Episode 283 – Exponential with Azeem Azhar

Azeem AzharHumans don’t easily ‘get’ exponential growth – we’ve evolved in a linear world, and the pace of change we’re facing now can leave us wrong-footed and disoriented. But Azeem Azhar argues that we need to get to grips with it, and fast, if we’re to thrive in the modern world.

We also talk about synergistification, aligning your content creation and community to build your brand and your business (ok it’s not a word, but it should be).

Insightful and intriguing, this is definitely not an episode to miss.

Exponential View: https://www.exponentialview.co/

Azeem on Twitter: https://twitter.com/azeem

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge September 2021: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

The Extraordinary Business Book Club bookshop: https://uk.bookshop.org/shop/extraordinarybusinessbooks

The EBBC summer 2021 reading list: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/thinking-better-the-ebbc-summer-2021-reading-list

Alison Jones: I’m here today with Azeem Azhar, who is the creator of Exponential View, Britain’s leading platform for in-depth tech analysis and the host of the hit HBR podcast by the same name. His weekly newsletter is read by 200,000 people around the world. He’s a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Futures Council, and a contributor to publications including the Financial Times, Prospect and the MIT Technology Review.

And his new book is called Exponential: How accelerating technology is leaving us behind and what to do about it.

So welcome to the show Azeem.

Azeem Azhar: Alison. Thanks so much for having me.

Alison Jones: Really, really good to have you here. And I had the pleasure of hearing you speak at the IPG, the Independent Publishers Guild, conference a couple of months ago now. Fascinating, fascinating talk so I’m very much looking forward to sort of bringing that to Extraordinary Business Book Club people.

But let’s start with Exponential. It’s a really powerful word. It’s a word that’s much used these days. What do you mean by it? And why does it matter?

Azeem Azhar: Well, it is a much-used word these days, we are living in the tail end, hopefully, of this pandemic with this exponential growth of cases. It wasn’t so heavily used three years ago when the book project started, these things moved at a different pace.

And what I meant by the word exponential is in one sense, it’s a gestalt, it’s this sense that things are accelerating quickly, they’re not just getting faster, but the speed with which they’re getting faster is getting faster.

 But the exponential curve is just that, you know, it starts off flat and rather boring and it compounds like compounded interest. And then it gets to a point where it accelerates off and every change is ever more significant.

So the idea behind Exponential and the devices that I use in the book, the idea that we’re entering the exponential age, is to say that we’re moving into a time where things are getting faster and faster than ever.

Alison Jones: And we’re very bad as humans at exponential thinking, aren’t we? It’s just not something that comes naturally to us.

Azeem Azhar: No, it doesn’t. I mean this is one of the things that is a bit ironic about the time in which we live, because we are surrounded by these technologies that improve at exponential rates, by which I mean they improve by more than 10% every year for the same price. And when that compounds, that means it’s a significant improvement over the course of decades.

For someone of my age, I remember getting 8 or 10% annually in my savings accounts when I was a teenager. And it’s very boring for the first couple of years and then it really starts getting exciting. And yet we as humans don’t contend with these compounding growth rates, well, at all. If you’re like me and you started saving for your pensions a bit too late that’s because we don’t really understand the impact of compounded interest, but a pension account grows at about 3 or 4%, maybe 5%, maybe 9% every year, these technologies will change, improve at 20, 30, 50, 60% every year for a really long period of time.

We don’t experience things like that outside of a set of technologies that are less than largely 50 years old. So as humans we haven’t had a chance to adapt to them. We didn’t need them when we were growing up out of the rift valley in Africa, two or 3 million years ago, we didn’t need them in the medieval ages. We just didn’t come across exponential processes and so we haven’t necessarily adapted to contend with them.

And we see that today, the fact that we are late in paying for our pensions, investing in pensions by and large. Some people have more probity than that, but most of us don’t. And specifically with respect to technology in the last 50 to 60 years, we’ve got technologies that improve at exponential rates.

We don’t understand them very well generally, and we don’t understand their consequences particularly well either.

Alison Jones: And of course the institutions within which we’re managing, the legal infrastructure, the social infrastructures, are all medieval still.

