Anna Shipman : JFDI

Good Strategy, Bad Strategy

17 May 2019 / Strategy / Book notes

A while ago, the excellent Russell Davies gave me a copy of Good Strategy, Bad Strategy. He said it was the best book he’d read on the topic, and I found it extremely useful. Here are some of my notes, but I recommend reading it.

Strategy is diagnosis, vision, and a plan

The kernel of a strategy contains 3 things:

  1. Diagnosis: the current situation
  2. Vision: where you want to get to; this is your guiding policy
  3. Coherent action: how you get from your current situation to your desired end state. Coherent action consists of feasible plans, resource commitments and actions.

The core of strategy is discovering the critical factors and designing a way to coordinate and focus on actions to deal with them, including risk mitigation.

Good strategy is not just what you are trying to do, it’s also why and how.

Good strategy almost always looks simple

The book opens with a description of The Battle of Trafalgar, and how the British (led by Lord Nelson) won, even though there were fewer British ships than French and Spanish ships.

Instead of following what was the usual tactic at the time, approaching in a single line, Nelson’s fleet approached in two columns, one aiming at the centre of the French and Spanish line, in order to break up their formation. However, this did put the ships at the front of the columns in greater danger.

In summary, his strategy was to risk his lead ships to break the coherence of his opponents’ fleet.

Good strategy almost always looks this simple.

What strategy is not

The author talks a lot about what is generally described as strategy and explains why it’s not. For example:

And strategy, responsive to innovation and ambition, selects the path; identifying how, where, and why determination and leadership are to be applied.

A strategy is like a lever that magnifies force

Leaders must identify the critical obstacles to forward progress and develop a coherent approach to overcoming them.

The plan should be the highest impact areas. What single feasible objectives will make the biggest difference?

A strategy coordinates action to address a specific challenge. The job of the leader is to create the conditions that will make that push effective; to have a strategy worthy of the effort called upon.

It’s not enough just to focus – we need to think about why that is the focus. We need to apply power to the right target.

It involves making hard choices

Creating a strategy involves choice, and the difficult work of casting out other things.

It is problem solving. By its very nature, you need to make hard choices. You need to address the elephant in the room.

Good strategy usually emphasises focus over compromise.

Universal buy-in means a choice hasn’t been made.


Diagnosis should replace the overwhelming complexity of reality with a simpler story that calls attention to its crucial aspects.

The diagnosis part of the strategy is handing the organisation a problem it can solve.

Working on the strategy

The disconnect between current results and current action is what makes strategy hard and interesting.

A good strategy is a hypothesis about what will work formed by educated judgement. Exploit your rivals’ weaknesses and avoid leading with your own.

A strategy should be episodic, though not necessarily annual.

You need to make your strategy robust

You have to be able to defend your strategy.

He has some interesting suggestions about how you can question your own judgement. For example have in your head a panel of people that you know what kind of thing they’d say, and imagine them critiquing your strategy.

He also suggests that you note down judgements you make over time, and then refer back to improve your process.

It involves constant work

Making such a policy work takes more than a plan on paper – you need to work to maintain the coherence of the plan, every quarter, year, decade.

This Twitter thread from Deepa Subramaniam is also very useful, particularly the practical tips on how to do that work.

You should read Good Strategy, Bad Strategy

These are some of the notes I’ve found useful to refer back to. These slides by Sophie Dennis are also an excellent summary of some of the main points.

But the book itself is extremely worth reading. It has made a big difference to how I think about and work on strategy.

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