Written by Martin Chesbrough, AusTTA Practicing Member

I thought I might share some of the texts that have influenced me in my thinking about transformation.

All of these “reads” are books that cover different aspects that (I believe) are valuable in transformation. I try to highlight why they are important and what thinking they bring to the field of transformation in the text below. There is a bias towards technology and software, since my career focus has been in those areas, but I feel that bias is relevant to today’s world. It is my opinion that any business or organisation transformation today must acknowledge the influence that technology, specifically digital technology, has on our lives and work therefore I would recommend readers without a technology or software background to double-down on the technology side of their reading.

So, the first 2 books are transformations that either I have been directly involved with or somewhat involved with. They both relate to global technology giants and they are both success stories (in their own way).

I will not hide the fact that I am a 100% fan of Nokia. I worked there for 8 years and had first had experience of the strategy process, the way we innovated, the culture of the company and the people. I do not know Risto and the events of this book occurred after I left but I can relate to everything that happens as if I was there.

The book chronicles an exceptionally tough time for Nokia, or indeed any company. The complete collapse of a market leader, followed by its amazing turnaround. It is particularly valuable as one of the few books that talks about the inner workings of Boards. The Nokia Board (as described in the book) was detached and insisted on not being ‘operationally’ involved, so they could not ask the right questions, they lacked the mindset to ask ‘why?’ rather than ‘what?’, there was no individual or collective curiosity in why products were overdue and why financials forecasts relentlessly failed to be met. The hubris of success (that echoed within the Nokia I worked for) clouded out disastrous legacy issues that brought about the collapse of their smartphone business. The subtitle of the book is “The Power of Paranoid Optimism to Lead Through Colossal Change” and certainly that describes the book well.

I have a few books about Nokia and one of the interesting aspects is they all tell slightly different aspects of the same story. Just proving that we live in a complex world, more on that later …

ISBN-13: 978–1260128727

This is possibly one of the first corporate transformation books that I read when I was working for Nokia in 2002. It inspired me for my journey with Nokia and I still reflect on Lou Gerstner’s work to transform IBM. Realising that he was not a tech executive (he came from food giant, RJR Nabisco), and that when he joined IBM the internet was in its infancy, the transformation he managed to accomplish was significant. I think the reason that IBM continues today as a tech giant is in no small part thanks to Lou’s work.

Upon becoming chief executive of IBM, Gerstner declared: “the last thing IBM needs right now is a vision”, as he instead focused on execution, decisiveness, simplifying the organisation for speed. A classic transformation read.

ISBN-13: 978–0060523794

The next 3 books start to address the people aspect of transformation. From leading teams, to transforming people to managing yourself.

This book is a current “classic” within the Agile Community as well as being highly awarded within different business book categories. The subtitle is “New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World” and it describes how a very structured fighting force, the US task force in Iraq, adapted to fighting a very different type of enemy to what they were used to (Al Quaeda).

As McChrystal puts it, “Little of our transformation was planned. Few of the plans that we did develop unfolded as envisioned. Instead, we evolved in rapid iterations, changing — assessing — changing again”.

These five things were essential to the transformation:

  • Have a common purpose
  • Foster shared consciousness
  • Empowered execution
  • Build trust
  • Leader as gardener

A must read for any transformation leader in the modern world.

ISBN-13: 978–0–241–25089–9

Once I put “Team of Teams” into this list I considered taking this book out. There are similarities but I feel this book can stand separately. This is a story about leadership, the type of leadership that turns followers into leaders, and that makes it a must read.

David Marquet takes over the worst performing submarine in the US navy. It is a class of submarine that he was not trained on, so he actually does not know how to operate it. He has to maintain his authority (as the commander) whilst still empowering his team to do what he cannot. There is no better way to describe leadership transformation.

ISBN-13: 978–1591846406

At first sight this is not a book about transformation … it is about how to model the behaviors that a manager needs in order to bring the best out of people. As such it deserves a place on any transformation leaders bookshelf.

Transformation is not easy, it will threaten and disrupt people in your workplace and one of the best ways to prepare yourself for difficult conversations is Kim Scott’s book.

I wish I had a fraction of Kim Scott’s people skills. I need to have this book beside me every day.

ISBN-13: 978–1529038347

With the next 3 books I turn from people towards data. I am a bit of a “data geek” (OK not really a geek but I love the science), so to start blending the people aspects with data is important.

I was so impressed by the application of science and evidence-based management to the development of thousands of people in Google that I wrote an article praising this book (https://martinchesbrough.net/a-practical-guide-to-digital-transformation-acfc4f92e899).

