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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