The 4 Most Overused Anecdotes In Business Literature

We get it! These entrepreneurs overcame the odds, but their stories have been written ad nauseam. It's time to ditch these business cliches.

One of the more interesting business books available this summer is Roadside MBA: Backroads Lessons for Executives, Entrepreneurs, and Small Business Owners. Written by three economists, it’s a rather corny look at various concepts you’d learn in business school, like barriers to entry, and economies of scale. What’s redeeming about it is that the authors went out and created case studies about dozens of small- and medium-sized businesses that you’ve never heard of. From Arnold Tool in Council Bluffs, Iowa to Key Fire Hose in Dothan, Alabama, most small business owners have a compelling story to tell.

These stories are fresh. Unfortunately in a lot of business literature, many stories, while interesting at one point, have ripened too much over time. Read enough big idea books and articles, and you'll notice the same examples are used over and over again. There are acceptable reasons for this, but still, here are a few case studies that smart authors should stop using:

1. Google’s 20% Time

Management theorists love the idea of employee autonomy. Let your team members do what they want, and they’ll come up with genius concepts, Google’s policy of letting engineers work on what they want for one day a week fits beautifully into that idea, and so has been written about a lot. Unfortunately, rumors have been reported that Google is drifting away from this.

Google officials have downplayed the rumors. But as companies become bigger, protecting time for deep work becomes harder as meetings parasitically creep across schedules. A more interesting case study might be how a company fights bureaucratic bloat while transitioning from startup to behemoth.

2. The Post-it Note Saga

There’s something in the American narrative that celebrates pulling success out of failure. The Post-it Note case study fits this narrative. Decades ago, a 3M researcher came up with an adhesive that no one knew what to do with. In a eureka moment, another researcher realized the adhesive, attached to paper, could solve the problem of marking his place in his hymnal. Add a little experimentation and consumer testing, and then you’ve got a blockbuster product on your hands known as the Post-it Note.

The actual story is a bit more complicated. Refer to Frank Partnoy’s Wait: The Art and Science of Delay for the extended version. In any case, past versions of this tale have been overused. Success is seldom truly serendipitous.

3. Zappos Pays People to Quit

Many people have had horrible experiences with customer service, which is why we love stories of organizations that do it well. Some of these may be apocryphal, like the tale of Nordstrom allowing a customer to return a tire even though it doesn’t sell tires, as reported by urban legends website Snopes.

Zappos offers new customer service hires after their initial training a bonus for quitting. The idea is that only people who really want to work there will stay. It’s a cool idea--which is why it has been written about again and again. Unfortunately for customer service in general, there are probably more stories about Zappos’s policy than other companies that have tried it, like Amazon. This is a space that cries out for some fresh stories that will hopefully induce other companies to take service seriously.

4. Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol Recall

Here’s another thing management theorists love: mission statements. The hope is that a good mission statement can make difficult decisions easier. That’s why the 1982 Tylenol recall has been elevated above other recalls in case studies.

Three decades ago, an unknown criminal killed seven people in Chicago by putting potassium cyanide in bottles of Tylenol. Johnson & Johnson decided to recall all the bottles on shelves nationwide. This decision was made because the company’s credo says its “first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses and patients, to mothers and fathers, and all others who use our products and services.”

Shareholders are responsibility No. 4 out of four on this list. J&J shareholders haven’t done badly since 1982. They wouldn’t have done well if people stopped buying Tylenol, a real possibility when people were dying at the hands of a serial killer. Nonetheless, it’s a story of principles mattering, so it’s a staple in business schools.

Unfortunately, plenty of corporate malfeasance occurs in the presence of mission statements, too. Enron had a Vision and Values statement saying: “We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves.”

What examples have you seen used way too many times?

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