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The 100 Best Business Books of All Time: What They Say, Why They Matter, and How They Can Help You Paperback – Nov 1 2011
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About the Author
Jack Covert is the founder and president of 800-CEO-READ, a specialty business book retailer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Todd Sattersten runs BizBookLab, a company that identifies, develops, and launches business books around the world. Todd is based in Portland, Oregon.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
To Engineer Is HumanHENRY PETROSKI
Reviewed by Todd
Everything fails it is just a matter of when. Parents forewarn their children that failure is common even likely, through the nursery rhymes of "Humpty Dumpty" and "Jack and Jill". Our first steps and first bike rides without the training wheels give us an idea of what failure feels like, literally. As we find our balance, scraped-up knees and bruised pride happen less frequently. Henry Petroski begins his book, To Engineer Is Human, by revisiting these same children's tales, cautioning us again, and with an engineer's eye, describing a world more reminiscent of London Bridge.
Due to their design, the pen on your desk is likely to last for months while your automobile will likely get you from point A to B for many years, their life spans governed by a balance between function, aesthetic, and economy. Engineers arbitrate those competing forces when bringing an idea into the material world. This arbitration, as Petroski describes it, is something closer to art than science. But sometimes, Petroski warns, art comes at the expense of sound engineering and construction.
The construction of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City called for a grand atrium with two walkways suspended from the ceiling by a set of rods that ran through both structures. The single rod mechanism was replaced, during early planning with two separate rods to simplify construction and utilize standard fabrication techniques. This small change left the system with barely enough strength to support the walkway; adding people proved disastrous. On July 17, 1981, the walkway collapsed, killing 114 people and injuring 200 others.
Petroski uses the Hyatt Regency story to illustrate several nuances of engineering. Many parties were simply negligent: an early ceiling collapse and comments from construction workers about instability gave engineers ample warning to reexamine the walkway plans; no changes were made. Letters to the editors of trade publications following the accident also suggested what seemed like obvious engineering alternatives.
But that is the trick. Knowing the nature of a failure provides paths to the core problem, but this is a hindsight luxury the original engineers didn't have. And there we return back to the idea of engineering as art. The unique design and construction of these walkways left engineers working in a thought space that was dangerous, more so than they realized
As much as the field of study seems to be based in fact and formula, engineering is better described as grounded in hypothesis, a working practice of individuals developing ideas that tentatively describe phenomena but need constant reevaluation. Engineers spend enormous amounts of time studying the mistakes made by their colleagues. Petroski points to an Egyptian pyramid in Dahshur, with its sudden change to a more shallow angle midway up, as an early example of a trial and error method of construction. Flying buttresses on European cathedrals indicate a similar postconstruction epiphany. Computer-aided three-dimensional drafting and finite element analysis do not protect today's engineers from failure as new designs further strain the tensions between competing factors. While unequivocally a tragedy the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse becomes a valuable case study from which future engineers can learn."Engineering, like poetry, is an attempt to approach perfection."
Petroski's expertise in failure analysis provides important lessons for those in business. Formulas for organizational success, whether self-determined or suggested, are, like design, better described as hypothesis, accurate under some conditions and always open for reexamination. What engineers call a "factor of safety " and inventory analysts call "safety stock" deals with the parallel uncertainty of real world conditions on a rope or a distribution system. Businesses have their own versions of engineering's "factor of safety," whether it concerns extra boxes of inventory under the expeditor's desk or adding a few days to a customer promise for variation in the distribution center, but they'd better make sure those safety factors don t inflate and allow sloppy business practices.
Much lip service is given to accepting failure in business as a natural phase in the learning process yet internalizing the idea seems a little more difficult. Shareholders don't show sympathy for failed products. Customers expect their product to arrive when promised and in pristine condition. Most of the other books featured in these pages detail the workings of successful companies, while Petroski's book tells a more complicated tale of failure, one in which business practitioners can find wisdom. The most important lesson has to be appreciating failure as a learning opportunity. Failure is common. Not learning from failure forces companies to repeat the same mistakes. In engineering, that repetition can cost lives; in business, our livelihood.The Essential DruckerPETER F. DRUCKER
Reviewed by Jack
When we were choosing the books for the management section of our 100 Best list, we both knew that Peter F. Drucker had to be represented. But which book to include? Though his name is often bandied about in business thought circles, Drucker's books are often considered too dense to tackle in order to access his invaluable ideas and observations. Since Drucker wrote thirty-nine volumes on everything from business management to entrepreneurship to nonprofits, the options can be somewhat overwhelming.
