Business Book Classics: Management in Small Doses

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For a long time, we didn’t have to worry about business book “classics” because there just weren’t that many business books. Today gazillions of business books are published every year. Some are great, others are horrid, and the vast majority are mediocre. It’s the bell curve at work.

That’s why it’s worth going back to some high quality business classics. I call a business book a classic if it was first published more than twenty-five years ago and is still worth reading.

Management in Small Doses by Russell Ackoff

In 1984, the Wharton School began a weekly cable television program titled “Management Report.” The Dean asked Russell Ackoff, a professor at the school, to deliver a series of four-minute meditations on management that would be part of the program.

Ackoff demurred. He noted that he normally worked in blocks of an hour or two with a live audience, and so doing four-minute segments with no audience at all would probably result in short, but otherwise dreadful meditations. Nevertheless, with the help of the Dean and a producer occasionally acting as audience, he produced about thirty of them. Then the cable show was canceled.

Ackoff continued to prepare meditations, though, because he liked learning how to express his thoughts succinctly. When he showed the meditations to a friend of his, C. West Churchman, Churchman suggested he turn them into a book. Therefore, Ackoff says, “He is to blame for this.”

I think we should all give C. West Churchman a standing ovation for pushing Russell Ackoff to create one of the most interesting little management books you’re ever likely to read. Even after thirty years, the wisdom and insight and sense of humor that’s here makes it worth taking the time and making the effort to find a copy of Management in Small Doses.

The book consists of fifty-two short essays, one per week, about various aspects of management. If you’re already an Ackoff fan, you don’t need me to tell you that the book is filled with both wisdom and humor. If you’ve never experienced Ackoff, nothing I can say will do him justice. So, instead of telling you want the book is about, I’ll share ten of my favorite quotes from it.

Quotes from Management in Small Doses

From Meditation 6: Mess Management
“Messes are systems of problems.”

From Meditation 7: Growth Versus Development
“Growth and development are not the same thing. Neither is necessary for the other. A rubbish heap can grow, but it doesn’t develop.”

From Meditation 10: Performance Management
“Those corporate managers who can’t measure what they want frequently settle for wanting what they measure.”

From Meditation 16: Paternalism
“Paternalism breeds paralysis of the tongue, if not the mind. It ignores the fact that it is often better to do things for oneself, no matter how badly, than to have them done by others, no matter how well. People generally learn more from their own mistakes than they do from the correct decisions of others.”

From Meditation 22: Computer-Controlled Managers
“No manager has the right to allow a system to take control rather than serve. Ignorance does not excuse failure to fulfill a responsibility.”

From Meditation 26: Types of Problems
“What kind of problem was this – medical, economic, or architectural? Actually, none of these. It was just a problem. The adjectives are indicative only of the point of view, the mindset, of the person looking at the problem.”

From Meditation 31: The Obvious
“Obviousness is a property not of statements that require no proof but of statements made by those who are unwilling to have them questioned.”

From Meditation 36: Managing Interactions
“Employees at any level who cannot do their jobs without supervision are not fit for their jobs.”

From Meditation 43: Understanding
“The most important question a manager can ask when confronted with the unexpected or the undesirable begins with why.”

From Meditation 50: Responsiveness
“The cost of preparing for critical events that do not occur is generally very small in comparison to the cost of being unprepared for those that do.”

Bottom Line

It’s hard to find a copy of Management in Small Doses by Russell Ackoff, but it’s worth the effort.

Now it’s your turn

What books would you nominate as business book classics?

If you like the “small doses” approach, the 347 tips in my ebook can help you Become a Better Boss One Tip at a Time.

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