What are the best ways to learn business strategy?

First a quick reading list: These are Basic Books that will cover the topic broadly: Most of these are available as audio books if you prefer.

Complete MBA for Dummies – to cover business basics. Doesn’t hurt to memorize.

The Strategy Book by Max McKeown – Accessible, simple, covers the Basics. Memorize it.

Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman. Lets you know what strategy is, where it has succeeded and failed. The middle third is slow, but educational history. The last third is focused on business. Helps you understand the weirdness of strategy – it’s often more or a religion or cult than a craft or science.

Japanese Art of War by Thomas Cleary – gets more sophisticated and outside the box.

Ben Polak did a nice Yale open video course of his game theory class. It’s pretty good. You don’t need to learn the math unless you want to, because game theory is limited and hard to apply directly. But Game theory is a wonderful tool to teach strategic thinking; and Ben Polak’s lecture videos are pretty enlightening if a few years old at this point. Honestly the math hasn’t changed.

Then type in the words “Business Strategy” into you tube and watch a few hundred hours of videos.

You’ll pick up on the fact that the marketing industry has adopted the word strategy, but they only really do marketing strategy, not comprehensive business strategy. Some of the smart ones can create synergy with business strategy; but don’t be fooled by the marketing geniuses. Yes they are good, yes they are smart and great communicators. But they don’t know what they don’t know. Every business needs good marketing and sales to succeed. But be careful of the market strategists getting out of their depth. They rarely will spot weakness in finance, accounting, supply chain, operations, or applied technology. They will however be good to awesome with culture, communications, market intelligence and people.

Business strategy books in general – be aware that most business strategy books are either a graduate thesis converted into a book, or written in a similar format. Business strategy books tend to be one trick ponies – they pick a simple, easy to understand central theme and then spend several chapters on case studies that show real life examples of that idea. A good example is Blue Ocean Strategy or Balanced Score Card. And while each of theses books is useful and educational, they suffer from confirmation bias and can be misleading. An interesting corollary to that is mintzberg’s Strategy Safari, which studied and compared the business theories at the time, pointing out some of the silliness.

Be aware that the strategy industry is a business that sells strategy, and like much of business is often more focused on revenue than results. They all talk a wonderful game. Many confuse luck for skill, correlation for causation, coincidence for genius.

You’ll quickly learn that strategy, even focused on a single genre like business, is an elusive and complicated subject. Even these Quora answers are different and contradictory.

To really get good at strategy and understand it – try a strategy video game – one with conflicting priorities, time limits and resource limitations – Star Craft and XCom are good examples – where you have to simultaneously manage budget, resources, operations projects and missions while trying to outthink and outmaneuver your opponents both tactically, operationally, and strategically.

While the details of business are different than a military strategy video games, the problems are the same – limited time, limited money, limited people, limited talent and abilities being stretched to accomplish different goals with changing priorities as you react to changes in your environment and your competition. And often the environment is changing faster than you can change, so you learn to adapt proactively and innovate ahead of the changes when possible. You learn that action is faster than reaction, that speed kills and hesitation can cost you significant losses. Most importantly you learn that all the pieces are connected and innocent mistakes in one place can lead to disaster somewhere else.

Those video games tend to be unforgiving with murphy’s law. Especially XCom. You can spend days training up high quality staff only to lose your best people to bad luck and have to start over rebuilding a team while competing for your existence.

All the other advice here on Quora is pieces to the puzzle. One you get through the basics, read some 10-K forms, talk to any business savvy people you can meet, read business journals, understand different business models, why they succeed or fail, study finance, accounting, project management, change management, business law, supply chain.

To really be good at business strategy you need to understand what all the parts are, how the work together, what the rules and limits are. Often your limits will be people – culture, leadership, complacency, resistance to change; desire to change to fast, laziness and resistance to taking the time and energy to do things the best way instead of just getting by.

