I've read a number of business books over the years. The following are the books which have really influenced my thinking or given me significant insight into business:
Good to Great
The insight which struck me most in Good to Great was: first get the right people onto the bus, and then figure out where the bus is going. All of Good to Great is interesting, but it really struck me how overwhelmingly important it is to have the right people, and then to trust them to do what they're good at.
How to Win Friends and Influence People
"Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain — and most fools do."
Never Eat Alone
Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferrazzi, was a very good book; in some ways I think that it can be considered a companion to How to Win Friends and Influence People. The most important thing that I got from his book is that business is a very human endeavor, and it's much better if you think of your co-workers, customers, and suppliers first as people, and let them see you in that light.
It is important in business to never offend people. Perhaps the greatest lesson of Never Eat Alone is that kindness and human warmth are never offensive.
The Mythical Man-Month
This is the book, famous within computer circles, which explores the myth that men and months are interchangeable. (The most popular counter-example is that 9 women can't give birth to a baby in one month.)
Despite its age, only parts of it are now only of historical interest; it still contains a great deal of insight into the process of designing large, complex systems, and how to do it efficiently while avoid false economies. It also addresses the need for conceptual unity in design and how to achieve it without wasting time or bruising egos.
It also contains one of my favorite quotes, which should be born in mind when being a programmer giving time estimates, or merely dealing with one:
All programmers are optimists. Perhaps this modern sorcery especially attracts those who believe in happy endings and fairy godmothers. Perhaps the hundreds of nitty frustrations drive away all but those who habitually focus on the end goal. Perhaps it is merely that computers are young, programmers are younger, and the young are always optimists. But however the selection process works, the result is indisputable: "This time it will surely run," or "I just found the last bug."
"Attack your opponent's strength, not his weakness." This is the idea which struck me most in Marketing Warfare: if you take advantage of something that your opponent's does badly, he might fix it and come out better than before. But if you take advantage of some weakness inherent in what your opponent does well, he can't fix it without hurting himself.
Of course, the other big idea in Marketing Warfare is that you should always be attacking yourself. Someone's eventually going to do it, and better you than another company: this way you always win. Tying in with the idea of attacking your opponent's strength, you should always be trying to attack your own; the weakness inherent in what you do well defines a niche — where practical, serve the niche as well as your main market. You might be able to exploit some synergy, and if not, you'll get more revenue, and if the niche ever threatens to take over your main market, you won't be blind-sided.
Rich Dad, Poor Dad
While this book is not, strictly speaking, a business book, it still influenced my thinking on business. In particular, the way that it used the terms assets and liabilities in a non-accounting sense to mean "things which make you money" and "things which you spend money on" has obvious corollaries in business. Marakon consulting (in their book, The Value Imperative) emphasizes the idea of being aware of how much customers cost and how much they pay; this strikes me as a business-oriented application of the same idea.
Built to Last
Built to Last was an interesting book, with a lot of interesting information, yet I don't recall any very striking insights that summarize the book. Perhaps this is the reason why Jim Collins went on to write Good to Great.
There are of course some points that Collins and Porras drive home quite hard: the importance of humility in management and the way that visionary companies focus on core values and show great flexibility in everything else.
Yet these qualities are obvious: Collins and Porras set out to find what makes visionary companies, and they discovered that it was dedication to a vision. This is, I think, the same thing that Bill Meehan meant when he said that Built to Last was useless because the companies which were considered were always great. Built to Last isn't really useless; it contains many of interesting observations along the way to finding out that what makes great companies great is their greatness. But it doesn't explain what makes greatness, in part because it defined greatness in a way that can't really be acquired. Nobody wakes up one day and says, "I'm aimless and adrift; what I need is to believe in something." Nobody who goes on to believe in anything finds it that way; people find visions because those visions come to them.
Good to Great defined greatness very differently, despite nominally being an investigation of how to become a company like those explored in Built to Last. Good to Great uses an economic, rather than a cultural, definition of greatness. The result is that Good to Great answers the much more difficult question of: how do companies get quite a lot better at what they do?
