Sunday, December 12, 2010

Can reading a book transform you or your business from good to great?

I initially became skeptical of business and management guru advice books, when I read Tom Aranow’s article "Paradigm of Management Fads" in Corporate Reports Wisconsin.

In the article, Aranow points out really good managers have always pursued lean operations and were doing so long before “Lean Manufacturing” became a popular consulting product. He writes:

It’s not that the great management fads haven’t been productive. Each can provide ways of working with and through issues that improve productivity and quality but none is a panacea or formula that will make any company shine.

What executives may be overlooking is that all of these fads are really examples of marketing phenomena in which intelligent authors have captured the essence of what good managers do every day and they’ve packaged them up for distribution and general consumption by departments, like the “TQM” departments that have adopted their brand names.

His concern is that each one of these may be a substitute for the incisive management thinking that leads to the development of high quality solutions custom designed for their best applications.
Aranow's article brought to mind the must-read business and advice books I’ve attempted reading in the past, but didn't finish:

Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends and Influence People. I’ve tried reading this one twice.

David Allen's Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. I attempted to read this for Trent at The Simple Dollar's book club read-a-long.

Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I wanted to learn what all the fuss was about.

I’ve since come to the conclusion, business advice books are similar to dieting; if I am not 100% committed to changing my behavior I will lose interest along the way.

Then there is Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson which was touted as the must-read business book of the year this past summer. My initial thought upon finishing the book was:

Did I read the right book?
The book was written for a startup or starters (as the authors call them). Fried and Hansson provide advice they gleaned from running 37signals their successful startup company. I thought their ideas were nothing new and sounded good in theory, but wondered whether they'd work when implemented in the real world.

Which brings me to my latest read, David H. Freedman's book Wrong: Why experts* keep failing us--and how to know when not to trust them *Scientists, finance wizards, doctors, relationship gurus, celebrity CEOs, ... consultants, health officials and more. This book is based on the premise that most of the expert advice we receive – from scientists, doctors, economists, media experts, management gurus and others is wrong and misleading. The chapter “Experts and Organizations" helped me hone in on my skepticism of books written by business and manager gurus.

Freedman informs us major business movement books fit into one of two templates:

1. The authors place a number of winning companies or CEOs under a microscope, distilling what management principles these role models follow that losers don’t.

Examples include:
In Search of Excellence by Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't by Jim Collins

First, Break All the Rules: What the World's Greatest Managers Do Differently by consultants and motivational speakers Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman

The Breakthrough Company: How Everyday Companies Become Extraordinary Performers by Harvard business professor Keith McFarland

Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by journalist Geoff Colvin

2. The second template relies on authors who have observed or derived a new strategy, trend or management technique that will determine which businesses will succeed in the coming years, showing how winning companies are already taking advantage of the new thinking.

Examples include:
Competing on Analytics: The New Science of Winning by the consultant and Babson College business professor Thomas Davenport and the Accenture researcher Jeanne G. Harris, who tell us the future winners will be those who do a better job wringing insight from data.

The World Is Flat 3.0: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century by the journalist Thomas Friedman, who insists that winners will be those who most effectively globalize.

Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything by the consultants Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams, who reveal that winning is tied to the wisdom of crowds.

The Future of Management by the London Business School professor and consultant Gary Hamel and the journalist Bill Breen who explain that winners will shed conventional management hierarchy.

Freedman concludes his findings by saying:
Unfortunately, as with weight loss and politics there is a vast sea of ideas pointing in all sorts of different directions for solutions to the same basic problems. They can’t all be right, and even if they could how can you tell which advice best applies to your company? Pg 128.
The bottom line is found in his interview with Jerker Denrell, a professor at Stanford’s business school who specializes in studying how business wisdom goes astray:
There is too much randomness in business success. Even if you identify the right companies and study them closely, you can’t figure out how to be like them. Pg 145.
I must say I was surprised to see one of my favorite business books of all time Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't listed as one of Freedman’s main offenders. Jerker Denrell is quoted as saying:
It isn’t a good book because most companies don’t even do simple things well, like accounting. A better book would be Incompetent to Okay. But if you’re in academia, you won’t seem very interesting saying that sort of thing, and if you’re a consultant, you can’t make money off it.
So what is a small businessperson or manager wannabe who likes to have a thought provoking book on their bedside table to do?

Freedman mentions another subgenre that has sprung up within business publishing called business-literature summarizing books. You could read one of these. Examples include:

Guide to Management Ideas and Gurus (The Economist) by Tim Hindle

Entrepreneurial Excellence: Profit from the Best Ideas of the Experts by Richard J. Goossen

In conclusion, I wouldn’t discount all advice business books entirely, but it is important to remember a book is one person's opinion and their advice may not hold true for every company or every situation. In addition to business literature summarizing books, my favorite librarian suggests reading the top ten best-sellers of the previous year paying attention to the best idea from each book. Or better yet check out one of the books on 10 Overrated Business Books (and What to Read Instead) a list compiled by Geoffrey James.

It is fun to note, he includes In Search of Excellence by Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman as an overrated book. He suggests reading The Dilbert Principle by Scott Adams instead.

Why: You’ll know exactly why “excellent” companies go smack down the toilet.
Also included as overrated is Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. What to read instead: The Prince  by Niccolo Machiavelli
Why: It will provide you with the precise moral foundation you’ll need to be successful on the corporate ladder.
Who Moved My Cheese?: An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life by Spencer Johnson a book given to my husband by an outplacement company when he was laid off from his previous job also is overrated.

How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff is the book to read instead.

Why: If you want to read a short book, this one will open your eyes. You’ll never look at a corporate presentation – or the evening news – exactly the same way again.
What do you think? Can a book transform you or your company from good to great? What business books have you found to be overrated? Or do you have a business book recommendation that belongs on everyone's nightstand?


  1. I love how you said that if you are not 100% committed to changing your behavior reading a business book, you will lose interest along the way. This is so crucial! There are so many books out there but if you don't make up your mind to apply what you learn, no point reading! :) Good tip! Thanks for stopping by my blog!

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