How to read a business book

About 3,000 new business books are published each year in the U.S. (according to the Economist). That’s roughly 57 new books each week when, for most of us, reading even one a week feels like an accomplishment. How do you keep up? How do you read a business book?

Because I study, write, and teach innovation—a subject that fills a healthy chunk of the business book market–I end up reading a lot and so do many of the people I know (professors, consultants, and professional book reviewers). When Comstocks asked me to write a brief column, “how to read a business book,” I asked my friends and colleagues how they selected, read, and thought about business books. Their responses are organized here.

I. Read wisely.
You’ll never read everything, so relax about it. Instead, be strategic in your choice of what to read. Know what subjects you’re interested in and what you’re looking for. Books tend to focus on subjects like leadership, managing people, operations, entrepreneurship, marketing, creativity, etc… If you’re a new manager, a book on managing people can give you a good sense of how to select, train, and reward employees. If you’re looking to grow your business, a book about marketing or sales will help you think about finding new customers or closing deals. Since you’ll never read them all, know why you’re reading the ones you choose.

Books also tend to fit one of four flavors: prescriptive, descriptive, narrative, and fables. Prescriptives promise to particular solution: managing teams, motivating poor performers, making strategic decisions, finding a job, reaching your full potential, leading organizations, etc… and usually have some number of answers (5 secrets, 7 habits, 22 laws, etc…). Descriptives offer interesting explanations of what’s going on but no real actionable advice (e.g., The Tipping Point and The World is Flat). Narratives are the “great man” and “great woman” stories, usually auto-biographical, that explain how that one person was responsible for a company’s great performance (Who Say’s Elephants Can’t Dance). Finally, there are the fables, short books that offer a simple creamy insight inside a fluffy, allegorical, outside. Usually (and not surprisingly) food-related: like cheese, fish, chicken-soup. High-calorie and low-nutrition books, read them at your own peril. Know which kind of books you enjoy reading, when, and why.

2. Don’t read.
There is such a thing as reading too many books. The “margin of diminishing returns” rule applies to reading business books. Don’t read more than 2-3 books in any one field: the first can teach you a lot, the second will add a bit more, but the third will likely sound repetitive. Once that happens, move on to another field or topic. If you want to do this right, start with the classics (like Peter Drucker). As Simon London, an occasional reviewer for the Financial Times says, “It is a cliche, but true, that the biggest challenge for any management writer is finding something to say that Drucker has not already said better.”

3. Read efficiently
The first chapter of a business book (almost) always provides the entire set of ideas contained in the book. Also, the authors likely spent the most time and attention on it, as it was the one they used to pitch the book to the publishers. Read that chapter well. Most of the other chapters will elaborate on the ideas presented here—so decide in this first chapter which ideas are most interesting to you and read (or skim) those subsequent chapters closely.

Also, because readers pay attention to the beginning and end of every chapter, paragraph, and section, if writers want to say anything important, they usually say it there. So a well-written book can often be read simply by reading the first section of every chapter, the first paragraph of every section, and the first sentence of every paragraph. Decide how much time you’re willing to devote to this book. Is it a classic? Read it well throughout. Is this your second book on a subject? Read the introductions to each chapter, and skim the sections. Try to figure out what each chapter and section are saying—in your own words—and search for the key points. Is this your third (or more) book? Read the chapter headings and only dive deeper if it looks like you’ll find something you don’t already know.

4. Read skeptically.
Most business books are made of three roughly equal parts. The first part is just plain obvious. It’s the head-nodding claims about how critical leadership is, what changing times we live in, or how we need to be happy in our work. This stuff makes sure the reader is reading the right book—a little like when the flight attendant tells you where this fight is heading. The second major part includes the ideas that are common to most every business book on the subject: leaders are visionary, innovation is about breaking the rules, etc… This is valuable knowledge the first time you hear it, and also why the second book you read is less enlightening. The last third of the book is what’s the unique contribution of the author. When you’ve got a good sense of the first two thirds, you can begin skimming books looking for this last, elusive bit of value. But beware! The rule of thirds applies here too: 1/3 of this unique contribution will be brilliant, 1/3 will be obvious, and 1/3 will be complete malarkey. You’ll have to figure out which is which.