I should point out that I've only read Built to Last once. I try to make it a habit to read any halfway good book at least twice. It's more fair to the book and I usually get more out of books on a second reading. Unlike grapes and olives, books aren't always best the first time you get the juice out of them.
In Search of Excellence
In many ways a similar book to Built To Last, it came out 20 years before. This of course disadvantages it somewhat in that the high tech semiconductor industry, and its dependent industries, were in their infancy. The insights that Peters and Waterman find when they examine the "excellent" companies sound universal, but it would be reassuring if they had examined companies like Dell, Asus, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google. Examining a modern Wal-Mart would also have been interested — some of the observations that they made about Wal-Mart aren't true any longer. (E.g. Wal-Mart is no longer a regional chain in the south-eastern United States.)
The insights in In Search of Excellence range over a variety of subjects. Treat People Like Adults and Try Often Enough That You Fail Some Times are related ideas, in that you need to trust someone a lot in order to trust them to fail. The second of those ideaas makes a point I've seen often elsewhere: the important skill isn't preventing failure, but recovering from it quickly.
The idea that Small Is Beautiful is something I haven't seen elsewhere. It's an interesting idea that economies of scale are, past a relatively small point, largely illusory. Large organizations that aren't broken up into small, mostly independent units lumber, and whatever economies of scale there were in huge operations over large operations quickly turn into inefficiencies. I'm very curious if that applies to every industry: operations like coal mining and international shipping come to mind as potential exceptions. And yet that's practically the story of the demise of U.S. Steel at the hands of companies like Nucor.
Made In America: My Story
The autobiography of Sam Walton isn't technically a business book, but since like most business founders his life was inextricably bound up in creating Wal-Mart, it's an interesting look at the genesis of one of America's biggest and most powerful companies.
Made in America seems to be quite forthwright about Sam Walton's faults: while many of the things which he tries succeed, many of them fail, and he's not afraid to own up to it. It's an interesting example of the phenomenon described in In Search of Excellence: try something, anything. Also described as "Ready! Fire! Aim!", it's the story of trying so often that you have to get it right some of the time.
What also comes across in Made in America is the extraordinary fierceness of Sam Walton. The guy was absolutely driven to sell, and sell as much as he could. Reading the book, one gets the impression that Wal-Mart succeeded as much by sheer force of will as by anything else. Sam rarely rested, and rarely let anyone else rest, either. It's a phenomenon that people who keep terratorial ornamental fish are familiar with: it's not the biggest or the strongest fish who typically wins; it's the most aggressive fish.
What Customers Want
What customers want gives a very interesting system for determining where to focus attention in product development based on a matrix of what customers want, how much they're getting it now, and how important it is to them.
It addresses only one kind of product development — development for a customer base which already exists in a relatively well-defined form. This is, however, the most common type of product development; businesses don't create truly new markets all that often. In this field, it gives a very good method for quantifying how much of a competitive advantage any particular product development is going to bring.
What Customers Want does leave out part of the story, however. Getting better at an over-served capability might not do much for customers, but it has psychological benefits. Being better than you have to is part of being a premium brand. And that's true not just for customer perception, but alsoo for employee perception. People get a psychological boost from being part of an organization which makes high quality products.
Up the Organization
This quircky book by Robert Townsend seems quite eclectic in its material, but there is a strong sense of a pervading theme: people do their best work when they're most human. Bureaucracy is a necessary feature of large organizations of people, but it also has a strong tendency to try to turn people into reliable cogs in a machine.
But people do their best work when they're unreliable: spectacular successes only happen when there's the risk (and the occasional reality) of spectacular failures. His theme seems to be that it's much better to be good at mitigating problems than to at preventing them.
The Dilbert Principle
The Dilbert Principle is not a serious business book in any sense, and yet I think that there is some value to it. It's valuable to see how people can mis-apply good ideas: one of the staples of Dilbert humor is managers and CEOs applying ideas without believing in them or understanding them. It's a look at how companies that aren't in Built To Last or In Search of Excellence can screw up by imitating the form, rather than the core, of a good idea from another organization.