Monday, August 16, 2021

The seven dysfunctionalities of management books

The problems with popular management books

Over the years, I've read many management books ranging from the excellent to the terrible. I've noticed several dysfunctionalities that creep into even some of the best books. I'm going to list them out in what I think is their order of importance. See what you think.

The seven dysfunctionalities

My idea is worth 30 pages, I'll write 300

With few exceptions, most books fall into this trap. The author could express their ideas in a few pages and provide supporting evidence that would fill a few pages more. Of course, the economics of books means they can't. There's no market and no money in a 30 page pamphlet (when was the last time you paid $20 for 30 pages?) but there's a huge market for books. The logic is clear: spin out your idea to book-length and make some money.

This is a little odd for two reasons:

  • Business writing emphasizes brevity and getting to the point quickly - neither of which management books usually do.
  • No one has disrupted the market. Maybe our business culture and market economics means disruption is impossible?

What I say is important, I worked with important people at important companies

This is a relatively new dysfunction. The author claims their work is important, not because of its widespread adoption, or because many people had success with it, but because they held senior positions at well-known companies in Silicon Valley. Usually, these books have lots of stories of famous people, some of which offer insight and some of which don't. In a few cases, the storytelling degenerates into name-dropping.

My evidence will be stories or bad data

The plural of anecdote is not data. Why should I believe your experience generalizes to me? Storytelling is important, but it doesn't amount to a coherent management framework. According to the esteemed Karl Popper, science is about making falsifiable statements - what falsifiable statements do stories make?

The other form of dysfunctional evidence is bad data. The problems here are usually regression to the mean, small samples sizes, or a misunderstanding of statistics. There are examples of management gurus developing theories of winning companies but whose theories were proved wrong almost as soon as the ink was dry on their books. This might be why newer books focus on storytelling instead.

I'll write a worse sequel and then an even worse sequel to that

Even the best authors fall prey to this trap. They publish a best-selling book and the temptation is there to write a sequel. The second book is usually so-so, but might sell well. So they write a third book which is even worse, and so on.

I'll create new words for old ideas

Here the author rediscovers psychology or sociology that's been known for decades. Sometimes, they'll admit it and provide a new twist on old ideas; but sometimes it's just known ideas repackaged. In any case, the author usually creates a trendy buzzy phrase for their idea, preferably one they can trademark for their consultancy practice.

I'll talk about my time in the military

The military does have some very interesting things to teach managers. Unfortunately, most of the military books for business management focus on events without providing much in the way of context for what happened and why. When they explain how it can be used in a civilian setting, it feels clunky and unconvincing. These military books also tend to focus on successes and brush over failures (if they mention any at all). This is sad because I've read some really great older military management books that have something to offer today's managers.

I'll push my consulting company

This is the original sin and the cause of many of the other sins. After the success of their book, the author forms a consultancy company. They create a 2nd edition that includes cherry-picked success stories from their consulting company, or maybe they write a second book with anecdotes from their consulting work. The book then becomes a 'subtle' promo for their consulting work.

Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater

I'm not saying that popular business management books have no value, I'm saying very few of them will have value in ten years' time when the hype has passed. Think back to the business books published ten or twenty years ago. How many stand up now? 

Despite the faddish nature of the genre, most business management books have the core of some good ideas, you just have to wade through the nonsense to get there.

What should you do?

Every manager needs a framework for decision-making. My suggestion is to get that framework from training and courses and not popular business books. Use quotes to get some extra insight. Management business books are useful for a refresher of core ideas, even if you have to wade through 300 pages instead of 30. If nothing else, the popular books are a handy guide to what your peers are reading now.

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