Business Books that Offer Fresh Ideas

Last Updated May 13, 2011 5:20 AM EDT

As a CEO, I used to read every business book I could find time for. And most of the CEOs I know do likewise, hungry for new ideas, fresh thinking, different ways to frame and approach work challenges.

But after years of reading mountains of these books, I concluded most of business books are worthless. A few, though, are genuinely helpful and can be transformative.

How do you find them? I've found these four questions are a good guide to what you'll find between the covers.

1. Is the author a bona fide expert?

Most of the prominent books I encountered were written by individuals who'd never run so much as a lemonade stand. The ethicists were routinely unethical in their business dealings and the time management gurus rarely caught up with their email. The matrices and diagrams were great (though hard to remember) but it bothered me that few of these books seemed to have worked the miracles for their authors that I hoped they would work for me. I always wondered: if they've never run companies, how do these authors know so much about them? How do they know which information to trust?

2. Does the book treat workers as cogs in a machine, to be manipulated?

Those diagrams should have given me a clue. Business schools historically grew out of engineering schools. And most mainstream business thinking takes as its mental model the engineering of machines. Tweak this lever, inject more fuel, everything will work. That's the basic tenor of much abstract writing about business.

Here's the problem: Companies aren't machines. Their most critical components are human beings and they aren't routine, reliable or standardized. That is, of course, their glory and their challenge. The more you try to make them cogs in your machine, the more they'll fight back. Instead of machines, it would be more realistic to think of companies as living organisms: complex, non-standard, living in a complex environment subject to millions of variations.

3. Does the author steep the readers in statistics?
Consultants love to talk about their laboratories that emit vast reams of data. I love numbers as much as anyone - maybe more - but the problem with this scientific model is that, in business, you simply cannot do replicable experiments, which is what science is all about. No two companies are the same. No two markets or even transactions are the same. That means you can't do true experiments, in or out of labs. And that means that business, however rigorously studied, isn't and will never be a science. Moreover, as every CEO knows, the numbers tell you a lot but they never, ever give you all the information you need.

4. Does the book focus on real business people?

The best business book authors, such as BNET blogger/author Jeffrey Pfeffer and author Daniel Pink, write about real people and don't treat "business people" like some exotic species. They don't analyze management decisions as though they existed in some exotic atmosphere. This, it seems to me, is crucial. The biggest disasters we've seen at business have been undertaken by people - Ken Lay, Bernie Ebbers, Bernie Madoff, Dick Fuld - who acted as though 'business' was a different country: with different rules, language, etiquette and standards.

Such compartmentalization blinds people to the consequences of the actions they take and prevents them from realizing their true potential. Why can't more books position business as part of life -- not distinct from it? That would be an interesting mental model - even an inspiring one.

What business books do you find helpful?

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.