Problems with Management and Business Books

We really need to change how we improve the practice of management. Far too often management strategies are just the latest fad from some new book that successfully marketed an idea. The marketing effectiveness of a book, or consultant, has very limited correlation to their ability to improve management, in my experience. It is often true that they make very good keynote speakers, however. So if you want an entertaining keynote speaker looking at the authors of the best selling business books may make sense. But if you want to improve management, I don’t see much value in doing so.

Year after year we have the same basic business books repackaged and marketed. They present a magic bullet to solve all your problems. Except their bullet is far from magic. Usually it does more harm than good.

They amazingly oversimplify things to make their bullet seem magic. This also fails miserably in practice. There are usually not good management options that are simple and easy. Usually the answers for what should be done is a lot of “it depends,” which people don’t seem to like.

Authors fail to place their book (or their trademarked strategy they hope turns into a movement/fad) in the appropriate context. Most books just take a few good ideas from decades old practices add a new name and leave off all references to the deep meaning that originally was there. I guess quite often the authors don’t even know enough about management history to know this is the case; I guess they really think their minor tweak to a portion of business process re-engineering is actually new. This also would make it hard for them to place their ideas within a management philosophy.

On a related note, I find it interesting how different the lean manufacturing and six sigma communities are online (and this has been going on for more than a decade). One of the problems with six sigma is there is so little open, building on the practices of six sigma. Everyone is so concerned with their marketing gimmick for six sigma that that don’t move forward a common body of work. This is a serious problem for six sigma. Lean manufacturing benefits hugely from the huge community of those building openly on the body of knowledge and practice of lean. You can find 10 great lean manufacturing blogs without trouble. You will have difficulty finding 3 good six sigma blogs (and even those spend most of the time on other areas – often lean thinking).

Books would be much better off building on existing management thought, for example: lean manufacturing, Deming, six sigma or agile software development. Their are huge benefits to be made by doing this. All of those have room for plenty of others to contribute.

Yes, I believe the benefit to managers will be from those participating with a community instead of trying to stake their claim to new land. But frankly for every one book that actually provides new ideas (say Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma) we have many years of not a single book that attempts to be the new new thing that is of any value. Thankfully in the last few years there have been quite a few great books building on lean thinking.

If you are an author, please build on some of these strong management philosophies. I know your marketers want you to differentiate yourself. I know it is hard to actually build up your knowledge of some long practiced management philosophy. It is easier to find the latest boom and write (and market) how this new idea is the key that changes everything. But it is harming the practice of management that so much effort is put into marketing the new new thing and so little into actually improving the practice of management.

Also, if you are writing an article, don’t do it for a closed journal – publish openly.

Related: Management Advice Failuressix sigma booksDeming and Six Sigma

12 thoughts on “Problems with Management and Business Books

  1. I agree with the information you have raised here, we don’t pledge a magic bullet. It takes work to accomplish your management improvement goals, and our number one selling book that we sell is still the 7 management and planning tools and the 7 quality control tools (Memory Jogger 2) sometimes we do repackage the tools for different industries, but it is how to use the tried and tested tools in those industires that is important. My dad Bob King, went over to Japan in the 1980’s to learn the tools and bring them back to the United States and translate them into English. This is the basis of what we do now.

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  2. John –
    You are dead on. The lean community does a great job of building on the past and improving. Kind of putting into practice what lean is about. I think it would be very interesting to see this with books. How do authors of different lean books collaborate to build something even better? Great stuff to think about.

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  3. I’m appalled at the quality of the editing of business books coming out these days, particularly some about lean and quality. It makes me think publishers are cutting editorial cycles thinking that makes them more “lean.” I see too many where I wonder if a developmental or substantive editor should have suggested reorganization, queried passages that could confuse the reader, questioning overuse of jargon, or suggesting deletions of material not critical to the point of the book. Copyeditors often seem to lack an understanding of key technical vocabularies and allow synonyms or misusued words to get through their screen. They seem to be satisfied that the general flow of words is grammatical and sort of smooth.

    The editorial teams do not see themselves as standing in the place of the customer – the reader – and ensuring that the product fits their needs for conciseness and sense.

    Technical, lean and quality practitioners have specialized experience of great value. That doesn’t mean they are great writers. We should not expect that. The job of the publisher and editor is to help the author produce a book that casts their knowledge into clear and useful tools that others can absorb readily and put to use.

    A dilemma is that the market for such books is a niche. In order to pay a proper salary or fee to an expert editor, the publication costs go up – we should all be aware of what it takes to pay people to develop a product. With a smaller audience, a book may cost more than a business book written for a giant audience. It’s really not the paper, printing, and binding that drives cost. It’s thinking work.

    There’s no easy answer for the publisher, but just cutting out expert editors isn’t the right way to go.

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  4. Totally agree, John. I’d I’d add that too often people write a book when they should have written a monograph. Maybe Amazon’s “singles” will provide an economic model whereby a guy with some good thinking will not have to fluff it up in order to profit from it.

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  5. Fernando J. Grijalva

    Rob, I am glad to hear that a new generation is working at GOAL/QPC. I attended a course in 7MP tools and a course in Policy Deployment with Michael and “Cha” Nakui in the early 90s. One of the best investments I made. Good memories of Methuen.

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  6. John,

    Very thoughtful post. I agree with your points, especially that of “context.” From a lean perspective, everything is part of a holistic system (and culture). This is the context. There are no/can be no magic bullets within a holistic reality.

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  8. The problem is that promising a “magic bullet” sells a lot more books than hard truth. I think in many ways this problem is pervasive – it can be applied in scientific books for example, where the need to create something that “sizzles” outweighs the nutritional content, so to speak.
    Also, when someone is selling you a business strategy, you have to ask yourself whether the strategy actually works, or whether they are only making money selling the idea to someone else!

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