Business Books and Organizational Success

Much has been written lately about how to achieve the secret of business success books.  A recent article in The Boston Globe by Drake Bennett  has renewed much debate about the merits of the secrets these books espouse.  I  have read plenty of these books over the last 20 years as a way to continue my education and try to help myself improve, and often times I have found myself in the same boat of questioning these “experts” as they try to explain the secrets of business success.  I will say that after reading The Halo Effect  by Phil Rosenzweig, it only reinforced my opinions.

I suppose part of my doubts come from my training as an engineer and Black Belt that really cause me to question the approach many of these books take.  The backward looking approach of looking at the results of organizations and then asking the ones who were successful, then writing about it as though it was the only way seems a bit disingenuous to me.

Imagine this scenario: call it “The Coin Flip Challenge.”  Take 100 people and tell them that you will want them to flip a coin in a few days.  After a few days, have them flip the coin 100 times and record the result.  Have them turn in their results.  Anyone who flipped 25 heads in a row is declared successful.  Wait a week or so, then go talk to them about what it was they did to be successful (get 25 heads in a row).  People will talk about how they held the coin on their index finger and flicked their thumb “just so.”   There will probably be one who will say that every time they caught it, they flipped it over on the back of their hand – that’s how they were successful!  So-called coin flipping experts will write about the new secrets of coin flipping.  People will try to duplicate these efforts for years.

Sure this may be a daft example, but it helps make a point.

According to Oliver Compte and Andrew Postlewaite in their article “Confidence Enhanced Performance” published in American Economic Review , “There is also ample evidence that individuals have a distorted recollection of past events and distorted attributions of the causes of success or failure….Successes tend to be attributed to intrinsic aptitudes or effort.”  This casts some doubt on the research methods used by many of these secret to business success books. 
But who’s really at fault here?  Is it the authors and their editors who write these fabulous stories?  Is it the publishers, who, after all, are just trying to sell a book?  Is it the journalists who review the books and recommend?  Or is it the readers themselves?  In reality, it is probably a shared responsibility between all parties.

When the author sat down to research and write the book, did they start with the thought, “I’m going to write a book that finally solves the secret to business success,” or did they start with the thought of, “I’m going to write a book that tells others how these particular companies were successful.”  Tom Peters, in his response to Drake Bennett’s piece, stated, “In Search of Excellence was what it was, and wasn’t what it wasn’t.”

The Publishers are just trying to sell books, and if calling the book the new “bible” for business success sells more books, then more power to them, especially if they can get an “expert” to agree.  Journalists are looking for something to write about, and if a book presents a good story, and if they were looking for that secret to business success book, then they will write positive reviews.  That leads us to the readers.  The readers are thirsty for knowledge and a way to make themselves or their business better.  They are so thirsty, they drink, or should I say gulp it down without thought.  We follow it blindly, like lemmings off a cliff.  And that is a problem. 

In our zest for that one solution, that one secret to success, we fail to stop and think about what the author is presenting.  Instead of thinking about how the concept that is being presented and how it can or cannot be applied in our organization, we want to follow it like a playbook – step by step.  This repeats itself until the next great secret to business success book comes out.  Doing this, do things generally improve? Sometimes.  But, do they take us to that next level of performance?  Typically not.

Am I saying these books are a waste of time?  Absolutely not.  There are many great concepts, ideas, and stories that can be applied to all organizations as they seek to improve and find their own secret to business success.  But, it is important to remember, each of the case studies presented in these books was for a particular organization at a particular time, under a particular set of circumstances (economic, technological, political, etc.) that may or may not still exist.   This brings us to the impact of luck or chance.

How does luck or chance factor into success?  We tend to accept this in sporting events, when a player or team “made a lucky shot,” or “caught a lucky break.”  Even though both teams involved trained rigorously and executed game plans to perfection, one team happened to catch a break that the other didn’t, so they won (success).  Why, then, don’t we accept this in business?   Perhaps we discount the impact of luck, subscribing to the viewpoint “there’s no such thing as luck,” or “you make your own luck.”  Richard Wiseman has done research in this area with the Luck Project.  So maybe we discount luck because, according to Wiseman, we can position ourselves for success by following these four principles: Maximize Chance Opportunities, Listen to Your Lucky Hunches, Expect Good Fortune, and Turn Bad Luck to Good. 

But can we discount chance?  Random events which seemingly occur from nowhere.  I believe that despite all the proper preparation, attempted to foresee every conceivable contingency, there is always the possibility of a chance event disrupting the best laid plans.  When we look back, we always see the signs, and tell ourselves we should have known better (after all, hindsight is 20/20).  What we sometimes forget was would it had been reasonable and rational to act on the discovery of those signs prior to them happening?  Anyone who was “warning” us of the event was probably written off as irrational, or just plain crazy. 

To read more about this, John Hafer and George Gresham’s excellent paper “Luck’s Role in Business Success: Why It’s Too Important To Leave To Chance” offers a great introduction to the relationship between luck and professional success.

To what degree, if any, you believe chance may play in an organization’s success, when reading these books, the important thing to remember is to think for yourself.  Approach these secret to business success books as an opportunity to expand your knowledge base, and take each one, including those that debunk the ‘traditional’ books, with a thoughtful approach.  What concept is the author putting forth?  What’s good about it, what’s bad about it? Can I apply it to my situation?  If I can’t apply it, can I tweak it so that I can apply it? 

It’s a little bit of effort, but well worth it!

Let me know your thoughts.

Glenn Whitfield

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4 thoughts on “Business Books and Organizational Success

  1. Glenn,

    I love your outlook and I agree, The Halo Effect pierced many books. Luck always plays a part, but people make their own luck. As far as business books go, there are classics that should be required:

    Orbiting the Giant Hairball
    Influence, the Power of Persuasion
    On Becoming a Leader
    Think and Grow Rich
    Win Friends and Influence People
    The Essential Drucker
    The Selfish Gene
    Crossing the Chasm
    The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
    and maybe even Atlas Shrugged

    These are the books that form the common ground of business. For me, thinking about what makes them great, I’m reminded what my good Alabama red-neck friends said: “They take ya from where ever ya wanna start to where ever ya’ll wanna go.”

    Does luck play a part in it? Of course. But as a sophisticated LA urbanite taught me: “Luck is the intersection between preparation and opportunity. Go out and make yourself lucky”

    As far as business books go, there’s really only one area that I think is still looking for a classic book, and that area is probably the single most important area of business – accounting.

    As the great Paul Orfalea, the founder of Kinko’s always says, accounting is the language of business. You don’t have to be a great reader, he’s dyslectic. You don’t have to work long hours in an office, you can hire a ton of people to do that. If you have ideas and you understand accounting, you can rule the world.

    If you know of a great accounting book, I’ll fly over to Kentucky and polish your shoes and massage you’re feet, because it will be worth it.

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