I spend a good chunk of my free time reading business books.  Whether it’s the classics like Christensen, MgGrath or Moore, or newer business books by the likes of Youngme Moon or Cal Newport – I love learning about different types of businesses and hearing about stories of failure and success.

One of the principal reasons I read these books is to try to glean some lessons that I can apply to my job.

I’m usually in luck – authors of these books almost always believe their lessons can be applied broadly across businesses.  I suppose that’s the reason they think people will buy their books.

However, after spending hundreds of hours reading dozens of books, the most important lesson I think I’ve learned is that the correct thing to do with your business is more based on the life stage of the business than anything else (and there are a lot of different life stages).  Chances are, nine out of 10 times the lessons described in a typical business book are inappropriate to the life stage of your specific company.

An analogy.

Rather than business advice, imagine we were reading a book about life advice.   However, the book did not reference what life stage the advice was meant to apply to.  Well – a book meant for teenagers would probably be very different than a book meant for senior citizens.  Life advice can depend and sway wildly based on your age (as well as a variety of other factors).

That’s what I find many business books are: advice for life without reference to life stage.

The reason for this is probably because most of the authors of these books really only have deep experience with one specific business life stage.  This causes some authors to make the mistake of assuming that all businesses are like theirs.

Another bias that I’ve seen in business books is the tendency for authors to present an artificially complete picture when describing a business process.  Whether it’s a strategic planning process or a resource allocation process – when described in books, they always sound so neat and polished.

However, I would be willing to bet that even the authors of these books never actually executed their processes exactly as they describe.  Rather, they executed some of them, and filled in the gaps just for the sake of providing a complete picture.

I don’t blame them – writing a book and only describing half a process would be a little disappointing for the reader, but in some ways, I believe that would be more honest.  Business is messy because it involves working with people.  People are complicated.  Presenting an artificially polished process that may be impractical to execute fully can be a disservice to readers.

In fact, a mistake I’ve often made in the past is trying to execute a process from a business book in its entirety.  I’ve mistakenly looked at these processes like works of art, where, if you don’t execute the whole thing exactly right, it won’t produce the desired outcome.

As it turns out, I had it exactly backwards.  You should never try to implement anyone else’s processes exactly as they describe.  It’ll never work!  All businesses are different and are in different life stages.  And – odds are it probably never even worked for the person who described it to you.

I think my conclusion is that business books are a source for inspiration just like advisers, mentors, employees, and customers.

Take the lessons that you learn from these books, modify them for your circumstance, and implement only what makes sense.

Business Books
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