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The Best Business Books of 2023: the Financial Times Business Book of the Year Award

recommended by Andrew Hill

Right Kind of Wrong: Why Learning to Fail Can Teach Us to Thrive by Amy Edmondson

WINNER OF THE 2023 FT BUSINESS BOOK OF THE YEAR AWARD

Right Kind of Wrong: Why Learning to Fail Can Teach Us to Thrive
by Amy Edmondson

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If you like nonfiction books that will get you up to speed with what's going on in the world, the Financial Times annual book prize is a great place to start. If you run a business, one or two useful books also feature. Andrew Hill, the newspaper's senior business writer, talks us through the books that made the 2023 shortlist, from cobalt extraction in the Congo to how to manage the AI genie that's out of the bottle and coming towards us at speed.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Right Kind of Wrong: Why Learning to Fail Can Teach Us to Thrive by Amy Edmondson

WINNER OF THE 2023 FT BUSINESS BOOK OF THE YEAR AWARD

Right Kind of Wrong: Why Learning to Fail Can Teach Us to Thrive
by Amy Edmondson

Read
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Before we get to the books, tell me a bit about this year’s Financial Times and Schroders Business Book of the Year Award. What were the highlights of 2023?

This year the prize had over 500 entries. That wasn’t a record. I never know quite how to gauge that: whether that means that some publishers didn’t submit as many books or whether there weren’t as many books published.

For only the second time that I can remember, we had a book that the judges called in and put directly onto the shortlist. This was Walter Isaacson’s biography of Elon Musk. As the person who administers the prize, I would want it to be as rare as once a decade, because you want books to have gone through the longlist process. Isaacson’s book muscled its way onto the shortlist on the basis of being the newsy new book. That’s unusual but doesn’t say anything about its prospects to come out as a winner.

It’s an interesting shortlist because it divides into three pairs. One is natural resources and the environment – not so much climate change (although there was a climate change book on the longlist). Two of the books are about extractive natural resources. Those are Material World by Ed Conway and Cobalt Red by Siddharth Kara.

Another theme was technology and AI. I didn’t think we would have any books about generative AI, because the big ChatGPT breakthrough that seemed to revolutionise everything didn’t happen until November of last year. But we had a couple of books on the longlist and Mustafa Suleyman’s The Coming Wave, which is about technology advances, got through to the shortlist. A lot of books on the longlist addressed the effect of technology and automation on jobs and people. I guess one could put the Musk biography into that category because of the various technologies that he’s worked on.

Finally, speaking as the former management editor of the Financial Times and someone who’s been working on the prize for decades, I’ve always been not necessarily disappointed, but surprised that management books don’t get further. I think it’s because they’re written in a ‘this is a tool that you can use’ way and that doesn’t quite appeal to the judges. But this year there are two books on the shortlist which I consider to be management-y books: Right Kind of Wrong by Amy Edmondson and How Big Things Get Done by Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner. Interestingly, both are books about failing. How Big Things Get Done is about big projects, how they generally fail, and how to prevent them from failing. Right Kind of Wrong is about how to fail better.

Let’s go through the books individually. Shall we start with Material World: A Substantial Story of Our Past and Future, by Ed Conway? I remember reading the beginning and being quite struck by it. He is watching gold being extracted and thinking, ‘I wonder whether I really needed that gold wedding ring, now that I’ve seen what has to happen in order for it to come into existence.’

What I like about this book—and he makes this point very clearly—is that this is stuff that you can see. Ed Conway is a journalist for Sky News and of course TV journalists are always looking for things that can be filmed. Our review of the book pointed out that it’s a shame that there aren’t more pictures in it. He’s trying to paint a picture, and you want to see what he’s seeing, which is the extraordinary effort that goes into mining the six vital materials that he focuses on: salt, sand, iron, copper, oil, and lithium.