Azeem Azhar: They are largely medieval and they don’t change particularly quickly. So you end up in this sort of odd situation where – you take the military for example, which is still going off and buying very, very large aircraft carriers when conflict is moving towards cyber attacks and drones that are powered by these exponential technologies like artificial intelligence and computer chips and robotics.

And there’s a mismatch between how people, how these institutions did their planning and did their thinking and what is now possible today. For the business person, your core listener, that comes to bear really when I examine what happens in terms of industry structures and what exponential age companies look like and how they tend to break the rules of business and the way that we had traditionally thought about the formation of business since the latter part of the 19th century.

Alison Jones: And it is fascinating because, sticking with business for a minute, you unpack so many layers of implication of what it means to be human in an exponential age. And one of the things that resonates with me particularly, is when you talk about, you know, sort of innovation and the fact that you look at something and you think, well, this is not a competitor to me, it’s rubbish. But actually you can’t see that in five years’ time, this is going to be kicking you out of the water because it will have improved so fast.

I remember that from the history of publishing and ebooks and so on. It’s just, yes, it’s that sense of being unable to see beyond the ropey, poor quality thing that’s in front of you as to what this is going to become.

Azeem Azhar: Well, it’s absolutely the case, right? It’s the fact that those first versions of any technology are a little bit shonky and they don’t do the job particularly well. Now that’s something that we are used to. I mean, we know that the very first cars were not great and that it wasn’t really until the 1910s, 1920s when they started to in a sense perform better than horses. And so we started to use them more.

But the thing that’s really distinct today is the rate of improvement is so quick, that the gap between a technology being a little bit rubbish and then being really, really tremendously competitive is much, much narrower.

And because we’ve built a world which also can accommodate these technologies from a product and infrastructure standpoint, it means that the way in which they can launch and take over can change dramatically.

And I’ll just give you two examples of that. The first is you think about the first iPhone, which was you know, it was a device that didn’t even have 3G. I mean it was extremely slow when it came out, but it was only launched in one physical location, which was the San Francisco Apple Store. And when the latest iPhone came out, which is this incredible supercomputer on which we do everything from our banking, to managing our glucose levels, through to booking holidays and watching TV, that same device, which is thousands of times more powerful than the original device, was launched in a few hundred cities simultaneously.

So even though it’s physical, during the exponential age, we learn very quickly to get supply chains to work, to get the internal processes to work, so that this next device miraculously appears on all the continents barring Antarctica on the same day. And that is a another hallmark of the exponential age.

Alison Jones: Yes. It’s not just the technology, it’s all the infrastructure supporting it. And we’ve talked about the pandemic briefly at the beginning. And of course we talk about exponential growth, we talk about the R rate, we talk about virus replication, but you very cleverly draw out a lot more exponential stuff that was going on, that is going on in the COVID pandemic, like the spread of misinformation for example.

Azeem Azhar: Yes, Yes so there’s not just a pandemic of SARS-COV-2, there’s also this spread of misinformation, which people have modeled as a virus. There’s a sort of R-0 where they estimate how much misinformation, how rapidly it spreads and on which social networks is R-0 of misinformation higher than lower.

We live in this age of networks of course, and one of the things about a network is a network with all of its interconnections makes it possible to get this sort of cascade that turns into what looks like an exponential process. In other words, the number of people who have been touched by the virus, the number of people who’ve been touched by the epidemic of misinformation, is increasing on that very, very telltale curve.

But of course, within COVID as well, there’s a space where exponential technologies have really, really played a very powerful role, right. For you and I in our everyday lives, we have been billeted in our homes able to do world-class video conferencing of a type that not even the US President could have expected 15 or 20 years ago and we just do it without even thinking about it.

 Or the fact that vaccines were developed so quickly was dependent on essentially a whole slew of what I’ve defined as exponential technologies, from genome sequences that got the sequence of the virion very, very early on, through to open source open science that distributed that sequence to researchers around the world by January 6th, through to the fact that Moderna, one of the companies to make the first vaccine, used a great deal of machine learning in order to develop, help develop the candidate vaccines, which it was able to do within 25 days.

 So the COVID pandemic in of itself, which was this unmissable thing constantly changing while I was writing the book in a sort of somewhat frustrating way, also captures many, many dimensions of what it is to live within an exponential world.

