Saturday, July 14, 2007

Business Books: Artificial Simplicity Perfected

“The World’s #1 book on change!”
-- Who Moved My Cheese? Website

I usually get an hour or two to read something interesting on Saturday and so it’s usually about now (Saturday evening) that I’m struck again by how stupid, redundant and generally empty of content most business books are.

When I try to read them—and I do try, drawn on by a mixture of hope and anxiety that I might be missing something—I get a little dizzy. There is so little content, so many bullet points with so much space between them that it feels like I’m free-falling through the pages, reaching out desperately that for any evidence (a provocative thought, a well-crafted sentence, a fresh perspective) of a sharp mind engaged with a worthy subject. And make no mistake, I think business is more than a worthy subject. It’s one of the reason I find business books so depressing. They are so inadequate to the task of enlightening or instructing.

I had a relatively tense conversation with my old boss on the subject; I disparaged some book (perhaps the one cited above, perhaps a heroic bio of a business leader) as a half-baked collection of familiar slogans that could have and probably was written by a software program that simply reformatted prose from past business books. He made the claim that this book was important because it “captured the spirit of the time,” which meant that other powerful men that he admired were reading it.

But he was right of course. The importance of a book does partially reside in its ability to attract and inspire an contemporary audience. Being the world’s #1 book on change is no joke. People must be having a positive experience or some kind. My best guess is that these books are inspirational. More like going to a rousing speech than immersing oneself in strong imagination or critical mind. But I’m not sure. Curious what others think.

Even writers of business books sometimes seem a little embarrassed by the company they keep. John Butman, the author or co-author of several well-respected books on consumer behavior, including Trading Up and Treasure Hunt, has recently written a satire of business books called The Book That’s Sweeping America which sounds like it’s on target.

But there are exceptions: Doug Holt’s book on cultural branding How Brands Become Icons is a serious attempt to explain how certain brands have managed to sustain their power over time. I like a lot about it, not least that it recognizes that a brand’s power is dependent on it’s cultural context, a fact that seems to go unnoticed in most branding books that focus on Essences and Brand DNA. But even more pleasing, to a methodological snob like me, is that it actually has a theoretical method, detailed in its appendix, which it tests by comparing itself to other methods. When he explains why, he sounds a lot like Martin describing how successful leaders think, the post I started with:

“Academic theory building is based on systematic skepticism. A researcher challenges conclusions with data until the theory proves that it can handle all comers. Rather than selling a favored theory, he or she seeks out strong challengers and subjects these theories to an empirical test with sufficiently detailed data. The best theory wins.”

Who can argue with that?

1 comment:

cris.aboobaker said...

The problem with business books is business is an activity not a subject matter - the subjects are economics, psychology, sociology, organizational behavior...etc. Yes, I can't stand that mouse book either but I guess there's no accounting for tastes