He doesn’t underplay the environmental risks being run in order to get the materials that make up our daily lives, but this is a book that says, ‘Yay! Capitalism does things that actually make the world work.’ He’s clearly in awe, if you like, of the extraordinary human ingenuity that goes into producing these materials and then transmuting them into the things that we use day to day. From that point of view, if there’s a book on this list that doesn’t fit the template of outright scepticism about the world of business, this is probably it. This is the one that says, ‘There are risks here, and these need to be handled, but look at human ingenuity!’

Let’s turn to Right Kind of Wrong: Why Learning to Fail Can Teach Us to Thrive, by Amy Edmondson, one of the two books about failing you mentioned. In recent years, I’ve read quite a bit about failure being good for you. What does this book bring to the picture?

Amy Edmondson is a very distinguished Harvard researcher, best known for having explored the concept of ‘psychological safety.’ This is the idea, which she pursues further in this book, that you can only advance and become more successful if you are in an environment where you can safely admit—and indeed call out—errors and mistakes being made.

She did a lot of work, which recurs in this book, in the healthcare sector. That’s where she started and where she discovered—slightly to her astonishment—that it wasn’t the teams that were making the fewest errors that were the most successful. It was the teams that were admitting to the most errors, because they were then able to correct and work together to improve.

That is the fundamental underpinning of her research and that of others in this area. She bases this on a fundamental point: that if we’re not able to admit to failure and to approach failure in a constructive way, we’re never going to want to take any risks. We’re not going to be able to make the smarter and more adventurous decisions that lead us to advance.

I find it a very compelling hypothesis, well backed up by research and interesting tales – everything from the Columbia shuttle disaster to open heart surgery – to show how we reached the level of sophistication that we now have in some of these vital areas. I think it’s an important book from an important researcher.

So it’s not so much a self-help book about me, personally, failing in my daily life and learning from that — it’s more about society at large?

Yes, but I think there are individual lessons here. There are some important workplace lessons. I interviewed Amy last year about psychological safety. I put her in touch with one of the CEOs I’d interviewed who runs a ‘failure Friday’, where you admit to what went wrong and you talk about it with your colleagues. So these sorts of ideas do have a practical, personal effect, but the book is not self-help. It’s at a more elevated level than that.

Let’s go on to the other failure book: How Big Things Get Done: The Surprising Factors Behind Every Successful Project, from Home Renovations to Space Exploration, by Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner. That sounds exciting, it’d be nice to get some big things done right now.

This book is exceptionally interesting. Bent Flyvbjerg is an Oxford-based Danish academic. He is the main writer and it’s mainly based on his work, with Dan Gardner as co-author. Flyvbjerg’s work is to look at megaprojects and he poses a law of megaprojects: that they generally go over budget and over time and why this is bad.

In the current circumstances, in the UK, there’s HS2, which Flyvbjerg has written about and talked about, but there are lots of great examples. He’s very fond of the Sydney Opera House debacle because it was a Danish architect who designed it. He points out that it essentially deprived the world of this architect’s future work because he was in such despair at the portrayal of the Sydney Opera House as a failure that he didn’t design anything much after that.

There is a dictum in publishing that you don’t put the word ‘failure’ into your title because people find it depressing. But what’s great about reading about failure is the schadenfreude that readers can bring to it. This book is full of things going wrong that are great to read about. Not only Sydney Opera House-sized disasters, but also some slightly more recognisable ones. There’s a great account of a kitchen refurbishment – admittedly, a high-end one in New York – that went disastrously wrong. They draw a lot of personal lessons from this that make this book a really interesting read.

Let’s move on to Elon Musk by Walter Isaacson. I’m not generally drawn to biographies of tech gurus, but I read Isaacson’s book about Steve Jobs to prepare for a Five Books interview, and I was blown away by it. I was expecting great things from his Elon Musk book, but the reviews have been mixed. What’s your impression of the book?

The first thing to mention is that this is the second Elon Musk biography that has been on the short or longlist of the award. A few years ago, Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk biography, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, was on the longlist. Everybody thought it was great, but obviously Elon Musk was in an earlier phase of his rise to multibillionaire-dom.

