Book Review: 2003 Roundup

By now, if you are like most of us, you’ve already broken your New Year’s resolutions. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, particularly if one of those vows was to catch up on all of the business and technology books that came out last year. Unlike failing to exercise more, or to be more patient, skipping 99 percent of last year’s books won’t hurt you. (We know—we get paid to look at them.) And if you try to skim everything published, you might overlook the books that are actually worth reading. With that in mind, let’s take a look back at some of the books you might have missed.

It never hurts to review the basics, so you may want to revisit Thinking Inside the Box: The 12 Timeless Rules for Managing a Successful Business (Free Press). Marketer Kirk Cheyfitz makes two key points: You can’t think outside the (traditional management thinking) box unless you know what the parameters of the box actually are. And not doing anything stupid is a lot less risky than plunging into uncharted waters just because it seems like the thing to do. With that by way of context, he presents 12 rules for maintaining and expanding your business.

You can increase your chances of success even more if you can learn from the missteps of others. In Why Smart Executives Fail and What You Can Learn from Their Mistakes (Portfolio), Dartmouth Professor Sydney Finkelstein notes that the reasons for business failures are remarkably few: Executives choose not to cope with change; they cling to an inaccurate view of reality; or they brilliantly fulfill the wrong vision.

Okay, basics covered, you might want to turn to some ways to expand your business. With the economy mired in the doldrums for most of 2003, this was an area that didn’t get much attention last year. But if you’re ready to think about growth again, then start with Breakthrough: How Great Companies Set Outrageous Objectives—and Achieve Them (Wiley). The most significant insight that author Bill Davidson offers is that the companies that grow are the ones that expect to grow.

Obviously, the mere desire to grow isn’t enough. What a company needs is knowledge about how to achieve growth, and in Double-Digit Growth: How Great Companies Achieve It—No Matter What (Portfolio), former MIT Professor Michael Treacy offers five strategies. In How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate (Harvard Business School Press), Andrew Hargadon argues that radically new ideas and paradigm shifts are rare; most innovations come about when someone puts together, and builds on, work that came before.

Start looking in areas you know best, suggests consultant Chris Zook in Beyond the Core: Expand Your Market Without Abandoning Your Roots (Harvard Business School Press). This sequel to Profit from the Core focuses on how companies can expand their main business into adjacent segments in ways that are both profitable and defend (or redefine) what they do best.

If you think your customers can help you do all this, then you’re wrong. That’s the message of How Customers Think: Essential Insights Into the Mind of the Market (Harvard Business School Press). Harvard Business School Professor Gerald Zaltman argues that the old marketing shibboleth, “Ask customers what they want and give it to them,” is fatally flawed, because customers can’t actually explain what they want. He then provides tools to help them to tell you.

Enjoy the New Year.

Reviewed by Paul B. Brown, author of Publishing Confidential: The Insider’s Guide to What It Really Takes to Land a Nonfiction Book Deal, just published by Amacom.

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