What Makes a Business Book a Business Book? No White Space, For One.

It’s been a little more than 24 months since “I Have A Strategy (No You Don’t)” was released. And, not coincidentally, since this site was updated.

Most of the customer reviews on at least one popular online retailer’s site have been favorable. Some glowing, in fact:

  • ‘Engaging guide to strategy…’
  • I have to hand it to Mr. Malham – he nailed it…’
  • Book has the virtues of brevity and focus…’
  • This book is very funny. As in dry humor… lays down a fairly comprehensive foundation for what strategy (vs tactics) is and how organizations make them work…’
  • ‘McKinsey meets “The Little Prince…”’
  • ‘One of the best books I read so far in 2013…’  

Those who didn’t care for my humble offering have been equally enthusiastic in their execrations:

  • “Oh, look I wrote a book! No you didn’t…”
  • “I found this book irrelevant and out of focus…”
  • “This book is truly garbage…[It] should be carved down from the first 20 pages into a two page pamphlet and left in bathroom stalls for a quick read…”
  •  “Highly unsatisfying book that wastes time, money, and shelf space…
  • “This tiresome manual fails to impart either entertainment or information. It reads like an amateurish mind map…”

There is lukewarm praise. (“Somewhat helpful.”) There’s a splash of ambivalence. (“Whatever…”) There’s a single wave of condescension, with an elegant, passive-aggressive flourish. (“I am sure that the author wanted the book to be awesome…”)

And while any author enjoys kind words and praise from readers who enjoy a book in the spirit in which it is conceived, I must say, the nasty reviews have been extraordinarily insightful; and have successfully advanced the conversation around the book in ways I did not foresee. Now that we’ve established what strategy is, the question has become: what makes a business book a business book, anyway?

A not too liberal reading of almost all the unfavorable online reviews suggests that unhappy readers are quarrelling not so much with the content as they are with the form of my humble offering, though, I must concede, some hated the content, too.

Really hated it.

Clearly, there are expectations for a book in this genre. My publisher did make available online a preview of “I Have a Strategy…” well before it was released, to help manage those expectations; but it seems many angry customers chose to ignore it.

I’m still unclear as to what readers who dismissed the book as little more than a practical joke believe to be the elements of a real business book, but I’m fairly convinced one of them is word count. That is, word count per page. Anything with too much white space could not possibly be a business book—white space gives one room to think, imagine, maybe doodle.

There is no white space in business.

That white space created a collegial kerfuffle in Vietnam. A business consultant based in Ho Chi Minh City tracked me down to see if I could help him obtain copies of the book printed in Vietnamese. The economy of words, the plainness of thought, the simplicity of design made it very appealing to his comrades who were accustomed to the usual byzantine business tomes from the West that, eventually, end up in the hands of consultants in Ho Chi Minh City.

Then he asked about all the “blanks” in the book.

“I think it’s a pause so the readers can think about the issue on their own before moving to the next page, ” he wrote. “My colleague, on the other hand, believes that’s the space for notes.”

Before scribbling in the book, he wanted to be sure that they were using blanks the way the author intended. I encouraged my new friend to view the white space however he wished: as designated zones for spontaneous bursts of marginalia or as reflecting pools on paper.

Or both.

After my conversations with him, I realized that, among the workers at one firm in Ho Chi Minh City, there is a pretty clear idea of the “usual” American business book, and, in this case, they preferred one that didn’t look—or read—anything like the “usual.”

Awfully revolutionary, I thought.

Still, beyond word count, my guess was as good as anybody’s as to what makes a business book a business book. This, naturally, got me thinking about contemporary French philosophy. The late Jean Beudrillard, a post-structuralism man to the core, believed that if he published anything—a book, a theory—that his colleagues could understand, he had failed: His colleagues and himself. If, God forbid, general readers understood it, so much the worse. I was wondering if the same held true about “acceptable” business books. If that was the case, then perhaps a business book could only be defined via negativa. In other words, nobody really knows what a business book is, but everybody knows what it is not: Comprehensible.

Then, along came a tweet from @gocarlo…

On a train to VA. Reading…”I Have A Strategy (No You Don’t)”. Life is good.

I tweeted my thanks, and added that I hoped the book was contributing to the pleasure of his train ride.

He tweeted back:

Thanks, the book was so nice I read it twice. Seriously, that was the most delightfully disarming biz book I’ve ever read.

I pondered the tweet. Later in the day, I shared it with my colleagues. In a matter of moments, we began deconstructing the idea behind it.

Business books, by and large, are not designed to be disarming. If any genre was in the business of arming, it was the business book genre. Delightfully disarming? Well, it just isn’t done, to be British about it. I suppose, to some, a business book that is “delightfully disarming” is not unlike a porno that’s thrillingly modest. Have there been exceptions to the rule? Sure. But that’s just it: they’re exceptions. One that was cited as an alternative to my humble offering by a particularly dyspeptic critic is “The Lean Entrepreneur: How Visionaries Create Products, Innovate With New Ventures, and Disrupt Markets.” I haven’t read the book, although it sounds fascinating and I certainly appreciated the referral. All that I know of it is what I’ve seen in the online preview. My critic is right: readers may get more out of one chapter of this book than they’d get out of mine, if word count is the metric.

I’m not so sure it is. It most certainly is not the case in Ho Chi Minh City, where white space is content.

