Business Books That Waste Your Time and Money

Last Updated Jan 25, 2011 8:05 PM EST

My BNET colleague Margaret Heffernan opened a can of anacondas with her post about the difference between business and war. It revived memories of my years reviewing business books, during which I encountered numerous authors who claimed lessons learned in another sphere of life could be applied to business. Sports, coaching, parenting, the military -- the list is long indeed.

One of the first -- and weirdest -- examples is "Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World" (Berrett-Koehler), by Margaret Wheatley. I confess that I gave this business-as-quantum-physics thesis serious treatment when it appeared in 1992. I wasn't the only one who bought the validity of transplanting successful techniques from one area of endeavor to the world of business. "Leadership and the New Science," for example, was reissued in a third edition as recently as 2006.

But suspicion mounted. Eventually, entries such as 1995's "Finding a Way to Win: The Principles of Leadership, Teamwork and Motivation" (Doubleday), by Super Bowl-winning football coach Bill Parcells and Jeff Coplon, did the trick. By 2002 I was able to resist "It's Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy" (Grand Central ), by D. Michael Abrashoff.

Nothing since has changed my opinion that bupkis permeates the genre. The value of exporting business insights from anywhere else -- physics, coaching, you name it -- is limited, at best. Business is business. Running a Navy ship is similar in some ways, but has so many differences that the two worlds barely brush each other, much less collide.

If you're looking for books about running a small business (as opposed to a football team), here are my favorites:

1. Will It Fly?: How to Know if Your New Business Idea Has Wings ... Before You Take the Leap (FT Prentice Hall), by Thomas K. McKnight. Forty-four things to check before you do or don't pull the trigger.

2. The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What To Do about It (HarperCollins), by Michael E. Gerber. Why and how you should stop working in your business and start working on your businesses.

3. Guerrilla Marketing: Easy and Inexpensive Strategies for Making Big Profits from Your Small Business (Houghton Mifflin), By Jay Conrad Levinson. The original guide to marketing on the cheap remains relevant (thanks to updating through four editions) after nearly three decades.

4. The Business Planning Guide, (Kaplan), by David H. Bangs. Best of the many books (possibly even including my own) on business planning.

5. Start Run & Grow a Successful Small Business (CCH), by Toolkit Media Group (editors). Something on nearly everything about small business.

Publishers continue to mine the reliable "business is like ..." vein. Today I received notice of "The Most Dangerous Business Book You'll Ever Read" (Wiley), by Gregory Hartley and Maryann Karinch. This just-published work purports to "take the tools of military intelligence" and "relate their potential value to the business world today."

If your next performance review starts with somebody throwing a hood over your head and progresses to waterboarding, you'll know why.

Mark Henricks has reported on business, technology and other topics for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, and other leading publications long enough to lay somewhat legitimate claim to being The Article Authority. Follow him on Twitter @bizmyths.

  • Mark Henricks

    Mark Henricks' reporting on business and other topics has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Inc., Entrepreneur, and many other leading publications. He lives in Austin, Texas, where myth looms as large as it does anywhere.