Books: Great ideas at great length

All 27 precepts in this book are worth considering, and some you might even wish to pursue. But, says Mike Hewitt, its high wordcount will sap your will to read on.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I know what I was thinking, 30 seconds into this book. It was 'will this sentence ever end?' Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer's monthly columns in Business 2.0 were never longer than 650 words, looking at common mistakes and often questioning the corporate cultures that make business leaders act the way they do.

My own employer's culture is one of relentless attention to detail and thorough analysis. This means I can tell you that Jeff's second sentence in What Were They Thinking? is 11% of the length of one of his columns, contains seven sub-clauses and - moving from quantitative to qualitative for a moment - saps the will to live to the point that leaping from the 6.45am to King's Cross looked like a sensible alternative to reading any more.

And yes, I know that last sentence was nearly as long as the one I've just rubbished (89% as long, in fact), but it was much, much funnier. Put your calculator away now.

Truth is, just as there are only half a dozen basic plots in all the world's stories, there really is only a handful of big business lessons to be learned, and most of us - unless we're being cared for in the community - already know them. It's just that the psychopathic boss/niggardly investors/faithless customers stop us from putting them into practice.

Take chapter 21, entitled 'The Real Budget Crisis - Stop rewarding forecasting and negotiating instead of real performance' (can you see a theme developing here? That's 13 words and we're only on the chapter heading). I cheerfully concede that this chapter is spot-on. We really do spend far too much time measuring ourselves against budgets and forecasts and not enough looking at how we're actually performing against the competition. If we're not careful, while we're congratulating ourselves on beating budget, the market may have soared in size and our rivals could be grabbing market share at our expense.

True, we'll all feel good and have more bonus money to spend on buns and fast cars, but come next year, when we're on the verge of corporate extinction at the hands of leaner competitors (driving cheaper cars), we'll wish we'd used a better measure of performance than some more or less arbitrary internal numbers.

Some companies - Pfeffer mentions Svenska Handelsbanken, American Express and Charles Schwab - have gone 'budgetless', and the suggestion that others should follow is a reasonable one. It is, however, not a new suggestion, and most of us suspect it's right but struggle to see how we can make it work in our unique circumstances, so the value lies in explaining how we might do it, or learning from the example of those who have.

Sadly, so prolix is Pfeffer's style that by the time we've waded through some of the arguments against budgets, our time is up and we're being hustled along to chapter 22, 'Shareholder Return is the Wrong Measure of Performance' - to which we can only respond: 'Not if you're a shareholder, it isn't.'

The whole experience reminds me of a visit to St Petersburg some years back. I was still an honest journalist then rather than a spreadsheet-jockey, which meant, of course, that Mrs H and I were being entertained lavishly at someone else's expense. Part of the itinerary was a visit to the Hermitage, which Mrs H, being an art-history-at-posh-school sort of girl, was really looking forward to.

We were led past the huge queue of genuine art-lovers and in through the nomenklatura door (why the locals didn't stone us to death there and then I don't know), then shown through the gallery by a guide who was clearly being paid a bonus for getting us out on time.

Since we had only an hour allocated for this and there were 30 of us, the tour went something like this: 'On left are French 19th-century painters; on right are English 18th-century painters ...' as we double-timed down the central aisle past fleeting glimpses of side-galleries packed with Cezannes, Gauguins, Gainsboroughs and Reynoldses, any one of which would have repaid an hour's study.

So it is with Pfeffer. All the 27 ideas in this book - even 'Curbing the Urge to Merge' - are worth considering, and if you've never read a management book before - well, congratulations, actually - you may well come across a few that you could use. For the rest of us, it's an unsatisfying experience whose main benefit is that it leaves us wanting more and may encourage us to do more research and reassess our existing ideas about what works best. Which, in an uncharacteristic moment of fairness, I have to concede is Pfeffer's stated intention.

Well, not stated quite like that, obviously, because that would be too short. What he actually says is: 'To provide additional help to people facing the challenge of making important decisions in a welter of conflicting and often incorrect information, the chapters include some endnotes and ideas and data so that, for anyone who wants to, it is possible to pursue each topic in further detail.'

For Pfeffer, this is positively laconic, at 48 words. It's also a pretty reasonable aim, and one that his editors at Harvard Business School Press should have encouraged him to express in rather fewer words. So here's what I suggest.

Buy a copy of this book and send it to Keith Parish, the chief sub editor on MT. He is very good at cutting out verbosity, so if you enclose a tenner he'll read this 215-page book for you, put a line through all the stuff you don't need, and send you back a really rather good 107-page primer on counter-cultural business ideas (er, thanks very much, boss - KP).

What Were They Thinking? - Unconventional wisdom about management; Jeffrey Pfeffer; Harvard Business School Press £14.99

To order, visit

- Mike Hewitt is publishing director of MT.

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