HBR’s 10 Must Reads – book review

Ben Crowley2 Blogs Leave a Comment

‘HBR’s 10 Must Reads’ published by the Harvard Business Review

This is the latest of twelve books in this series, which started over three years ago.  It is yet another example of Harvard Business Reviews’s well-known tendency to recycle its best articles, though this is no reason to reject such a potentially useful idea.  For anyone involved in business discussions, it is impressive to show a good overall understanding of what has been written on key management topics.  Therefore this review is not just about this particular book but also about the usefulness of the series as a whole.

The book takes the ten articles that have been chosen as the most valuable by the book’s editor.  Clearly this is a subjective choice – and was no doubt the subject of much academic rivalry – but the claim is that the selection was made after this anonymous person ‘combed through hundreds of articles in HBR archives’.  The contributors are mostly from Harvard and other USA universities; there is however one article by two Ashridge researchers, one by a professor from Sydney University and two from leading consultancies McKinsey and Bain.

The main focus of the articles is the behavioural aspects of decisions with, in our view, rather too little coverage of analytical tools and techniques.  Six out of the ten of the articles make reference to the important topic of bias, which we have covered extensively on our own business and financial programmes.  There is no doubt that managers making key decisions do tend to be over-confident and can easily fall into traps which make them less than objective.  The messages are however rather repetitive and a more varied selection would have been even more valuable.

Of the remaining articles, three focus on decision making processes and these become rather tedious, focussing more on what can go wrong than what is needed to get them right.  There is however one excellent article by Bain – the last in the book – on the negative aspects of complex annual planning processes and how these tend to stop the right decisions being taken at the right time.  This should be read by the CEOs and CFOs of those companies whose annual planning cycles dominate business life for months on end; we’ve come across quite a few.

Despite these reservations the book and series is recommended for those who want to keep in touch with academic thinking on particular topics.  Each article has an excellent short summary under the ‘Idea in Brief’ heading, which allows the reader easily to focus on issues of particular interest.

We plan also to review an earlier book in the series on Business Strategy, using our long experience of working in this area to make an assessment of the top ten choice, and maybe produce our own alternative list.

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