If you believe that people will be in any way part of your desired transformation then you need to read this book.

I also write about some of the practices I learnt from Laszlo in my blog (https://martinchesbrough.net/digital-transformation-its-about-people-6eb73efa4d06)

ISBN 9781444792386

I read this book in 2018 and it literally changed how I viewed the use of agile and devops in the enterprise.

Accelerate is based on 5 years of research, involving over 30,000 IT professionals, across all industries and across the globe. The data was collected through the annual State of Devops survey (from 2011 to 2017), and the survey has continued (with the most recent published version being 2019), so it is possible to verify the authors’ claims with more recent data.

The book suggests a model for high performance organisations that is based upon transformational leadership, lean management, lean product development, technical practices and organisational culture. At the core are a number of technical practices, like continuous delivery, that accurately predict high performance.

There is a lot in the book and the details of the model are not fully described. I have, since reading the book, spent some time attempting to dig into the research and I can find no fault with it.

Bottom line if you wish to transform your organisation towards high performance this book is a good starting point.

ISBN 13: 9781942788331

Almost as an antidote to “Work Rules” and “Accelerate” I’d like to recommend this book. Written by a data scientist, who worked on building predictive models for Wall Street, it is a little sensationalist. All models contain assumptions and bias and they can cause harm and unintended side effects. You should regard this book as a cautionary tale of the perils of data-driven behaviour, and what could go wrong.

It is not a technical book in any sense and Cathy writes with an easy to read style, so anyone can pick it up and read it. However it does make you think about the data people use in order to make decisions. Hopefully the next time someone comes to you with a proposition based on data, the lessons from this book will cause you to think “how was the data set and the model to provide this recommendation created, what unconscious bias went into the model and the data?”

ISBN 13: 978-0451497338

With the next 2 books I want to suggest some ideas that are important for operational excellence. The first book is as much a “lean bible” for me as “Team of Teams” is an agile bible (OK, let’s lose the religious overtones, this is a business book review).

Dr Steven Spear is famous for writing an amazing PhD thesis in 1999 studying how Toyota constantly improved their operations. 10 years after publishing his thesis, Steven published this book. It summarises his analysis of not just Toyota but the US Navy nuclear ship program, Alcoa and other organisations that Dr Steven Spear has consulted with.

I consider it a practical version of Peter Senge’s classic, “The Fifth Discipline”. Spear advocates for learning at speed in a complex world, “It is how the uncertainty, the expectations, and the unexpected are managed that separates the high-velocity organizations from their pursuers and proves to be a source of sustainable competitive advantage.”

There are many books written to chronicle the reasons for success in different organisations (“Good to Great”, “Discipline of Market Leaders”, “Execution”, “Scaling Up Excellence” to name a few). I regard this as different for the same reason that Dr Spear’s PhD thesis is different from the many books written about Toyota (think “The Machine That Changed The World”, “The Toyota Way”, “Lean Thinking”). I think Dr Spear gets to one of the root causes that companies can succeed in the modern world and for that he gets my transformation tick.

ISBN-13: 978–0071741415

The single concept that Dr Mik Kersten introduces in this book that is worth reading it for is The Flow Framework. Mik has conceived of the Flow Framework to try and help him organise software work into features, bugs, debt and risk but the model can be extended to ALL of what we often describe as “knowledge work”.

Think about it like this, it is easy to measure output and productivity in a factory that produces physical objects, like cars, steel, water, even boxed CD sets of software (remember them?) but the output of intangible services is far harder to measure. That was, until the Flow Framework provided a model that could be used for accounting services, for utilities, for customer service everywhere, maybe even to re-think the operations of a physical manufacturing plant.

It is because “Project to Product” helps to re-frame the definition of work is why it is on my bookshelf to use for any transformation venture I am involved with. It will help you create a framework to measure your transformation.

ISBN-13: 978–1942788393

Finally I’d like to suggest 3 books that might help you re-think your transformation strategy. These are not strategy books, instead they are my thoughts on developing a rationale for transformation. Meaning, vision, purpose if you like.

Speaking of measurement, before you start on any transformation this book will, I hope, help you to re-think the social and economic rationale that you are trying to build into your strategy.

Kate Raworth paints a pretty grim picture of what unbridled growth has done to our planet, but then she starts to unpick how we can look at growth and the whole economic rationale.

So why would this be relevant to transformation? Because the underlying basis of many transformation is the economic model of the firm, which is based on the concept of growth. If we start to rethink growth then we can start to rethink why we are transforming and it starts to help bring a new strategic perspective to the purpose for transformation.

