Disappointed by the gurus

Readers of business books—you and me—are partly to blame for the general disaffection with theory. Wittingly or not, we often duck the intellectual work associated with understanding a new idea.

There are approximately 200,000 business books in print. That number grows by almost 10,000 titles per year. Can they all have something new to say? Many of us are jaded, feeling ourselves duped by dust jackets one too many times to take seriously claims of “new” or “breakthrough” any more.  The default assumption has become that ideas in business, if they’re any good, aren’t new—and if they’re new, they’re no good.

One needn’t break new ground to be useful, however. There is genuine value in communicating in fresh ways ideas that we know work but that many of us, for whatever reason, find difficult to implement. I’d put Who Moved My Cheese?, The One Minute Manager, and The Rules in this category: no new content, but their success is testament to the usefulness of re-creating old messages in ways that resonate with people.

A second category of non-theoretical business book that contains no new ideas but is entirely credible is the inspirational tale: the biography or, more typically, the autobiography of someone whom we admire recounting formative and perhaps anecdotally instructive experiences. From Iacocca to Trump to Welch to Branson, we are motivated and emboldened by the stories of their success.

What has made cynics of us is the implicitly theoretical business book. There is, of course, a view that merely by dint of being theoretical, a business book has rendered itself useless—because if there’s one thing hard-nosed businesspeople don’t have time for, it’s theory. But I disagree. Good theory is not only the zenith of practicality; theorizing is something we all do, knowingly or not.

The creation of a theory is a statement of cause-and-effect relationships. Such statements, when true, are enormously powerful. Without them, we are limited to observing merely that “one thing follows another,” so when we see something new, our ability to predict the outcome is severely curtailed. When facing circumstances we’ve not already mastered, absent a theory, all we can rely on is luck.

So if it’s not theory per se that has us tuning out, it must be because there is too much bad theory out there, right? There is some truth to that. Most business books are mediocre, and there have been efforts of late to make consumers of theory savvier and, by extension, efforts to hold creators of shoddy theory to account.

But it’s unfair to lay all the blame for a general disaffection with theorizing at the feet of the theorizers. Sometimes, it is the readers of business books—you and me—who don’t always hold up their end of the bargain. Wittingly or not, we often duck the difficult intellectual work associated with understanding a new idea and taking its prescriptions seriously.

First, many readers of business books want clear, straightforward recommendations, which authors are eager to provide. Too often, this mutual desire for clarity sacrifices the subtlety of making an argument to the adrenaline rush of simply stating a conclusion. Authors are encouraged to trim not merely fat but muscle and bone, just as readers are tempted to skip carefully crafted, if sometimes demanding, exposition.

Second, it is much easier for us to take ideas and shoehorn them into our existing mental models than it is to entertain seriously the possibility of something new. But the less often we fully engage potentially new ideas, the less likely we are to recognize insights that could improve the way we think. Worse still, by insisting on punchy conclusions and avoiding (or even deriding) the careful construction of underlying positions, we deprive ourselves of the raw material necessary to  make informed evaluations.

Third, when it comes to applying new theories, many practicing managers are unwilling to extend a core principle of intellectual inquiry known as “interpretive charity.” If we go in looking for ways to criticize new work, we will surely find them. The good news is that if we go in looking for ways to learn, we will almost just as certainly find those, too.

Fourth, many of us employ a double standard. Managers are invariably theorizers. We all carry around our own cause-and-effect models to which we turn when making decisions in unique situations. Yet few managers hold their own theories up to the level of scrutiny and criticism that they level against others’ points of view.

There’s more at stake here than mere academic nitpicking. As economist John Maynard Keynes observed, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” For “practical  men” read “managers,” and for “economist” read “management theorist,” and the observation still holds. Consequently, managers who step up to their responsibilities as consumers of management theory will not only help create better and more rigorous theories—they will create more successful companies.