This book is at a later phase, but it still isn’t done, as the book makes clear. Inevitably, you’ve got to put a full stop somewhere. The Steve Jobs biography came out just after Jobs had died, so, in a sense, there was a roundness to it that any Musk biography that comes out now isn’t going to achieve.

Isaacson sat at the feet of Musk – literally, in the same room as Musk – for two or three years, I think. The whole second half of the book is about the last three years, so it’s very detailed. It’s very much reporting. He doesn’t step back except right at the end, and then to make a rather general point about how you need the good and the bad in order to have a genius (which was similar to the Steve Jobs conclusion, if I remember correctly). Isaacson doesn’t say, ‘I’m now going to make a judgment on what’s happened.’ It’s very much an account of being with this extraordinary, tempestuous entrepreneur.

From that point of view, it fits into the historical record. Some of the things that have happened in the last few years, including the Twitter takeover, SpaceX, and Tesla — all the events that we’ve read about — are recounted from the Musk point of view in quite a lot of detail.

It’s a long book with very short chapters. It’s quite punchy, in that sense of ‘OK now we’re moving on’ which gives you a bit of an impression of what it must be like to live with or work with Elon Musk. But it doesn’t then step back and say how significant it is.

And, surprisingly, as somebody else pointed out recently, it’s not much about his businesses, as you might expect. There’s not a whole lot about ‘how has he managed to build this?’ It’s very much about the entrepreneurial leader.

Is there anything about Elon Musk that perhaps we don’t know that we’ll learn from this biography?

I think one of the revelations is that he has more children than we thought.

Putting my management hat back on, you get a bit more of an impression of this dynamo who is driving everything. One thing that stuck with me was this idea that he’ll take what had been, until Musk came along, a bureaucratic process, like launching a rocket, a lot of which is to do with safety and protocols, and he will tear it down to its bare essentials.

There’s a point where he says, ‘other than safety, I don’t want any codes or protocols or specifications that are going to get in the way of making this more efficient and simpler’, which is an interesting approach. He’s clearly a huge risk taker. That’s obvious already, but you see quite a lot of him saying, ‘We could do this quicker’ or ‘We could do this bigger.’ He takes these decisions – to the astonishment and, at times, panic of his staff – to push it to the limit.

Let’s turn to Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives by Siddharth Kara. At the beginning of the book, the author goes to the mining region of Katanga. It’s like scenes from the 19th century, with people working for very little money in horrible conditions.

Yes. I’ve been reading it on an iPad and it does make you put down your iPad and think, ‘What is in this thing that I am reading from?’ It’s about cobalt, a vital raw material and one that probably could have made it into Ed Conway’s Material World as a seventh critical material. It’s vital, particularly for rechargeable batteries, and therefore hugely in demand.

Siddharth Kara goes, literally, deep into the holes being dug, mainly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, by artisan miners who are pulling rocks from the ground in the most extraordinary circumstances. Kara interviews the workers and the traders who are buying it and, he alleges, putting it into the formal supply chain. There’s a shocking moment where he just throws in that none of them has ever held a mobile phone. And yet, they’re at the very end of the chain that leads to our iPhones and our electric cars.

It is a shocking account, and he sets it in the context of the terrible history of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo – previously Zaire, and before that the Belgian Congo – as a place that has been exploited, from the word go, for these minerals, which could have made its people wealthy and prosperous and well looked after.

It’s a shocking indictment and his underlying polemical point is that there are big companies who are whitewashing this out of the record, who are claiming to have a clean supply chain. His essential contention is there is no such thing as clean cobalt.

What’s upsetting is that this is a country of nearly 100 million people.

Yes, and his point is that at the top end – the bottom end, ethically speaking – of the DRC, there are people making out like bandits. There are literal bandits in this book, and there are also politicians who are creaming off an extraordinary amount of money.

