Business Improvement and the 80/20 Rule

book1I was asked yesterday, and am often asked, to recommend a book or a website to help someone operating a small business.  “What specifically do you need help with?” — “Oh, just getting better in general.”

This is like telling your doctor that you don’t know where the pain is, it just hurts everywhere.  The doc is going to have a tough time making it better.

Aside from going into the Amazon-driven commoditization of books and the Internet-provided medium that makes everyone an expert author (including moi-LOL), there have been a few decades of the rise of the self-help books and, more lately, websites which claim to cure that which ails a business and/or a business-person for a penny’s fraction the cost of focused, expert consulting.  Just pay a few bucks, read the book, follow the 12-ish step program and poof! — You are a raging success!

I don’t recommend self-help books and websites and frankly don’t turn to them myself.  No, this isn’t because I have all the answers already and, no, this isn’t because I want to deprive others.  It’s rather scientific, really — such resources are inefficient.  Cheap though they may be, you are getting what you pay for.

Now, I do read prolifically and from all available mediums.  I gather information all the time.  But, for business purposes, my general reading is aimed at gathering news and information about current events.  If I have a specific problem to solve, I find a specialist.  (I don’t expect a general MD to handle a cataract.)  If I am going to read an entire book on a topic, it’s going to be a topic I know absolutely nothing about going into it, or I am just wasting my time.

book2My point is this: a great many people who have done reasonably well at something tend to try to retire early by making a pile of money telling a general audience some general information about their specific area of practice.  Those who already practice in that specific area generally already understand the common-sense wisdom or else they would have already, miserably failed and probably lost their opportunity to keep practicing in that area.

Yet, the number of potential readers who know nearly nothing about a given something and who are committed and resourceful enough to enter into that area are not enough to excite a publisher concerned with sales volume.  Self-help books (including business-oriented ones and gobs of them, seriously, and we might as well include one-night only seminars in this category as well) are marketed to solve everybody’s problems, guaranteed to work every time.  Uh huh.

So then, why does college exist?  Think about it.  That is one very expensive book (well, very expensive tuition and a lot of very expensive books) meant for someone to go from zero to 60 in about four years or more in a new field of work.  What value is there in higher education when a $40 book at the nearest Waldenbooks (still alive as of this writing) can fast-track anyone and make them an expert?

Put down the alluring book marketing or get-rich-quick scheme, slowly back away, and allow common sense to once again prevail.  Truly learning to succeed at anything must overcome the following challenges:

  1. Your local conditions.  Circumstances on the ground vary greatly from one place to the next.
  2. Your personal point on the learning curve.  Everyone is in a different place with regard to what they already know, what they need to know, and what they need to learn next.
  3. Your learning style.  Not all that many people learn best by reading without demonstration and practice.  Most of us learn better by apprenticing.
  4. The age of the information.  From the day it is set down in ink, the information offered is becoming out-of-date as new conditions are being introduced.
  5. The limitations of the author.  From the ability to effectively convey ideas in a quickly understandable way to their severe limitations on being everywhere all at once during their careers, the reader is getting an extremely narrow viewpoint as told from the perspective of one or a few personal experiences.

So when I say that general self-help knowledge on specific topics are inefficient, what I mean is that no one can make money writing the book or website that perfectly helps you, as you are, where you are, when you need it at that moment of time, that takes into account what you already know, and that places into order the things that you need to know next.  Do you know why?  Because you likely would not be willing to pay the author and publisher for a press run of only one book, and if you are, then you can spend less hiring an in-person consultant.

book3Learning and true mastery has always been far-and-away best accomplished under the tutelage of others who have demonstrated (proven their) mastery and are willing to pass it on to you while responding dynamically to your unique set of circumstances.  It requires investment (time and financial) and why shouldn’t it?  If it was easy to be an expert by reading a book or perusing a website, everyone would be an expert and no one would be special.  Is that what you want for yourself?  I hope not, because you won’t have anything of value to sell to people who already know as much as you do.

Now, you may be wondering – how do I view myself, being a prolific writer, in light of all of this?  First, what I offer on my blog is searchable by topic, general, and I don’t charge for it — it’s a free gift (but again, you get what you pay for.)  Second, when I write something longer than a blog, it tends to be a white paper (not book length) and aimed as a time-limited response to a specific audience sharing a common set of problems at a specific time.  I don’t expect my white papers to be being passed around years from now.  Finally, in the end, I can best help a client dynamically, in-person, for far less cost than the value of their time that they would spend reading mass material to gain the few nuggets that I can use my expertise to pick out for them.  This dramatically speeds up the results.  Besides, any consultant that just wants to throw a book at you and still get paid is an idiot.  Sorry, was that too harsh?

Jeff Koenig

(P.S. NONE of the images in this blog are intended to be recommedations – srsly.)

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