The Best Business Books Ever: A book review by Bob Morris

The Best Business Books Ever: The Most Influential Management Books You’ll Never Have Time to Read
Basic Books (2011)

Note: This review is of a book published earlier this year. It is a sequel to one published in 2003.

What we have here is a series of brief discussions of “the most influential management books you’ll never have time to read,” a total of 130, one per author or co-authors. They were selected by persons not identified and the book was published by (appropriately) Basic Books. No doubt those who examine the list will disagree with the selections (I do and more about that later) because any such list is bound to generate controversy. Some readers will question the selection of an author’s work (e.g. preferring Jim Collins’ Good to Great to Built to Last written with Jerry Porras) and other readers will object to an author’s inclusion (e.g. Gerry McGovern, R. Meredith Belbin) and/or exclusion (e.g. Adrian Slywotsky, Jason Jennings). That said, the 130 really would provide an excellent “basic library” of resources that include non-business books such as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Carl von Clauswitz’s On War that have indeed had significant impact on thinking about leadership and management.

The two-page format is eminently sensible:

WHY READ IT? A capsule introduction describing the book’s key contribution to management
GETTING STARTED: An introduction to the main themes that each author sets out to address
CONTRIBUTION: A detailed summary of the book’s most important points
CONTEXT: An overview of both the immediate reaction to the book and its long-term significance
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Essential bibliographic information on the given title

Granted, it is impossible to do full justice to any of the 130. What surprised me is how much useful material the anonymous co-authors of the digests manage to provide. Although the format is standardized, the approach to essential points varies to accommodate the unique significance of the given work. Here are two brief excerpts:

On the contribution of Igor Ansoff’s Corporate Strategy (1965): “The book presented several new theoretical concepts, such as partial ignorance, business strategy, capability and competence profiles, and synergy. One particular concept, the product-mission matrix, became very popular because it was simple and – for the first time – codified the differences between strategic expansion and diversification.”

On the contribution of Clayton M. Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma (2003): “The author cites five reasons successful companies fail to capitalize on disruptive technologies:

• Customers control the pattern of resource allocation.
• Small markets do not solve the growth needs of large companies.
• It can be difficult to identify successful applications in advance.
• Larger organizations rely on their core competencies and values.
• Technology supply may not equal demand.”

Having read most of the 130, reviewed a majority, and interviewed the authors of several, I disagree with only a few of the selections and would have replaced them with others I consider more worthy such as Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology (1987), Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable (2002), Guy Kawasaki’s Reality Check: The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging, and Outmarketing Your Competition (2008), Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1996), and the U.S. Army’s Official Army Leadership Manual: Leadership the Army Way (available to the general public in Be*Know*Do, an adaptation of the manual published in 2004).

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