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.
The kernel of a strategy contains 3 things:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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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