The vast majority of business books, like most other kinds of advice, are packed with platitudes and re-packaged anecdotes sold as a unique solution to a particular problem. But with over 11,000 new business books debuting each year, you could read one each day, from graduation to retirement, and barely scrape the surface.
The truth is every business and every success story is unique, and there's little chance you'll get the answer to your particular, complex challenge from a far-off author. Do seek books or articles like this for inspiration, or to enhance specific skills, but I caution against basing your company's performance or strategy on the opinions of those who don't live and breathe your business.
Focus on your business.
Instead of passively reading what worked for other businesses in other times and places, redirect that energy into engaging with your current and potential customers. Listen to people when you talk to them. Do twice as much listening as you do speaking, especially when customers, employees, bosses, or suppliers have concerns or complaints. It's less pleasant to hear complaints than praise, but they're telling you how your business can better serve them.
Focus groups and product testing have their places, but even early in developing a new product or service, you might be surprised to hear what is on your customers' minds. These conversations might lack the packaging and "can't miss" promises, but the insights will be specific to your industry, your business, and your leadership style.
We long for simplicity, to find the silver bullet, the core truth that can make everything suddenly easy, or disentangle the world's great questions. There are a few of them out there--the Golden Rule is the core of most religion and ethics--but the most useful, situation-specific knowledge for your business will come from those with whom you already interact.
Ask for feedback.
To keep Kabbage offerings fresh, we recently asked our small business customers, 'what keeps you up at night?' Then we resisted the common urge to put words in their mouths, or steer their needs toward the products we already offered. Instead, we really listened. But even that's not enough, because to some extent people don't yet know what they will want in the future.
Henry Ford famously quipped, "If you asked people what they wanted [before there were cars] they'd have said 'a faster horse." No one knew they desperately wanted a smartphone until the iPhone became available--they wouldn't have understood what "smartphone" meant.
When those new things come along--the automobile or the iPhone or the Uber--the reception isn't instant. Many people don't believe that they need the new thing, because they don't yet understand it and can't anticipate how it fits into their life. Then a tipping point is reached and we can't imagine life without it. But there's no way that breakthrough could have been predicted by a book, much less recommended by one.
Business books are supposed to be about the rules you follow to be successful, but true, revolutionary success comes from transcending the rules everyone agreed were unbreakable. Instead of reading yet another repackaging of common best practices or a supposedly universal strategy, think like a revolutionary. Put down the book and pick up the phone. Your colleagues and customers -- present and future -- have the insights that can transform you and your business.