The Great Business Book Purge
Two weeks ago, I dumped more than 300 business books.
“Dumped” sounds harsh. The purge wasn’t as bloody as all that. Many were unbound galleys stamped with dire warnings not to quote, reproduce, or distribute. I’m very cautious about such matters (in accordance with the FBI’s no-exhibition rule I never watch DVDs with anyone beyond my immediate family). So I dutifully stuffed the galleys into 30-gallon garbage bags and left them for the trash guy.
The hardcovers I deposited in a book-donation bin outside the local high school. Books on startups I set aside for the prison library where I volunteer. The inmates are always talking about businesses they plan to launch when they get out--a motorcycle detailing shop, a tattoo parlor, one of those mondo vending machines stocked with pet supplies. They can’t use the Internet, and the few entrepreneurship books available to them are out of date. So I know those volumes will get a lot of use.
My own library began accumulating when I started reviewing new business titles for Inc. Before that I owned a couple of shelves’ worth: the canon, if you will. I had Porter on strategy; Bennis on leadership; Schein on culture; Senge on continuous learning; Kotter on change; Christensen on innovation; Drucker on everything. Entrepreneurship has produced a canon of its own, including Amar Bhide’s The Origin and Evolution of New Business; Jack Stack’s The Great Game of Business; and my colleague Bo Burlingham’s Small Giants. Also The Peter Principle, The Art of Demotivation (by Despair.com founder Dr. E.L. Kersten), and, of course, the seminal work of Scott Adams.
Over five years, that collection had swelled 30-fold. Publishers cast virtually all their bread upon the waters, so I receive as many as four or five titles a week. A handful I write about. A few find a place in my home office. The rest migrate down to IKEA bookshelves in the basement. Recently, my near-and-dears decided to clear out that basement to free it up for teen parties. (Apparently teenagers lose all zest for life when forced to congregate on the same floor as adults.) I was assigned the task of culling my business-book hoard by two-thirds or more.
I expected the process would prove agonizing. Which of the four books on managing millennials should I consider the managing-millennials Bible? How many Seth Godin titles do I need to represent his oeuvre? I knew I should probably hang on to one brain-science book. But the amygdala so rarely comes up in conversation.
In the end it wasn’t so hard. Whole categories I instantly deemed expendable. Out went the parables. Out went the leadership lessons from sports and military figures. Out went the creativity books full of line drawings and white space. Out went the books laying out an author’s trademarked “system” for generating ideas or managing teams. Out went the technology books published more than a year ago. Out went the books that didn’t mention by name any actual businesses, or that merely name-checked usual suspects like Apple, IKEA, and Nordstrom’s.
My daughter suggested dumping the myriad books with alliteration in their titles. That turned out to be a surprisingly effective sorting principle.
What made the cut? Here are just a few of the titles I retained without a second thought:
The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work. HBS professor Theresa Amibile explains that employees are happiest and most productive in environments where they can make unimpeded progress on their work every day.
Everything Is Obvious: How Common Sense Fails Us. Sociologist Duncan Watts argues that decisions and predictions often go awry because we think we understand more about the world than we actually do.
To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others. Business author Daniel Pink takes the first really fresh look at sales in ages. Everybody sells, he explains, and getting people to buy requires softer skills than we were taught.
Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst. Stanford professor Bob Sutton’s worthy successor to The No Asshole Rule. If only Sutton was director of human resources for the whole world.
The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. Entrepreneur Eric Ries articulates what many of his peers have long instinctively known and launches a movement in the process.
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Business reporter Charles Duhigg explicates a seemingly mundane but potent motivator. Useful for marketers, bosses, product developers, and anyone with an unused gym membership.
The Laws of Subtraction: Six Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything. Innovation advisor Matthew E. May became a student of minimalism during his years at Toyota in Japan. Less is more.
Islands of Profit in a Sea of Red Ink: Why 40 Percent of Your Business Is Unprofitable and How to Fix It. MIT lecturer Jonathan Byrnes directs his waste-seeking spotlight into every nook and cranny of a business. This book is spinach: not a delicious read but very good for you.
The Wide Lens: A New Strategy for Innovation. The Tuck School’s Ron Adner reminds us that innovations--no matter how brilliant--require upstream execution from suppliers and downstream cooperation from distributors to succeed.
Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works. Once and future P&G chief A.G. Lafley and the Rotman School’s Roger L. Martin show leaders how to make the right choices and urge them to ask this excellent question: “What would have to be true for this strategy to succeed?”
Those are just a few of the 200-or-so titles that survived the shakeout. Clearly I failed to reach the two-thirds benchmark. But I’ve promised my family that as I add new volumes to the shelves I will get rid of old ones. That means every surviving book should be glancing over its shoulder. Yeah, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, I’m looking at you.
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine.
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