Every now and then a colleague will recommend a book on business that I absolutely have to read. I nod and say something innocuous like “Yeah, sounds interesting,” then immediately put the suggestion out of my mind.
The truth is that most business books are unreadable. They’re usually full of clichés disguised in fresh buzzwords that try to give the reader the impression that whatever the author is saying is both new and revolutionary. The truth is that most business books are devoid of thought. To borrow a quote from Gertrude Stein, there is no there there. When I have to read one, I skip to the end of a chapter and pray that the author has included a summary of his or her five main points.
The quality of writing in the business book genre is astonishingly poor. Most of the business books I have read (or skimmed) go out of their way to insult the intelligence of the average reader. Many are full of sanitized stories with stereotypical characters and dialogue worse than what you’d hear in a soap opera.
Several of the most popular books use the technique of providing us with model companies and model leaders to show us “how things should be done.” In many cases, the company or the leader being celebrated is often exposed a few years later as having some pretty significant weaknesses. For example, In From Good to Great, Jim Collins celebrated Circuit City, a company that wound up firing their more senior employees to save money, which alienated their customers and led them to the bankruptcy they so truly deserved.
Serves Collins right for focusing primarily on the financials.
There are “scholarly” business books, usually published through the Harvard Business Review or the like, that profess to be of higher quality of thought. Although written in better English, they too fall short in the substance department. Their primary purpose is to create audiences for wannabe gurus. As is usually the case with academia, the writer is attempting to prove a hypothesis, so the data you get is skewed to support the hypothesis.
The whole genre is weakened by one fundamental truth: the authors are not disinterested parties trying to educate and inform. They’re trying to sell their wares. Most business books are written to increase the author’s consulting opportunities, speaking engagements or training package sales.
Because business books are promotional tools instead of educational tools, and because the last thing a salesperson wants to do is alienate the customer, business books never look too deeply into the real problems organizations face every day. They never really force us to think differently about the way we do business. They accept the status quo and are designed to give readers a few pointers as to how they can exploit the status quo to their advantage.
The problem with this approach is that the status quo is not going to get you anywhere in a world of perpetual change. Follow the classic wisdom of most business books and you will become a dinosaur overnight, because most business books do nothing to advance your ability to think critically about the unexpected and unknown.
If you truly want to increase your odds for future success, develop your thinking and change-response skills. Look inside and outside the business genre for reading material that will force you to think in new ways about old problems. Read Keith Johnstone’s Impro and take improv theater classes to enhance your ability to deal with both change and changing people. Take a look at Ricardo Semler’s two books, Maverick and The Seven-Day Weekend to learn how it is possible to turn fundamental business assumptions inside out and create workplaces that are distinctly human and outrageously profitable. Go over to TED and check out the videos produced by Ken Robinson to understand what it really means to think differently.
Here’s the truth: you’re smarter than most business books would have you believe. Focus your development efforts on keeping your mind in tip-top shape by providing yourself with constant intellectual challenge . . . challenge you’re more likely to find by listening to your native intelligence than skimming the books in the business section.