Alison Jones: Two points come out of this for me. One is that ultimately this is actually a hopeful book, which is really interesting, it finishes in a really sort of positive sense of we can use this for good, we can harness this, which is great.

But the other thing is actually, when you are writing a book and the ground is shifting beneath your feet, there are two things you can do, you can throw up your hands and say, well, this is ridiculous, you know, what can I write?

Or you can say: what does this show me? How can I harness this and use it to demonstrate the point I’m talking about? Because I think that is something that very often people face. If they’re writing business books things are changing quickly for everything we just said. You know, not addressing it is not really an option.

So I thought that was an interesting illustration of how, as an author, you take and grapple with and use the stuff that’s going on at the time. And of course, at some point you have to put it to bed and you go, oh, damn it. Because now something’s happened and I can’t write about it.

Azeem Azhar: Yes, there were two aspects to this. I mean, I love talking about this part of the process, the writer’s process, but one is that, COVID aside, the nature of this exponential curve is that things are going faster and faster and faster. In fact, when I first put the book proposal together, TikTok didn’t exist. By the time, I was writing and I mentioned TikTok, it had about half a billion users worldwide. And as of today, it’s got about 3 billion.

Or there was one particular company that does workforce automation tools. And I found it absolutely fascinating, when I first wrote the first chapter, the first reference to it, it had just hit a valuation of a billion dollars.

And then it hit a valuation of about 10 billion when I got to the second edit. And then when I got to the final edit, it had reached $35 billion and I had to keep going back and updating this particular fact. So it was pretty challenging, COVID aside.

And then COVID shows up and starts to impact a whole bunch of other areas. The one thing I would say is I didn’t have to change much about my analytical framing as a consequence of COVID. Actually, COVID just provided much, much more relevance to the claims I was making and it provided some really, really excellent case studies.

So when I talk about open science a little bit, and sort of pre-prints, which I do when I talk about the speed of our response to COVID and in the last chapter, I had actually already got a whole section on pre-prints and how they accelerate knowledge in the second chapter of the book, which was written very much pre COVID. So I actually felt quite good about the way in which the analysis held up, but the really, really difficult thing is, as you rightly identify, that there’s this moment where you say, how do I make these things ultimately relevant? Because this book might be read in years’ time.

And you can imagine that when it comes to things like, the latest, worst hacking, I had to put a reference in to the SolarWinds hack, which happened in sort of March this year, just as I was putting the book to bed. Oh, it was released in March this year February, March time, I think.

And I had to put it in and then of course by the time the prints come back, about six weeks later, there had been the Colonial Pipeline hack, which was even worse and now there’s been this massive Microsoft Exchange hack by the Chinese and which is even worse. And of course at some level you sort of say well, actually that’s just more anecdotes and evidence for the theme that I was writing about.

But if you want an easy life as an author, I think writing about Victorian fireplaces is a rather more straightforward,

Alison Jones: Much much safer. Bit niche, but much safer.

Azeem Azhar: Yes.

Alison Jones: And you talked about network before which I’m going to leap on and use to rather clumsily segue to how you do what you do, because the book is part of something so much bigger for you, isn’t it? You’ve got the whole community around Exponential View.

You’ve got the newsletter, you got the podcast. Talk me through a little bit about how all those parts fit together, what they each do for each other and how they synergize, I guess.

Azeem Azhar: Synergistification . There’s a word

Alison Jones: Yes.

Azeem Azhar: It’s made up. Let’s persuade the OED to put it in as a word of the year for next year.

Alison Jones: Or we can be in the Corpus. That’ll be so exciting. They’ll use us as the only existing reference for it.

Azeem Azhar: So you’re right. I mean, there are a number of dimensions to this business. So before I set up Exponential View, I had been running a software company that was acquired in December, 2014.

And I just started to write because I was a little bit bored having basically run a business for seven years and stared at the same point in space for that time. I didn’t really know what I was doing and after a few months of writing this newsletter. I started to identify this thesis, it was about 2016, that there were these technology platforms that are changing really, really rapidly.

