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How to Read a Business Book

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Reading a business book is an exercise in efficiency, not literary aesthetics. You are trying to maximize the return on time invested. For the executive, time allocation is as important as capital allocation. Therefore, when approaching any business book, there are two goals: First, determine if the book will help you do your job; second, finding the fastest way to get that value. Having written many business books – and read more than I can count – I have found that, for books worth reading, the process consists of three steps: compression, absorption, and application.

But first, take a step back and consider the anatomy of a typical business book. The ingredients are almost always the same:

  • Concepts (main ideas)
  • Numbers (data and statistics)
  • Tools (frameworks and diagnostics)
  • Examples (stories and case studies to illustrate usage)

The work to be done is to gain insights to increase judgment and skills to increase performance.

Consider that three groups of people write business books:

  1. Practitioners: Leaders and founders who practice business and share their experience.
  2. Researchers: Scholars and academics who analyze data, test hypotheses, and develop new theories.
  3. Advisors: Consultants and domain experts who advise business practitioners. Counselors tend to straddle the worlds of theory and practice.

In fact, there are many business books written in each camp, but keep in mind that over 1,000 new titles are released every month alone in the United States (some of which were published by the Harvard Business Review Press). The best ones represent original contributions to theory and practice or provide meaningful extensions or applications of theories and practice. Others tend to present recycled and superficial treatments of original contributions. With that in mind, here are eight suggestions to guide you through the process of compressing, absorbing, and using:


Start with purpose.

Define a reading plan with a need or opportunity in mind. Otherwise, you will wander and waste time on books that are not important or of low quality. If you don’t read to learn in a time of need, you’ll likely forget what you’ve learned. Explain your use case. Do you want to inform a decision, analyze a situation, or develop a skill?

It’s helpful to create a living document to put your next five books on. Regularly review and adjust your plan based on your evolving needs and the value you get from your reading. A structured approach will help you stay focused, prioritize relevant books, and optimize your learning experience.

Read the introduction.

When you start any business book, engage in what philosopher and teacher Mortimer Adler called “inspection reading” to assess the potential investment of time. Start with the introduction. A good one is a compression of the whole: dense with insights and laying out the bones of the argument in a coherent, compelling way. It should summarize the topic, frame the problem, and explain the central idea. In almost all cases, ignore the introduction and acknowledgments, which are mandatory elements that rarely add value.

Beware of bulk validity.

Beware of long books that try to establish validity with the majority. If the author doesn’t get to the point, they don’t know the point. They have not crystallized their thinking. According to historian Yval Noah Harari reminding us, “In a world flooded with irrelevant information, clarity is power.” And clarity means brevity. There are few exceptions where authors offer powerful insights but load their books with tedious, long-winded examples and case studies. In those instances, skip or skip the stories and case studies.


Challenge the thesis.

No matter what topic you read, there is no definitive answer, no single authoritative source, no formula that will solve your problem. Even if you open a book with confidence because you trust the author, the data, arguments, or reviews, commit yourself to being loyal opposition. Dispute with the author. Remember, there is competitive advice on every business topic. If you had to place a bet based on the author’s advice, where would you stand? Ultimately, the author is your thought partner. They are there to challenge you, not think for you. Don’t outsource your critical thinking.

Read, skim, or discard.

After reading the introduction, try the book. If the introduction doesn’t move you to relevant insight, you’re done. Throw it away. If this happens, you meet the bar for skimming – but not reading. Here’s how to skim:

  • Analyze the table of contents.
  • Read the chapter headings and summaries.
  • Take it slow and find what directly relates to you in each chapter.
  • Pay attention to the diagrams and call-out boxes.
  • Read the conclusion.

At any point, on page one or 100, if the cost/benefit equation of continuing is not what you want, stop. Cut your losses and abandon ship. There is nothing heroic or moral about ending a book. At the same time, if that equation tilts the other way and the ratio of insights-per-page is higher than you think, you may have a book worth reading. Go back to chapter one and check it out. Keep reading until that ratio gets you back to skimming.


Book harvest.

If a book is worth reading, it is worth harvesting. Compress your output by making highlights and marginal notes and then list two key insights and points of criticism. If you’re listening to an audiobook, pause the recording to make a note or record a voice memo when you get an important insight. Keep that list or file in an accessible format and revisit it from time to time. Then share the insights gained with colleagues and team members — there’s no better way to internalize the learning and make it part of your portfolio of knowledge and skills.

Test use cases.

The book of business should not tell you WHAT to think; it is supposed to teach you how to think. It provides a lens through which to frame, interpret, and solve a problem. Once you’ve absorbed a concept, argument, theory, or tool, find a use case to apply what you’ve learned. Until you use it, a concept remains an untested hypothesis. For example, early in my management career, I read this statement from Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive: “The really important external events are not fashion. These are changes in trends. ” I brought that concept back to our strategic planning team and we incorporated the practice of inflection-point spotting instead of trend spotting. That insight helped a lot in practice.

Discard the number.

When it comes to the dynamic range of talent in an organization, it quickly becomes clear that 100 B players do not equal one player. Why? Because a player creates and delivers value in a qualitatively superior way. It’s not just additive. Similarly, 100 average business books will never equal the value of one good one. A LinkedIn post with someone’s mile-high book stack and the tagline “100 books I read this year” might inspire you to crush a few more titles. But remember, it’s not about quantity, it’s about quality. Your return-on-time-invested is measured by positive behavior change and using tools to produce better results, not the number of books you read. Maybe instead of reading another book, read a good one twice.

. . .

In my 30 years of experience in leadership development, I have found that reading and listening to business books is the most common way that business leaders engage in continuous professional development. The trick is to use your reading time to your greatest advantage by choosing carefully based on need, experimenting with consumption methods – whether reading, skimming, or skipping – and reaping the takeaways. for use.

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