I was often on the receiving end of jokes that suggested as a pilot I was in my element if equipped with a crayon, or as a pilot I would be expected to learn that much more if there were lots of pictures in whatever book I happened to be reading. All fun and games, to be sure. But let’s not kid ourselves; being engrossed in the subjects of strategy and strategic management, we tend to have an appreciation for cognitive processes, especially those that need to be leveraged to take on the content and context of strategy. As passionate advocates for strategy we are especially attuned to enhancing cognitive processes, in ways that help the organization’s decision-makers be responsive and adaptive to the rate of change. One such enhancement is the visual. In fact, visuals have been found to improve learning by up to 400 percent (visit shiftelearning.com).
It stands to reason, therefore, that any visual effort made to help us gain a better understanding of what we mean by “strategy” would be most welcome. This is precisely what is available to us with thanks to Joan Magretta (2020), most recently, as well as Howell J. Malham, Jr. (2013) some years ago. In I Have a Strategy – No You Don’t: The Illustrated Guide to Strategy, Malham does a splendid job sharing the essence of the military origins of the term, and by doing so demonstrates how challenging it is to understand it. Carl von Clausewitz is mentioned, who described strategy as “the use that is made of engagements for the object of war” thereby delineating the more abstract nature of the term. In more recent times another expert on grand strategy, Colin S. Gray, developed Clausewitz’ ideas emphasizing this utilitarian aspect, ambiguous as some might believe. Magretta, on the other hand, engages the reader by focusing on a somewhat different level of strategy, but one no less significant: corporate, business and competitive strategy. To do so, she leverages the work of Michael Porter, he of the “Five-Forces Framework” all strategists are encouraged to take in, to support their efforts to help their company respond to changing circumstances.
When strategy first hooked me I found myself thinking of it in terms of a verb. Surely all strategies can be expressed in this way, I thought. I wasn’t totally wrong, if one thinks in terms of merging, downsizing or acquiring, but I now know better. While Michael Porter’s emphasis on generic strategies (cost, differentiation and focus) has helped a great deal, I have come to appreciate that strategy is a little more complex, perhaps even a bit diabolical. This is what makes Magretta’s very colourful depiction of the concept so helpful. Make no mistake, her book is full of graphics, more than enough to keep even this pilot absorbed. Nevertheless, the strategist will be well served in terms of learning about strategy through Porter’s lens, and he or she will certainly be entertained to an extent. But, Malham’s depiction is more broad in its approach, and strategists as interested in the subject of strategy are encouraged to explore his depiction, so as to gain a sense of the meaning of strategy beyond the confines of the “Five-Forces Framework.”
To be clear, any serious strategist will probably agree Michael Porter deserves enormous gratitude, for his distillation of industrial economics that contributed to the “Five-Forces Framework” and “The Value Chain.” In The Lords of Strategy, by Walter Kiechel, Porter is held in the highest esteem, alongside Bruce Henderson (Boston Consulting Group), Bill Bain (Bain & Company) and the two authors of In Search of Excellence (Robert H. Waterman and Tom Peters). To refer to Porter’s concepts as but “tools,” in the hands of the strategist is probably understating their utility. To the contrary, taken together these concepts add a great deal of credibility to any attempt to cobble together the best “S.W.O.T.” on your firm. In Organizational Culture and Leadership, Edgar Schein expresses culture in part in terms of internal integration and external adaptation, clearly connecting the importance of understanding the inter-relationship of organizational culture to strategy and the “S.W.O.T.” process. Again, if strengths and weaknesses explore the internal, and opportunities and threats the external, when we put it all together we come to appreciate how helpful indeed Porter’s work has been to the strategist. Magretta’s illustrated book of 71 pages is a good investment for strategists the world over.
In comparison, Malham’s message regarding the meaning of business strategy focuses not so much on the tools available but more so on the concept of strategy. Just as strategy can be explained in terms of what your company should not be doing, as much as it can be explained in terms of what it should, the concept of strategy can be better understood if explained in terms of what it is not, as well as what it purports to be. Malham delivers this message in a witty, and at times hilarious way, across 210 pages, some of which only have one sentence. Both books are amusing, informative, joyful presentations of a topic that can be hard to get one’s head around, sometimes.
Dean Black, Certification Director, Association for Strategic Planning. Write to me at certificationdirector at strategyassociation.org
Joan Magretta, What is Strategy? An Illustrated Guide to Michael Porter. Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, Massachusetts, 2020. ISBN 978-163369-823-9
Howell J. Malham, Jr., I Have a Strategy. No You Don’t: The Illustrated Guide to Strategy. Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint: San Francisco, California, 2013. ISBN 978-1-11848420-3