And they were combining in really novel ways. And it looked like having different impacts to anything I had seen in the 20 or so years I’d been in the in the internet industry. But yet at the same time, people didn’t feel particularly great about technologies. They sort of felt it was creating inequality and worsening the work condition. It was going to take all the jobs. So that started to create this thesis that I’ve tried to put together about the gap that emerges between technologies and institutions. And that thesis then started to drive the newsletter.

The newsletter itself is a community. The first 5,000 people who signed up, signed up through, and I emailed them and I said, oh great. I’m glad you, you signed up, tell me about you. And we now have very close relationships with hundreds of those people. And many of them have got jobs with each other or invested in each other’s companies and so on.

The podcast sits alongside and the podcast’s job is, in a way, a chance for me to go a little bit deeper with somebody who’s an expert in a particular area.

At the heart of this, the newsletter and the podcast, is this idea that we’re going through an exponential transition where the rules of the world will need to change in much the same way that they changed between the 1890s and the 1910s, 1920s as we moved from a sort of pre- electricity, pre-car world into a world that looked quite modern and quite 20th century.

And so the book then sits alongside all of this because the book is a distillation and a summary and a snapshot of that thesis. It’s the one place where I’ve written down, although in quite abbreviated fashion, as you know, as you’ve read it, the key themes. I mean, I’ve taken out a lot of the kind of key mechanisms just to make the book more readable.

So they all interact with each other. You know, the podcast creates a set of credibility, there’s a particular audience that loves a podcast and sees podcasts as kind of in a way more credible than writing a newsletter. The newsletter is a way that I learn and I engage with my audience on a weekly basis and my community.

The book is a totem anchor point of the ideas. It’s also a way for me to lay down a marker point to say, you know, read this to level up and then we can move from one to the next. In terms of what it means commercially. You know, we don’t know what the book will do, it’s not released until September.

Essentially there should be, there is, a kind of a cross pollination from the podcast to the newsletter of audiences. Within the newsletter, there is a funnel of the hundreds of thousands, 140,000 people who receive the newsletter, whose email address I don’t have because it’s sent by a distribution partner.

There’s 60,000 whose email address I do have, because we send them directly. Within that group, there’s a few thousand who are paid-for members who get more content, more insight, and they get membership of the community. And, you can see how one flows into another. And what we try to do is we try to make the interactions as useful as they can be to each other.

So in the consulting work that I do, or the investing work that I do, it tends to be around in the consulting case: how does this help me learn about this dynamic of the exponential transition? And with the investing, it’s all early stage investments and it’s all against the types of themes that I talk about, whether it is future of work or whether it is renewable, sustainable farming or AI, that’s where I will invest, but at the heart of this process is the fact that we are thesis driven, we have a view, the Exponential View, which is that the world is going through the exponential transition. And we’re going to say goodbye to the affordances, the institutions, the business practices of the 20th century. We’re going to welcome in some new ones of the 21st.

Alison Jones: It’s a brilliant exposition of how those things relate to each other and with that really clear central concept, as you say. I love the idea as well, that you really kind of got to know the first, at least 5,000 or so on your mailing list. So a lovely idea for anybody who’s building one from scratch now.

Azeem Azhar: Actually, just to come on to that, Alison, I think that is super valuable. It’s time consuming and it may be, but it’s not delegatable, that’s another word I think that may be may or may not exist, but…

Alison Jones: Totally a word.

Azeem Azhar: Right. So if you are going to do that, you know, I listened to a couple of your podcasts and you’ve got a lot of brilliant, brilliant people with brilliant messages.

But I think about the community in these tiers, there’s a sort of inner circle of people who are really, really bought in and very, very supportive, you know, they will come around and help you if they could, if they didn’t live in New Zealand or Hong Kong or Paris or wherever they were, they would come and help you.

And the only way to identify them and cultivate them is to give them that time and to write back to them early. So as you build this up, I would recommend just as any one of your listeners, who’s founded a business, whether it’s a hairdresser’s or a restaurant, you’re always the person, who’s the first person to clean the place or clean the toilets or load up the products as they come in from the truck, because you’re a founder, you’re an entrepreneur, and your job is to do the shit work at the beginning. Your job is to do the hard work. Your job is to handle that customer service and to reverse transactions when people are not happy. And at some point you start to delegate it, but you will never understand your business if you haven’t done it yourself.