5. Finally, read the reviews
Even if you read the book, read the reviews other people write. For some books, it’s more important to know what everyone else thinks it says than to know what the author actually said. These are the cocktail and conference room books: Tipping Point, Innovator’s Dilemma, etc… I recommend getting familiar with one or more professional reviewers, like Jim Pawlak (syndicated columnist, Biz Books) and Robert Morris (a top-ten reviewer for Amazon)—it’s easier to trust a review when you’ve read others by the same reviewer. Read a few reviews to find out how everyone has decided to interpret these books. Tipping Point is about how networks enable the flow of ideas; Innovator’s dilemma is about how established companies always miss the next disruptive technology–these books are about a lot more than that, but this is what everyone thinks they said.

         

7 thoughts on “How to read a business book

  1. […] Andrew has a good write up on how to read a business book.  It's good stuff that generally applies to other genres as well. Books also tend to fit one of four flavors: prescriptive, descriptive, narrative, and fables. Prescriptives promise to particular solution: managing teams, motivating poor performers, making strategic decisions, finding a job, reaching your full potential, leading organizations, etc… and usually have some number of answers (5 secrets, 7 habits, 22 laws, etc…). Descriptives offer interesting explanations of what’s going on but no real actionable advice (e.g., The Tipping Point and The World is Flat). Narratives are the “great man” and “great woman” stories, usually auto-biographical, that explain how that one person was responsible for a company’s great performance (Who Say’s Elephants Can’t Dance). Finally, there are the fables, short books that offer a simple creamy insight inside a fluffy, allegorical, outside. Usually (and not surprisingly) food-related: like cheese, fish, chicken-soup. High-calorie and low-nutrition books, read them at your own peril. Know which kind of books you enjoy reading, when, and why.   […]

  2. I like point #4 – many business books are based on rather shaky premises (no coherent theory or data), and thus reading skeptically is critical (for some books saying 1/3 reflects original thought is very generous!). Not only is the advice perhaps a waste of time, but even detrimental to business performance. The journal Academy of Management Review has a recent piece on business fads and fashions (though I think mgt scholars also have their own fads), which points out the potential cyclicality of some ideas.

  3. In the post, “How to read a business book,” Andrew Hargadon gives some solid advice on how to tactically read. However, the post did not cover what I consider to be a crucial strategic question: “Why do we read (business) books?” For me – and I guess for some other people – my motivation for reading a book strongly influences my mix of reading tactics as well as the time that I spend with the book. Before reading a book, I decide on one of four reading styles.
    Style 1: Reading for enjoyment
    (Examples: Popular business magazines; blogs)
    Style 2: Reading for knowing the source of concepts and information to facilitate access at a latter date
    (Example: All magazines, journals, and books)
    Style 3: Reading for understanding, insight, and deep learning
    (Example: Cutting-edge publications)
    Style 4: Reading for greater retention and more detailed recall
    (Examples: Domain-specific books or magazines for writing research papers)
    My experience is that once I decide on my strategy or style of reading, the relevant tactics are intuitively summoned up. Style 2 is my favorite at the moment. With the mountain of books that are flooding my office, I find it easier to mentally index key concepts that I find in books. What is currently most important to me is to know where to get information when I need it. As people increasingly encounter the pressure of information overload from books, ‘indexing’ may become a critical skill for survival and greater peace of mind. Visual techniques such as Mind Mapping and Galaxy Writing facilitate indexing. Ah, if only business books had populated mind maps or Galaxies of their contents!

  4. Nice post. 🙂
    The best advice I ever received about reading business books is that it is OK to read them like a magazine. I receive, on average, about 12 books a week. There is no way to thoroughly read them all and run a business. It used to be the pile would get larger and larger as my frustration with not finishing books would grow. Now I’m entirely comfortable reading one or two chapters that interest me out of the book and putting it on the shelf.

  5. […] Bob Prosen just published a very nice book, Kiss Theory Goodbye, on the need for action–and actionable advice–rather than another theory of how business works. It’s refreshing in its call for returning to the basics, sort of like how I imagine Bobby Knight might view management: if you can’t dribble with both hands, master the bounce pass, and shoot the jumper, all the rest doesn’t matter. After my post on “How to read a business book”, we got to talking. Here’s the jist of the conversation: […]

Comments are closed.