This fresh approach to strategic thinking, just published in 2011, begins with tales of battles at sea in the days of Napoleon and continues to explain what kinds of strategies have made the difference for modern companies like Apple, Wal-Mart, Cisco, Starbucks and Wells Fargo. Author Richard Rumelt shows that many recent high profile failures such as those of Lehman Brothers and Enron resulted not just from a poor strategy or a poorly defined strategy, but from a misunderstanding of what strategy is in the first place! One acquaintance showed incredible ignorance by saying to Rumelt "“Strategy is never quitting until you win.” Attitudes like that, of course, can only lead to wasted resources and eventual failure.
As Rumelt says, "The core of strategy work is always the same: discovering the critical factors in a situation and designing a way of coordinating and focusing actions to deal with those factors."
I have often been asked what book I would suggest to someone wanting an introduction to the world of strategy. This is always the book I suggest, the eminent strategist Henry Mintzberg and his associates Ahlstrand and Lampel do a masterful job of explaining, in plain language, the various approaches to strategy. My favorite section is the authors' treatment of Michael Porter's "Positioning School" of strategic thought. While staying "fair and balanced" in explaining Porter's methodology, you can almost taste Mintzberg's poor regard for such a deliberate and plodding approach, which stands antithetical to Mintzberg's own bent to strategy: the Emergent Approach.
The book now called, simply, Strategy, is essential reading for any student of the art and science of strategy-making. Author B.H. Liddell Hart is the best example I know of who not only chronicled history, but shaped it. In 1929, he published The Decisive Wars of History. Although Hart was a Briton, it is known that his work had greater impact on the pre-WWII military thinking among the German military than on his own countrymen. Among others, the German general Hans Guderian read and digested Hart’s work, which influenced his designs for employing tank (panzer) warfare in execution of the “blitzkrieg” strikes that quickly took the European lowland countries and France.
Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox” is known to have read and savored Hart's books. Rommel's tank battles with the Allies in northern Africa are often seen as the prototypical Hartian strategic confrontation. Applications of Hart's insights for modern business are quite evident upon reading Hart's historical accounts and analyses. For example, to truly understand the art of strategic thinking, it is essential to consider Hart’s notion of the indirect approach.
Until the 1960s, there were few books or business courses available that focused on the notion of business strategy. Gradually, as the importance of the topic dawned on MBA providers and the business public alike, Strategy evolved as an important discipline of thought for leaders of corporate, organizational and government leaders. As the field evolved, not surprisingly, so did the cadre of people seeking to make their living teaching and consulting with others in need of better approaches and strategies. With time, the modern consulting inustry was born. The Lords of Strategy is the story of the four men who invented corporate strategy as we know it and set in motion the modern, multibillion-dollar consulting industry: Bruce Henderson, founder of Boston Consulting Group Bill Bain, creator of Bain & Company Fred Gluck, longtime Managing Director of McKinsey & Company, and Michael Porter, Harvard Business School professor.
The publisher explains that "this book is a revealing account of how these iconoclasts and the organizations they led revolutionized the way we think about business, changed the very soul of the corporation, and transformed the way we work." Well, it's a little more sickening and depressing than that, if you ask me. I have personally seen, for example, PPT slides that an eminent strategy consulting firm used to goad Enron into "out-of-the box" and "break-through thinking." We all learned, of course, that simply thinking out-of-the-box can lead people into "breaking through" ethics and morals. Enron paid for this "anything goes" approach with its very existence. The consulting company that egged them on, though, is not only still at it, but is doing quite well for themselves.
Nonetheless, if you'd like to learn how today's consulting industry came to be the way it is, then I am sure you will find The Lords of Strategy to be compelling, if disturbing, reading.
If you are interested in the notion of strategic thinking, then you are certainly interested in the brain, the organ that allows you to think about things, strategic or otherwise. Author Jeffrey Stibel applied his life-long fascination with neurology and brain science in order to found a series of highly successful businesses. In each case, he applied knowledge about how the brain works to thinking about how the internet should work, since, as he writes "the internet is a brain."
Stibel explains his fascination with the brain and neurology as a metaphor for thinking about the future of the internet: "When I began to study the emergent internet as a whole, I had trouble fining areas where there were not analogies to the brain. It finally dawned on me that if I wanted to build internet companies, I needed to know everything I could about the brain."