March of the Management Books

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An article in today's New York Times describes the teapot-tempest around "Our Iceberg is Melting," a reworking by HBS professor John P. Kotter of his seminal 1996 management book "Leading Change." Both versions present frameworks for navigating the chutes and ladders of organizational transitions. The chief difference is that "Iceberg" concerns a group of talking penguins. With its light avian gloss on common business prescriptions ("The colony needs a team of birds to guide it through this difficult period") the new book has happy-footed its way to sales of 224,000 copies.

Kotter's publishers, business fable fans, and some executives are among "Iceberg"'s supporters. Others dismiss it as reductive, an example of the sad Who-Moved-My-Cheese-ification of serious management thought. My initial reaction upon reading the article was to side with the latter group. (I confess I have not read either "Leading Change" or "Iceberg." I have read Kotter's collection of articles, "What Leaders Really Do," and thought highly of it.) On further consideration, I decided I am just being a snob.

A novelist friend once told me there are only two plots in all of literature: a boy grows up and moves away; and a stranger comes to town. Literary writers take the same basic building block (others not surprisingly claim there are several dozen more) and construct works as slender as fairy tales and as monumental as Russian novels. Business writers do something similar. I don't know how many "plots" exist in the management canon (a company grows up and loses direction; a change agent comes to town) but there can't be many. Management books provide value if they help readers to recognize those plots as they unfold in their own organizations and, by observing the actions of the protagonists, to gain ideas about how to cope. That protagonist can be Jack Welch or a penguin named Fred. It's the same idea. The same story.

My only real objection to "Iceberg" is that, based on an Amazon listing, it is not significantly shorter than its academic forebear. (Maybe there are more pictures?) Management books are about ideas, not art, so readers may gain as much—maybe more—from a pared-down telling. Are there Clifs Notes for business books? I know I'd buy them.

Last updated: Jul 16, 2007

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor at Large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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