because no respectable MBA programme would admit me

I read (and talk) a lot about various “management topics”. I’ve been doing this since long before I managed anything more significant than my own clothing choices, because part of my brain was swollen in a childhood bicycle accident; it deprives other parts of my brain of blood and nutrients, explaining in part why I know a lot about how decision-making processes can fall apart, but usually can’t remember to have lunch. (Part of that is true.)

I have made some important findings over the last, uh, 17 years of reading and thinking about groups. Let me show you them.

Business and management books, which are latterly bleeding over into the self-help and pop-economics spaces, have terrible names. It is not a useful filter, just as it is not for science fiction. You are as likely to find a worthwhile read in a book titled “Monkey Fighting and Tomato Plants: How To Rebuild Your Team For The Digital Economy” as in any other.

Again as in science fiction, you can apparently get published if you just have a kernel of a good idea, even if it doesn’t benefit from more than a 5-page treatment, or you can’t communicate concepts clearly to save your life. Out of every, say, 10 books I start reading in this space, fully 9.7 of them have me asking “why is this a whole book?”, or even “why is this a whole chapter?” I guess this is why there are so many of those “summarize the hot business books in 1000 words each” services around.

If you’re not reading the citations, you’re not really reading the book. (If the book doesn’t have citations…yeah.) You don’t have to read all of every paper, but you should skim the ones that pertain to the parts that are most interesting to you. That probably means the parts that trigger the strongest “wow! yeah!” as well as the strongest “no way!”. (I am sometimes not really reading the book, especially where I can’t get my hands on the papers in question.)

Sequelae (“More Monkeys Fighting More Tomato Plants: How The Social User Economy Makes Left-Handed People Obsolete”) are either a) not really sequels, just named that way, not that names matter per above; or b) terrible. There are exceptions, but you should not count on finding them.

If there aren’t people on Amazon pissed off enough to 1-star in 10-paragraph denunciations, you’re probably not going to learn anything you don’t already know, though you might find a useful reframing of something. That can be pretty valuable, in my experience, and is also the most common silver lining from trudging through the first few chapters of an otherwise lame book.

So far I’ve found at least 3 books that I would recommend strongly to people, whether they have plans to manage or not. Links are to Amazon, which I’m sure shows some sort of cultural insensitivity. They are also not affiliate-tagged, because I’m not really very smart.

“Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)”: a lot of management, in my perhaps-too-telling experience, is overcoming cognitive dissonance and otherwise getting from questions to assumptions to data to decision to understanding to execution. This book is a really accessible treatment of cognitive dissonance and some other common biases; it has made me painfully aware of my own such dissonance episodes, and made me much more sympathetic in a lot of my interactions. When I find myself clenching my jaw and wondering “why does he do that? so illogical! wtf!”, most of the time I can tie it back to this sort of thing. Also, the book has a pretty decent title, as long as you stop before the colon.

“Influencer: The Power To Change Anything”: making change possible/successful/kinda-pleasant is the other “a lot of management”, for me, so I have read…more than one book in this area in the last year. While this one does occasionally fall back on the “magic in step 2″ formulation of “create rewards”, I found it to be a pretty great treatment of different change contexts, and different ways of approaching various change efforts.

“The Checklist Manifesto”: this book in one sentence: “make a checklist and use it”. Why is this a whole book? IMO because of the amount of cognitive dissonance involved in the idea that a simple tool can make a difference in sophisticated processes, and because making a good checklist and getting people to use it are really the valuable and hard parts. Also because Atul Gawande is a great, great storyteller. (Thanks to John O’Duinn for turning me on to his previous books, which are also great.)

Bonus, not quite as good as the previous three IMO: “Switch: How To Change When Change Is Hard”: a pretty interesting dissection of why some kinds of change are hard, and what successful change efforts tend to have in common. The presented framework sounds a little hokey (“Elephant, Rider and Path”), and the example case studies sometimes feel like they’re being stretched a bit, but still pretty good. I might like it more on a re-read, even.

Comments are open, unusually.

[Updated: I didn't mean to imply that these were the only books that I felt were worth recommending!]

14 comments to “because no respectable MBA programme would admit me”

  1. Dion Almaer
    entered 13 July 2010 @ 9:51 pm

    I was just SO happy not to read “Who moved my cheese”.

    I watch the British Office to learn management and business. ;)

  2. Laura Thomson
    entered 13 July 2010 @ 9:58 pm

    I’m a sucker for a good management book, but so many of them are dreck.

    I’m right in the middle of Switch, and I agree it’s good. I’ll go check out the rest of your recommendations, or at least the Gawande book — he’s awesome. I was given his book Better by a friend who was in fact suffering through an MBA at the time and it was a recommended text.

    I assume you’ve read Bob Sutton. I’d also recommend The Goal (Goldratt and Cox), partly for its handling of bottleneck management, and partly because it pretends to be a rather odd novel.

  3. entered 13 July 2010 @ 10:07 pm

    I read Goldratt on constraint-based management at one point, but I’m not sure it was The Goal. It was also while I was in high school, so I should probably revisit, ahem.

    I’m starting on Bob Sutton’s evidence-based management book soon, but tbh I don’t recall others of his specifically. I’ve read a lot of his writings, but recall on which books in this field is pretty spotty; there is some blurring in my weary head, no offense to Bob!

    [Update: Ooop, no, it was "Haystack Syndrome" I read in high school, "Theory of Constraints" was much later.]

