Notes from “Good Strategy / Bad Strategy”
Strategy has always been a fuzzy concept in my mind. What goes into a strategy? What makes a strategy good or bad? How is it different from vision and goals? Good Strategy / Bad Strategy, by UCLA Anderson School of Management professor Richard P. Rumelt, takes a nebulous concept and makes it concrete. He explains what goes into developing a strategy, what makes a strategy good, and what makes a strategy bad – which makes good strategy even clearer.
As I read the book, I kept underlining passages and scribbling notes in the margins because it’s so full of good information and useful techniques that are just as applicable to my everyday work as they are to running a multi-national corporation. To help me use the concepts I learned, I decided to publish my notes and key takeaways so I can refer back to them later.
The Kernel of Strategy
Strategy is designing a way to deal with a challenge. A good strategy, therefore, must identify the challenge to be overcome, and design a way to overcome it. To do that, the kernel of a good strategy contains three elements: a diagnosis, a guiding policy, and coherent action.
- A diagnosis defines the challenge. What’s holding you back from reaching your goals? A good diagnosis simplifies the often overwhelming complexity of reality down to a simpler story by identifying certain aspects of the situation as critical. A good diagnosis often uses a metaphor, analogy, or an existing accepted framework to make it simple and understandable, which then suggests a domain of action.
- A guiding policy is an overall approach chosen to cope with or overcome the obstacles identified in the diagnosis. Like the guardrails on a highway, the guiding policy directs and constrains action in certain directions without defining exactly what shall be done.
- A set of coherent actions dictate how the guiding policy will be carried out. The actions should be coherent, meaning the use of resources, policies, and maneuvers that are undertaken should be coordinated and support each other (not fight each other, or be independent from one another).
Good Strategy vs. Bad Strategy
- Good strategy is simple and obvious.
- Good strategy identifies the key challenge to overcome. Bad strategy fails to identify the nature of the challenge. If you don’t know what the problem is, you can’t evaluate alternative guiding policies or actions to take, and you can’t adjust your strategy as you learn more over time.
- Good strategy includes actions to take to overcome the challenge. Actions are not “implementation” details; they are the punch in the strategy. Strategy is about how an organization will move forward. Bad strategy lacks actions to take. Bad strategy mistakes goals, ambition, vision, values, and effort for strategy (these things are important, but on their own are not strategy).
- Good strategy is designed to be coherent – all the actions an organization takes should reinforce and support each other. Leaders must do this deliberately and coordinate action across departments. Bad strategy is just a list of “priorities” that don’t support each other, at best, or actively conflict with each other, undermine each other, and fight for resources, at worst. The rich and powerful can get away with this, but it makes for bad strategy.
- This was the biggest “ah-ha!” moment for me. All strategy I’ve seen has just been a list of unconnected objectives. Designing a strategy that’s coherent and mutually reinforces itself is a huge step forward in crafting good strategies.
- Good strategy is about focusing and coordinating efforts to achieve an outcome, which necessarily means saying “No” to some goals, initiatives, and people. Bad strategy is the result of a leader who’s unwilling or unable to say “No.” The reason good strategy looks so simple is because it takes a lot of effort to maintain the coherence of its design by saying “No” to people.
- Good strategy leverages sources of power to overcome an obstacle. It brings relative strength to bear against relative weakness (more on that below).
How to Identify Bad Strategy
Four Major Hallmarks of Bad Strategy
- Fluff: A strategy written in gibberish masking as strategic concepts is classic bad strategy. It uses abstruse and inflated words to create the illusion of high-level thinking.
- Failure to face the challenge: A strategy that does not define the challenge to overcome makes it impossible to evaluate, and impossible to improve.
- 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 a means to overcoming an obstacle. Strategic objectives are “bad” when they fail to address critical issues or when they are impracticable.
Some Forms of Bad Strategy
- Dog’s Dinner Objectives: A long list of “things to do,” often mislabeled as “strategies” or “objectives.” These lists usually grow out of planning meetings in which stakeholders state what they would like to accomplish, then they throw these initiatives onto a long list called the “strategic plan” so that no one’s feelings get hurt, and they apply the label “long-term” so that none of them need be done today.
- In tech-land, I see a lot of companies conflate OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) with strategy. OKRs are an exercise in goal setting and measuring progress towards those goals (which is important), but it doesn’t replace strategy work. The process typically looks like this: once a year, each department head is asked to come up with their own departmental OKRs, which are supposed to be connected to company goals (increase revenue, decrease costs, etc.). Then each department breaks down their OKRs into sub-OKRs for their teams to carry out, which are then broken down into sub-sub-OKRs for sub-teams and/or specific people, so on down the chain. This process just perpetuates departmental silos and are rarely cohesive or mutually supportive of each other (if this does happen, it’s usually a happy accident). Department and team leaders often throw dependencies on other departments and teams, which causes extra work for teams that they often haven’t planned for and aren’t connected to their own OKRs, which drags down the efficiency and effectiveness of the entire organization. It’s easy for leaders to underestimate this drag since it’s hard to measure, and what isn’t measured isn’t managed.
