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 / Winter 2007 / Issue 49(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books: Strategy

As in his earlier books, Zook still encourages companies to leverage their current customers, established businesses, and existing capabilities to sustain profitable growth. However, in Unstoppable, he acknowledges that it may become necessary to create a new core business, because of a “shrinking or shifting of the future profit pool,” a direct threat from a competitor with a fundamental economic advantage, or failure of the current growth strategy to produce results.

All moves away from the core are risky, but Zook’s research suggests that redefining the business to center on its “hidden assets” is far more likely to succeed than either making transformational acquisitions or diversifying into hot markets. He identifies three categories of hidden assets that offer the promise of new options and a more attractive future: undervalued business platforms (products, adjacencies, support organizations, noncore businesses); unexploited customer assets (unrecognized segments, privileged access or trust, underused information); and underused capabilities.

Like Raynor, Zook begins his book by telling readers to develop “a view on impending turbulence” and its likely impact on the business core. Unstoppable’s great value lies in the way it addresses the increasingly common problem of creating growth where there is none, especially the author’s pragmatic detailing of the range of hidden assets and means of identifying them. However, like Raynor, Zook describes what an attractive asset- and option-driven move should look like, while offering only limited help on the creative processes for those trying to invent one.

The Creative Flash
Taking on a fundamentally different challenge than the other authors discussed in this review, William Duggan declares in Strategic Intuition that he hopes to fill a gap in modern strategic thinking, where “the reigning models of business strategy…leave out how strategists actually come up with their ideas.” In one of the more ambitious books in recent years, he wrestles with the nature of strategic intuition — the “creative spark” — and how to develop it.

Duggan views the process of creating new ideas as complementary to the more rational tools for analyzing them: “Strategic analysis and strategic intuition are the two main pieces of the modern puzzle of business strategy.” As he writes, “A creative flash yields rational insight.” This linkage is most easily seen in mathematics, where the processes of discovery and demonstration are distinct. Discovering a new theory or proof is messy, with no clear rules or prescribed processes, only an array of tools and techniques. Once discovered, however, it can be presented with clear, compelling logic and praised for its elegance.

Duggan’s close reading of military strategy and the history of science informs the book greatly. Thomas Kuhn, for example, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, shows that revolutionary insights are constructed from existing pieces of information. “The common idea of how a leap of progress happens is a leap of imagination,” Duggan writes. “[Kuhn] gives us an alternative: a selective combination of elements from the past make something new. The elements themselves are not new.” The raw material feeding the creative process is past experience, either direct or learned from history. The strategist searches for a better combination of resources, actions, and even goals.

Duggan illustrates this through a distinctive reading of the recent history of the computer industry. He studies Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Lou Gerstner, and their critical strategic decisions, showing how their context and experience provided the pieces they assembled to create new strategies. He concludes, “When we step up close to study the details of each new bend in the road, we find that each strategist took elements from the past to make a new combination in the future.”

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