March 18

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Why You Shouldn’t Look for Best Practices in Bestsellers

By Sam

March 18, 2022

best practices, betsellers, nonlinear

Best practices in bestsellers are not what they seem, here’s what you should do instead for optimal results in your business.

I love books; I read on average one or two books per week. But early in my career, I always assumed that if a book reaches bestseller status, it had to be good. But I always wondered why whenever I tried to apply what I’d learned from them in real life, they didn’t seem to work. It took me a while – almost a decade – to figure this out, but I finally found the answer. Bestsellers aren’t your best option when it comes to best practices. I have tested two alternatives that will tell you what you should do instead. The best part is that I propose a heuristic that can be easily retained and applied like a “rule of thumb.” So keep on reading if you want to know more. 

How do books reach best-selling status?

Before we get to the good stuff, let me walk you through how it happens. I suggest an excellent read from Albert-László Barabási, The Formula = The Universal Laws of Success. In his book, Barabási describes how often accomplishment does not equal success. For example, he examines:

  • Why many individuals work hard and accomplish solid results but don’t get promoted
  • Why some people come up with ideas but don’t get the credit they deserve
  • Why others get promoted and get the credit instead. 

In our society, we’re convinced that talent and a strong work ethic are the keys to success, but very often, that combination often fails to yield results. Barabási and a team of renowned researchers dedicated years to researching this topic. They applied advanced modeling to uncover the link between performance and success. 

Their conclusion showed that while performance is necessary for success, it is by far insufficient. Spoiler alert: The must-have formula for success “S” (the formula for best-selling books included) is the value of your output “r” multiplied by the network effect and linkages which attributes to the “Q-factor.” In other words, even the greatest books, i.e., ones with the highest “r” value, would fail if their Q-factor is low. That’s why so many average books make it to bestsellers, and some great books remain unappreciated.

Popular bestseller management Books

Let’s examine one aspect of books on management that have been on the bestseller list for quite some time. Most of them provide you with over 14 universal principles that the authors attribute to the success of their businesses and management practices. Then, they represent them as guides for companies of any size to succeed in their business.

While these authors had the best intentions and put the effort to summarize their life’s work to promote their management practices to the world, there’s a flaw in this approach. There is no such thing as universal principles that you can put in a manual for management success for modern organizations. Well, there is if you are running a business in the late 1800s or early 1900s, because that’s when businesses were simple. Workers back then behaved like machines, doing repetitive tasks. The businesses’ main objective was to run these people efficiently by organizing their tasks. I can see how such a manual could apply universally back then. While some board concepts may be universal, broad does not cut it in management, where specific action is required.

In today’s world, organizations are complex systems. And in complex systems, there is no universal rule for success. Every organization is different, and every situation is different. There are situations where repetitive and scalable tasks are required, in which case, you can leverage manuals, principles, processes, etc., to drive performance. For example, recruitment processes that are repetitive and scalable can be put in a manual and have specific principles attached to them. The same applies to accounting and payroll processing, for example. In such cases, principles, or manuals can be refined and improved over time, and other organizations can design, learn, or apply best practices. However, most organizational persistent challenges facing today’s enterprise do not fall in this scalable and repetitive category of departments.

The key issues is thinking that if these principles are working for some parts of the organization, we should standardize manuals and principles across all departments. Unfortunately, many people purchase bestsellers looking for solutions or best practices in a non-standard environment.

Bestsellers aren’t your best option for best practices. Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash

The Perto Principle

You see, we live in an increasingly complex and highly connected world that’s in the midst of an ever-evolving digital revolution. This complexity extends into many departments and functions of today’s enterprises.

You’re likely familiar with the Pareto principle or the 80/20 rule discovered by Vilfredo Pareto over a century ago. If not, this is where 20% of customers account for 80% of revenues, or 20% of stocks account for 80% of the market cap, etc. If you take this further recursion to 20% of the 20% of the 20% or apply the 80/20 rule three times on the same set of data, you’ll get to the 50/1 rule or where the 1% that accounts for the 50%. For example, this is where only 1% of strategic initiatives resolve 50% of your issues.

Moreover, in this world of extremes, we’re moving towards an increasingly uneven distribution that’s more skewed towards 99/1 across many aspects, particularly business and management. Nassim Taleb, the author of the Black Swan and Antifragile and a leading expert on complex systems, calls this world of extremes “Exteremistan.” In the section ” Less Is More, ” you can read more about them in his book, Antifragile.

Let’s start with the Pareto principle 50/1 rule and apply that to organizational or business issues. But, first, why don’t we answer the question: Can only 1% of your problems account for 50% of your organization’s issues? How about 99%? 

Let’s examine this hypothesis for a minute and dive a bit deeper into the data we analyzed in our research.

2 common issues facing almost every organization

In my career as a consultant, I worked with thousands of managers in more than 300 organizations. During that time, I have noticed something common in every interaction. However, I couldn’t put my finger exactly on what it was. So I decided to investigate and allocate some of our firm’s resources to analyze anonymous data over the last decade. The focus was mainly on the initial phase of engagement, i.e., the discovery, baseline, and assessment phase of our engagements. This usually involves interviews with senior executives of the organization. As a result, we extracted 12,632 relevant data points that focused mainly on what CEOs and executives stated as their challenges and key priorities. 

We found several common issues, but I want to highlight two important ones here. The first is that most stated challenges are almost symptoms, a surface of a deeper cause. They are not the actual cause. In almost every case we looked at, executives identified these problems, and prioritized tackling them. However, the actual root causes, while sometimes seen as minor issues, were rarely viewed as a top priority. 

The second finding was that more than two-thirds or circa ~70% of challenges were attributed to only two related deep root causes across all these organizations. 

In fact, I have witnessed these problem areas in every single organization of the thousands that I’ve personally engaged in over the past two decades. But I couldn’t connect the dots back then.

The first root cause is that most leaders and decision-makers in organizations confuse linear challenges with nonlinear ones, leading to the second root cause. That is why most stated challenges are surface deep. And the main reason for that is that in nonlinear cases, identifying the real issue is not a simple task. It needs an intimate knowledge of the business and is different for every organization. Therefore, the success hinges on the management’s ability to pinpoint the root cause of the problem areas in a nonlinear setting. In fact, to reach the root cause, the process may be iterative and experimental but linear. Here lies the difficulty and the driver for success.

Because these root causes are rarely tackled, the symptoms that are a priority today, when treated, resurface in different forms and areas in the organization. It’s a never-ending vicious circle, that is the 1% that accounts for 70% of your priority issues.

2 universal principles, and why they actually work

This is why we developed two principles to tackle these 70% or more problem areas. They are universal and work in every situation. And best of all, you don’t have to memorize 15 principles. Instead, you can apply these two principles as a rule of thumb.

  • The first principle is to first distinguish between linear and nonlinear situations.
  • The second principle is to tackle them differently. 

If you’re dealing with a linear situation, by all means, you can and should have an internal business manual. Identify the root of the problem and adopt best practices to handle your challenges. However, if your situation is nonlinear, make sure to identify the root cause. Then, you need to go several levels deep to reach the highest leverage to tackle the problem. And for that, the best manual and best solution is your own knowledge and experience in your business.

References

Barabasi, A.L. (2018). The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success

Taleb, N. N. (2012). Antifragile.

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