And when my business is really about taking up people’s time on their Sunday mornings – people tell me Oh, before I turn and say hi to my husband, I’m reading your newsletter – that is a massive responsibility on my part. So I really ought to know who you are. I really ought to have given you the time. Even though it is time consuming and I have flown in three countries this week (because it was three years ago when I got this running), I am exhausted, but I’ve still got to do this.

And then at some point you start to say, actually, I can bring someone in because I actually understand what’s going on. I’ve internalized the emotive and nuanced parts of what it is to serve this community, and I can now explain how someone else needs to do that job that I used to do.

Alison Jones: It’s brilliant advice. I’m thinking back as well. Now, I did a thing called Voffee, which every now and again, I look back at my list and I sort of, pull out people who’ve joined in the last 6, 8, 12 months, whatever. And obviously some people you know cause you’ve had dealings with them, other people you don’t know and you think, well, I going to send them an invitation to a virtual coffee and just find out a bit more about them. And as you say, it used to be a proper coffee when the time when we could do that.

But it’s a really interesting thing to do because you find out what has brought people here, what their frustrations and concerns are and what they’re hoping for.

Azeem Azhar: Yes, it’s really, really true, but I think it’s also in general true about how you have to. It’s the difference between being in a large organization, which I’ve also done, I’ve worked in companies of 10, 20, 25,000 people as well. And it’s all about buck stoppage. In a big organization, buck stoppage is distributed across a set of processes.

Whereas in a small organization, the buck really does stop with the founder. And I think of a particular founder, who I’ve not met but I’ve read about called Aneel Bhusri who founded a company called Workday. And it’s a multi-billion dollar HR software platform that competes with the likes of Oracle and SAP.

But you know, famously Bhusri personally involved in the hiring of the first 500 employees at Workday, which would have meant that he would have probably on average, had to interview the final two or three candidates for each one of those 500 roles. So if you think about a 500 person company, it’s multi-million dollars of revenue per month, and you’ve still got this CEO doing hundreds of job interviews a year because he is where the buck stopped. And he wanted to ensure that all of the tasks, knowledge, all the things that couldn’t be co-defined easily were well articulated because he understood that the company grows from its seed crystal and the seed crystal are the first employees.

Now in my kind of notion like the first employees, are maybe the first 20. He thought differently, and his company is like a multimillion dollar business. So I guess there’s something right with that.

Alison Jones: It is fascinating. And it’s also a really good example of when you get the core right, when you get the culture right, that becomes in a sense your unfair advantage and your exponential power too, because you have then got a whole company full of people who have internalized those values, who are demonstrating the right cultural and behaviors and so on.

So actually it’s a great investment of your time, if you think about it that way. Isn’t it?

Azeem Azhar: Yes, and culture is an absolutely critical component of exponential age companies. Whether you think about firms like Netflix or Apple their culture is the thing that allows them to accelerate because you’re moving so fast that you have to have some aspects of what you do that are rather second nature.

And second nature is, in the context of an organization, is its culture. So of course, one of the interesting things about these companies, the exponential age firms, is that they expand in directions that traditional companies don’t or can’t.

And so a firm like Apple you know, and I choose Apple because we all know it, but there are many, many other examples; we’re not surprised when Apple starts to verticalize its supply chain. So Apple starts to build its own chips rather than buying chips from the market. And it has the capability to do that. And then we’re also not surprised when Apple starts to move into wearable medical devices on the one hand, subscriptions on the other, e-commerce payments on the third and media in the fourth area, because at the heart is a strong sense of mission that allows them to get into those arenas, even when it’s difficult, even when the execution is hard.

That monomaniacal mindset of building against the culture, of needing to find the next big thing, because that is how business in the exponential age operates. There’s sufficient degree of change that you need the next big thing to move forward.

Well, the only way you can discover that, and still be true to the business that you’re in and be true to where you have a license to operate is if you have a strong culture.

Alison Jones: Fascinating. I’m going to haul us, with no segue at all, sorry…

Azeem Azhar: I go all over the place. I’m like the worst guest. So, sorry about that.

Alison Jones: This is the problem, I could listen to you all day, but I can’t. So I’m going to ask you about the writing piece and really specifically, and greedily and selfishly, I’m going to ask you to give me, there’s going to be lots of people listening who haven’t yet finished their first book.

