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.

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