Not many management books can be read with the pleasure of reading a novel, because few are so well written. Donald Keough’s book[1] is one of those few.

It is a book about business management, but although it is written for people who want to fail in that field and don’t know how (or who know how but want to be sure that the failure will be spectacular), Keough’s secret recipe for successful failure can also be applied, for example, to politics or to running an NGO (which should not necessarily be a business, although life stubbornly proves otherwise). Why am saying it’s well written?

Firstly, because it’s full of good humour throughout. There’s some serious material too, but there are many sections where it feels like you’re reading the humorist Jerome K. Jerome rather than an in-depth book on how to fail in business.

Secondly, because it’s a short book of one hundred and forty-one pages. Its brevity encourages you to read it, even though it teaches you something not highly valued by society (like how to fail); Anna Karenina (a book, not a news anchor) frightens many people by its sheer size and discourages them from reading it, though some will say it achieves somewhat the same result, but in a much more convoluted way.

And thirdly, because, as befits a management book (though not all management books can claim to be so), it is genuinely organised. There are 10 simple commandments—follow them and failure is guaranteed. And when you finish the tenth commandment, you have the pleasure of discovering that the author is giving you a 10% bonus—another commandment, the eleventh, absolutely free.

Sure, there are bonuses higher than 10% in this world, but Coca-Cola would rather invest in bright billboards with jolly Santas than offer a 50% discount. And Keough, in case you haven’t figured it out by now, was chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola from 1981 to 1993.

From here on, things should be easy for me, as I’ll basically just quote Keough’s commandments for successful failure and some of the things I found memorable in the book. Let the first commandment roll!

1. ” Quit taking risks!”

“…but after the agricultural revolution allowed people to settle down, most of them did so. People chose to live as their fathers and mothers and their grandfathers and grandmothers before them had lived, never venturing far from the village. And with good reason. It was a dangerous world out there. Just look at the old maritime maps with their ominous areas labeled ‘terra incognito’—territory unknown—sometimes embellished with even more threatening warnings, such as ‘Here be dragons.’ Who would want to take a risk sailing into such places?

A few did, of course. But most people stayed home. Many things could happen to you if you took a risk, and most of them were probably bad.”

It’s worth noting in passing that it was under this rule that we learned that in 1900 “American families spent nearly twice as much on funerals as they did on medicine.” It’s a pity he didn’t do the math and see how much more they spend on medication now than on funerals. In any case, he’s probably right that it’s a good thing—as long as you’re on meds, you’re still alive and can continue taking risks.

Here you can also find interesting stories about the Xerox company. The best part of the story is when Chester Carlson, a virtually unknown inventor from Queens, tried to convince someone that the idea of “electrophotographic” copying was worth exploiting commercially. What did people and more than 20 companies (in short) say to him over the years?

Indigo sheets are just as good. Why bother with a big expensive machine?

2. “Be inflexible”

“For this is the tragedy of man; circumstances change, but he does not” (Machiavelli).

Here Keough segued into the story of IBM, made famous in most management books, which in the 1980s, as the PC became increasingly democratic, refused to accept that the future might be different from what they had imagined (only with mainframes):

“Through the 1980s, I would from time to time mention that I was seeing more and more PCs in various offices of The Coca-Cola Company, and invariably I was met with a polite smile and a shrug. It was like IBM management was standing on the bank of a river. No matter how long you stand there, you never see the same river twice—it is in constant motion. History is downstream—the future is upstream, where opportunity and danger may be on their way. But the reality was that the executives at IBM were too busy looking downstream, happily watching those beautiful, profitable mainframes floating down the river and around the world.

The final curtain on this little business history episode is that the ThinkPad, IBM’s PC, ended up in the laptop factories of China under the brand name Lenovo.”

For more stories and details on how to be inflexible, read the book.

3. “Isolate yourself”

“Of course, if you want to be isolated, don’t do this [don’t walk among people and don’t talk to them]. It’s a complete waste of time. People invariably burden you with some detail of the daily business that you’re better off not knowing. Like their names. Don’t bother learning the names of employees. They might leave, and then you’ve wasted all that effort. (I read once of an eccentric upper-class British matron who never bothered to learn the servants’ names. Down through several changes of butlers, she simply called each new one ‘Butler’. The maid, ‘Maid’. Gardener, ‘Gardener’. She would have made an excellent, isolated CEO).”

You don’t need any advanced knowledge of mathematical analysis or astronomy to get the idea. However, there are many other aspects and case studies in this chapter that are worth reading. And if you follow the rule, you’ll be on a straight road to well-deserved failure.

4. “Assume infallibility”

This is one of the shortest chapters. Probably because it’s crystal clear that “if you want to fail, pose as an infallible leader.” So I’ll cut it short and move on to the next rule.

5. “Play the game close to the foul line”

I think the news (political and otherwise) more than adequately illustrates the content of this rule. Also, it seems to me that this rule is so systematically practised by Homo sapiens that it seems that only some with serious genetic diseases play the game only within the bounds of correctness. Everyone else, somewhere on chromosome 2 (or it must be on another—5, 8, whatever number it is), has a gene for cheating. And some of us, I think, have the most copies of the gene.

6. “Don’t take time to think”

I found a short text here that I find memorable: “It’s been said that we live in the information age. That’s not true. We live in the data age.” We are fed huge amounts of data, but we never get around to critically examining it and turning it into information that makes sense to us.

