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The problem with management books

Jill Lepore’s take-down of ‘The Innovator’s Dilemma’ by Clayton M. Christensen (a management book popular with Silicon Valley types) in the New Yorker is worth a read — all 6,000 words of it.

Here’s a (bit of a chewy) taster:

“Disruptive innovation as a theory of change is meant to serve both as a chronicle of the past (this has happened) and as a model for the future (it will keep happening). The strength of a prediction made from a model depends on the quality of the historical evidence and on the reliability of the methods used to gather and interpret it. Historical analysis proceeds from certain conditions regarding proof. None of these conditions have been met.”

That’s pretty much the crux of Jill Lepore’s argument. It’s also the the big flaw with pretty much every management book in the ‘must read’ section of airport bookshops (and, for that matter, every big idea sold for squillions by McKinsey). Because business school theories all work the same way. They start with a grand but simple idea that explains why all businesses succeed or fail, then carefully pick a bunch of case studies to conveniently fit their theory. And they ignore the rest.

Management books can sometimes help you spot trends. But — and here’s the important bit — all those theories are rubbish at helping you repeat companies’ successes (or even predict what will succeed in the future). De-constructing why something has been successful and turning that into a process is very, very different from actually doing something successful. If it were that easy we’d all be billionaires by now.

About the only thing you can be sure of is that all the ‘innovative’ successes these tomes cite started out with a good idea and a better way to do something, not with an over-simplified theory from Harvard Business School.