Now, as a music fan (some might say obsessed music fan), I would never recommend purchasing a "Greatest Hits" CD. The problem with these types of collections is that they miss the nuances of the complete package the artist intended when he or she created the original album. I find this to be true of iTunes and other "singles" sources too, because listeners can pick and choose the tracks they already know. Many times I have found my favorite track only after listening to an entire CD multiple timesand I highly value that opportunity for discovery. Regardless, The Essential Drucker, indeed a "Greatest Hits" collection of sorts, is a must-read because the entire body of Drucker's work is a tall mountain to scale. While I, as a self-described music snob, may not run out to buy The Best of Mahler, there is something to be said for making academic literature accessible to the common reader, and that is what The Essential Drucker does for this brilliant man's work.
The genesis of The Essential Drucker occurred when Drucker's longtime
Japanese editor and good friend Atsuo Ueda, who had retired from publishing and gone into teaching, needed an abridged version for his students to read. The resulting collection was published in Japan in 2000. However, even abridged, it ran three volumes. The American edition published in 2001 was edited down to one volume. Mr. Drucker approved of the edited compilation as a good overview of his work.
The Essential Drucker is organized around the three emphases that Drucker focused on throughout his career: Management, the Individual, and Society. He was intensely interested in the role people play in organizations. Each chapter within these sections is derived from a single Drucker book, and a curious reader will be able go back to the source book to delve more deeply into the subject. While excerpting from only ten of Drucker's thirty-nine books, the editor acknowledges that there are five other books that could have been included but which are more technical, and therefore not included in a book meant to introduce Drucker essentials.
"Business management must always, in every decision and action, put economic performance first."
Clearly, the man was prolific, but what makes the late Mr. Drucker's writings so important? I read a ton of business books, but reading Drucker is a different kind of experience. His passages require multiple readings, not because the writing is hard to understand but because every single word is chosen with care to optimize the point he wishes to make. His sentences are sculpted, and the thoughts are read-out-loud important.
If you usually read a book with a highlighter to help remember key thoughts, you might be better served to only highlight the words that you don't want to remember, because there are far fewer of those and you will save money on pens.
For example, Drucker says that the purpose of a business is to create a customer. Simple. He states that a business enterprise has only two basic functions" marketing and innovation. Important. In the chapter on time management, he presents a strategy I have used many times when writing reviews or other important memos, and I have found it very effective. He suggests that when you have a large writing project, you should go heads down and write a "zero draft"which is very rougheven before the first draft. The "zero draft" will generally take much less time, and then you can edit and revise the piece in short chunks of timewhich are always easier to find. Practical. Yes, these are simple concepts, but the meat is in the implementation. As managers and leaders, we realize that every business has a different way of going to market, but this little volume offers essential concepts everyone can implement in their individual organizations.
Ask those you know who have a business degree and you will be astonished by the number who say they have not read Drucker. Beginning his career as a journalist, this was a man who never stopped writing, never stopped observing, and his insights were always well-founded in industry dynamics. This is not to say his books aren't daunting, and that is why we recommend The Essential Drucker as an access point to a world of unparalleled reflection on this pursuit we call business.
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Top Customer Reviews
What must have been such an enormous undertaking for these authors fell flat for me. I really felt like so little was covered on each book ... so little that I didn't really learn much except the same generic pieces I could get from skimming the covers or a quick flip through a book.
I feel horribly bad saying that this book was a disappointment because the authors must have worked so hard on this book. It's not for lack of effort that this book didn't do it for me... it's lack of real substance.
I admire them for what they did ... and if you just need to have a list of good books to read then I think this is a good resource but I confess I read about 30% of the book and then gave up. I just didn't find it satisfying at all.
