The Smart Setup

The new year brings with it a small raft of thought-provoking business books. Here are the candidates most likely to be 2007's Freakonomics, Fast Food Nation, or Blink.

Made to Stick

By Chip Heath and Dan Heath
Random House, January 2007
304 pp., $24.95

Two brothers—one a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford, the other an education consultant nearly 3,000 miles away in North Carolina—team up to create a supplement to Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. We got your attention, right? That's because Made to Stick's backstory has been made to stick.

In this useful, engaging resource, the authors deconstruct how to make proposals and stories memorable, resonant, and effective. Of course, they've bundled the tenets of stickiness into one easy-to- remember acronym: SUCCESS, or rather, SUCCES: simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and story. Urban legends, elevator pitches, and fables all incorporate some elements of SUCCES.

Made to Stick is that rare instance of a formula biz book backed up with dozens of compulsively readable theories, studies, and surveys. The simple principle is aptly illustrated by the Commander's Intent, a mission statement used by the military that includes instructions that are basic enough to remember but flexible enough to allow for various executions in the field. By teasing us with unexpected things we don't know—"Invisible chemicals killing you in your home? Tune in at 11!"—news anchors take advantage of our curiosity. Anti-tobacco ads leverage emotion by filling the screen with body bags. Sound simple? It is. But think about how many times you or a colleague have sucked all the oxygen out of an idea brainstorm with endless rambling.

The Heath brothers, for all their charm, still don't add up to a Malcolm Gladwell. Made to Stick has as many quips as cases, and there's an aside to every insight. The authors openly acknowledge that some of their advice "resembles flirting more than lecturing." That said, all the zingers and trivia that fill this book—from the kidney-heist urban legend that kicks it off to the litany of everyday people with extraordinary impact the Heaths champion on its last page—are colorful, memorable, and, most important, useful.

Dreaming in Code

By Scott Rosenberg
Crown, January 2007
416 pp., $25.95

"Our daily existence hangs from fragile threads of computer code," writes Scott Rosenberg. Yet, "never in history have we depended so completely on a product that so few know how to make well." Just one-sixth of the average programming project is spent actually making software; half the time is devoted to fixing bugs. And adding manpower generally puts things further behind schedule. "Why can't we build software the way we build bridges?" Rosenberg wonders as he embeds himself within a team of programmers developing an open-source program called Chandler, a would-be alternative to Microsoft Outlook, in an effort to reveal why software is so hard to create, use, and perfect.

Rest assured, the interoperability of computer calendars isn't the point here, and it will do no disservice to the story to reveal that Chandler remains something of a dream to this day. Rosenberg is at his best when he's cataloging the triumph of optimism and teamwork in the face of dizzying complexity. From the start, Chandler is "doomed." Countless bugs frustrate its creators while the privately funded project barely stays afloat. As time, money, and patience expire again and again, teams huddle at the zero hour, their idealism seemingly the only line of defense against always palpable desperation. Yet even as people abandon the project out of frustration, such as when founding team member and renowned coder Andy Hertzfeld (who helped design the original Macintosh OS) bails to write a book, the book's mythopoetic heroes refuse to give up. It's this paradoxical energy in the face of grim reality that will keep you sifting through the acronyms and computer-speak searching for ideas and inspiration.

Flower Confidential

Amy Stewart
Algonquin, February 2007
320 pp., $23.95

Who knew that flowers were a global industry as innovative, competitive, and troubled as microprocessors or jumbo jets? Amy Stewart did—and this nosy, sensational muckraker exposes what's definitely not a garden-variety business.

Stewart opens her story in a warehouse of genetically enhanced flowers that have lost their scent—emblematic of yet another industry that has harnessed something pure and natural, and commercialized it beyond recognition. She spins colorful profiles of gene-splicing mad scientists imagining untold riches from the next great lily or rose hybrid. And she follows Limbo, a lime-green rose, on its 21-day journey from a fungicide bath in an Ecuadorian greenhouse to a Manhattan retailer—and to, inevitably, the dump.

This is a business beset by challenges. Megamarts like Costco wreak havoc by selling flowers below wholesale. Shorter hospital stays, a rise in cremations, and the dreaded phrase "in lieu of flowers" have devastated the sympathy business. Stewart captures all this with wit and elegance that, by book's end, will have the most cantankerous capitalist thinking differently about a product "bred more for [its] suitability as freight than for any of [its] more refined qualities— delicacy, grace, fragrance."

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