Sunday, June 12, 2011

7 Vastly Overrated Business Books

Most business books are awful, some are mediocre and a (very) few are truly useful. And then there are business books that aren't exactly dreadful, but have reputations that have been bloated way out of proportion.

You see them on corporate shelves everywhere and they're cited at meetings, conferences and seminars, but when you dig a little deeper, and think about their contents, you're forced to wonder WTF the fuss is all about.

This post identifies some highly popular business books which, in my view, are absurdly overrated. I'm sure there are many true believers out there who will disagree, but I can't help but wonder whether somebody hasn't been drinking some Kool-aid by the gallon.

7 Vastly Overrated Business Books
  1. The One Minute Manager
  2. Jack Welch: Winning
  3. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
  4. Atlas Shrugged
  5. The Wealth of Nations
  6. The Art of War
  7. Who Moved My Cheese
1) The One Minute Manager


: Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson
Reviewed by: Geoffrey James

This book espouses the popular viewpoint that management is mostly a matter of common sense: specific goals, specific praising and and specific reprimands (as a comment below succinctly puts it.)

However, when people think common sense are sufficient for a particular task, they tend not to pay much attention to it, assuming that common sense alone will get them through. In fact, management is a collection of highly-specialized skills including applied psychology, coaching, business acumen, and system analysis, not to mention an increasing amount of knowledge of computer technology, law and even international relations.

There is no panacea for good management, and it's certainly not going to be contained in a book that essentially treats management as being easy-peasy. The belief in common sense as a panacea is always the result of mental laziness. It's wrongly assumed that a person with "common sense" will make good decisions, while people with real expertise will act like impractical egg-heads. That's BS.

The result of the "management is just common sense" movement has been nothing less than a rampant epidemic of bad management. What happens inside most companies (especially at the middle management level) is that the same problems keep coming up month after month, year after year, because managers are relying upon "common sense" to fix them. It just doesn't work.

2) Jack Welch: Winning


Jack Welsh and a Trophy Wife
Reviewed by: Geoffrey James

Back in the day, leaders waited until some kind of independent biographer decided that their accomplishments were worthy of being immortalized in a book. Today, however, business leaders seem obligated to write self-congratulatory paeans that give new meaning to the word "vomitable."

What's even more annoying about this book (and indeed the entire genre) is that it reflects the diseased notion of the "heroic CEO" who singlehandedly causes a company to be successful. Funny, but I thought that good managers were supposed to give credit to the team, not plaster their face on a book.

The kind of thinking reflected in this book is exactly what results in obscene pay packages for CEOs. Indeed, Jack Welch was no welcher when it came to awarding himself a panoply of perks. Meanwhile, his vaunted business strategies consisted primarily of downsizing and outsourcing, regardless of the impact that it had on society at large. As for his legacy, he's left a company where the senior management is evidently proud that the firm, due to lobbying and influence-peddling, didn't pay any taxes.

It's amazing to me that anybody takes this kind of self-interested hype seriously, but there's no lack of imitators. One wonders when business readers will finally conclude that enough is enough...

3) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People


Stephen R. Covey
Reviewed by: Geoffrey James

The problem with Covey is that he alternates between the painfully sanctimonious and the painfully obvious. In this famous tome, he lays out a recipe for mediocrity, particularly inside any job that requires creative thinking or the setting aside of pre-conceived notions.

The first three habits ("Be Proactive", "Begin with the End in Mind", and "Put First Things First") are based upon the assumption that you know where you're going before you start on a journey. However, successful engineers, writers, artists and entrepreneurs often have only a very vague notion why they're pursuing a particular line of thought or where it might eventually lead them.
Of the second three habits ("Think Win-Win", "Seek First to Understand, then to be Understood", and "Synergize"), the first is insuffably trite while the third is simply so much biz-blab. This isn't to say that they're bad ideas, but they're certainly neither original nor particularly enlightening.

The seventh habit ("Sharpen the Saw") is an obvious bow to the concept of the Sabbath, adding a religious flavor to what already reads like a "how to" addendum to the Book of Mormon. Not that there's anything gawd-awful about that; it's just that Covey's magnum opus ain't the collection of timeless wisdom that it's sometimes made out to be.

4) Atlas Shrugged

Author: Ayn Rand
Reviewed by: Geoffrey James

As a novel, Atlas Shrugged isn't overrated, since most literary critics consider it one of the worst-written novels of all time. However, the book is highly influential in the executive suite because it espouses a philosophy of business that justifies the status quo and encourages executives to feel self-righteous... even when they're royally screwing the public or their employees.

Essentially Rand's business philosophy is that the generation of wealth is, by itself, a positive and moral act simply because it creates jobs. What Rand completely misses is that corporations are natural sociopaths that can, must and will take advantage of society at large if not restrained by laws and regulations. (For a more thorough debunking of her philosophy see Top 10 Reasons Ayn Rand Was Dead Wrong.)

