Good Strategy, Bad Strategy – Richard Rumelt

This book had been on my radar for a while and the ultimate recommendation came during a course on strategy I took around March. The course was mostly about advertising strategy, but the teachers were terrific in showing that there are some universal tenets to it.

This review is really not about condensing the book in a few tenets. There are more than a few of those out there. If you are a generalist, perhaps a bit unsure about what strategy consulting is and how those pros think, I believe this to be pretty good book.

Coming across Good Strategy, Bad Strategy

The topic of strategy fascinates me. The notion of creating leverage by the smart application of limited resources to come on top in a competitive setting perfectly fits my lazy side. The one that despite recognizing that hard work makes sense in a lot of situations, lives for those moments where massive effort can be circumvented.

This book had been on my radar for a while and the ultimate recommendation came during a course on strategy I took around March. The course was mostly about advertising strategy, but the teachers were terrific in showing that there are some universal tenets to it.

Being a over-used term that is applied to a lot of different domains makes “strategy” and the study of its ingredients a bit harder. Just google it and you’ll discover that there are few books on “pure strategy”. I’d been looking for this for a while, since I’m a sucker for learning the general principles behind my topics of interest.

The book did not disappoint.

Rumelt gives a few real world examples and ties them together with the principles as he introduces them. His teaching chops become evident with the useful simplifications and mental models one can use to remember everything.

What made the biggest impression on me was:

  • the importance of knowing the language of finance
  • the repeatable patterns that can be expressed in different industries and areas.
  • the unscienceness of strategy and the role of personal insight

The importance of knowing the language of finance

I come at this world from the angles of creativity and communication. And while I feel that my thought process is quite engineering-oriented, I have no practical math knowledge. Im’m sure that for more traditional business strategy types, this must be just laughable.

Since my increased interest in the several versions of “Strategy”, I’ve naively assumed that I could perhaps work closer to the more semantic approaches (Positioning as a means to create an advantage, Framing objectives, practices and beliefs into symbolic frameworks and so on). I’m now much more aware of the inescapable need to understand the language of finance.

Not because it is perfect and sufficient, but because it can capture an incredible amount and richness of detail regarding a company or product. The flow of money in a system can describe incentives, attention, energy, trust and so many other things. Much more than just money and its movements, financial information tells us about people, how they think and what they do.

A similar conclusion can be reached about the understanding of online traffic analytics, that are increasingly more relevant for every kind of operation.

Repeatable Patterns expressed across industries

Expertise is described as the capacity to detect and identify patterns in a defined field. Formal education aims to accelerate the accumulation of known patterns in the minds of students. Complex fields, where patterns are very diverse and can interact in weird ways tend to require more education ( Medicine, Law, Advanced Engineering, etc ).

Strategy, being so much about perception and diagnosis, relies heavily on pattern recognition to assemble a picture of the starting situation. This could be a map of troop movements, a financial report, a complete blood analysis.

Some patterns happen on multiple fields and make up a sort of shared truth. Understanding these can be useful across industries. This is, I of course, why it pays to have a wide lens and a diverse set of experiences to leverage in understanding and delivering strategy work.

The role of personal perspective

As a creative person, the idea that there are absolute truths to be found has always seemed very seductive. Creativity and ideas are familiar to me and everything when closely observed, is bound to display its faults. For a long time, I’ve been aware of the inefficiencies of looking at each problem as an opportunity to be creative. Things take longer to be completed, projects get sidetracked, etc. That world was well known to me and this proximity bred a certain admiration for the more elusive matters of method and process.

Strategy being so much about the broad perspective, has a natural pull for generalists. That’s what attracts me and many others. Specialists provide valuable and practical skills and Generalists tend to provide perspective and the broad view.

A lesson I insist on learning over and over again is that strategy work, relying so much on generalists, can never be completely separated from their own lenses. Just like an artist can’t erase all the clues that point to her personal point of view, strategists should not hope to provide “pure strategy”, untainted by their own idiosyncrasies.

As serious and distinct as “Strategy” sounds, it remains a field where no definitive, ideal answers exist.

This reminds me the discussion around Economics being a soft or a hard science. Under the veneer of mathematical rigor, one can see that there are always assumptions and very human incoherences. Strategy work cannot escape this.

More about the book

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