End to End: Do We Need to Finish Reading Business Books?

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Business books are a source of hope. No matter how desperate the situation at work, the secret solution may be in the latest best selling business book. That’s why we buy them. Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, is no different. The book is part pep talk and a lot of practical advice for both men and women. The book provides a lot of hope, is a huge best seller and puts women in management (or the lack thereof) back in the news. Good for Sheryl.

But the book made news for another reason in recent weeks. Among all books released on Kindle, Lean In is near the top of the list of books that we begin reading but don’t finish. It ranks up there in the never finished ranks with A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking and Capital in the 21 Century by Thomas Piketty. OK, I get bailing out of complex Physics, and dense economics. But why would a book encouraging women to delegate, outsource and pump up their ambitions be abandoned?

The simple answer is that most business books are not designed to be read completely. There is no need to feel guilty about leaving your bookmark in Lean In on page sixty. I doubt Sheryl is worried or feels bad about being on the “unfinished book” list. Her book is on lots of other lists like the New York Times Bestseller List. She can take comfort in the knowledge that her message is out there and that her lean in message resonates.

And that’s what many of us business authors are trying to do – get messages out. If we succeed, then the book is a success, regardless of the number of pages read. If messages are important, why aren’t business books read to the finish? Here’s why…

You got it. That is, you got the message and you now believe your time is better spent trying to live the message than reading the book. If you become a mentor to women as Sheryl Sandberg suggests, she probably doesn’t care if you finish the book.

There is no ending. Business books are not great literature and do not build up to a big ending. Go ahead and feel guilty for not completing Moby Dick because there is lots of action at the end. For most business books, the end is a summary.

You can go back to it at any time. Great business books are handy and a source of reference any time during a career. Good to Great by James Collins and The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner come to mind. We don’t finish the great books because we are always reading them.

Just-in-time advice is all you need. That is, you find the one or two chapters in a book that pertains to you. When you need a marketing solution, you find the marketing chapter. When you are stuck on a people problem, you find what pertains and consider that. The rest of the book can be on red alert for future reference.

I am not suggesting that we skim business books only. Like real business, the devil is often in the details of a business book. If you are enjoying the read, go all the way. Whatever you do, don’t stop reading or you will miss new thinking, new solutions and a few new buzzwords. There are so many good business books to read, you might get one tidbit from many and that can make you more successful.

So if you have a stack of unfinished business books on your bookshelf, don’t feel bad, you’re far from alone. Glean what you can from whatever cool title you picked out for vacation and be glad.

Richard Moran is a best selling author and evangelist for organization effectiveness. He is best known for his series of humorous business books beginning with bestselling, Never Confuse a Memo with Reality. Feel free to skim his latest: Navigating Tweets, Feats, and Deletes–Lessons for the New Workplace.

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