No management book was ever number one on the New York Times Best
Seller list until "In
Search of Excellence" by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman. It
sold well over a million copies and spawned the Guru Industry.
back I had the opportunity to ask Tom Peters what it took to have
that kind of success with a management book. He told me to do three
things: write a great book, promote it with everything you've got,
and get lucky.
Search of Excellence" was a great book. It wasn't because of
the research, which was somewhat contrived. It was the writing and
energy that made the book great.
There had been
management books before, of course. Most of them were written by
academics or folks who wrote like academics. They were profound,
well organized, and well, boring.
Search of Excellence" was well written and full of energy. When
you read "In Search of Excellence" you jumped up and called people.
You stuck Post-It notes all over the book. You filled up your to-do
make the book great. Promotion helped make it popular.
Both Tom Peters
and Bob Waterman were consultants with the venerable firm of McKinsey
and Company. The firm had given them time to write and helped with
the research. The book helped McKinsey look good.
So they spent
money on professional book promotion. They made sure that the authors
were available for interviews. They bought a lot of books and handed
them out to clients. Book promotion doesn't get any better than
promotion efforts helped push the book up the charts, but luck played
a role, too. In the early 1980s it looked like the Japanese were
going to win it all. American managers were nervous, a bit shell-shocked
and ready to listen to something new.
Waterman figured they had something new to offer. They thought it
was time to get back to some basics that had been abandoned in the
love affair American management had with quantitative methods. They
told companies to pay attention to customers and workers, keep things
simple, and rely on live trials rather than survey research.
They knew others
were working on similar books and they wanted to be first into the
market. Publication of "In Search of Excellence" was scheduled for
1981. Then it was delayed by the publisher.
In the meantime,
"The Art of Japanese Management", a well-written book with much
the same message as "In
Search of Excellence", was published. Peters was angry and disappointed.
He thought the other book had stolen the show. He was wrong.
stealing the show, the earlier book had simply built up the audience.
When Peters and Waterman's book came out it went right to the top
of the best seller lists and stayed there. Lots of people noticed.
and consulting firms noticed what the book did for Peters and Waterman
and for McKinsey. Publishers noticed the success of the book, too,
and they thought it might help them find that most elusive of publishing
properties, a sure thing.
seemed like the perfect choice of author. They had academic credentials
and their experience with clients gave them credibility. Even better,
their consulting firm could be counted on to promote the book and
even buy several thousand copies.
of this confluence of self-interest was a flood of books by consultants.
For the most part they put a sexy label on what they touted as "big
ideas," capable of transforming corporate life and profitability
at a stroke.
A few really
were big ideas but they took a lot of time and money to implement
and were often misinterpreted. Re-engineering was a good example.
re-engineering rebuilt a company from top to bottom, streamlined
it and made it more competitive and profitable. But hardly anyone
got all the way to the end of the process because it took so long
and sucked up so many human and financial resources.
many managers used "re-engineering" as an excuse to do some good
old-fashioned layoffs. Folks on the shop floor and in those office
cubicles figured that out pretty quick. When they heard management
using the term "re-engineering" they knew there was bloodletting
Most of the
big ideas, though, weren't that big. Some weren't very good at all
and some were downright dangerous. But that didn't seem to matter.
In the go-go
Nineties no one was spending a lot of time evaluating and comparing
new concepts. It was an era when "new" seemed more important than
right and besides the rising tide of the economy was lifting everybody's
boat so you stood to look good no matter what you did.
So, for fifteen
years or so, consultants and consulting firms poured big idea books
into the bookstore. The big ideas sounded good and they were relatively
easy for the authors to generate.
management doesn't have a lot of its own songs to sing. Management
is a bit like a mockingbird, singing the songs of other fields.
The favorite songs in the last ten years have been lessons from
historical figures, lessons from chaos theory, and lessons from
When the Dot-Com
Bubble burst, so did the credibility of several gurus. Then Enron
began The March of the Corporate Felons and people realized that
Enron had gotten an awful lot of consulting advice. Big ideas and
Enron fell out of favor. Arthur Andersen, who had provided consulting
and big ideas to Enron, fell out of business.
The guru big
idea books have pretty much disappeared from the shelves these days,
but the gurus will be back. They're hunched over their word processors
as we speak, cranking out a book about a new big idea: getting back
Top of page
Of all the business books published in the last two decades there
are only a few that I consider excellent, worth reading and re-reading.
Here are some of my nominees.
The books on
this list are all business books. There are certainly other good
business books, but I like the density of what's in these. There
are other books which are great and helpful, but they aren't specifically
about business and so I didn't include them.
There is also
one book that I put on the list and took off again, then put it
on and took it off. That book is Execution
by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan. The problem for me is that
I think the book belongs on this list, but it hasn't been out long
enough and I haven't gone back to it often enough to be sure.
reviewed many of these on my Resource website.
© 2005 Wally Bock.
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