What would be your best tip for them?

Azeem Azhar: I think one of the most important things is that you have to find a concept that frames your arguments, that ends up being a little bit like a North Star for you and that you can return to time and again. So in my case, there are a couple of concepts.

There’s this idea of the exponential age. There’s the idea of the exponential gap.

The exponential age being what the rest of the 21st century looks like, which is accelerating technologies, which result in businesses that grow very quickly, that results in significant change.

And the exponential gap is this idea that the industrial age institutions move on a linear trajectory and get left behind. And it explains why we are contending with so many issues that seem to be related to tech, whether it’s about monopoly or worker rights or conflict, or a democracy, they all seem to point to the same place. It’s just different manifestations of the exponential gap.

So I think the first thing to have is that frame and to figure out what that framing actually is, because then you know what stories you need to hang where, as you start to write the book

Alison Jones: And also you have to be able to articulate it as clearly as you just did, because I think that is the other piece that often people don’t quite put in place. They know what they mean, but they can’t necessarily articulate it so clearly to other people.

Azeem Azhar: Well, I think the other thing that you need to do as somebody who’s writing one of these books, is to recognize that, and I only realized what this meant when I was writing my acknowledgements, which is all acknowledgements say, this is a work which is entirely brought to you by a team of people who supported me, but all the errors are mine.

And I can’t think of something more true than that. A book like this has been through many, many hands in terms of the researchers who supported me, in terms of the expert readers who read chapters, in terms of my absolute fantastic editor at Penguin Random House and going back and forth over that process.

Iterate, iterate, polish, polish. And even then you feel like, well, there’s more that we could’ve done. So when you head out on this journey, even though writing is a really lonely place. Lonely, lonely place and makes for really boring dinner party conversation. ‘ Oh yes, I only wrote one sentence today.’

 It is also not a space where you are entirely unsupported and I think if you are a business person who’s writing a book and perhaps you have decided you want to publish it, regardless of getting a book deal with it with an existing publisher, I think thinking about the people who are around you to be able to help you to do that, whether it’s a researcher, there are lots of PhD students who are willing to help and do six hours of research or 10 hours of research a week, unduly specific, anyway, some number of hours of specific research, and then having an editor where you can go to, if you don’t have an editor at your publisher, you can go to a platform like Reedsy and you can find a freelance editor who will work with you on the book. And I think having an editor is really, really, really critical component of pulling a book together.

It’s quite demanding because you end up having to, I mean I’ve got a 100,000-word book with 100,000 words of cuts, I’ve got 480 something footnotes in the book, I think. Don’t be put off please dear reader, listener, it’s quite readable.

But I’ve got 700 foot notes that were taken out. So there’s a lot of stuff that ends up on the cutting room floor. But I think as a business person, you also understand that, right?

Alison Jones: Oh, Yes we’re all grateful. We’re grateful for the editing. Yes.

Azeem Azhar: Yes, yes so I would say, find the concept, but also figure out what is the support mechanism that you have through that process in terms of a researcher and a freelance editor if necessary, if the publisher doesn’t have one.

Alison Jones: Yes. I think the editor’s job as I always see it is to act as the ambassador for the reader and you really do need that. You need somebody who’s on the reader’s side when you just are so in love with your material that you can’t bear the thought of cutting it. Yes brilliant. Yes.

Azeem Azhar: Or you’re taking a reader on a directed journey and there might be amazing stories that distract them. I’m trying to think of an analogy here, maybe a film that’s got a really great plot, but a weird subplot and you feel like, well, there’s 20 minutes of that subplot that I didn’t need, that needed to be edited out.

So I had this fantastic story about one of the first AI systems which involved a load of unemployed hairdressers. You don’t know about it unless you knew about it separately because it got cut from the book and I did loads of research on it. But my editor acted as the ambassador for the reader and said, this is a brilliant story, and it’s really well written. Maybe it’s great for another book.

Alison Jones: Put it in a blog post.

Azeem Azhar: It’s gone, yes, put it in a post, as you will see it. yes.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. And would you like to give us as well, a book recommendation, obviously, obviously everybody should read Exponential, apart from that, is there a book that has particularly struck you? It doesn’t have to be a business book.

