In What Makes Good Models and How to Use Them, Emmanuel Derman explains that in social science, you have to work hard to have a usable theory of anything. The challenge with most business books is that they do not make the difference between theories and models. Theories tell us what something is, whereas models tell us what something is partially like and are better understood through real-life applications.
Given that some of our best tools in business are shaky models, the best strategy is to use models as little as possible, and to make as little assumptions as we can. After reading most of the classics on strategy and management, I started feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of business books out there. Looking at business books titles like Creative Construction: The DNA of Sustained Innovation, Seeing Around Corners: How to Spot Inflection Points in Business Before They Happen and Connected Strategy: Building Continuous Customer Relationships for Competitive Advantage, it is hard to know which business books are worth reading and which one are worth skipping.
To evaluate the quality of business books, I found this framework by Simon Wardley useful, as it incorporates notion from Derman’s paper:
"I have one set of criteria for a good book. To be a good book then in my opinion, you need to comply with the following rules :-
- Don’t have concepts dressed up as theories.
- Have some form of data / experience rather than just anecdotes.
- Don’t use backwards causality.
- Don’t have poorly researched ideas.
- Understand and explain causation and not just any correlation.
- Don’t have endless buzzwords with little or not substance.
- Don’t promise the world but fail to deliver anything of use.
- Provide a mechanism for me to understand and learn from my environment
- Provide me with something I can concretely use.
- Be an easy and enjoyable read."