Monday, June 16, 2008

It's time to rethink the business book

I've just started a new business book (x-teams by Deborah Ancona and Henrik Bresman) and, sadly, I've got to give it a big thumbs down.

I'm really disappointed. I heard Deborah speak at a conference a few weeks ago. I thought she was a very engaging speaker and her topic (same topic as the book) is very relevant to me right now. I was so interested that I bought the book at the conference and was very excited to read it.

But this book is pure torture. Now before I explain, let me just say that I still believe there is a valuable lesson in this book. So I am going to continue reading it till the end. But in the process I'm going to get even angrier at the authors and Harvard Business School Press for forcing me to go through this just to extract what I need.

So here's the deal:

This book is very repetitive
It says the same thing over and over and over again. I mean that it says something once and then says it again. And again. It's redundant. It repeats itself. You're getting annoyed aren't you. Well this book is like that on every page.

I've read 60 pages of this book and I feel like I got one page worth of value. I understand that a small degree of repetition in a book may be warranted. But this goes way beyond that. It feels to me as if the authors are getting paid by the page. Or that they read a canned "how to write a business book" book which told them that repetition is very good because you need a very simple message and the human brain learns better with repetition, etc.

Someone has got to stop this madness. Perhaps business books should be rated by the public based on the number of new insights they offer per page. And let us all agree that we will pay more for books that have a higher insight:page ratio. After all, my time is valuable. (Well it is to me anyway.) And if you can give me the benefit of your brilliance (and please have some if you're writing a book) in 5 minutes vs. 50 then I value that more.

Honestly, why do we really need business books? Most of them have a pamphlet's worth of value. The rest is fluff, nonsense or repetition. But what's wrong with a pamphlet? Somehow, people's egos get a bigger boost if they write a book than if they write an article. But why? A powerful idea can usually be expressed in a sentence. So write a bit more and you have a pamphlet. It will take me just a few minutes to read and I'll be blown away because in just a few words you will have enlightened me.

This book sets up a straw man which it then proceeds to knock down. Again and again and again (see point #1 above)
This is the formula for a business book. Lay out the "old" way of thinking in some area. And explain why the dynamic world has made that obsolete. Then show how your way is so much better. Maybe it takes so many pages because the new way is usually not that different from the old way and after 200 pages I can no longer tell the difference. Maybe authors are hoping we'll just figure we were too dumb to get it.

This book sets up a straw man showing how the old way of thinking about teams no longer works. Apparently the old way was for teams to be very internally focused and not that aware that they need to listen to the customer. The new way is for teams to add external focus with fluid membership and processes for reaching across silos... I would have been very excited by this book a few decades ago. But this book was published in 2007. And the old way they describe seems pretty old to me. So old that I have never seen it. The new way seems to describe fairly well the way I have been working since I joined the workforce.

I still think there's value in this book. But I'm 60 pages into a 240 page book and I have seen nothing that is really earth-shakingly new.

So why can't publishers just drop this ridiculous formula? It's OK that this book doesn't have a radically new idea (at least not in the first 60 pages). I get the sense that they have some tools for creating and managing effective innovation teams and I'm looking forward to getting to that part of the book. That's useful. I would much rather they just started off by saying that they're not here to offer a new paradigm but just to help me better execute within the current one. Of course that book wouldn't get published. It's not new enough. Imagine if cookbooks were the same. Imagine no cookbook could ever get published if it used an ingredient or technique that had already been published in another cookbook. Damn! I was really starting to enjoy braising...

One book that illustrates this point for me is the new Johnny Bunko book by Dan Pink ( There is not a single original idea in that book. But I enjoyed it a lot. It was a good reminder of some things I already knew and it presented the ideas in a compelling format. Plus, it took only 20 minutes of my time. I recommended this book to others and even bought 5 copies for my team.

There are very few new ideas. Aristotle already got to most of them. But that's OK. There is still plenty of need for explanation, tools, reminders...

So hopefully, we can start to see more varied forms of business publishing. Let loose the pamphlets!

BTW, did I mention the book is repetitive?

1 comment:

Jer979 said...

by far your best post ever!!!

I would challenge you to put down the book. Most business books are really articles that people think "hey, I could write a book" and then do, even though the idea can be summarized quickly.

Your time is too valuable to waste on a no value scenario. You've got the idea, put it down now.

BTW, I think you may have come up with an extension for Amazon's business model. A digg/wikinomics-esque approach (a good blog, fyi) to setting the price.