BoS digest: there are no absolutes. Ever.

Malcolm Gladwell is getting a bit of a kicking right now. It’s all my fault. Well, your fault too. All of us, in fact. We all love it when somebody takes the bitter complexity of the world, breaks it down, simplifies it, wraps it up in a tasty story and places it in front of us with a warm glass of milk for easy digestion. And then we love complaining when we consume too many stories and feel sick.

But I don’t think the problem is one of technique, or presentation. Instead, Gladwell – and many of the authors of well known business books – are fossicking for universal laws where there is really only grit. The truths they are looking for do not exist, or are too simple to be useful.

In the set of all successful companies, some have no assholes but some do. Some rely on shiny new strategies, and some just do the basics better than the competition. Some have humble, thoughtful leaders, while others, well, don’t.

It’s entirely possible for IBM to share some success factors with Microsoft, and Microsoft with Google, and Google with Apple, but for IBM to have nothing in common with Apple. There might be a family resemblance in the histories and behaviours of these companies that allows you to lump them together in the same category of ‘successful’, but not a common theme, much in the same way that the members of a family – sons, daughters, husband, wife, uncle and aunt – can visibly belong in the same group without sharing any single physical trait.

To give rules, you need to be narrow. Examine all companies in a particular sector, at a particular time, and facing particular threats, then you might, if you look closely enough, find a law. But the broader the domain you’re trying to create a rule for, the more banal your law becomes (sometimes people’s instincts are right, but sometimes they’re wrong, and it’s damn hard to tell when), and the more likely it is to be demonstrably wrong (we all need to be more like Enron).

My hunch is that business laws cannot be universal, correct and useful. I can’t prove it though.

The big news this week in the business of software is that the Business of Software 2009 web site is now live, and we’re taking bookings. Plus you can download a free eBook.

On the BoS social network, Greg Atkins asks how he can become a product manager, Matt Richards asks how to deal with domain name squatters, and Steve Schoon would like to know what percentage of sales revenue to budget to technical support. Answer these questions, and others, on the forum.

On Wednesday, Paul Kenny is hosting an online chat about software sales. Sales is a fence most ISVs stumble at, and Paul is an expert, so this chat is worth signing up to.

If you can get to London for February 17th and want to see Seth Godin then there’s a spare ticket up for a charity auction.

Hope to see you in San Francisco!

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10 responses to “BoS digest: there are no absolutes. Ever.”

  1. Jason Cohen says:

    There are no rules that lead automatically to success; in fact success stories are often contradictory.
    I just wrote about this — and even Malcolm in particular — over on the OnStartups blog.
    There was a bit of backlash from this article by the way; this is a controversial subject. I summarized my behind-the-scenes wrap-up of this viral post for anyone interested.

  2. Jason,
    I must have been subliminally influenced by your excellent article.
    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Mike K. says:

    There are no absolutes. Ever. Except for this one. This one is absolute. But no others. Really.

  4. David Locke says:

    I don’t believe in the generic approach to managing a business.
    I recently saw a breakdown of business types: public, VC startup, mom and pop, and bootstraper. What works for public companies is not applicable to bootstrappers.
    Back in the dot boom, you had commodity products being ecommerced with technology product economics. Is it any surprise that it didn’t work. Oh, well.
    Every business is classified into an industrial hiearchy and a sector. Witihn the heirarchy, every business lives in their collection of product categories, and address markets against technology adoption, even those that skip adoption and just opt for the copycat consumer good. They still face a particular market with particular interfaces,populations, and time horizons which drive organizational capabilities, structure and cost structures. Businesses are more different than we tend to believe.
    David hit Goliath. But, Goliath’s cost accounted pointed out that the damage was insured and that it would cost to much to crush David. “Ignore him” he said.
    It’s a good thing that all our business are not alike.

  5. Sean Murphy says:

    Hello Neil
    I agree they’re no business laws that can be universal, correct and useful.
    Maybe we should defer to Rummy:
    ‘There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don

  6. Andy Brice says:

    >My hunch is that business laws cannot be universal, correct and useful. I can

  7. PeterR says:

    Well, another theory would be that people like reading about success. People buy books about success. Is it really a bad thing for other people to write those books?

  8. By the way, about Malcolm Gladwell, I think “Outliers” is not his best work. But his essays and articles for The New Yorker are often fascinating, novel, thoughtful, and well-written. Don’t think too badly of him from the reviews of “Outliers”. Read his stuff at (I have no connection to him whatsoever except being a fan.)

  9. Daniel,
    You probably can’t tell from the blog post, but I do actually like Gladwell’s work.

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