Azeem Azhar: Yes, I mean, it’s interesting. So I used to read a lot of business books and you know, Harvard Business Review and MIT Press style books. And I read far fewer now, but there is one, I’m going to give you a few recommendations, Alison, just on this. So there’s a book, there are a couple of books that talk about the sort of entrepreneurs journey.

One is by Ben Horowitz who founded the venture capital firm, Andreessen Horowitz. It’s called The Hard Thing About Hard Things. And he really just talks about the, sort of the grim journey of the entrepreneur and how to suck it up basically.

Alison Jones: It’s quite macho isn’t it, but it’s very, very good.

Azeem Azhar: Yes, yes I mean, I think that not every business needs to be like that, but I think exponential age businesses will end up being like that. It just happens to be the case.

And there’s a book from a few years before that, which I still sort of think about, which is called Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steve Blank, which is a book that talks about how to discover, go through the discovery process when you’re trying to bring a new product or service to market. And you know and no one knows what it’s going to look like.

 But one of the reasons that I’ve moved from reading business books as much, partly it’s my age, I’m going to be 50 next year. And I’m sort of writing them in a sense, but it’s partly also that I think that we’re at a really interesting point in history where business leaders are going to be called upon to shape what the next bit of the world looks like. And that is going to involve more context than you might get in a narrow business book that helps you figure out how to optimize your marketing funnel or how to manage change during a M&A process or something.

These are in a sense, this is a once in a century moment that we face, but also under the oppressive weight of climate change. So this calls for, I think vigour, absolutely. It calls for the application of empathy and the best technology. But having a historical context I think is really important. And there are two books, one is not historical, one is, that I think are relevant. One is Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, which talks about how we need to build economic systems that live within planetary boundaries and are circular and are net positive in what they try to contribute back to the planet on which we live. And I think her framework is really, really good.

And the other is one of the two most important academics for me in writing my book, is a woman called Carlota Perez who essentially talks about, and her book is called, it’s quite technical, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital.

It’s economic history down to its core. And in that she makes the points that we go through these waves of technological innovation that have with them a re-norming once the technology gets embedded into a society. Once we’re used to using it, managers know how to apply it, employees know how to work with it and so on.

And I think that the reason that’s relevant is that it helps us look back on the assumptions we’ve made as business leaders about how and who we hire and what good business practice looks like. And say those were only things that really emerged as a consequence of this process, this interplay between technology and institutions.

And so Perez I think is a real sort of intellectual inspiration for me. Where I slightly break from her is, as hard for me to say that because she’s so brilliant, that I think the exponential age has this pattern of instability built into it, that previous periods of economic transition didn’t.

So those two books, which are much more systemic, Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics and Carlota Perez, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital, I think help business leaders understand, in the case of Carlota’s book, where are we in this historical cycle? And why are the expectations on us higher than they have been?

And Kate’s book is very good because it helps us from a sustainability standpoint, say, what does good business design and good business practice look like?

Alison Jones: Yes, brilliant. Really fascinating recommendations. Thank you. I think I knew half of them and I certainly would never have picked up Carlota’s book with that title, so it’s interesting, isn’t it?

Azeem Azhar: Yes

Alison Jones: It’s not one that grabs you but it sounds fascinating.

Thank you and Azeem if people want to find out more about you, more about Exponential View and the work that you do, where should they go?

Azeem Azhar: Yes, please I would love to hear from you, I’m on Twitter. If you’re British, I’m @Azeem, which is A Z E E M. And if you’re American I’m @Azeem which is A Z E E M, subtle difference. Yes. And you can also find me on Exponentialview.co where you can sign up for the newsletter. And there’s a link to pick the book up as well if you’d like.

Alison Jones: Brilliant. Thank you. I will put all those links up on the show notes of course, as usual at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com and also the transcript for this conversation which is pure gold.

So we have ranged very, very widely and I’m not going to lie we’ve gone on quite a lot longer than usual, but do you know so suck it up cause it is absolutely brilliant.

So thank you so much Azeem, it’s been fascinating talking to you and I know there’s so much more we could have talked about, which we didn’t, so maybe you’re just going to have to write another book and come back on.

Azeem Azhar: I’d love to do that Alison, thanks so much. I appreciate it.

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