Reflections on how and why…we work and live.

Why read business books?

August 28th, 2014 | Posted by admin in Book reviews | Management

“Life is not so much about beginnings and endings as it is about muddling through the middle.” – a forgivable, I hope, paraphrase of Anna Quindlen.

This is my last book review for Manufacturers Alliance. It’s been fun. In particular, I’d like to thank Vickie Parks for her support, her insights, and her additions to my fiction reading list.

As I sit here on the porch enjoying one of those perfect Minnesota summer mornings my first thought is to use this last missive to write about my favorite books–or maybe the books that have influenced me the most. In the end (or perhaps the muddling middle) I realize that I’m probably misconstruing how that sort of influence really comes about. Even if I had the inclination I couldn’t sort it all out – and why should I?

So I’ll take the self-indulgent route and just ramble on a bit.

Maybe the first question is why read business books at all? Given the choice between Mike Rother (whose business writing is pretty good) and Carl Hiaasen (whose non-business writing is hilarious) I would pretty much always choose the fiction. Even good non-fiction (harder to find) is more fun than business books.

For me there are two answers: First, I’m just curious about how organizations work (or don’t work) and second, I keep hoping against hope that we’ll all be able to find meaningful work in humane settings with people we enjoy. Work so good that we have trouble imagining what it would feel like. It is, in fact, that very particular lack of imagination that most distracts me when I think about business and leadership today.

There are, of course, outliers. My recent review of Rich Sheridan’s book, “Joy, Inc.” describes a case in point. But even Sheridan felt compelled to subtitle his book “The business value of joy.” Why does joy need to have “business value” in order to justify it as a workplace attribute? Or perhaps more to the point, why would we purposefully create organizing principles that made joy so difficult to find? Other people have written eloquently (Matthew Crawford and Kathy Davidson come to mind) about the historical origins of our institutions of work and school. All of which is fascinating and, at the least, serves to suggest that we built these institutions to serve a different time and a different perspective – they’re not inviolable.

Still, organizations are made up primarily of two things: people and relationships. Understanding organizational relationships is difficult. Understanding people – at least as individual collections of behaviors and beliefs– is impossible. At one point I looked up “biases in judgment and decision-making” in Wikipedia. The list ran to 168 items.

“So what?” you may fairly ask. Life’s complicated. You’ve got a business to run, bills to pay, a payroll to meet, strategy to craft, markets to expand. How can you be expected to take responsibility for the inner life of the people who work for you? I understand the question–I just think it’s the wrong one.

Here’s the better one. What sort of organization do you secretly dream of working for? Would bright, energetic, creative people–if they had the ability to choose to work anywhere they wanted to–choose to work with you? Are you sure?

It’s been fun. Thanks for reading. I’m off to the bookstore to roam the racks – a real bookstore with old-fashioned books where literary serendipity is still possible. The last time I went looking for Christopher Moore I discovered Susanna Moore – a lovely happenstance. This time I’m thinking about picking up Christopher’s latest novel – it seems that the lust lizard of Melancholy Cove may have been spotted in the canals of Venice. I love sea monsters.

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