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Published: November 22, 2011
 / Winter 2011 / Issue 65


Best Business Books 2011: Strategy

These six principles represent a set of guidelines that executives in any company or industry should consider in order to achieve high performance over the long term. Take them together, and instead of a conventional strategy aimed at pushing scale-efficient products, for example, we would think of developing capabilities that enable us to offer flexible platforms of services and products. For Cusumano, staying power comes not just from discrete strategic moves but ultimately from a mind-set of agility and responsiveness.

Strategy Plain and Simple

The year’s best and most original addition to the strategy bookshelf is Richard P. Rumelt’s Good Strategy, Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters. Rumelt is a longtime strategy professor at UCLA, and before that at Harvard Business School, where he wrote a landmark work of scholarship and empirical rigor, Strategy, Structure, and Economic Performance (Harvard University Press, 1974), which was based on his prize-winning doctoral dissertation.

This book, however, takes a decidedly different tone. It is informal and personal, sprinkled with anecdotes and opinions, which are often contrarian. It is as if Rumelt decided, after years of scholarly restraint, to write a book that laid out exactly what he has learned and observed over the last four decades. It is also a wide-ranging exploration, moving from business to politics to aerospace to the military, from the ancient to the modern, from diversified public corporations to family businesses, that places strategy in a broad context.

Unlike the many authors of business books and articles who use elaborate phrases and neologisms, Rumelt prefers candor and simplicity at every turn — beginning with the title. Duke Ellington was once asked to define jazz, and he famously replied: “There are only two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.” He felt no need to complicate matters with lots of theory and abstract concepts, and Rumelt clearly feels the same way about corporate strategy. Rumelt urges us to set aside fine-grained distinctions and unnecessary complications, in order to focus on the simplest distinction of all — good and bad. He has seen so much bad thinking about strategy that this basic dichotomy is important. It’s a way to remind us that for all the efforts we make to complicate things, good strategy is not all that complicated. If we can just avoid bad thinking and foolishness, we’re much of the way there.

What are the elements of bad strategy? Rumelt points to four: the failure to face the challenge, mistaking goals for strategy, bad strategic objectives, and “fluff.” At its root, bad strategy reflects an inability to think clearly and to make sound choices based on analysis. The author dismisses those who would substitute wishful thinking for careful analysis, epitomized in his opinion of the New Thought movement, which goes back to the 1800s, but more recently has surfaced as the power of positive thinking and banishing negative thoughts. Shared visions of success cannot be the basis of strategy, says Rumelt, because “all analysis starts with the consideration of what may happen, including unwelcome events. I would not care to fly in an airplane designed by people who focused only on an image of a flying airplane and never considered models of failure.” Regarding vision and mission statements, Rumelt finds that they represent a “class of verbiage [that] is the mutant offspring of charismatic, then transformational, leadership. In reality, these are the flat-footed attempts of organization men to turn the magic of personal charisma into a bureaucratic concept —charisma-in-a-can.”

So what is good strategy? It requires three things: a diagnosis that defines the challenge; a guiding policy for dealing with the challenge, and a set of coherent actions designed to carry out that policy. To help navigate the way forward, Rumelt offers numerous “guideposts”: vigilance about escalating fixed costs, awareness of transitions caused by deregulation, predictable biases in forecasting that draw on behavioral economics, and anticipation of incumbent responses. Sound strategic decisions are not enough, however; execution is essential, too. “Strategy is about action, about doing something. The kernel of a strategy must contain action,” writes Rumelt. “To have punch, actions should coordinate and build upon one another, focusing organizational energy.”

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