A Memo is Not a Book

How to Manage in a Flat World: 10 Strategies to Get Connected to Your Team Wherever They Are
Susan Bloch and Phillip Whiteley

In a prior post I noted business books tended to fall into two categories–how-to and hagiography. The present case is a would be example of a cookbook, a how-to for the executive suite. If this were a cookbook, though, there’s a good chance you’d be standing in the kitchen armed with the knowledge you started with and not a single new recipe to show for the investment of your time.

Perhaps the authors believe they are being respectful of that time. It’s clear they think the audience for this volume consists of senior (and would-be senior) managers of trans-global corporations. It’s a neat package–a slim 149 pages  that easily fits into the laptop case  and can be read, cover-to-cover, on the next flight from Dublin to Düsseldorf.

The problem is, a 4-page memo takes up even less space and can be read while waiting for pushback. Twice. And at the end of the day that’s what this book is, an extended memo masquerading as a management volume.

“People love to read and learn from stories.” That’s the first sentence in the preface and the authors, she a consultant and he a financial journalist, try to live up to it. They tell us that they “gather[ed] insights from 64 senior managers,” consisting of in-depth  interviews with  25 managers and an online survey of 40 others.  Let’s presume that one interviewee was also surveyed otherwise basic addition is the first hurdle to overcome. Still, there’s that nagging ” we also conducted” phrase that makes you wonder. This trove is referred to over and over as “the data.” Pretensions to research methodology aside they got it right at the outset–stories not data.

There are other clues to what’s going on. For example, seemingly every time an executive is quoted  (maybe it’s every time they are quoted in a new chapter) their credentials are repeated. Undoubtedly meant to save the reader the trouble of looking back, in some cases this practice chews up a line and a half. It’s also a practice, along with the 12-point type, wide margins and deep leading, instantly recognizable as padding to anyone who’s ever had a professor do them the favor of calling them on it.

There are other problems, too. The pretense to scholarship means we get end notes, a whopping 14 of them. One is explanatory, two are from Thomas Friedman and most of the rest are also drawn from journalism. We hear, repeatedly, that people everywhere share universal values. Any one with a social science background will scoff at that notion. It’s a byproduct of the limited number of individuals interviewed and their homogeneity.  And what should one make of a book that claims to deliver 10 strategies but has only 8 chapters?

If you’re a good senior manager you probably know more than is in this book. If you aspire to be one you’d be better off reading history. Because what the whole book boils down to is pay attention to people because you have to do everything–across time and distance–through them.

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