bookMy critique of the 36 books in Strategy + Business magazine’s Best Business Books of 2004 list, and my suggestions for what should have been on the list.

Of all the year-end business ‘lists’, the S+B Best Business Books list is the one I most look forward to. For a start, it’s comprehensive: Dozens of books are reviewed or ‘honourably mentioned’, in considerable depth. And the focus is on the practical: You won’t find many theoretical tomes on the list. They want to point out books with ideas and processes you can use.

Although perhaps in this decade of extreme business conservatism I shouldn’t be surprised, this year’s list is a great disappointment. I dutifully scribbled down the list, trekked to the nearest book superstore, paced myself with a couple of chai lattes, and waded through the recommended books, all 36 of them, plus a handful of others I’d expected to see on the list. What most dismays me about these books is the continuing cult of leadership, the mind-numbingly narrow American slant on how business should work (there is evidence in the business press, and perhaps in US business in general, of the kind of severe cultural blindness that would do George Bush proud), and the infuriating predilection for top-down answers to everything. This isn’t S+B’s fault, it’s the fault of business book publishers who are caught in the same formulaic rut as the mass-market fiction publishers. No courage, no imagination.

I’ve long believed that the best way to manage a traditional business is to set achievable goals, assign roles consistent with competencies, suggest processes that the people in those roles can use to achieve the goals, and then get the hell out of the way, and only intervene when you’re asked to, or when things are obviously going terribly awry. More than one business guru has declared that 90% of business problems are caused by management, and as someone who has spent much of my life as a manager, I can assure you they’re right. What we need are more books that help management tap the wisdom of the people on the front lines, and more books that can help the people on the front lines help themselves. This year’s crop of books is decidedly unhelpful at achieving those ends.

Management, People and Productivity:
Three of the categories of S+B’s list (Strategy, Management, and Leadership), with a total of 16 books selected, are pretty much a write-off for that reason alone. Top down strategy almost never works as well as improvisational decision-making by small, autonomous groups in highly decentralized organizations (yes, I know, Enron was one such organization, but there are many healthy, uncorrupted examples as well). Top-down management is almost inherently inferior to decision-making by egalitarian, non-hierarchical customer-facing teams. And I’m so fed up with all the self-serving bullshit about leadership in business I could puke: The ‘leaders’ of the most successful and profitable businesses in the world have only one unarguable common attribute: They had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time, in a business that was almost certainly going to excel (because it had good front-line people and products that met urgent customer needs) even with a psychopathic moron at the helm. The reason so few leaders last is that this good fortune rarely lasts either. Leadership books sell for one reason: Egomaniacal business leaders can never get enough books that are ostensibly about them, and they are prone to buying multiple copies of such flattering crap to hand out to their staff. The writers of such books are the modern-day whores of the publishing world. Their work is shameless and obsequious pandering to today’s horrifically over-rated and over-paid executives.

The only book on these three lists that I was even tempted to buy was Ricardo Semler’s The Seven-Day Weekend. I read and enjoyed Semler’s first book, the counterculture Maverick. Semler’s idea was basically to abdicate management entirely and let the employees run the company, subject only to some very egalitarian principles. The new book restates this philosophy and layers on some “borrowed” approaches, ideas and practices from other companies that have a bit of Maverick spirit. I’m all for new ideas, but in my experience the best ideas don’t come from even well-meaning and hands-off bosses — they come bottom-up from creative minds who are able to take an idea from somewhere else and apply it to meet a problem their team is facing right now or knows they will inevitably face in the future. I’d be happier if the book was a collection of stories about successfully implemented ideas from Semco’s people on the front lines. I’d also be happier if I could read a book by someone objective about what hasn’t worked at Semco. It’s all a bit too good to believe.

Dave’s Pick: None of the above. We need a book on bottom-up personal productivity improvement. Or a book on effective teamwork and collaboration.  In 2001 Drucker explained in Management Challenges for the 21st Century that improving individual front-line worker productivity would be the greatest issue of this century. And last year David Allen addressed productivity in his book Getting Things Done. This year, nothing. And there hasn’t been a good book on teamwork and collaboration this decade.

The S+B list includes five titles, but they’re all about tinkering with, or apologizing for, a system that’s horribly and irreparably broken. As many recent business analyses have shown, the problem with corporate governance lies in the evolution of corporate charters and corporate ‘rights’ and legal responsibilities. As legal errors have stripped corporations of their social and environmental responsibilities to workers and the communities in which they operate, and compounding legal errors have granted corporations the ‘rights’ of personhood, a Frankenstein monster has been created that underlies all of the modern problems of business governance. It is now in the shareholders’, and hence the corporation’s, best interest to screw employees and customers, neglect quality in favour of margin, outsource and offshore everything, form oligopolies to extinguish healthy competition, employ armies of lawyers to stifle innovation and suppress employee, customer and community outrage, and think in quarterly increments instead of long-term and strategically.