Another thing regarding the tweet: The word “disarming,” as it related to a business book, was certainly an interesting choice. As a design criterion, it’s absolutely essential to having hard conversations in business, if all parties are committed—seriously committed—to solving business problems. The correct problem. In the most literal sense of the word, one must drop all the weapons that are designed for the expressed purpose of “fighting” new ways into conversations about old problems. Weapons that kill true innovation on the spot, in defense of the status quo.

To that end, I contend that any book that seeks to challenge, nay break, conventions should be subtly or not so subtly disarming—one can’t have an intelligent, civilized conversation about the possibility of solving for “other” with somebody, typically a player deeply invested in “business as usual,” who wants to take your knees out for daring to question dearly held assumptions about The Problem and how to solve it.

To be delightful, well, that seems like a bonus.

In some business circles in the West, this is considered damnable and irreverent. But, as George Bernard Shaw reminded us, every great truth usually begins as a form of blasphemy.

And to some, I’ve written a very blasphemous book.

A few words of thanks and appreciation

858720_354339538015612_2004796587_oOnce in a great while, we experience moments in our lives that have no precedent…a moment that requires one to break from the usual rhythm of the usual day…and design on the fly a different way to receive strange and new information…then figure out how to process it…

If we’re lucky, these are happy moments. If we’re really lucky, they’re unforgettable, too…

Last week, I felt like the luckiest man on the face of the earth at Sandmeyer’s Bookstore in Printer’s Row, as friends of The Insight Labs braved rain and wind to help me launch my humble offering into the universe– the first of what we hope will be many such events throughout the year…

For me, it was a point in time that was unlike any other…a point that I’m sure–quite sure–I would not have reached without the wisdom, encouragement and friendship of Jeff Leitner and Andrew Benedict Nelson…As I remarked that evening, paraphrasing our 16th president, whatever I am at this stage of my professional life, and whatever I hope to be in the future, is due in large part to my friends and colleagues at Insight Labs…I thank them.

A debt of gratitude is owed to Ellen Sandmeyer and her husband, Ulrich, for graciously agreeing to host the event…and to all those who gave up a part of their day (and night) to share the moment with us in real time…Finally, thanks is due to my lovely and remarkable wife Cheryl for, among other heroic deeds, doing what I myself don’t always like to do: live with me

There was, as one might expect, a backstory. Not quite 25 years ago, I took my first real job atNewcity newspaper. Back then, it was a little known bi-weekly, which had offices right across the street. I did all sorts of things for Newcity: I sold classified ads. I delivered newspapers. I illustrated stories…and I wrote a few of them, too…I even met my wife at Newcity—she was earning a masters in art history at the School of the Art Institute, and working for the indie paper part-time…

Sometimes, I’d wander over to Sandmeyer’s to peruse the new titles or reacquaint myself with a classic. I wish I could say that I remember dreaming about seeing one of my own offerings on the shelf one day…but I can’t…It was too remote of a possibility; too remote to even dream about. Yes, my dreams traveled farther than my own back yard, but not that far… Besides, I loved reading books. And, at the time, I believed that one should not mistake a love for reading books as a talent for writing them…What a silly thing to believe…

So there I was, at a bookstore that was the first bookstore in town that had the distinction of being “my bookstore”… doing something I love to do—read—from a little something I’d written…

Before the night was out, we grabbed our fill-in-the-blank strategy signs, inked in the appropriate parts of speech, and held them up proudly for the camera as a way of telling the world: “We–the lost, the mortal, the camera-shy, the over-thinking, the poetical, the non-MBA’d– we are giving ourselves permission to be our own strategists. Today. Tonight. And every night…We are giving ourselves permission to develop any strategy we want to develop, to achieve anything we want to achieve…because we know what strategy means…”

It’s a lot like music if you think about it: Once one knows the notes to sing, one can sing most anything…

Never been happier

So…

…I walk into a Starbucks and grab a bottle of Ethos Water. I make my way to the register to pay for it. The young woman behind the counter says, “Will that be all?” I say, “How are you?” The question stuns her. “Fine,” she says warily. “I’m doing fine. How are you?” I say what I usually say: “I’ve never been happier,” which is my way of practicing happiness. (It is a practice, by the way, like law and medicine.) She says, “Wow.” Hers is not an uncommon reaction. Most folks don’t expect my answer and tell me as much. Sometimes, people demand to know why I’ve never been happier. But a moment later, I discover that she is not reacting to my answer. She is reacting to my question: “How are you?” The young woman explains: “It’s been a long time since anybody on your side of the counter asked how I was doing. When I started working here, I would greet every customer by saying, ‘Hi, how ya doin’ today?’ More times than not, customers would just glare at me and reply ‘Grande skim latte.’ So, I just stopped greeting people and cut right to the chase. And that’s pretty much the way it’s been, until now…” I’m not sure what the little episode says about anything. However, I notice that the guy standing behind me is leaning into our conversation. I figure he is annoyed. My transaction is taking far too long. After all, I’m just paying for a bottle of water. I am wrong. “How are you doing today?” I hear him ask in a cheerful voice as I walk to the door. “I’m doing really well, thanks,” says the young woman behind the counter. “How are you?”…

News worth spreading

ted_logoI’m happy to announce that I Have a Strategy (No You Don’t) will be available for sale at TED and TEDActive later this year.

The release date of the book has also been pushed up to Feb. 18. Click here to pre-order your copy.

Finally, we’re still seeking your feedback about the book’s official trailer. Go to http://www.choosemytrailer.com to let us know what you think.