5 must-read business books

October 31, 2013, 11:07 AM UTC

Think inside the (right) box

Thinking outside the box isn't just a cliché -- it's a ridiculous request. The brain organizes everything in categories. So what really gives you an innovation edge, argue Luc de Brabandere and Alan Iny in Thinking in New Boxes, is finding the right boxes. When Bic execs started viewing their company as a maker of disposable products, not just pens, it became a market leader for decades. Learn how to re-envision your business the same way.

Turn data into an asset

The primary job of a leader is prediction -- whether it's figuring out if your customers are ready to ditch you or knowing when your trucks will break down. Fortunately, this has gotten easier now that even small companies can crunch vast amounts of data inexpensively. Big Data, by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier, will help you turn information into a powerful asset without getting lost in trying to understand every nugget.

How to teach rather than sell

In 1895 John Deere (DE) launched The Furrow to educate farmers about new technology -- and more than a century later, it's the largest-circulation magazine in its category. The tractor maker was onto something, according to Joe Pulizzi's Epic Content Marketing. Customers want to be taught, not sold. The author shows you how to build the authority you need to attract and retain customers in your niche, tapping new digital tools.

Thriving among black swans

Nassim Taleb famously coined the term "black swan" (in a book by the same name) for hugely unpredictable events. In Antifragile, he suggests how to not just survive but thrive on these occurrences. Trying to cultivate resilience isn't the answer. You've got to plan so that your business, your investment portfolio, and even your children can benefit and take power from coming storms. I spent this year revamping my business because of his advice.

Help others, help yourself

Finally there's some quality research to back up something that successful businesspeople have understood intuitively for generations: Doing favors for those around you, without expecting payback, helps you too. In Give and Take, Adam Grant points to research showing that the smartest negotiators often strike deals that are highly beneficial for their counterparts as well, with little cost to themselves, resulting in gains for all parties involved. Verne Harnish is the CEO of Gazelles Inc., an executive education firm.