“The Strategy Book” Bridges the Gap Between Thinking and Taking Action


The Strategy BookMini book read.

Say “strategy” to anyone and their eyes glaze over. It's not that we don't understand the value of strategic thinking, we do. But there's never enough time to do a proper job of it.

Market pressure seems to override a desire to learn more about the problem—or focus on the right one—the context, and the players. We often don't know enough even about our own business.

Action is how we show results, we reason. Yet, we'd still want to focus on the right actions, making good decisions, understanding competitive pressure, engaging our team, and using a proven process.

If you've ever felt you could use some help thinking strategically about your doing, The Strategy Book will get you there. It will ever teach you how to sell your strategy, not to mention how to measure progress.

“Strategy is moving from where you are to where you want to be,” says Max McKeown. “Smart strategy is the shortest route to desirable ends with available means.” It should include what we're not going to do, along with an intelligent reaction to what others are doing.

Strategists see the past, present, and future as connected and think beyond the tactics.

Three layers of value

When I read a book, I examine the ideas in three ways—as a learner, as an author, and as a practitioner. Here's my take on The Strategy Book.

First as a learner—five of the six parts in the book are about the challenges of creating the strategy and making it work. This is the most important part for success; a compendium of the best ideas on strategy in a format that makes it easier to access and use them. Anyone who's ever tried to teach something knows how hard it is to translate what we know into what other people could use. Starting with “what” we need to think about is a good approach for this topic. The toolkit follows.

Then as an author—the structural organization makes it easy to dip into any of the main questions around strategy like how frequently should I do this? Who should be part of the team?— starting with “your strategic self” and “thinking like a strategist,” to “creating your strategy,” “winning with strategy,” and “making your strategy work.” Each part includes a description, examples, ratings, objective, context, challenge, success, measures for success, checklist, and related ideas. The models and tools section includes diagrams and simple explanations of how you use them. 

Third as a practitioner—here the most important question I ask is whether I would be able to incorporate the learning into my work, both in mindset and practice. The strength of the book here is its organization. McKeown summarizes the answers to the common questions you should address, so you can feel prepared to engage the rest of the organization (or your client) right from the start. The best (or most perfect) strategy will fail with no buy-in or ownership. I love the attention to addressing what could go wrong along with the pitfalls of negative thinking. While we should focus as much as possible on preparing for the future, learning to adapt ranks high on successful executions.

The book is written for business leaders with profit and loss (P&L) responsibility—general managers, Vice Presidents, Chief Strategists, CEOs, Presidents, COOs, advisors, and professionals who teach strategy.

If you're a student, you might want to get your hands on it. You'll learn to ask better questions, how to pay attention to market signals, and how to maintain coherence of vision through change.

My highlights

It's often difficult to see how our lives are the product of many decisions and consequences. Businesses face the same challenge. Every company starts with a decision, and from there on, we can see how good or bad each new decision was only after the fact.

Strategy decisions are meant to be about the big picture but some big decisions turn out to have small impact. And often there are small decisions that have a big (or strategic) impact. There are also decisions that appear to be urgent and those that seem less urgent.

We're all aware that priorities matter. But what comes first could change, and different kinds of decisions have different kinds of impact on strategy. This is an example of digging deeper into the question based on context.

The more complex the challenge, the more important to know what we're dealing with. Customers are not just waiting for us to decide, or make a move. They have their own lives to run. “It's hard for people to focus on anything outside their immediate surroundings,” says McKeown.

Anything new coming at us creates more cognitive and material work. Often survival is based on not questioning the way we do things… up to a point. This reminds me of a chart that illustrates the lifespan of the average S&P 500 and that of human beings.

Life span

Organizations are dying at a faster rate because they don't calculate the full commercial ROI. Energy is not a consideration so they miss the value of reputation, trust, and brand. Where regulatory pressure or monopoly situations don't protect them, not considering the social and intellectual costs can be disastrous.

It's a slow decline, thus not obvious as we optimize our way into a cliff. Amazon's Jeff Bezos says:

To be sure, this kind of decline would happen in extreme slow motion. An established company might harvest Day 2 for decades, but the final result would still come.

Fewer transactions, product and service commodification, difficulty attracting and/or retaining customers, and higher customer acquisition costs are just some of the symptoms of a low energy business. Money alone doesn't buy happiness… or longevity.

Before we go ahead and change the game, it's useful to understand the kind of game we're in. Victory is never final, especially if we don't survive it. Avoiding screw-ups is as important as creating winning strategies. This is the most valuable advice in each chapter of the book.

How behavior spreads

A strategy is only as effective as its implementation and it must be a fit to the situation. Winning direction is not enough—if people and teams don't engage with a course of action, it's not going to be effective.

Standard recipes don't work, as it doesn't work when you just copy tactics. But the most important lesson is that leaders fail when no one is following. It's not enough to be smart or to be right to make a difference. Followership matters.

Strategists help companies use what they do best to their advantage, and want to do it, or help them know what they don't know, and want to learn it. We can use the process of strategy to “increase the real-world value of the ideas and icrease engagement with the strategy.”

Process is how we spread ideas and engage others. We need to consider what we intended, but also what emerges from the way people do things, our strengths, collective knowledge and behaviors.

In other words, to succeed it's critical we prepare people to participate. For behavior to spread, we need to address what the strategy looks like at every level of the organization. This involves change.

Two key aspects of managing change are: 1./ saving effort arguing about what to change, and 2./ focusing on the right action to make it happen. Clarity helps with both.

Making your own circumstances

We can learn and adapt from the most successful strategists. But to make something of our work, we must first make it clear what strategy is and what it's designed to do. The business of shaping the future is not a solitary pursuit.

There are five fundamental questions we can use to clarify our own thinking and communicate value and direction:

  1. Where are we?
  2. Where do we want to go?
  3. What changes have to be made?
  4. How should changes be made?
  5. How shall we measure progress?

The answers are interrelated—change one, and you impact the others. A good strategist has opinions and knowledge, that's how we navigate our work. Many of the tools can help us help others get oriented and create a sense of ownership.

You're probably familiar with the SWOT, an analysis of strength, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Or know about Porter's Five Forces of competition, general strategies, and value chain and value systems.

The tools section includes many more techniques and best practices for scenario planning, growth models and handling change. You can use what's appropriate based on your circumstances. Practice by finding examples from your experience, and apply what you're learning.

I hope The Strategy Book will give you better questions and tools to succeed at whatever you're pursuing.