I set out with lofty aims for The Strategy Manual. I wanted to explain strategy from first principles, I wanted to cover strategy across its entire lifecycle, from strategy development to strategy adoption and strategy adaptation, and I wanted it to be well-founded. This wasn’t going to be an opinion-piece from me. I wanted it to be a distillation of the wisdom of the world. Inevitably I was going to have to do a lot of reading!
Now that it is written and published (and very well received by some – “This book is an exceptional achievement…”; “Best management book I’ve read all year”; “Makes me want to read more and dig deeper” – thank you for the kind words), I have decided, in an end-of year kind-of-way, to reflect back on my research process and give a few pointers for my fellow strategy enthusiasts.
The image above shows 80 books that informed The Strategy Manual (download the full list as a pdf). There were more, and I also read around 200 journal articles / white papers, but let’s leave them for another day.
So, how do I reflect on this reading odyssey?
Firstly, my approach to writing, and indeed my approach to research and to life in general, is quite eclectic. I tend to read widely around the main topic I’m exploring. So, in order to write The Strategy Manual, I read books on start-ups and books on established global brands. I read books on psychology, on economics, on history and on design, as well as books on business and management. I read the classic strategy textbooks as well as the latest thinking on how strategy is changing. This approach is not for everyone and, if you do try it, stay focused and don’t let yourself drift too far without good reason.
Secondly, there are a lot of books that really ought not to be books at all. They are what I came to call ‘one-big-idea’ books. In a way, this is the highest praise you can give to an author. They have distilled what was previously complex and needing lengthy explanation and now is elegantly simple and easy to summarise. Their publishers, however, are still looking for a book to sell. Fred Reichheld is probably the ultimate example. He devised Net Promoter Score, which took the challenging and complex question of how to measure how much people like a product, a brand or an organisation and distilled it down to a single question: “On a scale of zero to ten, how likely are you to recommend our [product / brand / organisation] to a friend or colleague?” His book, The Ultimate Question then faced the uphill struggle of describing such a brilliantly simple idea in a way that fills 211 pages. Here is how I try to resolve the issue of whether or not to read a book in full. When I find a new book, I take a moment to work out why this new book is of interest and what I want to get out of it. If it is a really important book for whatever I’m doing I will write these things down. Then I’ll find a substantial book review, a summary article by the author or a podcast interview with the author and see if I can get what I need from that. Then, having a decent understanding of what the book is about, I will look at a book preview on Amazon or Google Books to see if it looks as though the book contains sufficient added value to justify getting it.
Thirdly, the technologies that have recently become available to readers are, in my view, utterly transformational: they transform how much value you can extract from a book and they transform how quickly you can extract that value. The first of these technologies is the highlighting and note-taking capabilities of e-book readers: I use Kindle – see Amazon’s article on highlighting and note-taking. The second is the rise of personal knowledge management platforms: I use Roam Research to file, sort and synthesise my ideas and my writing from the notes I’ve taken whilst reading (learn about Roam, see how others use Roam for books). Most of my favourite books I now own in both paper and e-book editions, so I can extract the maximum value from them in the most efficient ways.
Finally, here are my top 5 recommendations for essential readings on strategy:
- Richard Rumelt Good Strategy Bad Strategy. Well-written by an amazingly experienced strategist (summary). You will, however, need to work hard to translate his ideas into insights you can apply in your own organisation – certain sections I had to re-read several times before I really got what he was saying.
- Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt Simple Rules. Great book suggesting you need to work through the initial complexity of strategy to get to the underlying simplicity (summary). Donald Sull is one of my favourite strategy researchers – see his work at MIT Sloan School of Management.
- AG Lafley and Roger Martin Playing to Win. This is a bit of a one-big-idea book but expands on that idea richly enough to justify reading the whole book, not just a summary of it. Strategy, according to Lafley and Martin, comprises five choices: 1. choose a winning aspiration, 2. choose where to play, 3. choose how to win, 4. choose your core capabilities and 5. choose the management systems you need.
- This recommendation is a topic rather than a specific book: learn about innovation. Steve Blank’s The Startup Owner’s Manual is great on product innovation – and doesn’t just apply to start-ups (summary). To succeed at innovation, you will need a practical understanding of how complex systems work – and to do so, you will need to get your head around complexity. Try Watkins and Wilber’s Wicked and Wise.
- Another topic rather than a specific book: learn how to get people engaged with and committed to strategy. This is crucial to strategy’s success. Two books helped me understand the underlying principles: Edward Deci’s classic book Why We Do What We Do and Amabile and Kramer’s The Progress Principle. Relevant to this topic is also Gary Hamel’s Humanocracy, although this was published just before The Strategy Manual was published so isn’t on the list of 80 books below (Humanocracy on Amazon.co.uk).