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Why Business Books Still Speak Volumes

David K. Hurst
David Hurst

David K. Hurst, a contributing editor of strategy+business. His writing has also appeared in the Harvard Business Review, the Financial Times, and other leading business publications. He is the author of The New Ecology of Leadership: Business Mastery in a Chaotic World (Columbia University Press, 2012). He blogs on strategy, leadership, and change at www.davidkhurst.com.


 

As s+b marks 20 years of publication, we are looking back (and forward) to reflect on the themes, people, and ideas that have animated two decades of original thinking. This is the third in a series of blog posts.

It’s easy to be critical of business books. What had been a dull cottage industry until the publication of Tom Peters; and Bob Waterman’s In Search of Excellence (1982) became an exuberant enterprise that churns out a vast number of products in many subcategories. Business books, in other words, have become a big business. The motives and abilities of the writers who toil in these segments — self-help, how-to, CEO biographies, corporate narratives, big-picture panoramas, focused functional pieces, to name a few— are as widely varied as the categories themselves. Serious research-based, academic efforts, sometimes well written but often full of impenetrable jargon, share shelf space with ghostwritten executive vanity puffs: sweet confections designed to buff images. There is a steady deluge of books from consultants, for whom business books are, at a minimum, thick business cards and essential to establishing their credentials.

As is the case with every genre, a few of these books are fantastic, some are good, and many are, alas, quite bad. At times, business books can read like expanded articles, bloated blogs, or padded PowerPoint presentations. Many writers assume that success implies capability and we can all become successful simply by studying success. The evidence for this is equivocal at best and riddled with attribution bias (our tendency to take credit for our successes while blaming failures on factors beyond our control).

Much business writing poses an even subtler problem: a failure or perhaps a reluctance to recognize that while the “whats” in business — desirable outcomes — are generic, the “hows” are particular, specific to each and every organization. It’s true, for example, that an enterprise’s strategy and organization must be “aligned,” but what that means and how to do it in this organization, with our people, right here, right now is much less obvious. Organizations are complex systems, in which cause-and-effect is nonlinear, path-dependent (history matters), and often unknowable in prospect. Deciding what to do (or not do), and how and when to do (or not do) “it,” is a matter of judgment and experience, as managers try to accomplish short-term objectives while keeping their longer run options open. As a result, consumers of business books that offer simplistic checklist-driven solutions run the risk of being trapped between one-off stories that cannot be replicated and universal principles that cannot be practiced because they are too abstract.

If they can’t tell us what to do, how can business books help in such a world? And how, in the age of 140-character tweets, disappearing SnapChat texts, and highly attenuated attention spans, can we justify spending hours, or a whole day, engaging with a 400-page volume? As a professional consumer (over the years, I have reviewed nearly 150 books for s+b), producer (I’ve written three myself), and avid fan, I can think of three principal reasons.

First, at their best, business books can hone our judgment and expand our experiences. They can expose us to and even immerse us in the experiences of others and supply us with novel perspectives and new mental models. They can help us reframe phenomena and understand how what many saw as problems can be transformed into what others see as opportunities. Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997) gave its readers a different perspective on the dynamics of innovation and suggested that fields as diverse as the disk drive, steel production, and mobile crane industries had something in common in their experience of technological change. Andy Grove of Intel, an early adopter of disruption theory, claimed that the book didn’t tell managers anything they didn’t know. Rather, it gave them a coherent narrative to talk about it. And that has made a huge difference in spurring actions. Similarly, C.K. Prahalad’s Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, which got its start as a 2002, taught people to change their views of emerging market consumers — from poor people to be ignored or pitied to a vast new market worthy of attention and care.

Second, we all need narratives. Data is not the same as knowledge; information is not, in and of itself, insight. As humans, we need narrative “centers of gravity” to make sense of our experience. Which explains why, here at strategy+business, we have always had a rather expansive view of what constitutes a “business book.” Executives and leaders like to read history, biography, and even fiction for insight. Jack Welch, the longtime chief executive officer of General Electric, claimed that he got his most useful perspective on strategy from the writings and practices of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder (1800–1891). The Prussian general, whose dictum was that “no plan survives contact with the enemy,” oversaw the flowering of the German mission command system, which encourages innovation at all levels of an armed force. It is still the gold standard for military establishments around the world.

GE’s Jack Welch claimed that he got his most useful perspective on strategy from the writings and practices of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder.

Although the advent of big data calls for a good deal of calculation, it also demands more judgment — “big” judgment, which will require more and better-disciplined analogies to help us synthesize our experiences and grasp their meaning. This need to make sense of our predicaments is surely connected with ongoing revival of big history — the longue durée that French historians developed in the middle of the last century. This approach, which favors the study of long-term structures and forces, rather than events, has been in eclipse for the last 30 years, but is now reemerging from the shadow of our preoccupation with data and analysis. One of the more surprising recent bestsellers was Sapiens, a 464-page history of the entirety of humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.

Third, management practice today is plagued by short-termism — the pressures of quarterly earnings, the impatience of shareholders, the desire of all stakeholders to see results quickly. An obsessive focus on transactions, necessary but not sufficient to create enterprises of lasting value, can blind us to the importance of relationships that connect them and narratives that illuminate them. Business stories play two crucial roles within an enterprise. They can function as the glue that bonds people with disparate ends to a common cause and spur innovation. Outside the business, the organizational narrative and the relationships it sanctions can bind other stakeholders, especially customers and suppliers, more tightly to the enterprise. Lastly, for readers, exposure to narrative can promote self-knowledge and help train them to always look for the subtext — the real message — as well as the context, the situation in which the interaction takes place.

As if all this were not enough, business books can have important benefits for those who write them — not just those who read them. Peter Drucker used to say that he wrote for himself — to help him put his own ideas in order. In that process he helped many others do the same. In this age of digital overload and a preoccupation with the hyperpresent, our existence threatens to become increasingly fragmented. The need to make meaning over time will grow in importance. As readers or writers, whether they come in a hardcover edition, a PDF, or an e-book, the best business books can help us do that.

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Why Business Books Still Speak Volumes