The other interesting point that comes out in the book is the involvement of China. These artisan miners are almost exclusively selling their product to Chinese traders. And so, clearly, the Chinese and China, as a state, are deeply embedded in this supply chain. He recounts appalling racist comments from one of the traders, talking about the unwillingness of the Congolese to work hard and organise themselves. This Chinese gentleman suggests that only the Chinese can organise them to make money. But all the money is going somewhere else. It’s pretty shocking.

Let’s turn to the final book on the 2023 Business Book of the Year shortlist: The Coming Wave: AI, Power and the Twenty-First Century’s Greatest Dilemma by Mustafa Suleyman with Michael Bhaskar. Tell me about this book.

The Coming Wave is in that category of books I mentioned about technological progress and its consequences. It sets the advances in automation and in synthetic biology (e.g., gene splicing and DNA printing) and in quantum computing—these current waves of technology—in the context of what happened with past waves, including the Industrial Revolution, and the Luddites, who, bizarrely, crop up in three of this year’s longlisted books. (One of the longlisted books that didn’t make the shortlist – Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion against Big Tech, by Brian Merchant – is actually about the Luddites).

In the context of the history of technological advances, it’s asking, ‘What can we expect?’ It poses the question: ‘Can we contain the bad consequences of fast-moving technological advance and if so how?’

The main author, Mustafa Suleyman, who worked with Michael Bhaskar on the book, is a co-founder of DeepMind, which is now owned by Google. Google and DeepMind are at the heart of some of the technologies mentioned here that are being developed.

In the book, he points out that he started out thinking he was going to write a very optimistic book, as a techno optimist himself, and became more pessimistic. It ends with the anguished idea that we’re trying to contain the uncontainable. Suleyman thinks containment is the way to approach this. It can’t be regulated away: there isn’t enough that any individual regulator can do. But he lays out some ways in which he thinks that the potentially lethal consequences of some of these advances might be contained and channelled.

He makes a lot out of the positive aspects as well, all the amazing things that you can do by combining AI, quantum computing, and synthetic biology, in terms of preserving and extending life, and making life better.

But the overall impression I got from the book is that it’s a warning. We’ve got to work now to think about ways in which we can at least impose some guardrails that prevent this becoming a disaster for humanity. And that, as I say, is slightly echoed in some of the other books that made it to the longlist this year.

What is the worst-case scenario, then, if everything goes wrong, and we don’t manage to put in those guardrails?

There are various ways in which he thinks we could get this wrong. In AI, there’s the possibility that you end up with self-generating solutions that turn out not to be beneficial for wider humanity, a race to the bottom between AI-fuelled machines or the risk of weaponisation – it could be literal weaponisation – of these tools to go after somebody else or another state. Part of his warning is that accidents happen when humans are involved in doing this stuff. We do not necessarily get things right all the time, which brings us back to our books on failure.

What he’s suggesting is that you need to have some context around this, involving regulators and governments and some of the private sector actors working together to prevent those things happening, or, at least, to have a game plan for if they do. I didn’t come out of this book whistling a happy tune, but it’s a contribution to the way in which that worst-case scenario can be mitigated or even avoided.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

November 30, 2023

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Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is senior business writer at the Financial Times, consulting editor of FT Live and organiser of the Financial Times and Schroders Business Book of the Year Award. He is a former management editor, City editor, financial editor and comment and analysis editor. Andrew was named Business Commentator of the Year at the 2016 Comment Awards and Commentator of the Year at the 2009 Business Journalist of the Year Awards, where he also received a Decade of Excellence award. He is the author of Ruskinland: How John Ruskin Shapes Our World.

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill

Andrew Hill is senior business writer at the Financial Times, consulting editor of FT Live and organiser of the Financial Times and Schroders Business Book of the Year Award. He is a former management editor, City editor, financial editor and comment and analysis editor. Andrew was named Business Commentator of the Year at the 2016 Comment Awards and Commentator of the Year at the 2009 Business Journalist of the Year Awards, where he also received a Decade of Excellence award. He is the author of Ruskinland: How John Ruskin Shapes Our World.