Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Book Review: The Science of Success

The holiday season has been a productive one for me this year in terms of barreling through some reading I wanted to do. The latest casualty of my war on unread books was The Science of Success: How Market-Based Management Built the World's Largest Private Company, by billionaire Charles Koch, CEO of Koch Industries.

I've read a number of management books at this point in my life and so I want to say up front that I typically find them to be boring, clich├ęd and overly-general to the point of being almost worthless. It's led me to wonder if good management isn't more of an art than a science. But, I figured it isn't often you have the chance to read management strategy from a guy who employs about 80,000 people and is a personal billionaire himself, so I decided to give The Science of Success a shot.

First, the bad: this is definitely a management book. It wasn't exactly thrilling to read, it's filled with quotes and cliches (aka "Other People's Wisdom") and it manages to be pretty general.

The book isn't a complete failure, however. While it wasn't thrilling, it wasn't pass-out-on-the-couch-head-tilted-back-90-degrees boring, either. The quotes that were picked were well chosen, relevant and at times inspirational. My favorite was the elder Fred Koch advising his son, the author, upon joining the family business, "I hope your first deal is a loser, otherwise you'll think you're a lot smarter than you are."

Consider me sufficiently humbled at this point, to the point that a bit of success would be a most welcome surprise!

As for the generality, Koch at least tried to provide specific examples of the principles being applied in his business here and there.

Overall, the book falls short of true value. Charles Koch is no idiot and I don't think that my lack of enthusiasm for his book says anything about his business acumen. I just think there's more to how he runs his company than what he provides in this short summary of Market-Based Management principles.

I give it a 3/5. Political without being polemical, built on a sound foundation of free market economic theory, it still has trouble overcoming the tendency toward painting with broad strokes on a small canvas. I got the most out of Chapter 7, Incentives.

Somewhere better to go for management principles?
You may be wondering where, if not in the management principles book of a billionaire, one might find the most instructive lessons on sound management?

Believe it or not, I suggest history books. They hold the totality of human experience and at some point you will encounter nearly every management virtue and folly ever made, for human nature is both timeless and unchanging.

Consider the multiplicity of lessons taught by just one brief, paraphrased example from a chapter on the Egyptian pharoahs in Will Durant's Our Oriental Heritage--Ikhnaton, a pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty of Egypt, decided to change the religious culture of Egypt from a polytheistic tradition to a monotheistic one, built a brand new capital city and attempted to remove references to past gods and traditions from official records.

In so doing, he offended nearly the entire class of the wealthy, powerful and influential Egyptian priesthood who had built their public reputation on the polytheistic tradition. Additionally, he offended many common Egyptians who loved and revered his father, the previous pharaoh, and the old traditions he had strengthened, when Ikhnaton attempted to wipe his father and his father's influence from monuments and records. Finally, he ruined many businesses and merchants when he shifted the center of commercial activity to his new capital city.

Suffice it to say, Ikhnaton proved unpopular over time and when he died, the priesthood made a concerted and successful effort to return the country to the old ways, in turn erasing Ikhnaton and his achievements from monuments, records and the collective memory.

Can you see some lessons here in managing people, reforming and implementing change in large social organizations and dealing with the incentives of entrenched, entitled special interest groups?

Buy The Science of Success on Amazon.com:

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