|My 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:
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.
Innovation and Technology:
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:
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.
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:
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.