- As this book makes clear, setting objectives is not the same as creating a strategy to reach those goals. You still need to do the hard strategy work of making a diagnosis of what obstacle is holding you back, creating a guiding policy for overcoming the obstacle, and breaking that down into coherent actions for the company to take (which shouldn’t be based on what departments or people or expertise you already have, but instead you should look at what competencies you need to carry out your strategy and then apply existing teams and people to carrying them out, if they exist, and hire where you’re missing expertise, and get rid of competencies that are no longer needed in the strategy). OKRs can be applied at the top layer as company goals to reach, then applied again to the coherent actions (i.e. what’s the objective of each action, and how will you know if you reached it?), and further broken down for teams and people as needed. You still need an actual strategy before you can set OKRs, but most companies conflate OKRs with strategy.
- Blue Sky Objectives: A blue-sky objective is a simple restatement of the desired state of affairs or of the challenge. It skips over the annoying fact that no one has a clue as to how to get there.
- For example, “underperformance” isn’t a challenge, it’s a result. It’s a restatement of a goal. The true challenge are the reasons for the underperformance. Unless leadership offers a theory of why things haven’t worked in the past (a.k.a. a diagnosis), or why the challenge is difficult, it is hard to generate good strategy.
- The Unwillingness or Inability to Choose: Any strategy that has universal buy-in signals the absence of choice. Because strategy focuses resources, energy, and attention on some objectives rather than others, a change in strategy will make some people worse off and there will be powerful forces opposed to almost any change in strategy (e.g. a department head who faces losing people, funding, headcount, support, etc., as a result of a change in strategy will most likely be opposed to the change). Therefore, strategy that has universal buy-in often indicates a leader who was unwilling to make a difficult choice as to the guiding policy and actions to take to overcome the obstacles.
- This is true, but there are ways of mitigating this that he doesn’t discuss, which I talk about in the “Closing Thoughts” section below.
- Template-style “strategic planning:” Many strategies are developed by following a template of what a “strategy” should look like. Since strategy is somewhat nebulous, leaders are quick to adopt a template they can fill in since they have no other frame of reference for what goes into a strategy.
- These templates usually take this form:
- The Vision: Your unique vision of what the org will be like in the future. Often starts with “the best” or “the leading.”
- The Mission: High-sounding politically correct statement of the purpose of the org.
- The Values: The company’s values. Make sure they are non-controversial.
- The Strategies: Fill in some aspirations/goals but call them strategies.
- This template-style strategy skips over the hard work of identifying the key challenge to overcome, and setting out a guiding policy and actions to overcome the obstacle. It mistakes pious statements of the obvious as if they were decisive insights. The vision, mission, and goals are usually statements that no one would argue against, but that no one is inspired by, either.
- I found myself alternating between laughing and shaking my head in disbelief because this section is so on the nose.
- These templates usually take this form:
- New Thought: This is the belief that you only need to envision success to achieve it, and that thinking about failure will lead to failure. The problem with this belief is that strategy requires you to analyze the situation to understand the problem to be solved, as well as anticipating the actions/reactions of customers and competitors, which requires considering both positive and negative outcomes. Ignoring negative outcomes does not set you up for success or prepare you for the unthinkable to happen. It crowds out critical thinking.
Sources of Power
Good strategy will leverage one or more sources of power to overcome the key obstacles. Rumelt describes 7 sources of power, but the list is not exhaustive:
- Leverage: Leverage is finding an imbalance in a situation, and exploiting it to produce a disproportionately large payoff. Or, in resource constrained situations (e.g. a startup), it’s using the limited resources at hand to achieve the biggest result (i.e. not trying to do everything at once). Strategic leverage arises from a mixture of anticipating the actions and reactions of competitors and buyers, identifying a pivot point that will magnify the effects of focused effort (e.g. an unmet need of people, an underserved market, your relative strengths/weaknesses, a competence you’ve developed that can be applied to a new context, and so on), and making a concentrated application of effort on only the most critical objectives to get there.
- This is a lesson in constraints – a company that isn’t rich in resources (i.e. money, people) is forced to find a sustainable business model and strategy, or perish. I see startups avoid making hard choices about what objectives to pursue by taking investor money to hire their way out of deciding what not to do. They can avoid designing a strategy by just throwing spaghetti at the wall and hoping something sticks, and if it doesn’t go back to the investors for more handouts. “Fail fast,” “Ready, fire, aim,” “Move fast and break things,” etc., are all Silicon Valley versions of this thinking worshiped by the industry. If a company is resource constrained, they’re forced to find a sustainable business model and strategy sooner. VC money has a habit of making companies lazy when it comes to the business fundamentals of strategy and turning a profit.