“According to a study in 2006 the average corporate worker has to deal with 133 e-mails every day. Not only that, they deal with multiple communications—a fax here, a text message there, attend a meeting here and teleconference with another meeting there, watch a PowerPoint presentation here, watch a video report there. Phones ringing on the desk and vibrating in the pocket.” (Sound familiar? Any resemblance to reality is purely coincidental).

Another passage a leader might want to ponder: “Believe in research, but I don’t expect the research to give me much more than a glimmer, an imperfect snapshot, of a moment in time. Bell-shaped curves won’t really tell me how to design a vision for the future. Surveys won’t reveal how the dreams of tomorrow should be shaped because nobody knows. If the builders of early automobiles had asked people what they wanted in transportation, the probable answer would have been, ‘Faster horses’.” The moral would be that you don’t have to find out the future from consumers, customers or the public. You build the future.

Here’s a humorous passage: “‘It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so’ — Mark Twain. (Some know it was not Mark Twain who said this. It was Artemus Ward, Ralph Waldo Emerson, or Will Rogers. I know, for a fact, that it was none of these. It was my uncle Vern. I know. I was there when he said it).”

“If you still are determined to fail, however, it’s imperative that you don’t take time to think. Or, and this is really seductive, you can actually avoid almost all responsibility by getting someone else to do your thinking for you. This brings us to…”

7. “Put all your faith in experts and outside consultants”

In the 1980s, outside experts advised Coca-Cola to change its formula, leading to the ill-fated launch of “New Coke” in 1985. The public was horrified and reacted with proletarian outrage, including thousands of letters to the company’s management:

“One letter was from a lawyer in Idaho addressed to Roberto and me: ‘Gentlemen, will the two of you please autograph the bottom of this letter because it will soon be worth a fortune. It will bear the names of the two dumbest executives in American business history’. A letter like that is good for one’s humility curve.”

This chapter is well worth reading; you won’t waste any time. But if you don’t want to read the whole book and still want more information about the experts and their shortcomings, you can watch the documentary, The Trouble With Experts (sometimes even I was/am considered an “expert” in some more or less narrow areas, so recommending the documentary does me a disservice; but it’s worth watching).

8. “Love your bureaucracy”

Anyone who has ever been a victim of this god of modern societies cannot help but love this chapter, nor can they dispute the effectiveness of the rule. Reading it will at least give you the satisfaction that you’re not the only one who doesn’t understand the point of many bureaucratic rituals (even if they are often a necessary evil that originally made sense).

“You put a manager in place and within eighteen months he or she has an assistant. The assistant becomes a junior manager and guess what? Another assistant. The beat goes on. 

There are layers upon layers of people, yet when a customer calls, nobody’s home. They are all in meetings. These meetings generate more paperwork, more emails, more calls, more meetings. In fact, most often there are even meetings to plan meetings. Meetings are the religious services of a great bureaucracy and the bureaucrats are fervently religious.”

9. “Send mixed messages”

This chapter didn’t strike me as one of the finest, but I’ve kept two quotes from it that are enough to save it from destructive criticism: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” (G. B. Shaw). “There are many things in life that are more important than money. And they all cost money” (Fred Allen).

10. “Be afraid of the future”

It’s sad that many people won’t read this book, and especially this chapter, but even if they do, I’m not sure they’ll change the views they’re stuck in. It is a masochistic pleasure of Homo sapiens to make dire predictions and see all sorts of threats to their happiness and well-being. And no matter how many apocalyptic dangers we escape, the “pessimism industry” remains active and thriving.

“I’ve lived through the projected end of the world from global freezing in the 1970s, the near end of the world from Chernobyl in the 1980s, the even nearer end of the world from Y2K at the turn of the century, death from alar on our apples, cancer from our power lines, cancer from our cell phones, cancer from our food coloring, and cancer from the cyclamates in the diet soft drink TAB.”

“The news business has never been about good news. It’s the bad stuff that makes people sit up and take notice. And that makes perfect sense. Millions of cars safely negotiating a daily commute is a nice piece of information. But ten cars in a massive pileup is news!”

11. (Bonus) “Lose your passion for work”

This is a good rule for failure, although I don’t think we needed Donald Keough to teach us. With the exception of a minority, I don’t think most people are somehow guilty of being too passionate about their work. Many work, some even work hard, but those who put passion into their work are far fewer. In fact, many don’t bring passion to life either. They don’t live life, they exist. They have no dream to pull themselves ruthlessly towards it, no inner thirst to push themselves towards the heart of life, towards knowledge, towards searching.

I am disappointed and puzzled to see that often more than half of my students, if I don’t push them from behind, don’t have the curiosity to look into a microscope and get to know a part of the world they have never seen before. The thirst for knowledge seems to have died out since the Renaissance.

“If you really want to fail, lose that passion for whatever it is you’re doing. Get that spring out of your step. Say to yourself, ‘That’s good enough’. Or ‘That’s not my job’. Or ‘I don’t care’. Or ‘I’m retiring soon anyway’.

We all know people who have done this. They are the gray-faced automatons found in every workplace—the people who seem to stew in their own misery, cursing the darkness rather than lighting a candle.”

However, if you don’t want to fail, I’ll let you in on a secret you probably never would have figured out otherwise: read the rules and do the exact opposite. For example, take a risk, accept that you might be wrong, put passion into your work, and instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle. You’ll rob the world of a beautiful failure, but you might feel good at the end of the day.

[1]“Donald R. Keough, ‘The Ten Commandments for Business Failure’, Portfolio, 2008. .”

“Donald R. Keough, ‘The Ten Commandments for Business Failure’, Portfolio, 2008. .”