Books – Part 1: The typical book store

how-to-read-a-bookHave you ever thought about the types of ‘management books’ out there?

I wrote a post a bit back on three ‘depths of transformation’:

  • ‘On the surface’;
  • ‘Under the skin’; and
  • ‘In the DNA’.

If you walked into the ‘management’ section of a large book shop, examined the selection on offer and then categorised them according to depth of transformation…

…I guess1 that you’d find books in something like the following 100:10:1 ratio:


100 ‘On the surface’ self-help style books filled with loads of methods and tools. The book shop shelves buckle under the weight of these – they are very easily written…by almost anyone! (I’m looking at half a dozen such books on my own shelf right now).

Many (most? …all?) ‘Lean Six Sigma’ books sit here.


10 ‘Under the skin’ books on principles. Much harder to write because they need a very sound basis from which to build…but they don’t really tackle the management system and, importantly, how (and how not) to intervene2.

‘Lean Thinking’ by Womack and Jones is, to me, a classic example.

‘The Goal’ by Goldratt probably sits about here too.


‘In the DNA’ book on management’s thinking and behaviours. This is where the true value resides. These are the gems, where the management system is truly opened up for what it is.

Here’s a random list of (what I consider to be) some3 classic ‘In the DNA’ books4:

– Deming: ‘The New Economics’

– ‘Ackoff’s Best: His classic writings on management’

– Seddon: ‘Freedom from Command and Control’

– Rother: ‘Toyota Kata’; and

– Womack: ‘Gemba Walks’ – a retrospective look at the ‘Lean’ thing in a humble attempt to move from ‘Under the skin’ to ‘In the DNA’.

What ‘In the DNA’ books do you have on your shelf?

Footnotes:

1. Guessing: I realise that I am falling foul of my own criticism – that of expressing an opinion, rather than dealing with facts…and I suppose that I could carry out the exercise in question…but, in this instance, I’m okay with a playful guess 🙂

2. How to intervene: Sure, these book ‘tell you what to do’…but that’s different to making successful interventions!

For the avoidance of doubt, I think that ‘Lean Thinking’ and ‘The Goal’ are both useful books…but (as with most ‘under the skin’ type books) they are so easily abused by management stuck in their ‘command and control’ comfort bubble, mapping what they read onto their current world views (rather than changing them).

3. In the DNA books: I’ve limited my list to a handful. Also, most of the authors I’ve chosen have written more than one book that I see as fitting into this category.

4. Peter Scholtes: I’d note that ‘The Leaders Handbook’ is an interesting mix of all three depths…but most definitely based within the DNA.

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13 thoughts on “Books – Part 1: The typical book store

  1. Just out of interest – how useful have you found books as an intervention tactic for changing thinking or getting people curious?

    It’s tended to be a big fail for me. Most people have busy lives, and would rather spend time reading books for fun than reading a book about work. Even when they do borrow one of my books, what tends to happen is I ask them a while later what they thought of it and they tend to say “sorry – not gotten around to reading it yet”.

    In the past I’ve made the mistake of being over enthusiastic when describing a book, and putting people off.

    It was a book that worked for me. I read Seddon’s Systems Thinking in the Public Sector. While reading it, I would come to work each day – in a public sector organisation – and see going on around me almost exactly what was described in the book. I guess that made the experience more ‘normative’ and explains why it worked. I also discovered the book for myself, rather than have someone try and get me to read it.

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  2. Looked at my bookshelf and noticed that I had none of the five
    Yet I still agree with your selection
    So a happy new year is the election
    and I will await your next direction
    but in the meantime I continue to prevaricate my own jive!

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  3. Love your categorization. “In the DNA” is too rare to come by. 🙂

    A few honorable mentions for people interested in ‘business studies’ nevertheless: 😉

    Senge: The fift discipline
    Marquet: Turn the ship around!
    Leadership and self-deception (Arbinger institute)

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    • Good selection Eero

      The last book you mention I do not have though I did explore the work of the Arbinger Institute, especially the aspect of self-deception. What is interesting for me is the essential connection to the universal suggestion that this concept is the default human condition.

      Such is the meta-stability of “mauvaise foi”

      Now a question to ponder

      Is not business studies merely a subset of social studies?

      Myths are fascinating constructions!

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      • It’s a thought-provoking and excellently written book – highly recommended! Another good book on the core idea is Gervase Bushe’s Clear leadership.

        If problems of daily interactions is your thing… 😉

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  4. Reading Management books really helped me develop myself and line up my values with how to work with people.

    However, one day a friend loaned me, ‘Freedom From Command and Control’ and it changed how I looked at the work forever. I was amazed there was a thing for all those dots I was trying to join up in my head.

    I would agree that very little of management literature has transformation in it’s DNA. Incidentally, your recent post on transformation has been quite illuminating, seeing as I work in ‘transformation’. Whilst language has to have a shared understanding to be meaningful it’s clear that Transformation means very different things to different people.

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  5. Great “DNA” list developing here.

    In my world (library) Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s “How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation” and their follow up several years later “An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization” are DNA books where the the fundamentals of human “change” are explored in the context of organisations.

    Follow that up with “Reinventing Organizations” by Frederic Laloux to remind ourselves that the fundamental DNA of organisations has, and will continue to, evolve as we do.

    Ross, isn’t social studies a subset of psychology?

    Beliefs are fascinating constructions!

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  6. social studies a subset of psychology?

    Hmm! Depends on your definition of psychology and your definition of social studies.

    Now logia is “the study of” so both concepts involve study.

    Now is the social a subset of the psyche or is the psyche a subset of the social?

    Or is psychology the study of the psycho?

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  7. Thanks for your comments and sorry for taking time to add a reply – I have been away (the last two posts were scheduled to publish in my absence).

    Charles: Yep, I’d agree with you that recommending books to people is not particularly fruitful.

    …and, if you are in a position of power, dictating the reading of a book is probably worse than useless. I’m reminded of Managers who read a book, get something out of it and then promptly buy a dozen copies for their ‘direct reports’ to read, have a group discussion and then implement! (‘The Goal’ sat in this category for a number of years after it was published).

    The books that are on my shelf have come about through a splendidly random path of discovery across a 20 year period. I find that one book leads me on to the next and so on – and this undefined, chaotic, literary journey is important for my personal learning.

    I’ve often had a book recommended to me that I have ignored…only to read it a few years later when it became relevant (to me) to do so.

    I also read books that make me laugh at books I happily read 10 years earlier….and no doubt I’ll laugh at today’s book in 10 years time.

    I don’t (or at least try not to) ‘recommend’ books to (most) people, though I do ‘refer to books’ in discussions. The slight difference between a recommendation and a reference is that the curious will ask me for more details (will pull the book)…and I don’t waste any time pushing them.

    …there is always an exception: There are a handful of people (i.e. with a like mind and at a similar point on their journey) where a recommendation is most appropriate. And this is a nice segue to thank all of you for adding your ‘in the DNA’ book suggestions – I might get around to reading some of them…at some point!

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