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.