Good News: Only 85 Percent of Biz Books Are Bunk

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 07-20-2005
One of the most acute business bloggers, Ethan "Effern" Johnson, who writes The Vision Thing, has written an entire series of essays with titles riffed off "All of Your Business Books Are Meaningless," exposing most of the offerings in the genre as vapid gruel.

He suggests they are (a) predictable, or (b) slipstreaming fads, or (c) completely obvious, or (d) some combination of the all three.

He also mourns their short shelf life, implying that if the advice was really useful, it wouldn't be obviously stale after 10 years. Or at least it should outlive pet gerbils.

His general assertion is almost right. Eighty-five percent of business books are bunk. The exceptions, therefore, are choice and worth noting.

Rarer than the business book that is actually useful is the business book author who can crank out more than one useful title.

I've got a great example of one such author, but first I want to suggest why Effern's observation is true in the general case.

Business books are what periodical publishers call "dream books." Take Architectural Digest, that eye-candy showcase for elite design and architecture.

Circulation: around 800,000. Number of readers who will ever own a building designed by one of the architects who appear on its pages: Maybe 20,000, probably fewer.

Number of readers who will own or commission a building designed using any of the eye-candy in the magazine: Maybe 80,000, probably fewer.

The readers know this. They just like to dream. Publications such as Sunset and Popular Mechanics are sort of modified dream books.

People buy them mostly to dream about ultra-lights or vaulted ceiling makeovers or ornate garden designs or fanciful recipes, but many will actually execute some of the simpler building or cooking projects.

Business books are in the same vein.

Publishers know a majority of the copies sold will be read, partially digested, spit out, filter-feeder style, with the reader going on to the next one, most likely with the exhortations erased from the brain like scrawl on a zip pad.

The reader doesn't really want to have to do anything in response to reading the book.

They want to feel elevated and informed, inspired that things can be better, that people have the power to make things better, which is a worthy emotion (and even more worthy action to pursue).

Business books that are, in contrast, like a Chilton's guide, are more useful, but they're a double whammy.

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First, they require action, and taking action beyond reading the book requires more energy than just reading the book.

Second, if the reader doesn't actually act, she is likely to feel bad about herself, the opposite of a fluffy leadership title with no actionable roadmap to success or operational instructions.

Serial business book readers get a parallel kick out of day-dreaming good thoughts that aspiring Sunset home owners or Gourmet essay readers get. The reading is the end.

Shipping books that would please managers looking for actionable instructions or guidelines just don't sell as well.

Widely available business books are driven by "the market." The market drives business books' lack of utility.

Exception Proves the Gruel

There are, fortunately, exceptions, a few authors who crank out truly useful books one after another, books that consistently inform many years after you've read them.

Currently, my favorite example is Edward De Bono, a true polymath who, defying compartmentalization, probably is best identified as a creativity expert.

He has a half-dozen titles well worth reading, even long after their publication dates. His original on this topic, "Lateral Thinking," is still the classic in the field in the sense that it's not just "about," but it gives some tools that will, for some readers at least, actually enhance their applied creativity.

Two great De Bono volumes I strongly urge you to hook into (for different reasons) are the "Atlas of Management Thinking" (Pelican Books, 1983) and the clumsily titled "Sur/petition" (HarperBusiness, 1992). I

I'm going to tell you about the Atlas here, and tell you why "Sur/petition" is so useful in my next column.

The "Atlas" is based on an urban planning and architecture concept: the pattern language.

In building, successful elements (such as freeway off-ramps, patios, verandas, foyers, kitchen counters, boulevards) share within the category somewhat consistent design.

They are made up of more atomic pieces that, themselves, share category characteristics when they are successful, and in turn the larger tissues, when successful, come together in somewhat consistent ways to form even bigger systems.

The concept works on the idea that if you could learn both successful components with what it was that made them successful, and the factors that connected them to other components successfully, you could design customized artifacts, from parts of rooms all the way up to entire towns that, while different and appropriate for their specific context, still retained the features that made them successful.

What Edward De Bono has done is made a pattern language out of management actions and ideas. The result is like the mammoth Lego kit I enjoyed as a kid, with interconnected parts you can use to build a model of a significant process and then examine it.

He created 21 general sections, like "Confrontation," "People," "Change" and "Decision."

Within each of those areas, he has about a dozen elements. For example, in "Decision," there are elements such as "a difficult decision" "the yes effort" and "a political decision."

For each element he dedicates a page with a graphic that delivers a visual representation of the element--an elaborate doodle based on a coherent collection of little gestures he recycles across the section, and text below that describes that element.

By mixing graphical and textual explanations, he reaches readers who learn from text and those who learn better from pictures.

And the doodles help any reader build on understanding, because after a little while, you can just look at the graphic for a new element and just "get it" to some degree. It's a balance of organized structure, and organic, flowing intuition.

De Bono's objective is for readers across an organization to read and internalize the elements to a decent degree and then they can share a common language in the workplace to describe and then deal with specific situations.

"That's an atrophy," or "I think we're dealing with a temptation." By recognizing an element in a shared way, people can embrace it or deal with it constructively.

I try to deploy this first in a single workgroup, preferably one that does forms of symbolic analysis.

A competitive intelligence group would be ideal, or a department of data analysts or systems designers.

Of course, the system is extensible. Just as a world atlas describes things obvious to everyone, but your personal map collection gives more detail locally and the maps you have filed away in your brain have incredible detail about your neighborhood, De Bono's "Atlas" is a great starting place you add to with your own specific organization's or department's elements.

If you're reading a business book to feel good, the "Atlas of Management Thinking" will hurt your head. But if you're trying to get fuel for action, I recommend it.

Jeff Angus is a management consultant and has been working with IT since 1974. He has held IT management positions in user interface design, marketing, operations and testing/analysis. Look for his book, "Management by Baseball: A Pocket Reader." Jeff's columns have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Baltimore Sun. He can be reached at jeff.angus@comcast.net.

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