honed left-brain, high-tech abilities with high concept, high touch right-brain know-how. In this new Conceptual Age, we’ll need to master six essential right-brained aptitudes:

  • Design. "Today, it’s economically crucial and personally rewarding to create something that is also beautiful, whimsical or emotionally engaging."
  • Story. "The essence of persuasion, communication and self-understanding has become the ability to fashion a compelling narrative."
  • Symphony. "What’s in greatest demand today isn’t analysis but synthesis — seeing the big picture, crossing boundaries, and being able to combine disparate pieces into an arresting new whole."
  • Empathy. "What will distinguish those who thrive will be their ability to understand what makes their fellow woman or man tick, to forge relationships and to care for others."
  • Play. "Too much sobriety can be bad for your career and worse for your general health."
  • Meaning. In the Conceptual Age, meaning is the new money, as we pursue purpose, transcendence and spiritual fulfilment.

As we get serious about charting Hamilton’s future, we need to collectively ask ourselves three tough questions. Is our local economy built on jobs that someone overseas can do cheaper? Can a computer do our jobs faster? And are we making and selling products and services that are in demand in this age of abundance? The key to creating new opportunities and sustainable prosperity will rest on inviting Joan the Artist and other right-brainers to pay an extended visit to our workplaces and bring along lots of clay, paint, pipe cleaners and electrical tape.

Getting a community engaged

Must read article in the Winter 2007 edition of strategy + business from Booz / Allen / Hamilton.

"The Community Network Solution: In reweaving the social fabric of a city or town, relationships trump rank" by Karen Stephenson.

Here’s Karen’s take on community engagement. Organizers draw up a wish list of usual suspects, the key players and power brokers. Everyone convenes for a first meeting, pens a vision statement and puts out a media release declaring Local Leadership Team Sets to Work!

And then the project goes nowhere. Why? "An ambitious local undertaking is practically guaranteed to fizzle if it relies on people whose chief qualification is a high place in the pecking order. Whenever change is on the agenda, the power of relationships trumps the power of position." Instead of relying on org charts, go with maps that highlight social networks and key connectors.

So what to do? Check out Karen’s work with community affairs group Leadership Philadelphia. The group put out a call for nominations to identify the city’s key connectors (folks who are the hubs of impressive social networks and who get stuff done). Nominations asked:

  • Who do you consider highly innovative?
  • Who brings ideas about the "big picture" to his or her efforts?
  • Who has the integrity, concern for the common good, and guts needed to get this project done?
  • Who would roll up his or her sleeves in order to see this project through to the very end?
  • Who would you depend on to help bring together local resources?

The group came up with a shortlist of 101 connectors. And there was only a 1 percent overlap between the connectors and a local magazine’s list of Philadelphia’s 100 Most Powerful People.

Loads more insight in the article. Go out and buy the magazine.

Book review: The post-boomer workplace

The Leisure Economy: How Changing Demographics, Economics and Generational Differences Will Reshape Our Lives and Our Industries

By Linda Nazareth. Wiley & Sons. $32.99

What’s not to love about starting a new job?

There’s the farewell tour with your old employer. Your final victory lap is free of meetings, deadlines and deliverables. If you haven’t overstayed your welcome, there’s a happy goodbye party with fabulous parting gifts.

My best party was also my first. The whole office turned out for an extended lunch on the corporate charge card. Co-workers gave me an answering machine and phone to stay in touch (I didn’t) and ordered the restaurant’s house specialty for dessert — a brownie ice cream sundae served in a kid’s sandbox pail with a plastic shovel as the spoon. In retrospect, shovelling a pail full of whipped cream and brownie into your mouth like an eight-year-old is maybe not the best lasting impression to make.

Then comes your new job with an extended honeymoon that can last for weeks or even months. If you screw up, no worries. You’re still learning the ropes. Everyone’s so pleased to meet you and happy to have you on board. You’re still clueless about office politics. Every meeting you go to is your first meeting and you’ve yet to discover that the same people have been talking about the same agenda items every week for the past four years. Those other duties as assigned that will make you second-guess your decision to take your new job have yet to be assigned. Life is very, very good.

Yet there’s one problem with starting a new job, and it’s a whopper for anyone with young kids. Your vacation balance gets dialled back to zero. It’ll be a year before you see a paid day off beyond stat holidays. The odds of getting through a year without your kids getting waylaid by ear infections, pink eye or broken feet caused by falling pianos is about the same as winning the Lotto 6/49 jackpot.

Why the year moratorium on vacation days? Maybe employers aren’t mandated by law to pony up free time. Or maybe that’s just the way it is and how it shall always be. I paid my dues and so you will too. You hear rumours about newbies negotiating a boatload of upfront vacation days but no one ever admits to it.

But the times they are a changin’ and time-crunched Gen Xers have boomers to thank, says author, economist and broadcaster Linda Nazareth.

Boomers are retiring and more jobs than ever before are opening up. Anyone with a pulse and a glimmer of leadership potential will do quite well. There aren’t enough 30- and 40-somethings to go around so the balance of power will shift to a generation that graduated into the workforce during the recession of the early 1990s, survived round after round of re-engineering and efficiency projects that flattened organizations and stripped out jobs and who postponed having kids until their careers got established and they could afford to own a home.

"Generation X will be moving into the higher level jobs from which they’ve been blocked for so long by the baby boomers," says Nazareth.

"As they take the helm, they will impose their own values on the workplace."

What Gen Xers want most aren’t promotions and more money. It’s more time and more help in juggling work and home commitments. Nazareth says smart employers will win the talent war with offers of telecommuting, flextime, part-time work, job-sharing, parental leaves and unpaid sabbaticals. Paid time off to volunteer in the community will also be a winner. These are the same perks that may entice boomers to postpone retirement or enjoy semi-retirement.

Michigan-based accounting firm Plante & Moran, which ranked 12th on Fortune magazine’s best places to work list in 2006, is worth taking a long look at. All new employees get a starting package of 20 or 25 days of paid time off, with a combination of vacation and sick days. New mothers are paired up with employees who have families and experience in balancing work and home. There are no set hours for anyone at the company other than receptionists. The company takes a one size fits one approach to human resources management.

"We have been fortunate that we do not seem to have an issue with attracting applicants," says a group managing partner with the firm. "Our culture is attractive to new hires." Big surprise there.

And if you’re having a hard time coming to terms with the priorities of Gen Xers, brace yourself for the expectations of 20-somethings.

Generation Y won’t hesitate to chuck a job to glean a bit of leisure.

As one demographic expert puts it, 20-somethings are as interested in chutes as they are in ladders at work.

"Generation Y treasures their leisure time," says Nazareth. "Recruitment managers are dazed by just how far some take that desire for work-life balance. Those companies that have initiated programs to provide work-life balance often find they have a big carrot with which to attract Gen Y graduates."

There’s a whole lot more to Nazareth’s take on the coming leisure economy, including a whack of business opportunities for serving boomers with time and money on their hands. But for those of us who are wondering who’s going to do the work as boomers retire, this book offers strategies for winning over and locking in more than your fair share of scarce Generation X and Y talent.