Neville Lake has produced an easy to read sci-fi novel that is also an instructive approach to formulating the elusive ‘holy grail’ of the business world - the ‘blue-print for success’. The two themes run in parallel - the sci-fi story comfortably carrying the reader along a business analysis path based on meetings of the central character Marcus Maximus with a series of ‘fictitious’ business and bureaucratic gurus.

Using economic jargon, the author has adopted an inductive, comparative case study approach in developing a formula for business success, potentially on a ‘galactic scale’. The business part of the novel is based on an interpretation of the ‘real-life’ experiences of a group of about five diversely chosen international company CEOs, and periods spent by the author with specialist and factory managers in four leading multi-nationals, as well as a ‘day-on-board’ with the Royal Navy.

The main objective of the story is summed up well by the principal ‘mentoring’ character: ‘We’re distilling those few management laws that fuel all great organisations and which represent the essential irreducible drivers of success. We’re looking for the laws that are always there, even when applied by instinct.’

The chapters are characteristically short and provide the continuity for the sci-fi story, although more often they comprise the small bite-sized chunks of the business wisdom our ‘hero’ Marcus learns. Early on, this concerns learning how to ask the right questions on the ‘big issues’. As more specificity emerges, additional summarising questions or (proverbial dot) points on the lessons learned, or to be learned, in business are offered to the reader.

One key CEO suggests that six key questions need to be addressed as you start a venture: Can we get through the thicket? Do we have access to world-class people? Do we have enough finances? Timing - (will this happen in my lifetime?). Can we really do this? Do we have the alpha factor?

Another example includes the six key questions concerning the delivery of outcomes on a production line in Chapter 9 ‘Simple Measures for Complex Systems’: Have we done what we need to do? Have we done it well? Have we found and fixed the problems? Have we found a better way? Are our internal stake-holders happy? Are our external stakeholders happy?; and the matrix of associated performance indicators suggested in the text. In respect of ‘finding and fixing problems’ there are similarly the five valuable S’s to follow: sort, straighten, shine, standardise and sustain.

For chemists whose experience may relate to only working in one institution or laboratory environment, there is a particularly poignant quote from the book: ‘We imagine barriers exist because we have been ‘programmed to think that way’. We’re all, to a greater or lesser extent, held captive by a set of prison bars built out of false assumptions, flawed information and unfounded fears. You release the creativity in your people by showing them they can pass through these bars and enjoy a world outside.’

Serious business leaders should delay reading the last six chapters and produce their own summary analysis and their own ‘blueprint’ from the business lessons learned by them from the text. However, I concur with the novel’s principal ‘mentor’ that the information gleaned can best be summarised in ten foundation management principles: ‘the ten rules’.