Now, in the same vein is a little book called “Rework” by Jason Fried. Whilst this is a useful book to give you a different perspective on work and may get you to rethink your crazy work hours there is, unfortunately, not enough depth to the book. Which is why “Doughnut Economics” gets my vote … read it and start to re-think the economic principles that underlie what your firm or organisation does.

ISBN-13: 978–1603586740

This is an interesting one … the book is short and only available in a Kindle edition. The HBR article that inspired the book has the same name (https://hbr.org/2012/07/who-do-you-want-your-customers). The core concept is that innovative products and services actually transform the way that customers behave, hence the book proposes some key insights around innovation to help organisations transform the way they think about their customers.

When reading this book I was reminded of Steve Blank’s “Four Steps to the Epiphany” as the theme is similar. Steve Blank wrote his book for entrepreneurs in startups and his book is remarkably relevant for any startup founder. But, by extension, an organisational innovator could take Steve Blank’s ideas and turn them into a framework for any organisation, not just startups. Michael Schrage asks “how can we make our customers more valuable?”

If you have read and appreciate Ted Levitt’s classic HBR articles, summarised in the HBR article “What business are you in?”, then you may be thinking how do we apply Ted Levitt’s advice to transformation. At which point Michael Schrage’s mini book is the answer.


I am often reminded by my friend, John Whittington, that Geoffrey Moore copied Everett Rogers model on technology diffusion and adapted it for technology marketing. What he also did was make Everett Rogers model accessible to a much wider audience and I have seen the model adapted into different areas, like the adoption of agile practices.

The book talks about how a new idea spreads through a population. It is useful for transformation in terms of understanding why and how aspects of your transformation develops within your target audience. The chasm indicates the gap between the evangelists and the early majority, where user needs change. This relates to transformation where there is a chasm somewhere between the evangelists/early adopters and the early majority. The early majority do not see the same urgency for transformation as the evangelists do and evangelist logic does not change that … so beware the chasm.

Moreover always remember that your perspective as a transformation leader will be different from those around you. Likely they will behave like a diffusion curve …

ISBN-13: 978–0062353948

These next few books are a rag-tag collection of interesting topics that I think are valuable in transformation. To me they exist here because transformation is not black and white … it needs to be designed, it needs to be sold … but flow and queues? I argue that every leader needs to understand work, queuing theory and flow.

Why include a book on design? In my view design is too important to be left to designers … if you are responsible for delivering transformation then the chances are that the word “experience” might crop up and close to it the word “design”.

Don Norman’s classic design book was initially titled “The Psychology of Everyday Things” and it introduces a framework for thinking about design. It is widely regarded as the foundation for the term user-centred design. User-centered design involves simplifying the structure of tasks, making things visible, getting the mapping right, exploiting the powers of constraint, designing for error, explaining affordances and seven stages of action.

Your transformation would be best to be human-centred so where better to start thinking of the design than Don Norman’s book.

ISBN-13: 978–0465067107

This is an extremely dense and complicated text that describes how queues impact the development of products. It is widely regarded as a classic in the agile and lean worlds but it does it deserve a place here?

I think it does mostly because it re-frames the discussion of resource utilisation and “busyness” into the world of Flow and presents the scientific arguments to focus on Flow.

A leader who builds an organisation around recognising queues when they form, understand how to manage and optimise flow will be in a good position to harness the work of the team to deliver transformational outcomes.

ISBN-13: 978–1935401001

Selling is part of life … whether you are selling a product or service as a professional salesperson to selling your ideas to a Board or C-level execs, or whether you are a consultant trying to get your next assignment … your job is sales. There are plenty of sales books out there but the Challenger Sale is the first book to take a transformational approach to sales.

The Challenger Sale is based on research conducted by the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) into the behaviors of effective sales reps. The story could be extended to organisations that succeed in the market, especially transformational organisations.

The central theme of “teach, tailor and take control” is a message for our era … consider Google. They have taught us to search for data on the internet (hence driving people to their search engine). They have then tailored the experience we receive (expanding their portfolio to mail, video, maps … other search activities) … and, of course, we know how Google takes control. This pattern also applies to Amazon, to Apple, to Netflix, … even to Bunnings to some extent.

It may be a long bow to draw but I think the Challenger Sale is a handbook for how to sell transformation.

ISBN-13: 978–0670922857

As I conclude this I think of how many really exceptional books I have not included. I am sure that you have much better ideas than me and a really good rationale for your choice of books. That’s what is so great about humanity, the chance to learn more. So why not go ahead and tell me in the comments what you think are the best books on Transformation and why?

The orginal article is here.