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How to Win the Business Battle
Eric Webster
A Modern Machiavelli's Guide to
Triumphant Survival in the Executive Jungle
Reading for Enjoyment
Published by Coward-McCann, Inc./NY in 1965
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2002


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In my youth I strived to be a manager and during the years of 1965 to 1968 I read every book on management to which the main branch library afforded me access. This was one of a handful of books that I remember from that time, and this particular one I made copies of the pages on ideas that delighted me. Those pages I carried around with me for many years and had frequent occasion to refer to them when my job seem to wax less efficient and less enjoyable. I remembered what Webster wrote in his Acknowledgments and would take out the worn pages and read them again.

[page 6] This book was written in the belief that business is usually more efficient when it is enjoyable, and vice versa.

Did I have what it took to become a manager I wondered? My answer came in the third paragraph of this book.

[page 9] Handling people really need not be so difficult all you need is inexhaustible patience, unfailing insight, unshakeable nervous stability, an unbreakable will, decisive judgment, infrangible physique, irrepressible spirits, plus unfeigned affection for all people and an awful lot of experience.

Well, that will scare off the faint at heart, I thought. Nearly scared me off. Should have scared me off. I thought, "Well, I have a lot of self-control." And then I read further down and Webster said, "The first fact to face is that the only person you are really in control of is yourself." Doesn't a manager just have to know what to tell people to do and then tell them? Webster corrected me once more with this statement, "After all, when you tell yourself something you know it at once. It's only when you tell other people that the trouble starts." How can that be, I thought and he answered:

[page 10] Telling other people is often called 'communicating' but it usually isn't, because they (a) don't listen (b) don't understand (c) resent it (d) can't or won't do it.

Okay, I thought, but isn't management simply the acts of (a) finding the problem (b) getting the right information to solve the problem and (c) taking the relevant action? Hah! On page 12, as if he read my mind, he wrote, "Why the Problem is Hard to Solve":

[page 12] 1 You can't find out what the problem is.

2 You get the wrong information.

3 You take irrelevant action.

His advice made me forget about wanting to be a manager for many years, and after I forgot about his advice and became one anyway, made me wish that I'd remembered his advice. So I focused during that first reading of this book on the two sections on ideas there was something I could use in my career as an engineer and computer programmer.

In my youthful naivete, it had not occurred to me that ideas on how to make one's business more efficient and enjoyable would not be instantly welcomed by one's peers and superiors. The author quickly disabused me of that notion. There were two aspects that he dealt with: 1. Fending off unwanted ideas and 2. What to do if you come up with an idea. The passages that include these two issues are worth presenting in their entirety as one can grasp the abundance of humor and insightfulness that Webster brings to this entire book.

1. Fending off unwanted ideas


This is really quite easy to understand. Most people have a hard time getting used to the present and only succeed when it is safely in the past. In these circumstances, it is neither tactful nor kind to offer them the means of enriching themselves, or increasing their leisure, or their comfort, when their full attention is already devoted to attempting to grasp the disquieting implications of something that happened the year before last.

What defence is there against the disturbing effect of ideas? Only one. Attack. Instant recognition, decisive action, annihilating concentration of offensive power use these with judgment, courage and vigour. Give no quarter. You will be able to sink the emergent idea without trace, no ripple, no reminder of what nearly was.

Here are some techniques. There are others, but these have been tried and tested in daily use everywhere throughout the centuries. They are proven, guaranteed, you might even say certified. They will not let you down whenever or wherever you are confronted with an idea.

1. Ignore it. Dead silence after the utterance of an idea will intimidate all but the most hardened proposers.

2. See it coming and dodge. You can recognise the imminent arrival of an idea by a growing unease and anxiety on the part of its would-be originator. You can save him embarrassment and subsequent humiliation if you act quickly. Change the subject. Or, better, end the meeting or bring the audience to a close.

3. Scorn it. The gently lifted eyebrow plus a soft-spoken "you aren't really serious about that, surely?" will work wonders. In severe cases, make the audible comment, "utterly impracticable". Timing is important. Get your thrust home before the idea is fully explained, otherwise it might prove to be practicable after all.

4. Laugh it off. "Ho, ho, ho that's a good one, Joe. Must have sat up all night waiting for it." If he has this makes it funnier.

5. Praise it to death. By the time you have expounded its merits for five minutes everyone else will hate it and the proposer will even himself be wondering what's wrong with it.

6. Mention that it's never been tried. If it is a new idea this will be true but obviously if it were sound somebody would have thought of it before.

7. Prove that it isn't a new idea. If you can make it look sufficiently similar to some other known idea, the fact that this one is better may not emerge.

8. Observe that it does not fit the company 'policy'. Since nobody knows what the policy is, you are probably right.

9. Mention what it will cost! The fact that the expected saving is six times as much will then pale into insignificance. After all, that is imaginary money. What we spend is real. Beware of ideas that cost nothing, though! They exist, but you can usually dispense with them by pointing this out. If it doesn't cost anything it can't be worth anything, can it?

10. Use the "Oh-we've-tried-it-all-before" gambit. This is particularly effective if the offender is a newcomer. It makes him realise what an outsider he is. Once he's learned his place there'll be no more of this nonsense.

11. Cast the right aspersion. "Isn't it a bit too flip?", or "Do we want this clever-clever stuff?", or "Let's be careful we don't outsmart ourselves." Such comments will draw ready applause and support from your colleagues. Few ideas will survive such collective disapproval.

12. Find a competitive idea to block it with. This is dangerous and should be used only when you are experienced. Otherwise you might still get left with an idea.

13. Produce twenty reasons why it won't work. You can be sure that this way the one good reason why it will work gets lost.