At the end of the day, strategy is about deciding on the best changes to make and then changing what people do and how they do it as you adapt to things you can control and change your strategy to deal with changes the world throws at you. Notice I used the word “change” way to many times. Strategy is change. Changing what you can to make things less painful, more successful.


Hope that Helps.

5 responses to “What are the best ways to learn business strategy?”

  1. Great article. I would however, change your conclusion. “Strategy is change” is one step too simple. I would advocate for “Strategy is reasoned change”. Sadly, too often, change is not reason: change for change’s sake, ego-based change, etc.

    1. * change is not reasoned

  2. Peter J Gregory

    A big problem with Business Strategy books is they are hard to implement. They come from popular press and get readers wound up over some theme, but when you ask, “Now how do I start?” (much less, “How do I finish?”) you realize there is very little there, there. You mention: ” …they pick a simple, easy to understand central theme and then spend several chapters on case studies that show real life examples of that idea.” You put Blue Ocean Strategy in this category, along with The Balanced Scorecard. I cringe when I hear a consulting mention Blue Ocean Strategy, but The Balanced Scorecard has much broader implementation. It has a fundamental model that is at least a great defensive weapon against cudgel-wielding corporate ignoramuses.
    Measuring strategy IQ is not easy – we need a measurement.
    Also, Strategy may be “action,” not sure if it is “change.” At least not change, alone.

    1. Peter,

      Great points. Thanks! Blue Ocean is relevant as a concept. That’s Apple, Nokia (Cell Phones), Netflix, Amazon…. All capitalize on Blue Oceans. But it’s also key for strategic thinking and innovation in general. Which is very different from a cook book approach to strategy.

      And yes, strategy does need a good “how to” book. That’s on my list. Unfortunatley that’s like a PMP. A Very broad topic that is really a collection of skills to teach.

      Balanced Scorecard. I remember the 90’s. That was a fun fad. Actually used it at many Fourtune 500’s. But there is a problem with it.

      People suck at metrics, and they manipulate them. Too many companies tie compensation to metrics, and then you get a corprate culture that games the system. I have seen too much mismanagment by people trying to get prefect metrics at the cost of customers, supply chain, and business operations.

      Technically, yes, Balanced Score Card is all about building a strategic plan that is measured by Key Performance Indicators, or KPI’s. The problem is most boards build KPI’s around business or financial metrics. Or if you are lucky project preformance metrics and HR metrics. Balanced Scorecard kept trying to improve that. But because they never got far into the implementation of strategy, they never really unserdstood how to measure implementation beyond the KPI’s on the scorecard.

      I know several consultants that did Balanced Scorecard. It lacked execution. A strategic plan with Intitatives tracked by KPI’s is only the first 2% of strategy. And so many companies have a balanced scorecard that is all green but they are not actually executing their strategy. I’ve heard that complaint a lot. Which is as much a critique of the limits of the tool as the organizations using the tool.

      Balanced Scorecard is a tool that is helpful for strategic planning and some potentially dangerous high level metrics. But it’s a small piece of the puzzle. By comparison Blue Ocean is just a good concept for strategic thinking, not a tool but an idea.

      I’ve been seeing the consultants and companies frustrated by Balanced scorecard shifting to OKR’s. Which scale to the tactical well, and are far easier to manage and personalize as an execution methode. Honestly you can look for blue oceans, use balanced scorecard as part of the strategic plan, and then adapt it to OKR’s as a light execuytion model. You can use all 3 at the same time if you want, because they can compliment each other.

      I guess they import point is, reading one book does not make you good at strategy. You have to read many books, the right books, that cover the startegy lifecycle – Net Assement, Planning, communicating, scoping, execution, adaptation, stratgic change, organizatioal change, flexibilty, changingto differet scenarios, close out, refresh. Or something like that. depend on how detailed you feel. BUt calling it a pile of OODA loops feels like an oversimplification.

  3. Broncouwe

    A handwritten book is a book

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