The Muselet #17: Business Books

Last week I wrote a snarky comment, a comment I hear a lot:

I could now argue you no longer have to read many of the business books written on these topics, because they can be summarized with what I just described — which wouldn’t be really true, but still make for a good laugh (hah! business books right, nothing you cannot summarize in a 5 item bullet list!).

I just finished reading No Rules Rules. Yes, this definitely qualifies as a “business book” as referred to in this quote.

Here’s the gist of the Netflix culture as described in the book:

  1. Build up talent density by hiring only the very best people and paying them top of the market, fire “ok” performers.

  2. Be ruthlessly transparent and candid: build a strong feedback culture, be radically transparent.

  3. Remove rules and controls, trust people to act in the company’s best interest.

Here’s the thing: if you’ve only cursory following Netflix as a company, none of this is likely to be very new to you. I think the three-item list above is a reasonable summary of high-level concepts of the book. However, the book is 320 pages. So, should you invest that amount of time? My Kindle estimates the reading time for me to be about 8 hours. 

My answer would be: yes if you’re at least somewhat intrigued by the Netflix culture. Couldn’t you read a summary on Blinkist or GetAbstract? You could, but I wouldn’t recommend it beyond a quick way to see if this book is interesting, not as an alternative to actually ingesting the whole thing beginning to end.

Why is that?

During my work I often point people in my team to books I’ve read. As a recommendation I try to summarize the core ideas. “That’s it?” they’d ask. “Is there much more to it than what you just described? Is it worth reading all the way through?” I always found this a tough question to answer. It’s a significant amount of time you’ll be investing, am I comfortable in recommending they do that?

In the past I always explained this a the need to sit with an idea, even if it’s simple. There’s no chance you read through that three item summary of the Netflix culture and take anything actionable from it. You need time to think about it, work through it, understand it fully. You could do that by printing out my summary and staring it for some hours, or... you read the book that it’s extracted from. The ideas will repeat, there will be examples, the ideas will become more precise and slowly sink in. There’s value in just forcing yourself to spend actual time with the ideas. Therefore reading the full book makes sense.

However, as I read No Rules Rules it goes a bit further than that. Perhaps this is what distinguishes the “good” from the “bad” business book.

When I read a section in No Rules Rules, I think a bit about the concept and how I could apply it, or what the edge cases would be. Then I turn the page and — blam, there it is exactly: the cases I was thinking of and how they handled or would handle them in Netflix, or perhaps the observation that they don’t actually occur in practice and their why, and what they’d do if it would happen. One example of this is their policy to report financial numbers internally before they publish them publicly. Information that could be used for insider trading quite easily. They explicitly expect their employees not to leak this information, and so far it has happened yet. Yet, they assume some day it will, and have a plan on how to handle it.

As to No Rules Rules, I can recommend this book. I found it very inspiring. 

As to business books in general, I'd be interested in your opinion and approach. Do your read them back to back, skip through parts, read summaries, or don't read them altogether?