Reading a business book is an exercise in efficiency, not literary aesthetics. You’re trying to maximize the return on time invested. For the executive, time allocation is as important as capital allocation. So, in approaching any business book, there are two goals: First, determining if the book can help you do your job; second, figuring out the quickest way to extract that value. In writing several business books — and reading more than I can count — I’ve found that, for books worth reading, the process consists of three steps: compression, absorption, and application.
But first, step back and consider the anatomy of a typical business book. The components are almost always the same:
- Concepts (key ideas)
- Numbers (data and statistics)
- Tools (frameworks and diagnostics)
- Examples (stories and case studies to illustrate application)
The job to be done is to extract insights to increase judgment and skills to increase performance.
Consider that three groups of people write business books:
- Practitioners: Leaders and founders who practice business and share their experience.
- Researchers: Scholars and academics who analyze data, test hypotheses, and create new theories.
- Advisors: Consultants and domain experts who advise those who practice business. Advisors tend to straddle the worlds of theory and practice.
Certainly, there are great business books written in each camp, but keep in mind that more than 1,000 new titles are released each month alone in the United States (some of which are published by Harvard Business Review Press). The good ones represent original contributions to theory and practice or provide meaningful extensions or applications of those theories and practices. The others tend to present recycled and superficial treatments of those original contributions. With that in mind, here are eight suggestions to guide you through the process of compression, absorption, and application:
Begin with purpose.
Define a reading plan with a need or opportunity in mind. Otherwise, you’ll wander and waste time on books that are either irrelevant or of low quality. If you’re not reading to learn at the moment of need, you’ll likely forget what you take in anyway. Define your use case. Do you want to inform a decision, analyze a situation, or develop a skill?
Creating a living document to lay out your next five reads can help. Regularly review and adjust your plan based on your evolving needs and the value you’re gaining from your reading. A structured approach can help you stay focused, prioritize relevant books, and optimize your learning experience.
Read the introduction.
When you begin any business book, engage in what philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler called “inspectional reading” to evaluate the potential time investment. Begin 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 every case, ignore the preface and acknowledgments, which are obligatory elements that rarely add value.
Beware of bulk validity.
Watch out for long books that attempt to establish validity with bulk. If the author can’t get to the point, they don’t know the point. They haven’t crystallized their thinking. As historian Yval Noah Harari reminds us, “In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power.” And clarity means brevity. There are some exceptions in which authors offer powerful insights but load their books with tedious, long-winded examples and case studies. In those instances, skim or skip the stories and case studies.
Challenge the thesis.
Regardless of the topic you’re reading about, there’s no definitive answer, no single authoritative source, no one formula that will solve your problem. Even if you open a book with confidence because you trust the author, the data, the argument, or the reviews, commit yourself to being the loyal opposition. Argue with the author. Remember, there’s competing advice on every business topic. If you must place a bet based on the author’s advice, where do you stand? In the end, the author is your thinking partner. They are there to challenge you, not think for you. Never outsource your critical thinking.
Read, skim, or toss.
After reading the introduction, triage the book. If the introduction doesn’t move you with relevant insight, you’re done. Toss it. If it does, you’ve met the bar for skimming — but not reading. Here’s how to skim:
- Analyze the table of contents.
- Read headings and chapter summaries.
- Slow down and look for what’s directly relevant to you in each chapter.
- Pay attention to diagrams and call-out boxes.
- Read the conclusion.
At any point, be it on page one or 100, if the cost/benefit equation of continuing isn’t what you want it to be, quit. Cut your losses and abandon ship. There’s nothing heroic or moral about finishing a book. At the same time, if that equation tilts the other way and the ratio of insights-per-page is much higher than you thought, you may have a book worth reading. Go back to chapter one and dig into it. Keep reading until that ratio drops you back to skimming.
Harvest the book.
If a book is worth reading, it’s worth harvesting. Compress your yield by making highlights and marginal notes and then listing both key insights and points of criticism. If you’re listening to an audiobook, stop the recording to make a note or record a voice memo when you glean an important insight. Store that list or file in an accessible format and revisit it periodically. Then share the captured insights with colleagues and team members — there’s no better way to internalize learning and make it a part of your portfolio of knowledge and skills.
Test use cases.
A business book isn’t supposed to tell you what to think; it’s 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 apply 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 truly important events on the outside are not the trends. They are changes in the trends.” I took that concept back to our strategic planning team and we incorporated the practice of inflection-point spotting instead of trend spotting. That insight was enormously helpful in practice.
When it comes to the dynamic range of talent in an organization, it quickly becomes clear that 100 B players do not equal one A player. Why? Because the A player creates and delivers value in a qualitatively superior way. It’s simply not additive. Similarly, 100 average business books can never equal the value of one good one. A LinkedIn post with someone’s mile-high book stack and the “100 books I read this year” tagline may motivate you to crush a few more titles. But remember, it’s never about quantity, it’s about quality. Your return-on-time-invested is measured by positive behavioral change and the application of tools to produce better outcomes, not the number of books you’ve read. Perhaps instead of reading another book, read a good one twice.
. . .
In my 30 years of leadership development experience, I’ve seen that reading and listening to business books is the single most common way business leaders engage in continuous professional development. The trick is allocating your reading time to your greatest advantage through careful selection based on need, triaging the mode of consumption — whether reading, skimming, or quitting — and harvesting the takeaways for application.
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