Rand's writings have become a conduit through which some of the ugliest aspects of American culture have gained a modicum of philosophical legitimacy. Randites, like Rand, often seem to espouse the worst sort of social Darwinism, such as considering poor people to ge lazy moochers who are genetically inferior to their betters in the corner office.

The one thing that's not overrated in this book is its ability to transform character -- for the worse. The best example I've seen of this recently is an article about Bill Gates on the Rand Institute website. Here's a quote:

There is a grave injustice being committed with respect to the praise Bill Gates is receiving for his decision to give away his $100 billion fortune during his lifetime. Gates does not deserve moral credit for giving away his wealth--but for having produced it in the first place.

In other words, helping hundreds of millions of people to avoid malaria (one of Gates's many achievements) is less important than creating a company which, if it hadn't existed, would no doubt have been replaced by another, virtually identical firm. In short, Atlas Shrugged is overrated because, rather than providing a real perspective into the nature of business, it simply turns clueless readers into heartless ones.

5) Who Moved My Cheese

Spencer Johnson
Reviewed by: Geoffrey James

The ads for this book tout it as an "instant classic" and say that it's been "hailed by people in leading organizations, including..." followed by a list of Fortune 500 firms. That alone should tell you something, since there probably isn't a book on the planet that hasn't been "hailed" by somebody, somewhere, inside companies that employ hundreds of thousands of people.

The idea behind this book -- that you can't assume that what you're doing today will get the same rewards tomorrow -- is sufficiently obvious to encapsulate in a single sentence. What's offensive about the idea is that it blames employees for not "getting" this concept, as if it should be their responsibility for resetting their goals and rewards.

It seems a little odd, doesn't it, that companies pay top executives hundreds of times more than the workers they supposedly manage, without expecting those managers to provide leadership on basic issues like "where are we headed?" and "what's the reward when we get there?"
Rather than providing advice on how to navigate the conflicting demands of working in the corporate world, this book simply castigates readers for being stupid enough for believing in their managers. And that, frankly, is not very helpful.

6) The Art of War


Author: Sun Tzu
Reviewed by: Geoffrey James

This book is NOT overrated if you're planning on play "Shogun: Total War" or any other computer or board game that simulates medieval warfare. However, as a guide to business behavior, it's seriously flawed for three reasons.

First, business is NOT warfare. The two activities are very different. Competitors are not enemies that you're trying to kill; customers aren't territory that you're trying to conquer. Business is all about creating relationships and bears more resemblance (frankly) to gardening than to warfare.

Second, the advice in the book isn't even all that good when it comes to warfare. Chinese armies in ancient times were composed of the dregs of society and tended to be brittle, making combat very chancy. As a result, Sun Tzu has his generals expend vast amounts of energy of effort avoiding decisive action -- a recipe for stalemate.

Third, the combination of the two previous reasons makes for some very bad business strategy. If the last 30 years has taught us anything, it's that overwhelmingly large companies are NOT necessarily going to win the day and that spending long amounts of time and effort on positioning and manuevering is a go-out-of-business strategy.

7) The Wealth of Nations


Adam Smith
Reviewed by: Geoffrey James

While there's no question this book has been influential, it suffers from being treated as scripture rather than a thoughtful work that reflected the state of business and government in the mid-18th century. This limitation is particularly clear when Smith's work is cited in defense of a free market economy in the 21st century, nearly 250 years after the book was originally written.

When Smith wrote, commerce was largely conducted though the transfer of physical goods on wooden ships. He could not possibly have envisioned the multinational corporation any more than he could have envisioned the computer, telecommunications, the derivatives market, or any number of other developments that have changed the nature of the business world.

At the same time, the government about which Smith was writing consisted almost exclusively of hereditary monarchies or (in the case of England) a heretitary monarchy with a parliament, one house of which was hereditary and the other house of which consisted largely of captive seats. Smith could not possibly have envisioned today's democratic governments which behave much like markets themselves.

In short, that was then and this is now. Even so, businessfolk and politicians alike continue to treat his work as if it were a definitive recipe for national prosperity, forever and ever, Amen.
The weakness of Smith's arguments, when applied to modern times, is particularly clear when you examine the relative performance of the economy of the U.S.A. versus that of China, where Adam Smith is not treated as if he were the second coming of Moses.

China gives lip service to free trade, then quietly jiggers laws and regulations to give Chinese companies the competitive advantage both domestically and abroad. The U.S.A., by contrast, encourages the exporting of jobs and deregulates its financial markets, resulting in, well, exactly what you see today.

Maybe it's time to look at what actually works in the real world, rather than hearkening back to ideas conceived at a time when nobody (not even the King) had indoor plumbing.


About the Reviewer: Geoffrey James has sold and written hundreds of features, articles and columns for national publications including Wired, Men's Health, Business 2.0, SellingPower, Brand World, Computer Gaming World, CIO, The New York Times and (of course) BNET. He is the author of seven books, including Business Wisdom of the Electronic Elite (translated into seven languages and selected by four book clubs), and The Tao of Programming (widely quoted on the Web as a "canonical book of computer humor".)

Thanks to Geoffrey James / BNet / CBS Interactive

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