Novel Ideas

We reveal our picks for the 9 best classic business books of the past 30 years--and why they're still relevant today.

Business authors and experts have proclaimed enough revolutions to fill a long shelf. Most of these turn out more like ripples than tidal waves, as a check of any bookstore's markdown shelves will show. Sure, a few tomes and gurus from the past three decades have made a difference in the way entrepreneurs operate--or at least in what they bring on the plane to read.

But even the rare title with the power to change rarely has much staying power. The speakers who promised to teach American companies to operate like Japanese firms were influential in the 1980s, but imploded in the 1990s along with Japan's bubble economy. Likewise, the 1990s experts who proclaimed an end to the Old Economy lost listeners and credibility when the New Economy's glitter faded in the new century.

Of the thousands of business books published in the last 30 years, only a handful have withstood the assaults of changing times and changing objectives to remain as relevant today as when they first came out. Here are nine worthy of space on any entrepreneur's shelf--now and in the future.

The One Minute Manager (HarperCollins, 1981) by Kenneth H. Blanchard and Spencer Johnson
Why it mattered:The One-Minute Manager was the first mega-best-selling business book and still is popular today. Myriad businesses have issued copies to all managers, and the concept has spawned an array of audio versions, videotapes, seminars and other tools applying the one-minute approach to all kinds of activities.

This slim, 111-page instruction manual is presented in the form of a parable. The narrative follows a puzzled young manager who learns from the wise old One-Minute Manager how to handle the people under his supervision. The brief, easy-reading fable format has been mimicked by countless titles since, but none of the imitators has offered such an easily understood and broadly applicable set of management principles.

Why it still matters: One-Minute Management relies on three foundations: goal setting, praise and reprimands. Each interaction aimed at these objectives should be clear and, importantly, take just 60 seconds to impart. This simple, straightforward approach worked then, and people haven't changed all that much, so it still works now.

What to ignore: Blanchard and Johnson recommend physically touching employees when praising them. They do warn you should only touch employees you know well, but this advice still seems riskier today than in 1981. It's best to respect everyone's space and keep your hands to yourself.

Out of the Crisis (The MIT Press, 1982) by W. Edwards Deming
Why it mattered: Deming introduced statistical methods for quality measurement and improvement in post-war Japan, guiding its rise to manufacturing superstardom. In the 1970s, U.S. business leaders worried about Japanese inroads asked Deming for help, beginning the quality revolution here.

Deming's teachings challenged American business practice at almost every point. Among his most revolutionary ideas were the notions that poor management--not slacker workers--was responsible for most quality problems, and the way to boost quality was to carefully measure defects and the effects of changing processes.

Why it still matters: Although much low-hanging, quality-management fruit has been picked, increasingly rigorous applications of Deming's theories--notably the approach called Six Sigma--can still provide significant advantage over less disciplined competitors.

Deming's famous 14 points of management address matters far-removed from the statistical methods he's most remembered for. Among other things, he strongly advocated a customer focus, using market demands to define the standards of good quality, long before it was popular.

What to ignore: Deming's embrace of Japanese culture endeared him to his hosts, but his approach to teaching American managers was bluntly critical. That alienated many who might have benefited from his concepts. Also, in part because of his early experiences working in an electrical assembly plant, he was strenuously opposed to incentive pay plans of all types.

In Search of Excellence (HarperBusiness Essentials, 1982) by Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman
Why it mattered: The era of the celebrity business author began with this 1982 title exploring the secrets of a group of high-performing companies. While several of the supposedly excellent profiled firms soon stumbled--some badly, bringing heaps of criticism on the authors--the authors' ideas did beneficially refocus the business world's attention on some neglected topics.

Peters and Waterman's most lasting recommendation, which was surprisingly unconventional in its day, was to get and stay close to customers. They also lauded entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial management in an era when big companies and hidebound management practices were all the rage.

Why it still matters: Read In Search of Excellence, first, because so many of your rivals and peers already have. Not counting bite-sized parables like The One Minute Manager, it's the most popular general management book of our time and, very likely, the single most influential.

Another reason to read the book is that, despite the hard times many of its profiled companies encountered, its criteria for success still remain valid. Trying new things, learning from your mistakes--having a "bias for action," in the authors' words--and taking good care of employees are still solid approaches to making business work.

What to ignore: Beware the cult of gurudom that sprang up around Peters and, to a lesser extent, his co-author. Despite their adulation, both have admitted significant flaws in this first book. And Peters, particularly, has been prone to repudiate his earlier ideas with each successive book. In short, take what they say with a grain of salt.

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