This view, that “a flash of insight draws on past elements,” suggests a very different way of reading strategy. There is some value in studying theory, to understand what “rules” there may be (provided one recognizes that the rules of business may change). And synthesized lessons can help apply today’s solutions to today’s world. However, the real value is to be found in close study of the specific decisions and actions of the past, to assemble the pieces from which a new idea can be created. As Duggan writes, “You must study the past in detail, to put on the shelves of your brain what later comes together in a new combination.”
This is consistent with creative artists’ use of theory and literature. A writer is more likely to learn from reading great works closely than from absorbing literary criticism. Although architects need to understand building codes and mechanical engineering, they must also see how others have solved the problems of space and light. Musicians listen to learn.
There is another reason to put the literature of strategy on an equal footing with the theory of strategy. Ultimately, strategic insight and strategic leadership are human activities. Yet most strategy books are sparsely populated by people, with Bill Gates or Sam Walton serving as emblems of their businesses rather than as the creative and motive forces behind them. Most writing about strategy focuses on the dead artifacts of the strategic process, rather than on the live, human creative act itself. This may be interesting in its own right, but it is of limited use to a reader hoping to become a creative strategist and leader. For that, we need to experience the context, the people, and the leader’s actions.
In reading strategy as stories of individuals taking action, we might do well to keep in mind the view of Bruno Bettelheim, the Austrian-born American writer and child psychologist, who posited that reading about the trials, tribulations, successes, and failures of fairy-tale heroes will prepare children for the trials, tribulations, successes, and failures that they will encounter in their own lives. In The Uses of Enchantment (1975), Bettelheim wrote, “The fairy tale reassures, gives hope for the future and holds out the promise of a happy ending.” The best writing about strategy won’t help us predict a successful future, but it may help us create it.
David Newkirk (firstname.lastname@example.org) is CEO of executive education at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business. He was formerly a strategist with American Express and a vice president with Booz Allen Hamilton.