That said, I think Covert and Sattersten have created an invaluable single source of information, especially given the fact that 11,000 business books were published in the United States in 2007 and, when I last checked, more than 1.9-million business books are now offered by Amazon, including more than 267,000 in the "business management" category.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
I wanted to learn the key ideas in these 100 books and this book did not provide it. That is my main criticism. I am just not that interested in learning how "refreshing" the style of writing is or in reading commentary on how clever the author was.
So, if you think that you are going to get summaries and distillations of the ideas from these 100 books then you are mostly mistaken. I say mostly because there are indeed a few (a very few) morsels provided in each review. However, all too often the review just says something like "the author then provides 8 ideas that you should consider in setting up your business", but you don't get to learn what those 8 ideas are! Down with fluffy teasers.
I also wish the collection did not restrict itself only to relatively contemporary works. That is like saying music should only be understood by looking at everything from the Beatles on. Don't get me wrong: I love the Beatles but what about Bach? Frederick Taylor's views of the employee may be old but it still provides insight into how a sizeable portion of businesses are still being run around the world today ... not to mention that it gives us a context for understanding how we got to where we are right now.
In fairness, there are a number of "pop numbers" that I would have never learned about if not for this book. So, I feel the authors do a credible job of surveying and presenting fresh options based on contemporary (e.g. humanitarian) business values and trends.
If you like this book you probably owe it to yourself to broaden your list a little. There are a lot of "best business" lists out there. For example, Fortune Magazine has a nice list called the "75 Smartest Books We Know".
After going through this book, the Fortune list and numerous other "best business" lists, my favorite "best of business" source remains "The Best Business Books Ever: The 100 Most Influential Business Books You'll Never Have Time to Read". That one, too, has its share of problems but, in my opinion, it provides less pop numbers but more meat and more context.
That said, I think Covert and Sattersten have created an invaluable single source of information, especially given the fact that 11,000 business books were published in the United States in 2007 and, when I last checked, more than 1.9-million business books are now offered by Amazon, including more than 267,000 in the "business management" category. The material is carefully organized within 12 sections, each devoted to a theme: You (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People among the books discussed), Leadership (The Leadership Challenge), Strategy (Good to Great), Sales and Marketing (the selections including Positioning are fine but why not Theodore Levitt's The Marketing Imagination also?), Rules and Scorekeeping (The Balanced Scorecard), Management (The Essential Drucker), Biographies (My Years with General Motors), Entrepreneurship (The Monk and the Riddle), Narratives (The Force, a brilliant choice), Innovation and Creativity (The Art of Innovation), Big Ideas (Made to Stick), and Takeaways (The Lexus and the Olive Tree).
I especially appreciate the inclusion of "Sidebars" throughout the book. For example Business Books for Kids of All Ages (Page 34), Leadership in Movies (Page 46 but what about Fort Apache, Paths of Glory, and Twelve O'Clock High?), The Best Route to an Idea (Page 77), Learn from Experience (Page 81), Selling on the Silver Screen (Page 120 and the five choices are excellent but where's The Producers?), Classics (Page 200), Found in Fiction (Page 247), Fresh Perspectives Not in a Bookstore Near You (Page 282), and Readers' Poll (Page 307). In "The Last Word," Covert and Sattersten invite their readers to visit 100bestbiz.com for more information about all of the books discussed, including chapter excerpts, interviews with authors, videos about the books, and more. I also highly recommend signing up for the 800-CEO-READ Blog (email@example.com) which provides daily updates of various kinds.
As previously indicated, I am among those who question many of the selections and especially, several omissions. So what? After reading this book, just for the fun of it, I compiled my own list and even devised a few "Sidebars." Perhaps others will also come up with their own list. There are several on Jack Covert and Todd Sattersten's list that I have not as yet read or last read decades ago. After reading or re-reading them, perhaps I'll change my mind. In any event, I enjoyed reading this book and am grateful for the enlightenment and entertainment it provides as well as for its capacity for thought-provocation. Now that it has been published, let the disagreements begin!
If you own a Zagats restaurant guide, it probably means you care about the food you eat.
You need to buy this book if you care about the work you do.
Even better than a restaurant guide, this book will actually feed your head. The summaries are first rate, their enthusiasm is palpable and you'll learn something on every single page.
I know, I'm biased. But I'm sitting here making a fool of myself for a reason--you need to read more business books! This is a great place to start.
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