Dave’s Pick: The Corporation, by Joel Bakan, and The People’s Business, by Lee Drutman et al, are the only books this year that offers a prescription for what really ails corporations.

Innovation and Technology:
The S+B reviews of the innovation and technology best-sellers have a decided bent towards IT, but what is astonishing is the continuing decline of books on innovation to even consider for the list. Of the books reviewed, Lawrence Lessig’s warning about how intellectual property law threatens business innovation in Free Culture is head and shoulders above the others on the list.

Dave’s Picks: Seeing What’s Next, by Chris Christensen et al,  The Medici Effect, by Frans Johansson, and, from the S+B list, Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture (available for free download, but if you can afford to buy it for your library, please do). Christensen’s book, the follow-up to The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution, explains how to predict the future of your industry and anticipate future needs and competitive threats. It’s basically a book on how to do good research, with an eye on the future rather than the past. On the technology side, my favourite this year is The Power of Many, by Christian Crumlish, a great primer for those who want to know how to use (and how not to use) the Internet and its social networking technologies to improve networks and connectivity.

Sales, Marketing, Economics and Consumer Studies:
S+B has caught on to the fact that these disciplines are all about understanding customer needs, and that selling is not something you do to customers any more. Power has inexorably been shifting from producer to consumer, despite the trends to corporatism and globalization. But the books S+B have picked to explain this don’t do the job nearly as well as some brilliant and offbeat choices that you might not even think of as business books, because they’re about human nature, human behaviour, human capacity, human culture, and human struggle. Fail to understand how important these are to business, and your company is doomed.

Dave’s Picks: The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki (also my choice for 2004 Book of the Year, period), The Two-Income Trap, by Elizabeth Warren et al, Nickel & Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich, and The Rebel Sell, by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter. Surowiecki’s book teaches how to learn from customers and employees how to really make your business better. Warren’s and Ehrenreich’s books provide context to understand the state of mind of the modern consumer, and the struggle that underlies their predilection to buy more than they can afford, and not to rebel against an economic system that is stacked against them. And Rebel Sell explains back to consumers their own behaviour. PS: I reserve the right to add George Lakoff’s latest book Don’t Think of an Elephant, to this list, once I’ve finished reading it.

The S+B list doesn’t include any titles on entrepreneurship. Not surprising, considering how few books on the subject were released this year.

Dave’s Picks: Natural Capitalism, by Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins et al (download it free here, or buy it if you can afford it for your library). They take a high-level, compelling look at how six industries could be reinvented by learning from nature and using entrepreneurial principles. But it’s not really a ‘how to’ book, something that aspiring entrepreneurs could act upon right now. My book, Natural Enterprise, meets the need for a current how-to handbook on starting your own business without selling your soul, but alas, I still can’t find a publisher for it. PS: I’m still reading Authentic, by Neil Crofts, which I may add to this list.

Finance and Investing:
No nominees in this category on the S+B list this year either. Investment advice is a precarious career these days, with the huge volatility of the markets and memory of recent bubbles still fresh in people’s minds. Lots of books written in this category, as always, but no standouts.

Dave’s Pick: None. You don’t need a book to realize that the economy is heading for a wall, and it’s time to take cover: Pay off debts, reduce spending, get out of US-dollar denominated investments. If you still don’t understand this, there are dozens of books that will explain it to you. Running on Empty, by former Fed Chairman Peter Peterson, is a good one to get you up to speed.

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  1. mscandide says:

    Who’s turned down Natural Enterprise so far? Have you tried NAB (North Atlantic Books)? New Society Publishers? Perennial? Chelsea Green?

  2. Don Dwiggins says:

    My own pick of the year in the “Management, People and Productivity” and “Governance” categories, would be a book that doesn’t qualify, having been published in 1995: “Mary Parker Follett — Prophet of Management”, edited by Pauline Graham. (It’s “of the year” in that I’m reading it this year. 8^)What a tremendous thinker this lady was! (And a doer as well, attracted to practical application as well as theory.) And what a shame that her ideas are still only known in a relatively small circle. Fortunately, much of her work is available from the Mary Parker Follett Foundation website ( Probably a good place to start is her essay “Community is a Process” at

  3. Dan says:

    Dave:I’m glad SOMEBODY out there is checking out what being written. I pretty gave up some time ago (should I admit this?) for many of the reasons you mentioned. As a leadership consultant and author, I’d enjoy your feedback on my blog postings — I just got started. Thanks for stopping by when you can.Dan

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