14. Modify it out of existence. This method is elegant. It lulls the delinquent ideas-man into a false sense of security. You seem to be helping his idea along, just changing it a little here and there. "Couldn't we do so and so?", "Of course, you'd have to rethink it here and there." By the time he wakes up it's dead.

15. Encourage doubt about the ownership of the idea. "Didn't you suggest something like Harry's saying when we last met, Jim?" While everyone's wondering who thought of it the idea may wither and die quietly from lack of attention.

16. Damn it by association of ideas. If you can connect it, however remotely, with someone's pet hate, you've fixed it for good. Turn to the Senior Man Present and remark casually, "Why, that's just the sort of thing John might have thought up." S.M.P. loathed John and finally fired him, but your idea-exponent doesn't know this and will be wondering for weeks what hit him.

17. Try to chip bits off it. If you can keep fiddling with an idea long enough it may come to pieces in your hand.

18. Make a personal attack on the idea owner. By the time he's recovered he'll have forgotten he ever had an idea.

19. Score a technical knock-out. There are various ways of doing this. Two examples will suffice:

a. Refer to some obscure regulation that it might infringe. They almost certainly will not notice that the regulation in question was drawn up to control the import of peanuts from Bangkok during the Serbo-Croat uprising of 1902 and therefore doesn't cover the problem at all.

b. Use technology as a bludgeon. "But if you did that you'd need a pulsating oscillograph coupled with a hemispherical interferometer so you see there'd be a negative feedback in the forward rheostat and you wouldn't want that, would you?"

20. Postpone it. If you can't kill an idea outright, you can always postpone it. By the time it's been postponed a few times it will look pretty tatty and part-worn even to its owner.

21. Let a Committee sit on the idea for you.

22. Encourage the author to look for a better idea. If the first idea was good, this will be a difficult, possibly lengthy and usually discouraging quest. If he finds one, you can always then start him looking for a better job.

This list of idea obstructing methods proved very useful to me when I had an idea because I was ready for anyone who tried any of those 22 popular ways of shooting down my idea. But these were defensive tactics and I wanted to know what offense to use when I actually came up with an idea so that I might get it implemented. I was not to be disappointed when I reached page 84 and found this gold mine of information. I found suggestion 3. particularly useful to my peace of mind and rarely expected to get credit for an idea, but instead was content to have it implemented.

2. What to do if you come up with an idea.

[page 84-86]:

1. Don't assume that people want ideas because they say they do. What they usually want is something that looks like an idea but isn't something that will please everybody without actually changing anything. Real ideas involve change which is usually unwelcome until it is over, by which time it's history and therefore respectable.

2. Don't think other people think the way you think. If they did, they'd probably have had the idea you are now trying to describe. Unless you're very careful, what you say and what they see in their minds will differ so much you'll never get through to them. The idea they turn down won't be yours, but their idea of your idea, which may be a very different thing.

3. Decide whether you want to get the idea accepted or whether you want to get the credit. The two propositions are often mutually exclusive. Sometimes you may get action on an idea. Sometimes you may get the credit for it. Seldom will you get both.

4. Arrange for someone else to have your idea. Pick the most powerful man of the group you are trying to influence. This is like fly-fishing. You'll have to cast the problem pretty skilfully to get a bite. Once he's got the bait and has surfaced with the right solution, strike immediately! Utter some faintly doubting remark. When he starts defending what is now his idea to you and the group, he's hooked. Now allow yourself to be won round step by step to his point of view. He will begin to think highly of you. You will find life is much healthier and happier if you get the reputation of never having an idea yourself, but of being a good appreciator of other people's ideas and always, mysteriously, present when they happen!

5. Be casual. Clinical detachment is a big help. So long as you don't seem to care whether your idea is accepted or not, you've reduced the joy people can take in shooting it down. If you can actually move on to pointing out snags and getting others to iron them out, you're halfway home. But remember, if you show even the mildest spasm at some particularly crass obstructionism, you'll instantly be flushed from cover with the whole pack in exultant pursuit.

6. Don't confuse them. Your task is difficult. Don't make it impossible. Don't show them more than one idea at once or they'll panic. There is an exception, however:

7. Sometimes it pays to throw out decoy ideas. Some irredentist ideasmen habitually score success by putting up decoy ideas to be shot down like clay pigeons. This requires a nice sense of reaction and timing. Only when the blood lust of the audience has been assuaged is the real idea brought forward.

8. Don't overstress originality. The more original your idea the less you should stress the fact. Make it seem as innocuous as possible. Mention similar-sounding ideas that have worked. Give your audience plenty of chance to get used to the thought.

9. Make your idea watertight. But don't suppose this will make it unsinkable!

10. Give it a warm emotional appeal. Get some well-hated person to oppose it. Mention the possibility of a competitor getting in first with it.

The reader will be able without effort to extend the list. Getting each individual idea accepted involves having hundreds more ideas about how to put it across. Yet inveterate ideasmen are often disturbingly slow to learn this simple lesson. They continue, in the teeth of the evidence, to show child-like faith in their fellow men's logic, intelligence, goodwill and desire for progress. In consequence they get persecution instead of promotion, petulance instead of praise, frustration instead of fun.

The rest of the book is devoted to such useful topics as selecting a secretary, tips for travelers, the businessman at home, how to have time at the top, igniting the vital spark, and how to stop the rat race. All useful subjects that I got to encounter at one time or another during my business career. This book may be forty years old as I write this, but the ideas and suggestions are as applicable today to business people of both genders. Yes, there are no words about laptops, cell phones, or the Internet, but the key ingredients for success in business and winning the business battle has not changed much in forty years.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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