Business literature

Lately I’ve read several writers critical of popular business books. One oft-repeated criticism is that some of the companies featured in Good to Great aren’t doing so great and therefore the book was wrong.

I’ve never looked at business books this way. I see them as literature. They have stories that may provoke your thinking, but they’re not providing scientific laws. I wouldn’t say Good to Great was “wrong” any more than I’d say To Kill a Mockingbird was “wrong.”

The difference, of course, is that novels don’t aspire to an aura of scientific certainty while business books do. Business books often presume to offer universal laws when they only offer anecdotes. That doesn’t mean these books are not valuable. Anecdotes can be quite valuable. However, the value of an anecdote lies not in what it literally conveys but in the thoughts it stirs in your mind.

Business authors sometimes analyze reams of data. I wish they wouldn’t bother. I prefer business writers who don’t pretend to be scientific. “Here’s what I think. Here’s a story that illustrates my point. Your mileage may vary.”

If someone does produce a high-quality study of some class of companies at some point in time, the study is still an anecdote to a reader in different circumstances. A statistically rigorous study of Fortune 500 companies is not directly applicable to someone running a taco stand. It may not even be directly applicable to someone running a Fortune 500 company a few years later.

The taco stand owner may get as much insight from someone’s memoir of running a single large company as from a rigorous study of hundreds of large companies. (He may also get valuable insight from To Kill a Mockingbird.)

P.S. Although I’m saying business books are like literature, I must add that I hate business parables. The ones I’ve read are just terrible. No one would ever read one of these books for its literary merit, and when you strip away the campy prose there isn’t much content left.

9 thoughts on “Business literature

  1. This is insightful, and I agree. A good example is Douglas Rushkoff. Great books. No science.

    He builds entire theories that may or may not be true. It is not very important. A colleague of mine who teaches business was obviously looking down at me for admitting my interest for Rushkoff.

    For example, Rushkoff thinks that corporations are fundamentally immoral. He tries to argue his point… but there isn’t a hint of philosophy or true economics in there.

    The important point is that when I’m reading Rushkoff, I’m not counting the hours as “working hours”. It is leisure time.

    Disclaimer: I have no relationship with Rushkoff, I’m just taking him as an example. This is not an ad in disguise.

  2. I don’t mind when business tries to use stats. It’s probably a little bit like how your mechanic doesn’t mind when you try to fix your car, or DeWalt doesn’t mind when you buy a power tool you’ll never have a need for.

    I don’t mind the occasional negative report of how stats is improperly used.

    On the other side of the coin, however, leaders probably do mind when statisticians try to make decisions in the vacuum of scientific space completely unaware of the realities of the surrounding environment.

    I think there is a happy place somewhere in the middle. In fact, I could probably spend a bit of time demonstrating a model where the happy place exists with a probability of 1. Or I could conduct a survey and report a very wide, very low confidence interval of people who think the happy place exists. Or…

    Perhaps we (the number crunchers) would be better suited to equipping leaders with the fundamental analytical tools of mathematics they need to multiply their leadership, to energize their teams and enterprises, to generate the atomic motion (and heat) needed to sustain fusion like reactions that transform ideas into something useful.

    Perhaps we (the leaders) could engage in a relationship with the mathematicians, statisticians, and analysts so that they see our vision and can interpret that data in to help us steer the ship to arrive at the intended destination.

  3. Mark, I really like your phrase “the vacuum of scientific space unaware of the realities of the surrounding environment.” I’m certainly not one of those folks who say “Just give us the numbers and get out of our way.”

    For example, a decade ago there was a common attitude that computer scientists and statisticians could take over biology. Now that we’ve digitized the problem, all we need biologists for is to sequence DNA. That has proven to be extremely naive.

  4. I didn’t think you were, John, based on reading your blog for sometime now. I just see a lot of “us versus them” in the mainstream media.

    What I also see is a great deal of ignorance on both sides of the fence about who is on the other side and what they can do. I do feel like I have a unique perspective from a perch on (or near) the fence.

    But I also see tremendous potential! I see processes that could be improved tremendously with elementary statistical tools, business leaders and aerospace engineers who would love to have a statistician on their team.

    I have always felt that we could accomplish much more (as leaders and number crunchers) if we use the momentum to our advantage…like slinging an Apollo capsule around the moon to accelerate it back towards earth.

  5. I liked the first book of Edelman’s Infoquake (cyberpunk biz parable) enough to order the next two books. But I often like the entrepeneur-scientist-hacker kind of book, so take this with a grain of salt.

  6. human mathematics

    Lots of non-fiction pretends at “an aura of scientific certainty”. I’m thinking in particular of news magazines, which are technically Entertainment, but try to come off as informative (explaining the financial crisis, for example).

    Janet Tavakoli made a damning comment about Michael Lewis when The Big Short came out: Lewis is merely a skilled writer, who has no clue what’s going on. (Unfortunately [a] he must adopt an air of certainty to sell print, and [b] people read a long article or 220-page book from the airport rather than a monograph. So the skilled writers sway public opinion, rather than the experts.)

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