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Thursday, October 14, 2021

Review: Beyond Entrepreneurship 2.0

 A recent work event had prep work that included reading Beyond Entrepreneurship 2.0, a book I read way back in 1995 because Reed Hastings (who is indeed mentioned in the book's introduction) was enthusiastic about and told me I should read. Jim Collins was the same guy who also wrote Built to Last and Good to Great and How the Mighty Fall.

The trap of non-fiction business books is that they go out of date and because of selection bias. For instance, almost every company in Good to Great (Circuit City, Wells Fargo, Sallie Mae, GE) faced a decline soon after the publication of the book, some going out of business, while others facing criminal charges, etc. Collins would defend his book as documenting the companies that became great, but of course, it also illustrates that we don't actually know how a company is actually "built to last", since so many didn't.

Similarly, Beyond Entrepreneurship named Jim Gentes, the founder of Giro as a man capable of articulating his vision and mission, but of course, Giro is itself no longer an independent entity. It has long since been sold to another company.

That's not to say that the book is valueless, or that the second edition of this book, despite being full of self-promoting stories, adds nothing. For instance, there's now a chapter on how important people are to an organization. (Seriously?!) But the book talks about generalities (you need to put the right people in key positions), but nothing on how to go about doing it. It's clear when talking about people, the book means managers. But that's too general, since if you're in the tech industry, key technical people also matter, but the book is too general to deal with it, despite covering the rise of HP and IBM (both companies whose best days seem behind it).

There's a section on values and how they related to the company's purpose and mission. That's great. But there's the problem of survivorship bias. It isn't that companies with values/purpose/missions succeed, it's that every company has them, or at least pay lips service to them, so maybe it's the same as saying "all successful people have a brain." To its credit, the book takes pains to point out that many people talk about values/purpose/mission but don't align their systems to provide a consistent message, or its managers don't behave as though those values have meaning. But to be honest, from the recent reveals about say, corporate sanctioned sexual harassments at Google, it's clear that when given a choice between a good business model and ethics, choose the good business model if you want to be "built to last."

The rest of the book consists of platitudes such as "turn the flywheel", and make sure you surround yourself with honest people:

You need at least a few people around you who aren’t afraid of you and who aren’t concerned with politics. This is where detached and objective outsiders (consultants and directors) are invaluable. You also need honest people inside—people who are so honest and direct they are almost uncomfortable to have around. You don’t have to like them. You just need to listen to them. (kindle loc. 3295)

But the book doesn't tell you how to do that either.

I'm much reminded of the fantastic interview with Jim Keller when he says:

IC: I think I remember you saying that before you went into your big first management role, you read 20 books about management techniques, and how you ended up realizing that you'd read 19 more than anybody else.

JK: Yeah, pretty much. I actually contacted Venkat (Venkatesh) Rao, who's famous for the Ribbonfarm blog and a few other things to figure [stuff] out. I really liked his thinking about organization from his blog, and he had a little thing at the bottom where it says to click here to buy him a cup of coffee, or get a consulting or a consult, so I sent him an email. So we started yakking, and we spent a lot of time talking before I joined AMD. He said I should read these books and I did. I thought everybody who’s in a big management job did that, but nobody does. You know it was hilarious - like 19 is generous. I read 20 more management books than most managers have ever read. Or they read some superficial thing like Good to Great, which has some nice stories in it, but it's not that deep a book management-wise. You'd be better off reading Carl Jung than Good to Great if you want to understand management.

There you go. The reason to read a ton of management books is that you need to get exposed to lots of different viewpoints, no matter how bad most of them are, before you can make any decent amount of generalizations. This book by itself won't make you great.


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