Rules of Thumb cover

Rules of Thumb cover

Fast Company magazine turned me on to the fact that things were not always static and inertial in the world of business. It also brought me to  the realization that the then-infant tools of social media carried with them the potential for real change in the way things are done in the “real” world, not just in the tiny group of people who were then using them.

Here in Ottawa, I can remember William Taylor coming here to speak, and a Company of Friends cell opening up soon after that. The CoF was an interesting attempt to bring online and offline and print together. Here in Ottawa, at least, it never went as far as it could for some reason or other.

But between those heady days of the late 90s and the early 2000s, Fast Company seems to have left my consciousness. I don’t lust after it each month; I don’t search for it on the magazine rack (more interested in Penguin Eggs, Acoustic Guitar, or VeloNews or Bicycling). I don’t visit online much either. Why? I’m not sure. It sort of feels the same way as Rolling Stone — once I loved it, but either it grew away from me or I from it, and we don’t talk much anymore.

But I found Rules of Thumb in the Ottawa Library and when I saw it was written by Alan M. Webber, the cofounder of Fast Company, I grabbed it and ran (after checking it out, of course).

The book is divided into 52 rules, making it easy reading as a weekly inspirer. Webber suggests you might also want to use it  as an “I ching” for business — open it randomly and think about the lesson you’ve found.

Each rule is stated succinctly: “Learn to take “no” as a question.” “If you want to make change, start with an iconic project.” Then Webber elaborates, bringing the back story of the rule together. Much of the back story takes you through a slice of Webber’s life, and since when he cashed out of Fast Company the price was $350M, it sounds like a very good life indeed.After the back story, he adds a “So What?” section that begins to, more often than not, address the reader directly.

Rule #16 “Facts are facts; stories are how we learn’, ends with the following:

The work of leading a company is the work of telling stories. it’s an art, but it’s an art that can be learned. First, check your PowerPoint at the door. You won’t miss it, I promise. Then think about the lesson — the real message — you’re trying to convey. That goes at the end of your story — that’s the moral of your tale. Then work your way from the end back to the beginning… You’ll discover a new ability… People will listen. And you’ll never have to suffer through another mind-numbing PowerPoint presentation — unless someone else is giving it.

My petty jealousy at his globe-trotting-meeting-interesting-and-sometimes-famous people aside, the rules are fascinating, and often his essays are telling. For example, Rule #35: The Red Auerbach management principle: Loyalty is a two-way street takes the reader from the 1950s NBA to the 1980s mania for “re-engineering” to “free agent nation” and asks some telling questions about how businesses treat employees. In three pages. That’s a pretty big arc, but Webber does it.


Webber’s a skilled writer, and that’s what takes these rules from being simply clever thought experiments and into the realm of object lessons that businesses of all sizes could use and implement.

I’m tempted to do two things after reading Rules of Thumb:

  1. Buy it
  2. Use a favorite tool of Webber’s — 3 x 5 cards — to create a Rules of Thumb flash-card set that I could use. (hah — I just found the Rules of Thumb web site, and, while at the end of the book Webber asks people to  write their own rules down and send them to him, I don’t see anything online that captures the idea of ‘global dialogue’ he’s got going. Close to my idea. But I’m surprised there’s no “special edition” of the book out with flash cards.)


And speaking of the Rules of Thumb site, while Webber has ambition to turn this to a global dialogue, I think the likelihood of a productive dialogue would be much higher with an ideastorm-esque site where people could submit their rules, others could vote ‘em up or down, and discussion would be threaded and easily navigated.


There’s not a lot I can point to here. PRobably the last few pages, which contain the rules with none of the essays, and which Webber suggests you cut out for use on the road. Even if this was my copy, I wouldn’t be doing that. Not my thing. And I’m not in love with the subtitle of the book: “52 truths for winning at business without losing your self.” Don’t really get that this book is a “self-saver,” and I don’t think the book carries through on the psychological/pop-psychological promise the subtitle lays out. And finally, Canadian dollar parity?! HAH! $25 US / $33 CAD = a 33% premium for buying Canadian when the dollar in 2009 averaged 94.57 US cents? What a rip.

That being said, I love this book.

The details:

  • Rules of Thumb: 52 truths for winning at business without losing your self, by Alan Webber
  • Harper Collins, 2009
  • ISBN 978-0-06-172183-0

Show me some love: buy the book now.

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