In Search of Stupidity - Merrill R. Chapman

Back in the early Eighties, In Search of Excellence was written. It took the business world by storm and millions of copies were sold. It was about companies that succeeded by just being darn excellent all through. Lots of high-tech companies were mentioned, as they were trendy and cutting-edge.

Unfortunately, a number of them then went bust. The author of this book argues that it's not so much being excellent that makes you successful, it's more a case of just avoiding boneheaded moves. Rick Chapman worked in the computer industry during the '80s, so he saw it all up close at places like MicroPro and Ashton-Tate. He really knows his stuff, and it's really very interesting and insightful. He identifies all the stupid moves which killed companies off.

More specifically, I should say, he mostly worked in marketing (although he had enough of a technical background to get the techie details). It seems that most of the really stupid decisions can be phrased as bad marketing decisions! I never really got what marketing get up to, but reading this book, in the mind of Rick Chapman I can see what you want out of a good marketer.

I guess a prime example is this book. An honest title would be 'Computer marketing mistakes, 1980-2000'. How much catchier is it to have a title suggesting it's a compelling critique of one of the most famous business books of all time?

Anyway, it's all rather amusing to see when marketing insight fails to turn into a crystal ball. I've read the first edition, so this may have changed in the second, but one of the later chapters talks about dot com madness and how Amazon was stupidly over-valued, before crashing down to a more sensible level. The stock's now worth more than ever! He consistently needles Apple as being a minor niche player. Oh, how things have changed!

Anyway, overall it makes a fantastic book, at least to an audience like me. It couches business insight in examples that I recognise. The overall message, in comparison to In Search of Excellence is very sane: As Brooks says, there's no silver bullet. Instead, it's just a matter of not being stupid.

Posted 2012-01-26.