  4. Pascal
    entered 13 July 2010 @ 10:49 pm

    Nice list Mike.

    Just to add to your list… (and yes, I read a lot of business books – heck, I even studied the crap):

    • Lucky or Smart by Bo Peabody: Great, quick read if you ever want to become an entrepreneur and wonder if you have to be super smart to be actually successful. Not so much about managing people, but hey – still a good read.

    • The Art of the Start by Guy Kawasaki: It’s basically the must-read for every startup person (before they do their startup). But it also a pretty good read for everyone else.

    • The 4-Hour-Workweek by Tim Ferris: Again – not about managing people but about managing your life. Don’t let the title irritate you, this book is full of stuff which will make you think about your work-life balance and how you can do more with less. Worked for me. Partly.

    • Good to Great by Jim Collins: The mother of all business books, everyone should have read it. If for nothing else than to know what “BHAG” stands for and what it actually means to “get the right people on the bus”. It’s actually a very good book.

    • Zen to Done by Leo Babauta: The only “Getting Things Done” I read, internalized and use. It’s good. Really.

    • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand: If you want to know anything about capitalism and how entrepreneurship works, you have to read this. It’s not a business book per se but will teach you more about the subject that your Harvard MBA (though having said that – Harvard has actually classes around Atlas Shrugged).

    • The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder: If you are in tech and haven’t read this book, you failed. It’s the most gripping, amazing story about creating and failing in the tech world. It teaches you more than most other books you can ever read.

    And bonus round:

    • Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense by Pfeffer & Sutton: The ultimate book for everyone who is annoyed by the stupid, non-scientific claims in business books. It’s basically my bible – teaches you to make decisions based solely on facts and not the latest fad you read in the random business book you picked up from the airport.

    And as you persisted and stayed with me for so long – EXTRA bonus round:

    • Every book from Peter Drucker. Literally. They are all amazing and should be considered basic education.

    …Hell, I should turn this comment into a blog post…

  5. entered 13 July 2010 @ 11:05 pm

    Yeah, beyond the space of management it gets bigger — and actually the ones I chose there were for their usefulness to people who aren’t managers necessarily; I use those learnings in a lot of my interactions and decision-making, even where I’m not being a manager.

    Controversially, I’m actually lukewarm on “Good to Great”, because of the methodology (survivor bias, ugh) and because I honestly left that book not having any idea how I would make decisions differently because of it. Of course hiring good people is important…but doesn’t everyone think they’re hiring good people? Who says “yeah, anyone will do for this management position, as long as they know how to use Word”? I posit: nobody who would bother to read about building a great company! That said, if you squint through not actually knowing what “level 5 leadership” is, and don’t expect too much actionable stuff, you could definitely do a lot worse. I just wish it had either a) more solid data, and b) better descriptions of what actual behaviours other than being humble made a difference. :-P

    The Soul of a New Machine one of my favourite books in junior high; perhaps the main reason other than questionable genetics that I’m in software, and a reason that I should have predicted and avoided the savage burnout that led me to Netscape. I haven’t re-read it in probably 10 years, wish it was on the Kindle!

  6. Pascal
    entered 13 July 2010 @ 11:12 pm

    Agreed on Good to Great – the main purpose of the book is to allow you to join the conversation and know what other people are babbling about. It’s still an entertaining read – funny enough Pfeffer & Sutton debunk a couple of conclusions made in Good to Great in their own book. It’s always fun to watch economists get into a monkey fight. :)

  7. entered 14 July 2010 @ 8:30 am

    Totally agree on Checklist Manifesto. Although if you are creeped out by medical stuff, you might have to skip some parts.

    I’d also recommend:

    Drive by Daniel H. Pink – turns everything you think about how people are motivated on its head.

    I’m also a sucker for business parables.

    The Go-Giver and Fish! are really great examples of that (and really great books)

  8. dria
    entered 14 July 2010 @ 12:33 pm

    I liked Drive and Fish! and, um…The Spark. It’s about how they run Cirque. Really fascinating. Oh! And the one about how they run Pixar (Pixar Effect?). Crazy disciplined/creative workforces accomplishing incredible things and loving every second of it.

    I only know management from being on the receiving end of it, of course, so YMMV.

  9. entered 15 July 2010 @ 6:27 am

    Hey Deb: did you find that there was actionable stuff in The Spark or Pixar Effect? I haven’t read them yet, trying to cheat on how to prioritize them!

  10. dria
    entered 15 July 2010 @ 7:45 am

    Depends, I guess? Yes, but I don’t think there’s a checklist in either :)

  11. entered 15 July 2010 @ 12:40 pm

    Nice post! I was looking for new books in this area.

  12. jch
    entered 16 July 2010 @ 1:10 am

    questionable genetics? do tell.

  13. entered 16 July 2010 @ 8:37 pm

    I guess I have to drop by with some Scandinavian management advice too:

    It’s a quick read, and available online. I do think it’s very relevant for an organization like Mozilla, even though we already do better in this style of management than most.

  14. Dave
    entered 21 July 2010 @ 11:04 am

    You should try the list at I think the list was updated recently a great list of books covering a few different topics. I’m slowly making my through a lot of them, but i’ll have to add yours to the list now…. Must say in response to Pascal (in the comments) try to borrow a copy of the 4 hour work week one, I’m refusing to buy it as i’m sure the only reason it works is because he’s living off royalties!