- Proximate Objectives: Choose an objective that is close enough at hand to be feasible, i.e. proximate. This doesn’t mean your goal needs to lack ambition, or be easy to reach, or that you’re sandbagging. Rather, you should know enough about the nature of the challenge that the sub-problems to work through are solvable, and it’s a matter of focusing individual minds and energy on the right areas to reach an otherwise unreachable goal. For example, landing a man on the moon by 1969 was a proximate objective because Kennedy knew the technology and science necessary was within reach, and it was a matter of allocating, focusing, and coordinating resources properly.
- Chain-link Systems: A system has chain-link logic when its performance is limited by its weakest link. In a business context, this typically means each department is dependent on the other such that if one department underperforms, the performance of the entire system will decline. In a strategic setting, this can cause organizations to become stuck, meaning the chain is not made stronger by strengthening one link – you must strengthen the whole chain (and thus becoming un-stuck is its own strategic challenge to overcome). On the flip side, if you design a chain link system, then you can achieve a level of excellence that’s hard for competitors to replicate. For example, IKEA designs its own furniture, builds its own stores, and manages the entire supply chain, which allows it to have lower costs and a superior customer experience. Their system is chain-linked together such that it’s hard for competitors to replicate it without replicating the entire system. IKEA is susceptible to getting stuck, however, if one link of its chain suffers.
- Design: Good strategy is design – fitting various pieces together so they work as a coherent whole. Creating a guiding policy and actions that are coherent is a source of power since so few companies do this well. As stated above, a lot of strategies aren’t “designed” and instead are just a list of independent or conflicting objectives.
- The tight integration of a designed strategy comes with a downside, however — it’s narrower in focus, more fragile, and less flexible in responding to change. If you’re a huge company with a lot of resources at your disposal (e.g. Microsoft), a tightly designed strategy could be a hinderance. But in situations where resources are constrained (e.g. a startup grasping for a foothold in the market), or the competitive challenge is high, a well-designed strategy can give you the advantage you need to be successful.
- Focus: Focus refers to attacking a segment of the market with a product or service that delivers more value to that segment than other players do for the entire market. Doing this requires coordinating policies and objectives across an organization to produce extra power through their interacting and overlapping effects (see design, above), and then applying that power to the right market segment (see leverage, above).
- This source of power exists in the UX and product world in the form of building for one specific persona who will love your product, capturing a small – but loyal – share of the market, rather than trying to build a product for “everyone” that captures a potentially bigger part of the market but that no one loves or is loyal to (making it susceptible to people switching to competitors). This advice is especially valuable for small companies and startups who are trying to establish themselves.
- Growth: Growing the size of the business is not a strategy – it is the result of increased demand for your products and services. It is the reward for successful innovation, cleverness, efficiency, and creativity. In business, there is blind faith that growth is good, but that is not the case. Growth itself does not automatically create value.
- The tech industry has unquestioned faith in growth. VC-backed companies are expected to grow as big as possible, as fast as possible. If you don’t agree, you’re said to lack ambition, and investors won’t fund you. This myth is perpetuated by the tech media. But as Rumelt points out, growth isn’t automatically good. Most companies don’t need to be, and can’t be, as big as companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon. Tech companies grow in an artificial way, i.e. spending the money of their investors, not money they’re making from customers. This growth isn’t sustainable, and when they can’t turn a profit they shut down (or get acquired). What could have been a great company, at a smaller size or slower growth rate, now no longer exists. This generally doesn’t harm investors because they only need a handful of big exits out of their entire portfolio, so they pay for the ones that fail off of the profits from the few that actually make it big.
- Using Advantage: An advantage is the result of differences – an asymmetry between rivals. Knowing your relative strengths and weaknesses, as well as the relative strengths and weaknesses of your competitors, can help you find an advantage. Strengths and weaknesses are “relative” because a strength you have in one context, or against one competitor, may be a weakness in another context, or against a different competitor. You must press where you have advantage and side-step situations in which you do not. You must exploit your rivals’ weaknesses and avoid leading with your own.
- The most basic advantage is producing at a lower cost than your competitors, or delivering more perceived value than your competitors, or a mix of the two. The difficult part is sustaining an advantage. To do that, you need an “isolating mechanism” that prevents competitors from duplicating it. Isolating mechanisms include patents, reputations, commercial and social relationships, network effects, dramatic economies of scale, and tacit knowledge and skill gained through experience.
- Once you have an advantage, you should strengthen it by deepening it, broadening it, creating higher demand for your products and services, or strengthening your isolating mechanisms (all explained fully in the book).
