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David Hurst delivers multimedia presentations and a range of customized experiences that will inform and inspire your people and help them learn from the past, master the moment and create the future.
It’s easy to be critical of business books. What had been a dull cottage industry until the publication of Tom Peters; and Bob Waterman’s In Search of Excellence (1982) became an exuberant enterprise that churns out a vast number of products in many subcategories. Business books, in other words, have become a big business. The motives and abilities of the writers who toil in these segments — self- help, how-to, CEO biographies, corporate narratives, big-picture panoramas, focused functional pieces, to name a few— are as widely varied as the categories themselves. Serious research-based, academic efforts, sometimes well written but often full of impenetrable jargon, share shelf space with ghostwritten executive vanity puffs: sweet confections designed to buff images. There is a steady deluge of books from consultants, for whom business books are, at a minimum, thick business cards and essential to establishing their credentials.
As is the case with every genre, a few of these books are fantastic, some are good, and many are, alas, quite bad. At times, business books can read like expanded articles, bloated blogs, or padded PowerPoint presentations. Many writers assume that success implies capability and we can all become successful simply by studying success. The evidence for this is equivocal at best and riddled with attribution bias (our tendency to take credit for our successes while blaming failures on factors beyond our control). Much business writing poses an even subtler problem: a failure or perhaps a reluctance to recognize that while the “whats” in business — desirable outcomes — are generic, the “hows” are particular, specific to each and every organization. It’s true, for example, that an enterprise’s strategy and organization must be “aligned,” but what that means and how to do it in this organization, with our people, right here, right now is much less obvious. Organizations are complex systems, in which cause-and-effect is nonlinear, path-dependent (history matters), and often unknowable in prospect. Deciding what to do (or not do), and how and when to do (or not do) “it,” is a matter of judgment and experience, as managers try to accomplish short-term objectives while keeping their longer run options open. As a result, consumers of business books that offer simplistic checklist-driven solutions run the risk of being trapped between one-off stories that cannot be replicated and universal principles that cannot be practiced because they are too abstract.
If they can’t tell us what to do, how can business books help in such a world? And how, in the age of 140-character tweets, disappearing SnapChat texts, and highly attenuated attention spans, can we justify spending hours, or a whole day, engaging with a 400-page volume? As a professional consumer (over the years, I have reviewed nearly 150 books for s+b), producer (I’ve written three myself), and avid fan, I can think of three principal reasons.
“There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today…” remarked Vice Admiral David Beatty to his Flag Captain. Beatty was commander of the Battle Cruiser Fleet at Jutland, and his cool comment belied the scale of the catastrophe. It was 4.26 pm on May 31, 1916 and from the upper bridge of the battle-cruiser Lion he had just seen her sister ship, Queen Mary, disappear in a shattering blast as both main magazines exploded. Twenty minutes earlier another battle-cruiser, the Indefatigable, had vanished in a sheet of smoke and flame and, although Beatty did not know it at the time, the Lion herself had narrowly missed a similar fate only by flooding her Q turret magazine with sea water.
At the Battle of Jutland, the greatest sea battle of all time, the British Navy would lose three battle-cruisers carrying over three thousand men in less than three hours. It was not bad luck, it was bad management: the result of the Navy’s inability to manage a complex system from design through to execution. For the roots of the disaster lay in the design of the ships over a decade earlier. Thus the problem was systemic and Beatty’s puzzled comment represents one of the more dramatic instances of the bewildered reaction of a CEO to symptoms of systemic problems in the field.
In Landmarks of Tomorrow (1959) Peter Drucker wrote “We still profess and we still teach the world-view of the past three hundred years… a Cartesian world-view.” It is a world-view redefined by Lord Kelvin (1824-1907): “… when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.” Everyone in management knows it as “If you can’t measure, you can’t manage it”, an aphorism often incorrectly attributed to Drucker. Given his attitude toward Kelvin’s world-view, he would never have said anything like that.
The Cartesian world-view assumes that the whole is equal to the sum of its parts. It is a static, mechanical world, where all causality is linear. Inertia is the norm, conscious, deliberate thought is the only valid form of inquiry and science is the only valid form of knowledge. Drucker wrote, however, that a new world-view was emerging: “Underlying the new concepts of modern physics is a unifying idea of order. It is not causality, though, but purpose….The new world-view, in addition, assumes process. Every single one of these concepts embodies in it the idea of growth, development, rhythm, or becoming. These are all irreversible processes…” Later he contends, “We need…a strict discipline of qualitative and irrevocable changes such as development, growth or decay. We need rigorous methods for anticipation of such changes. We need a discipline that explains events and phenomena in terms of their direction and future state rather than in terms of cause – a calculus of potential, you might say, rather than one of probability. We need a philosophy of purpose, a logic of quality and ways to measure qualitative change. We need a methodology of potential and opportunity, of turning points and critical factors, of risk and uncertainty, constant and timing, “jump” and continuity. We need a dialectic of polarity in which unity and diversity are defined as simultaneous and necessary poles of the same essence.” (my emphasis)
I am now publishing my blogs both here and on LinkedIn. In this case this article is already on the site (in Latest News About the Book), so just the link is here. It’s an article I wrote last year for Leading & Change, an online magazine: Cultivating Organizations: The Background to The New Ecology of Leadership
The story of Inky the octopus made headlines around the world this past week. In case you have been in Outer Mongolia (without the internet) Inky was a male common octopus on exhibit in New Zealand’s National Aquarium on the east coast of the North Island. One day his keepers noticed that he had disappeared. No one saw him go but they could follow his trail. He had squeezed through a small gap in the lid of his tank, slithered across the floor and disappeared down a narrow 50-metre long pipe that led to the sea. Inky was the size of a rugby ball but, like all octopi, he could get through holes the size of coins (the only limit is the size of an octopus’ beak, which can’t be shrunk).
As I was reading the story I was reminded of the ecological relationship between scale and opportunity. Inky was looking at his environment for tiny escape routes. As a result his world was full of potential to be explored. Larger scale creatures might not see these opportunities at all. We see this phenomenon everywhere in the history of innovation. While Xerox was developing its first commercial plain paper copier, the 914, it was desperately short of cash and other resources. It explored licensing the technology to IBM, who turned to Arthur D. Little, the well-known technology consultants, to get their opinion. Little surveyed potential owners of the machine. It was complex to use, could produce one copy every 26 seconds and had a tendency to set the paper alight. Every machine came with a built-in “scorch eliminator” (fire extinguisher). There is no doubt, however that everyone was put off by its size. The 914 was a large cube, roughly four feet square, and weighed an astonishing 650 pounds! It needed a separate room to house it. After a year of study the technologists dismissed the machine as being far too cumbersome and expensive. They concluded that there would never be a market for more than a few thousand of them. IBM rejected Xerox’ overtures and the rest is history. The 914 went on to be a colossal success and Xerox eventually placed (the machine was leased on a per copy charge) more than 600,000 of them.