Good Strategy, Bad Strategy - Richard Rumelt

Business strategy had long been a mystery to me. Most of it seemed to fit into a pipeline of defining mission and vision and values and generally taking a cookie-cutter approach to defining your direction. Something always seemed to be missing. It's not unlike following a software-development methodology and hoping you generate good software, rather than relying on thought and understanding and judgement and all those other things that aren't a reproducable process.

That's why I love this book. This book is happy to call all that "bad strategy". Good strategy is hard, and having a good strategy is thus a significant advantage. The author does still have a process, but it's simplistic-looking: identify the problem, design an overall strategy to address it, and then work out how to convert that into concrete actions.

And, like many simple things, it's still hard. Large organisations find it tough to admit what the problem is. People mistake goals for plans. Corporate strategies are disconnected from action. To take a simple example, "grow" is neither a useful objective in itself, nor an actionable strategy.

The book is remarkably dense. Most management books have a simple idea that they repeat a couple of times. This book has a core thesis, but also a plethora of associated ideas. A number of concrete examples are provided that really help ground the discussion.

I find Richard Rumult's background interesting and reassuring - at the start of his career, he was an engineer on the Voyager programme, trying to balance a system design. I like the idea that strategy fits with an analytic mindset that extrapolates out of a quantitative background. Rumelt is at great pains to point out that good strategy is not like everyday engineering, or "turning the crank" as he puts it. It's much more like science, hypothesis building. I see parallels with the Lean Start-up ideas.

I love this book. So few books are willing to say "there's a step here that involves thinking hard" rather than "follow this pattern and you'll be fine". So few books take a highly-abstract concept and just bring it into practical focus while retaining the general nature of the subject. And, quite frankly, few business books are as fun as this.

Posted 2020-05-31.