- Dynamics: Dynamics are waves of change that roll through an industry. They are the net result of a myriad of shifts and advances in technology, cost, competition, politics, and buyer perceptions. Such waves of change are largely exogenous – that is, beyond the control of any one organization. If you can see them coming, they are like an earthquake that creates new high ground and levels what had previously been high ground, leaving behind new sources of advantage for you to exploit.
- There are 5 guideposts to look out for: 1. Rising fixed costs; 2. Deregulation; 3. Predictable Biases; 4. Incumbent Response; and 5. Attractor States (i.e. where an industry “should” go). (All of these are explained fully in the book).
- Attractor states are especially interesting because he defines it as where an industry “should” end up in the light of technological forces and the structure of demand. By “should,” he means to emphasize an evolution in the direction of efficiency – meeting the needs and demands of buyers as efficiently as possible. They’re different from corporate visions because the attractor state is based on overall efficiency rather than a single company’s desire to capture most of the pie. Attractor states are what pundits and industry analysts write about. There’s no guarantee, however, that the attractor state will ever come to pass. As it relates to strategy, you can anticipate most players to chase the attractor state. This leads many companies to waste resources chasing the wrong vision, and faltering as a result (e.g. Cisco rode the wave of “dumb pipes” and “IP everywhere” that AT&T and other telecom companies should have exploited). If you “zig” when other companies “zag”, you can build yourself an advantage.
- As a strategist, you should seek to do your own analysis of where an industry is going, and create a strategy based on that (rather than what pundits “predict” will happen). Combining your own proprietary knowledge of your customers, technology, and capabilities with industry trends can give you deeper insights that analysts on the outside can’t see. Taking that a step further, you should also look for second-order effects as a result of industry dynamics. For example, the rise of the microprocessor was predicted by many, and largely came true. But what most people didn’t predict was the second-order effect that commoditized microprocessors getting embedded in more products led to increased demand for software, making the ability to write good software a competitive advantage.
- Inertia: Inertia is an organization’s unwillingness or inability to adapt to changing circumstances. As a strategist, you can exploit this by anticipating that it will take many years for large and well-established competitors to alter their basic functioning. For example, Netflix pushed past Blockbuster because the latter could or would not abandon its focus on retail stores.
- Entropy: Entropy causes organizations to become less organized and less focused over time. As a strategist, you need to watch out for this in your organization to actively maintain your purpose, form, and methods, even if there are no changes in strategy or competition. You can also use it as a weakness to exploit against your competitors by anticipating that entropy will creep into their business lines. For example, less focused product lines are a sign of entropy. GM’s car lines used to have distinct price points, models, and target buyers, but over time entropy caused each line to creep into each other and overlap, causing declining sales from consumer confusion.
One of the things that surprised me as I read the book is how much overlap there is between doing strategy work and design work – diagnosing the problem, creating multiple potential solutions (i.e. the double diamond), looking at situations from multiple perspectives, weighing tradeoffs in potential solutions, and more. The core of strategy, as he defines it, is identifying and solving problems. Sound familiar? That’s the core of design! He even states, “A master strategist is a designer.”
Rumelt goes on to hold up many examples of winning strategies and advantages from understanding customer needs, behaviors, pain points, and building for a specific customer segment. In other words, doing user-centered design. He doesn’t specifically reference any UX methods, but it was clear to me that the tools of UX work apply to strategy work as well.
The overlap with design doesn’t end there. He has a section about how strategy work is rooted in intuition and subjectivity. There’s no way to prove a strategy is the “best” or “right” one. A strategy is a judgement of a situation and the best path forward. You can say the exact same thing about design as well.
Since a strategy can’t be proven to be right, Rumelt recommends considering a strategy a “hypothesis” that can be tested and refined over time. Leaders should listen for signals that their strategy is or is not working, and make adjustments accordingly. In other words, strategists should iterate on their solutions, same as designers.
Furthermore, this subjectivity causes all kinds of challenges for leaders, such as saying “no” to people, selling people on their version of reality, and so on. He doesn’t talk about how to overcome these challenges, but as I read the book I realized these are issues that designers have to learn how to deal with.
Effective designers have to sell their work to people to get it built. Then they have to be prepared for criticism, feedback, questions, and alternate ideas. Since their work can’t be “proven” to be correct, it’s open to attack from anyone and everyone. If their work gets built and shipped to customers, they still need to be open to it being “wrong” (or at least not perfect), listen to feedback from customers, and iterate further as needed. All of these soft skills are ways of dealing with the problems leaders face when implementing a strategy.
In other words, design work is strategy work. As Rumelt says, “Good strategy is design, and design is about fitting various pieces together so they work as a coherent whole.”
If you enjoyed this post (and I’m assuming you did if you made it this far), then I highly recommend reading the book yourself. I only covered the highlights here, and the book goes into a lot more depth on all of these topics. Enjoy!