Book mini review – In Search of Excellence

Yes, I read books.  I read a lot of them.

As so frequently happens with books I read, I end up forgetting the specific details of the book rather quickly. What does end up happening is that, while I’m reading the book, something once in a while will click.  I take away some of those core philosophies or observations at the end and I test them out on my daily routines. If you read enough books on something like management, you eventually accumulate enough information to formulate some core principles you can rely on when managing people.

I find that, for me, reading these books produces a subconscious effect. Read through or think through the same situation enough times and the correct reaction becomes automatic. It’s like Steve Pavlina’s article on “How to get up when your alarm goes off“.  When you internalize the correct reactions to the point where it has become reflex…well, that’s where you start getting the real value.

At some point, I’ll probably go back over the books I read over the
past year and read them again to reinforce the material. It’s a
difficult thing for me to absorb the complete density of information in
a book on the first pass.  And I always feel a little guilty when I can’t tell the stories from a book off the top of my head as well as the book tells them.

So without further ado…I recently read In Search of Excellence, by Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman.  As with many books, this one claims to have surveyed a broad set of successful companies and extracted the commonalities between them into some core observations.

If there’s a slight sense of skepticism here, it’s because I’ve read several books that have all claimed to survey successful companies and extracted the relevant similarities…books by Jason Jennings, Jim Collins, and others.  If you think about this for a moment, you’ll suspect, quite correctly, that these books often all say different things!

So who’s right and who’s wrong?

As I’ve come to realize, you can’t take any of these books as gospel…you have to read a few to balance yourself.  But, for me, absorbing a set of different perspectives provided by different books is the only way for me to integrate the information and balance myself to the point where I can be confident enough to say “I agree with this point, and I don’t agree with that particular point”.

Or, to put it another way.  One book is awareness.  Two books is a compare and contrast.  Three books or more, and you start moving into that whole “wisdom of crowds” effect where you can actually see what’s going on.

So yes, I approached this book with some skepticism, but also a healthy sense of awareness and respect for the whole process.

Luckily, the book is fairly well known as a management classic, so I wasn’t terribly worried about the content.  Some of the examples in the book are companies that have fallen on hard times, so “In Search of Excellence” clearly dates itself in that respect.  But that’s bound to happen.

In this book, the key insights I walked away with were:

1. A bias for action (I knew this already, just good reinforcement)
2. The generally optimal size of a team is 8 people. Saw this question on a Google quiz floating around a while back…but unfortunately the question was multiple choice and “8” wasn’t one of the answers!
3. Large and successful companies are managed by core values and ideals, not by exacting centralized control.
4. Economies of scale are often misleading when it comes to innovation and progress. The big factories and teams look good on paper, but fail in practice. Agility matters!
5. Try pulling together teams of volunteers first when you need something done. (Reinforced by Robert Cialdini’s Influence)
6.  Less is more.  Having more information doesn’t necessarily help.  Focus on the simple and important things.  (Reinforced by Malcom Gladwell’s Blink)

It’s clear that the authors are heavily influenced by Peter Drucker, who I’ve been reading a lot of over the past year. I was slightly amused to re-read some of the Drucker anecdotes in this book that I’ve encountered in the past, but anyone who quotes Drucker can’t be all bad, right? =)

Would I recommend reading this book? Yes.

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