How to Read a Business Book

Three ways to get the most out of business tomes — without resorting to just the executive summary.

We here at Fast Company have always been suckers for a good business yarn. And we’re not the only ones: Last year, 5,301 books claiming to be about business were published, up 30% from just three years earlier, according to Andrew Grabois, director of publisher relations at publishing-industry specialist R.R. Bowker. Grabois predicts that the business-book market should hit $828.6 million this year, making it the third most-popular category after romance and religion. Basically, we’re all drowning in the stuff. So we figured a life raft might be in order. Here’s a primer on how to get something out of a business book.


Take a Big Grain of Salt

“Anybody who reads my [work] literally, I have no patience with,” says Tom Peters, the consultant and author of 11 management books. “Relative to my conclusions and framework, if you adopt it hook, line, and sinker, then I think you’re a fool. It ain’t the Bible.” Most authors would hardly be so cavalier about their own work, but Peters has a point: Business books are necessarily about generalizations; your company is necessarily all about specifics. No one strategy or approach to marketing, no matter how brilliant, can be an exact fit. So don’t just xerox every page and try to perfectly replicate every single example. Just because it worked for Cisco or Microsoft or Procter & Gamble doesn’t mean it will work for you.

Distill the Central Idea

Even though a book may have 400 pages chock-full of stories, numbers, and footnotes, chances are most are devoted to just a few ideas. In Built to Last, it’s both “preserve the core,” or keep what is essential, and “stimulate progress,” or have the courage to change and move forward. To be able to get something out of a book, says noted consultant and author Ram Charan, you first need to understand what that key idea is. “Then you toss around that idea in your mind and determine under which conditions it’s a good idea and under which conditions it’s a bad idea.” Finally, he says, you try to push it forward, asking what would be the next logical idea that flows from this one. That’s how you get to creative solutions.

Create Your Own Toolbox

Think about your views on parenting, or on politics. Did they all come from your grandmother, or did you develop them by talking to lots of folks and studying different points of view? The same is true for business books: The more you read, the more you learn. “I think of a good manager as being like a good mechanic who has a very good box of tools,” says Darrell Rigby, a partner at Bain & Co. “He knows what those tools are good for and when they can be dangerous if applied to the wrong kind of problem.” The tools don’t all come from the same place, and neither should ideas. “The world is such a complicated place,” says Rigby. “Nobody has a monopoly on business truths or effective business principles.”