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Book Review – Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt

If you have to read about strategy this is a very good place to start your understanding of strategy. I’ve got several years of experience in government doing strategy and I’ve studied it academically as well. So I’m applying a wide evidence base, and this is a good book about strategy.

This is the first book that I’ve seriously highlighted, mainly because it struck a chord with me and seemed to be full of sensible advice about the characteristics of both good and bad strategy. I can see myself using some of the content at work to help me and my colleagues develop better strategies and avoid some of the pitfalls.

Unlike a lot of the strategy books I have read this one is intended for a wide audience and has very readable language (some of the academic works disappear up their own behinds at times, Rumelt certainly does not). The points are also demonstrated through case studies that are themselves fascinating as well as illuminating the good or bad strategy concept.

Here are some of the excerpts I felt the need to highlight to give you a flavour for the contents.

Good strategy almost always looks this simple and obvious and does not take a thick deck of PowerPoint slides to explain.

a talented leader identifies the one or two critical issues in the situation—the pivot points that can multiply the effectiveness of effort—and then focuses and concentrates action and resources on them.

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

To detect a bad strategy, look for one or more of its four major hallmarks:

Fluff. Fluff is a form of gibberish masquerading as strategic concepts or arguments. It uses “Sunday” words (words that are inflated and unnecessarily abstruse) and apparently esoteric concepts to create the illusion of high-level thinking.

Failure to face the challenge. Bad strategy fails to recognize or define the challenge. When you cannot define the challenge, you cannot evaluate a strategy or improve it.

Mistaking goals for strategy. Many bad strategies are just statements of desire rather than plans for overcoming obstacles.

Bad strategic objectives. A strategic objective is set by a leader as a means to an end. Strategic objectives are “bad” when they fail to address critical issues or when they are impracticable.

Bad strategy, I explained, is not the same thing as no strategy or strategy that fails rather than succeeds. Rather, it is an identifiable way of thinking and writing about strategy that has, unfortunately, been gaining ground.

A hallmark of mediocrity and bad strategy is unnecessary complexity—a flurry of fluff masking an absence of substance.

If you fail to identify and analyze the obstacles, you don’t have a strategy. Instead, you have either a stretch goal, a budget, or a list of things you wish would happen.

The second form of bad strategic objectives is one that is “blue sky.” A good strategy defines a critical challenge. What is more, it builds a bridge between that challenge and action

The purpose of good strategy is to offer a potentially achievable way of surmounting a key challenge.

Good strategy is not just “what” you are trying to do. It is also “why” and “how” you are doing it.

A strategy coordinates action to address a specific challenge. It is not defined by the pay grade of the person authorizing the action.

In nonprofit and public policy situations, good strategy creates advantage by magnifying the effects of resources and actions.

Good strategy is built on functional knowledge about what works, what doesn’t, and why.

“There are lots of sausage-making tools being hawked for strategy work, but good ideas don’t come out of mechanical tools. Conceptual tools may help us get oriented, but, in the end, good ideas basically just pop into our heads. It’s called ‘insight.’”

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