February 23, 2009

Ivory Towers vs Empty Calories: The Best and Worst of Business Publishing

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder & Fusion Director, Atomic Tango LLC

How I feel after reading some business books...

How I feel after reading some business books...

Business professors love to dis popular business books, like the silly but frighteningly successful Who Moved My Cheese? We criticize them as lacking proper research and analysis and being the business-publishing equivalent of McDonald’s combo meals. They’re tasty and easy to swallow — which is fine if you’re trapped at the airport — but if you rely on them for sustenance, you’re destined to crash…

“You want bulletpoints? I got your !@##% bulletpoints right here!”

soprano-managementsopranos-leadershipFor example, when “The Sopranos” was a hit show, TWO business books came out based on it. As a huge Sopranos fan, I picked one up, thinking it would be satirical. (“Having trouble with a competitor? Whack ’em! Having trouble with an employee? Whack ’em!”) Instead, the book was deadly serious: it actually contrived leadership lessons from a fictitious Mafioso! Having once been an assistant on a TV series, I know the last people you want business advice from are television writers, least of all the homicidal characters they fabricate.

After reading that piece of silliness, I remarked to my wife that anything could be contrived into a business lesson: simply pick a compelling subject, cook up some crazy metaphors, and hand pick anecdotal evidence for support. I mentioned that our insane cat Scooter was as viable a source of management wisdom as Tony Soprano: after all, despite a bad leg, Scooter is thriving; he lets us know loudly when he wants something; he literally tests the water with his paws before drinking deeply; and he gets a lot of sleep. All possible business metaphors, no?

See, I can contrive with the best of 'em.

See, I can contrive with the best of 'em.

My wife suggested I put it on paper, so in 2006 I wrote Claw Your Way To The Top: Ten Things I Learned About Business From My Cat as a joke gift for my family and friends. I self-published it through Amazon so I could order copies on demand and have them mail it, and am pleasantly amused when some stranger buys a copy. (Which happens about once per year.) My mother-in-law, a librarian at the Houston public library, tells me that the book is continuously checked out there, so it’s nice to know my presence is still being felt in Texas.

(Update 3/28/2009: I spit up a hairball today when I discovered the 2008 book “Cats: The Nine Lives of Innovation” by Stephen Lundin. And, yes, Lundin is deadly serious about deriving business metaphors from furballs with sharp teeth.)

Big Fish Beware

On the flip side, one reason I like popular business books is that they’re usually written by people who have actually practiced business. (There’s a concept for ya.) The authors might not perform extensive multivariate analysis to prove their points, but they speak from front-line experience, with insights that no professor could imagine from deep within a lab.

etbf2_mediumFor example, I recommend “Eating The Big Fish: How Challenger Brands Can Compete Against Brand Leaders” by former TBWAChiatDay advertising exec Adam Morgan. Although not fluidly written — Morgan tends toward verbosity, so just as the title implies, the book requires a lot of verbal chewing — “Eating The Big Fish” provides practical strategies that enable small underfunded companies to take on corporate giants.

And I emphasize the word practical: Morgan describes practices that managers can implement NOW. He doesn’t call for further study, like many academics do; he provides a blueprint for immediate action. Are Morgan’s strategies flawless and foolproof? Probably not — but what strategies are? Business strategy is like warfare strategy: it’s constantly shifting and evolving depending on the time, technology, environment, culture, etc.

Academics try to foolproof their papers by doing extensive research, analysis, and testing. Professors love to rip each other’s work apart, so they’re as self-conscious and perfectionist as beauty pageant contestants. The problem? By the time many of the articles come out, they’re obsolete. Even if they’re accurate at the time, history has a funny way of happening to the best-wrought ideas.

Oops: Lessons Best Forgetting

challenger_explosionOne of the more striking examples was the 1985 book, Comeback: Case By Case: Building The Resurgence Of American Business, by Prof. Ezra Vogel. As one of Vogel’s students at Harvard, I read this book, which is based on case studies of successful American organizations. One institutional role model that Vogel promoted was NASA. Well, we all know what happened next: just one year after the book was published, the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up. Subsequent studies revealed massive dysfunction at NASA. Not surprisingly, the book is no longer being published.

Vogel is most famous for his 1980 book, Japan As No. 1: Lessons For America, which became a bestseller on both sides of the Pacific, and which compelled me to take Vogel’s class and major in East Asian Studies. Yes, I was that clueless. While there’s a lot to be admired about Japan — a country that I’ve lived in and loved — it turns out that much of Japan’s success was based on an asset-price bubble that collapsed in 1990, and from which Japan has never fully recovered. Apparently, America derived the wrong lessons from Japan, because our economy just pulled a full Godzilla.

Can You Read Me Now? How About Now?

At least Vogel’s books are easy to read. Trying to read most academic articles is like trying to chew aluminum foil — a phenomenon I spoofed in my earlier post, The Young Professor: How To Get Published.

In addition, most current professorial musings are published in academic journals, which are primarily read by other professors and their students. The holy grail of business publishing, the Harvard Business Review, is available in most major bookstores, but good luck trying to find the International Journal of Market Research at your local Border’s. (Actually, the way the economy is going, good look finding a Border’s.)

What use is all that business wisdom if the people who need it — actual business people — can’t find it and can’t understand it? Come now, almighty PhD’s, please deign to step forth from the cozy refuge of your ivory towers to bestow your infinite wisdom upon us plebes! After all, our six-figure student loans paid for those towers, so drop some science on us masses already, huh? And, uh, speak in plain Americanese, por favor!

