The art of reading business books



A recent article in Inc. Magazine discoursed about the “7 Ways Successful People Spend Their Free Time,” one of which is reading; and I totally agree. Reading books, whether fiction or non-fiction, helps you understand the world better as you go through new encounters with situations, environments, ideas, philosophies, and even new skills. From CEOs to country leaders, reading is a lifelong habit of the successful and the powerful. It helps you build your vocabulary and sentence structure; hence, it also enhances your written and oral communication skills.

But how do we maximize the learning and benefit from reading books—business books for that matter, as up-and-coming executives and promising professionals need to enhance their skills and business acumen.

A framework for reading business books, which I teach and apply, is summed in the acronym IBR—Impact, Balance and Recall. To remember this better, think of it as “I’ve Been Reading.”

When choosing a business book, we normally follow the recommendations of our friends, or the good reviews done by other people. While this approach will help you screen a list of books, you may totally depend on the judgment by others and not maximize the learning you could gain from reading. One should develop and practice a way of discovering a great business book, no matter who the author is, in order to maximize its impact on you as a reader and learner.

Start with what you need to learn about—it may be learning about people management, or formulating a pricing strategy. Then evaluate the author: Is his or her writing based on personal experience, or on some studies conducted? Is he or she an accomplished executive or a minted academician?

Then go through the table of contents. What you can glean from this is the framework for the body of the book. A good business book shows a logical flow of topics, with clear learning highlights and conclusions. I am wary of chapter titles with flashy wordings as they may lack substance.

Great books present and show some frameworks in the form of an outline, diagrams and charts to show relationships of variables and cause-and-effect. These are the essence of maximizing the impact of learning. Frameworks provide structure and form part of what Peter Senge calls mental models in his book, the Fifth Discipline. Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action.

A balanced approach to reading business books entails reading the extremes or opposites about business. I call these extremes as the “ideal” on one hand, and the “cutthroat” on the other. Ideal books are ones that make us feel good and teach us the best and ideal business practices. Examples of these are Steven Covey’s Seven Habits, or John Maxwell’s leadership books.

On the other hand, cutthroat books talk about ruthlessness and fierceness in business, such as Sun Tzu’s Art of War, or Machiavelli on Management. It borders on unethical business practices.

The danger is for one to become a fanatic of one extreme—that is, reading only ideal books or only cutthroat books. A fanatic of only inspirational books, when exposed to cutthroat competition and negotiation will tend to falter. On the other hand, a fanatic of cutthroat books may develop unethical business practices.

The key is reading the opposites because the real world is somewhere in the middle. Expose yourself to the extremes to develop a balanced view and mental model.

It has been said that we remember only 10 percent of what we read. How do we maximize this?

In 1927, psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik noticed a funny thing: waiters in a Vienna restaurant could only remember orders that were in progress. As soon as the order was sent out and completed, they seemed to wipe it from memory. She then experimented in the lab to understand this phenomenon, which is now known as the Zeigarnik Effect, which states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks; in fact over two times better!

To apply this in reading, I have two opposite books side by side—one ideal and one cutthroat. I read one chapter at a time of the ideal book and the same for the cutthroat book. Then I stop halfway and only get back after a week or a month. This forces the brain to remember the concepts in the unfinished book, and eventually remember the rest of the book when done in a chapter at a time.

By applying IBR in reading business books, you can maximize the benefit from the time and money spent on reading. Happy reading!

The author is a senior executive in the information and communications technology sector. He also teaches strategy, management and marketing courses in the MBA Program of the Ramon V. del Rosario College of Business, De La Salle University.


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