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Highlights from 15 Years of s+b Book Reviews

Best Cases

Two closely related business book genres that require long-form writing are corporate histories and the biographies and memoirs of leaders. Books of this sort can be sanitized to the point that they become cures for insomnia, but when driven by a spirit of open and honest inquiry, they have the power to compel and inspire.

David Packard’s memoir, The HP Way: How Bill Hewlett and I Built Our Company (HarperBusiness, 1995), traces how the now-famous business partners founded an electronic instrument business in a garage in Palo Alto, Calif., with $538 in capital; their startup grew into a $100 billion global corporation. Published just a year before Packard’s death, the book illuminates a leader’s role in creating and transmitting a performance culture.

The Hewlett-Packard culture was a direct reflection of the pragmatic philosophies of the company’s founders. The cofounders believed in participative goal setting, decentralized authority, and a humane form of accountability that moved employees up until they reached their limits and then moved them around until they found their niches. Neither Hewlett nor Packard had any vision: They just wanted to make a profit making innovative and high-quality machines that addressed their customers’ needs.

And so they did. “Balancing the goals of the company with the realities of the marketplace and the needs of both stockholders and employees is what HP has achieved. It has done this while also producing a series of innovative products, which contributed mightily to business and the country,” wrote Robert Cranny in s+b’s second issue. “The HP Way should be kept in a corner of every office and den. It’s good just to know it’s there.”

Louis V. Gerstner Jr. is another leader who famously eschewed the “vision thing” for pragmatic management — and saved IBM in the process. In Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? Inside IBM’s Historic Turnaround (HarperBusiness, 2002), Gerstner explains in detail how to restructure a massive organization — radically changing its business model, cutting costs, and reengineering its processes — and remake its culture without flying it into an unrecoverable tailspin.

“There are a few good leaders, and a few good new leadership books,” wrote Pasternack and O’Toole on naming Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? one of 2003’s best business books in the leadership category. “Louis V. Gerstner Jr. gets the nod on both counts.”

And finally, there is Alice Schroeder’s monumental biography of Warren Buffett, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life (Bantam, 2008), which successfully undertook the delicate task of ferreting out what makes the Oracle of Omaha tick, with his permission. Schroeder’s portrait is especially compelling because she never sidesteps the real Buffett for easy answers. Instead, wrote O’Toole, who selected the book as one of 2009’s best business books in biography, “Schroeder offers us a nuanced portrait of a surprisingly complex and insecure man whose life is full of paradoxes and contradictions.” It’s good to know that even the most successful businessperson of our time is more man than mogul.

Disruptive Technologies

For greater insight into how technology will change publishing in the years to come, Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail (Harvard Business School Press, 1997) is a good place to turn. The book, which David Hurst reviewed in the spring of 2001, introduced Christensen’s seminal theory of disruptive technologies and described their cyclical effect on industries.

Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School, says that successful companies in a given industry are almost always focused on improving their products and the technologies that underlie them. This creates innovation races in which the industry’s offerings outpace the needs and desires of customers. New competitors inevitably arise, deploying disruptive technologies to serve customers in more effective ways, but the incumbent industry leaders ignore them as inconsequential. Eventually, the new competitors eclipse the industry leaders, and the cycle starts again. How does this relate to publishing? Well, one hint comes from Amazon, which announced that its e-book sales had overtaken hardcover sales as I wrote this article.

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