Now Check This: Working Knowledge

That’s why I want to share a great source of business thinking that’s truly accessible: Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge — a free website that offers “a first look at faculty research.” It contains articles being prepped for publication (quick, read ’em while the knowledge is fresh!), interviews, and blog posts.

Although the writing can still be pretty dry — you won’t find any Dan Neil-caliber prose here — you won’t suffer an aneurysm trying to read it. [Update 5/28/9: I take that back. All the way back. Today HBS published “Monopolistic Competition Between Differentiated Prodcuts With Demand For More Than One Variety” — and the title was the most exciting part of this impenetrable paper. Pure aneurysm city. And people wonder why I won’t pursue a PhD.]

For example, today they published “Creative Entrepreneurship in a Downturn” an interesting interview with HBS senior lecturer Bhaskar Chakravorti on opportunities during a recession. I hope everyone reads it, because I’m counting on entrepreneurs and a little creative destruction to pull us out of this economic swamp.

Another recent article I like is “Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting.” First, the title rocks: finally, some business professors who know a little pop culture and ain’t afraid to use it.

Then came the insight:

For decades, goal setting has been promoted as a halcyon pill for improving employee motivation and performance in organizations. Advocates of goal setting argue that for goals to be successful, they should be specific and challenging, and countless studies find that specific, challenging goals motivate performance far better than “do your best” exhortations. The authors of this article, however, argue that it is often these same characteristics of goals that cause them to “go wild.” Key concepts include:

  • The harmful side effects of goal setting are far more serious and systematic than prior work has acknowledged.
  • Goal setting harms organizations in systematic and predictable ways.
  • The use of goal setting can degrade employee performance, shift focus away from important but non-specified goals, harm interpersonal relationships, corrode organizational culture, and motivate risky and unethical behaviors.
  • In many situations, the damaging effects of goal setting outweigh its benefits.
  • Managers should ask specific questions to ascertain whether the harmful effects of goal setting outweigh the potential benefits.

Now here’s a prime example of the value of academic research: ripping apart conventional wisdom that’s useless or even harmful. I also love any argument that sticks it to the formula marketers: those who think all business should be defined and directed by numbers. Some factors you can’t measure — such as employee motivation or the appeal of a corporate brand — can be as important as hitting the numbers. (A related article I strongly recommend is the cover story in the latest issue of Wired, “The Secret Formula That Destroyed Wall Street.” I particularly dig the article’s creative and readily understandable example of correlation.)

Cool Rules Pronto Time

Since you won’t find me published by Harvard Business School anytime soon — and since this is my blog where I rule — let me close this post with three tips on how you can apply the lessons of “Goals Gone Wild” to marketing:

1. Measure everything. In a recession, everyone talks about getting a measurable return on their marketing investment. But exactly what kind of returns are they expecting? Obviously, sales would be great, but which sales: the products that barely generate any profits, or sales of high-margin merchandise? So before executing a marketing plan, consider all possible results and ways to measure them: these could include total revenue or profits, market share gained, number of new customers, number of sales to repeat customers, revenue per customer, revenue per square foot, traffic to your website, views of your YouTube video, number of articles generated in the news media, number of competitors driven to tears… and so on. As the HBS article argues, if you focus on just one metric, such as sales, you might fail to notice other ways your marketing campaign succeeded or failed.

2. Brand first. What if those sales come at a cost to your public image (i.e., your brand)? To juice sales, BMW could go door-to-door in Beverly Hills and literally beg people to buy a Beemer, but that wouldn’t do much for the image of the company. Indeed, it would probably destroy the brand. The range of marketing tactics at your disposal are infinite (hire a marketing agency to help you identify the appropriate ones — hint hint), but don’t ever forget the brand, and always distinguish between tactical goals and strategic goals. Your tactical goals might all focus on increasing income, but your strategic goals might be to fulfill your vision and further the causes you care about. Indeed, sometimes it actually takes a loss in some areas to achieve your grander objectives. For example, Patagonia, the high-end outdoor wear company, endured huge hits to their bottom line in order to make the switch to organic cotton, but the move was integral to the company’s brand and the vision of its management.

3. Coordinate and collaborate. Make sure all participants in your marketing are on the same page, but not necessarily pursuing the same goals. For example, your PR firm has different responsibilities from your ad agency, but all parties need to collaborate to meet the overall corporate goal, even if it’s just a single campaign. If the ad agency wants to create a YouTube video, it helps to have the PR firm score news coverage about it; for the PR firm to score news coverage, it helps if the ad agency creates a video that the relevant news outlets care about. If your ad agency creates a groundbreaking video for a teenage beauty product, it doesn’t help the overall strategy if the only coverage you get is a technical review in MovieMaker magazine; if you want Marie Claire magazine to cover the video, it doesn’t help if the actresses in the video are addressed as “babe” and “eye candy.”

And there you’ve got it: a little business knowledge that doesn’t require a PhD to read.

Now all I’ve got to do to get it published is make it fit my latest contrived metaphor: “It Sucks To Be Me: Business Lessons from the Vampire Hotties of Twilight.”

Shameless plug: Need professional consultation on marketing strategies for your business? Contact Atomic Tango

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

2 Responses

  1. Except for clawing your way to the top, most business books have to be rewritten a la : “how to beg the prez for cash”

    It is mindboggling to me how the busienss teachings of the last 30 years (free markets make you rich) have been tossed overboard.

  2. “Measure everything.” So many companies haven’t got a clue when it comes to this. Especially when it comes to websites. Not having any data (or good data) from a website where it is relatively easy to gather (how many people saw your yellow pages ad?) is still amazingly common. Most decent analytics software lets you track things like phone calls from your website now days too, so your stats are even more powerful.

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