On popular business books, gurus and prevailing winds
Over the course of the last few years I have read quite a lot of business books and blogs. I’ve gleaned a lot of valuable information from these sources, but in the back of my mind there are typically also a lot of bits of information that I fill in or gloss over when reading from these sources. You see, coming from a science background, I am much less likely to take some uncited and unresearched nugget of conventional wisdom at face value. I’m not trying to say that I’m smarter than these guys, I’m just trying to say that I treat much of what is said as hypothesis rather than fact. Often times there will be glaring holes in the story or unanswered questions when reading the accounts of the successful business or entrepreneur being described in the book or blog post.
I don’t know what it is that keeps me coming back to fill up on more business knowledge time and again from these sources, but there must be a deep seated need for intellectual gratification that I expect to find – or maybe it is a play on the desire to succeed or find the missing bit of information that was holding me back. From experience I have found that it is typically inspection, reflection, and introspection that leads to breakthroughs. Nuggets of wisdom are valuable for initiating these cycles of reflection, but on their own don’t typically solve any problems directly.
Over time, however constant skepticism becomes very tiring, as you are always second guessing yourself and what you are reading. I really wish I had an answer for this but I really don’t.
I can’t help but think that the way business books and business education curricula are so based on case studies exposes them to huge amounts of confirmation bias. It works like this: pick your favorite business theory and you are sure to find several instances of companies apparently following the principles to succeed. Of course there are probably many that follow the principles and fail also, but not only are the stories likely buried, but it is also easy to attribute the failure to some other confounding variable.
I realize that a lot of blogs are sensationalistic in order to keep readership high. The bloggers have their ‘people’ who religiously follow every post and comment en masse any time a new post is put up. The bloggers know that to survive they have to keep coming up with nicely digestible soundbites, nuggets of wisdom and top ten lists of why you are doing things wrong.
I’d like to see less sensationalism among the business book writers, gurus and bloggers, but I know that it is never going to happen. For the same reason that consultants keep an air of mystery and omniscience to be able to keep their rates high and their customers calling back, publishers and writers need a similar air to keep their businesses alive.
Maybe the ideal is to read blogs of writers whose primary function is not a business blog writer but a CEO/CTO or other executive. They presumably have the experience to speak on business given their position, but they are not completely invested in making money on their writing. Of course there could be the issue of public reputation and disclosure. The competitive nature of business is such that you don’t want to accidentally give away some strategic elements of your business to your competition right? An executive blogger may also be more guarded in what they will venture to say on a blog also. More radical ideas may not be expressed due to fear of ridicule as a company leader.
I also can’t help but feel that as technologies and markets change, we scramble for answers and guiding lights to help us navigate the changing waters, and we are likely to latch on to theories that are more like memes than business theories. Since markets and technology can change much more rapidly than our education systems and mechanisms for coping with business realities, half-baked explanations of why some business practice is good or bad travels more like an internet meme.
My thoughts on this came out a bit less clear than I had hoped. I may attempt to rewrite this post or write a follow up.