I recently read Brad Stone's book on Jeff Bezos and Amazon entitled The Everything Store. It's a good job of reporting on a topic of broad interest, given Amazon's unique history and powerful position. I learned a lot of facts about the key people, filled in some gaps in my understanding of the overall timeline, and heard personal impressions from some of the key people involved. I couldn't point to any particular page and say that I could have done it better.
And yet I wanted
more. Stone does a fine job on the "what" questions, he has interviewed
perhaps more of the principals than anyone else, and the writing is
clear throughout. Why then does this not feel like a great business
book? That's where my thinking turned next, and what I will discuss this
month: after analyzing some commonalities among books that have changed
my thinking, I divide my pantheon into two different camps then try to
identify some common aspects of "greatness."
know-it-all, what are some great business books? Let's start there,
because the alphabetical list shows what I have found sticks with me
over the years: hard-won narrative lessons, and deep conceptual muscle.
Peter Bernstein, Against the Gods
Frederick Brooks, The Mythical Man-month
Alfred Chandler, The Visible Hand
Yvon Chouinard, Let My People Go Surfing
Clayton Christensen, The Innovator's Dilemma
Annabelle Gawer and Michael Cusumano, Platform Leadership
Tracy Kidder, The Soul of a New Machine
Marc Levinson, The Box
Michael Lewis, Moneyball and Liar's Poker
Carlota Perez, Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital
Honorable mention (the authors probably wouldn't call these business books):
Atul Gawande, Better
Bruce Schneier, Secrets and Lies
Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan
missing here? I don't know the Drucker corpus well enough to pick a
single volume there. I've never had much Velcro for self-help/personal
effectiveness books, so that wipes out a lot of people's favorites,
including Stephen Covey. I've admired Ron Chernow (Rockefeller) from a
distance, so one day that might go on the list. Isaacson's Steve Jobs
biography was rushed to market and thus too long. I never read Andy
Grove's Only the Paranoid Survive in the day, but maybe it bears a
There's another category of exclusion, the "we found
the pattern of success" books that do no such thing. The exemplars here
are Good to Great and In Search of Excellence, the Tom Peters/Robert
Waterman sensation from 1985 that helped bring McKinsey to the front
page of the business press. Taking the more recent book first, of Jim
Collins' 11 "great" companies, only 2 (Nucor and Philip Morris)
seriously outperformed the S&P over the following decade. Most of
the other nine generally reverted to the mean, or in the case of
Gillette, got bought. Most telling, just as Gary Hamel bet his
reputation on Enron in his book Leading the Revolution, Collins got
stuck with some outright clunkers, most notably Circuit City and Fannie
Mae, while Pitney Bowes lost half its market cap. Did they somehow board
the wrong people on the bus all of a sudden? I strongly doubt it. As
for Peters and Waterman, Business Week published a cover story only TWO
YEARS AFTER PUBLICATION showing how many of the 62 "excellent" companies
were nothing of the sort. Retrospective pattern discovery at the
company level, rife with cherry-picking, has yet to reliably predict
future performance (in book form at any rate: I can't speak to what
happens inside Berkshire Hathaway).
Ah, but what about the
classic strategy tomes? Porter's Competitive Strategy, Hamel and
Prahalad's Competing for the Future, and maybe Blue Ocean Strategy have
their place, of course, but they all felt like exercises in hindsight
bias rather than scientific discovery: the subtitle of Porter's book is,
justifiably I think, "Techniques for Analyzing Industries and
Competitors" and nothing to do with action. I have yet to see a
strategic move in the real world that felt deeply linked to any of these
efforts (that doesn't mean there are none, just that I don't see any).
There's an old joke that sums up this orientation:
How do you spot the strategy professor at the racetrack?
He's the one who can tell you why the winning horse won.
contrast, my personal list of the best business books veers away from
such methodologies in one of two ways. First, a skilled writer, a
self-aware founder/principal, or a combination of the two tells a story
rich with personal experience in a highly particular situation. Second, a
deep thinker creates a powerful conceptual apparatus that endures over
time. (Moore's Crossing the Chasm was a near-miss here.)
these books are striking in the modesty of their origins: Christensen
started by knowing the disk drive industry inside and out, while Gawer
was able to understand platforms after getting great access at Intel to
see the company's handling of the USB standard during her Ph.D.
research. Tracy Kidder -- one of our era's great storytellers --
compellingly documents the creation of a computer that never made it to
The best first-person tales were not unabated triumphs:
Chouinard nearly lost Patagonia after some serious missteps, while Fred
Brooks learned about software development the hard way, shipping an IBM
operating system late. At the same time, some of the big brains
attempted syntheses of stunning breadth: the whole idea of risk, in
Bernstein's case, or the modern managerial organization, for Chandler.
Both books, I suspect, were decades in the making.
On to the fundamentals: what makes a great business book? I would submit that it have some mix of four qualities:
easy to paper over the messy bits; "authorized biographies" can be so
hagiographic that all the sugarcoating makes one's teeth hurt. In
contrast, the humility of a Fred Brooks or Yvon Chouinard is refreshing,
frankly acknowledging the role of luck in any success that has come
2) Human insight
Business, taken only on its
own terms, can be pretty boring. But as part of "life's rich pageant,"
as Inspector Clouseau put it, business can become part of themes more
enduring than inventory turns or new market entry. The best books
connect commercial success to aspects of human drama.
3) Continued applicability
retrospective nature of book publishing can be a curse, in the digital
era particularly, but it also means that great research and storytelling
stand up over time. A model should continue to help organize reality
for years after publication, and the likes of Bernstein, Chandler,
Christensen, Levinson, and Perez have earned their stature by delivering not just
an investigation but a way of seeing the world.
4) Subtlety of insight
too often, business books worship at the altar of the obvious.
Acknowledging the facts of the situation and then deriving deeper
principles, either by astute observation (hello Michael Lewis) or by
rigorous scholarship, is a gift.
In the end, we find a collection
of great business books illustrate a conundrum: just as with business
itself, knowing the principles of business book greatness makes it no
less unlikely that a given individual will achieve it. Luck still has
something to do with it, and I doubt that most artists wanting to create
a masterpiece ("the Great American Novel" for instance) actually did
Yet for all the dashed hopes of finding a science of
success, and for all the ego trips and bad faith, there are times when
stories from the arena of commerce transcend the genre and deliver gifts
of insight far more meaningful than simply how to make more money.