The Strategy Book

Leo over at Zen Habits is suggesting I would be happier if I write more.  He’s probably correct.

So here’s a story boys and girls… (And usual rules apply, keep Google handy for my obscure references, HTML links go stale too fast)

About a year ago, an interesting gentleman named Max McKeown apparently found my inconsistent effort here, saw some value, and asked me to read and review a book he’d written.  I accepted, and he graciously sent me a free copy of the book.  It coincidentally arrived on my birthday.

Of course, as I said, that was a year ago.  Max, I am very sorry it took a year, but I’m finally fulfilling my end of the bargain.  Thanks for the cool book!

So as I said, the book showed up in the mail (via Amazon I think).  Of course, I had just bought a house, after starting a new job.  Not to mention the normal stress of toddler chaos, etc.  As Aaron Allston once wrote – you have to know what the timing is good for.  Well, the timing was terrible.  Took me about 6 months to read the book, mostly on my lunch hour at the office.  I’ve probably reread half the chapters twice.  Actually started at least 4 different versions of this article in the last 9 months.  There’s a draft on Google docs, one on WordPress iPhone app, and another in my Awesome notes app, probably a draft or two sitting in my email.  Not to mention copious notes scribbled in the margins and the inside book cover.

But here’s the two lessons learned that are pretty obvious to an outside observer.  I was way too overcommitted at the time I made the commitment.  But It’s never too late to try, try again.  You’ll never finish if you don’t try.

Max Mckeown the strategy book
First Edition Cover

So, I read and carefully reread and considered Max McKeown’s Strategy Book for the better part of a year.

It’s a good book.  Based on what I could find in a little bit of open source intelligence (i.e. online research); Max is an English writer, consultant, academic and thought leader type with a collection of graduate degrees in Business Strategy.  You can find him on YouTube, Wikipedia, and Twitter, but no TED Talk yet.  He appears to like black leather jackets and presents wearing t-shirts.

Hence, his Strategy Book is informal and well focused on business strategy; though I would argue many of it’s lessons are applicable to strategic science in general.

Now, I preface my critique by saying I’m a serious wonk.  Just a few days ago I went on my first after dark babysitter date since my daughter was born.  My wife took me to a presentation/reception with the NASA Team that just finished a 5-year research project on Saturn’s moon Titan.  I wished they had been more technical, but it was a general audience of about 200 people, so I instead acted like a giddy teenager.

So when I say Max’s book is light and easy to read but lacks scientific rigor; that’s the opinion of a physicist.  Many of you will adore the fact that Max uses plain language and an organized format to explain and validate dozens of basic concepts of strategy without any mathematics or science, but with a good dose of real life examples and anecdotes from the business world.

I personally view the book as fundamentals of business strategy.  Max obviously knows what he is talking about.  The book is an excellent business strategy 101.  And it has a place on my bookshelf as such.  It distills the state of strategy practice as known by western business schools.  It was very reminiscent of everything I saw taking my Strategic Planning Professional exam a couple years ago.

The book does not cover much else.  You have to get past the normal consultant/thought leader fluff in the beginning.  The examples talk about products and services, customers and market competition.  You will not find math, game theory, economics, military science, behavioral science, or really any straight science.  It’s simply good, solid business school strategy.  Which makes it accessible and digestible to a wide audience, and Max does show a level of sophistication with his craft.  I found myself nodding my head up and down through most of the book.  It’s a valuable read.

I wish it had been more technical and more precise in many places.  But that was not the purpose of the book, nor it’s writer.  It’s a business guy talking business strategy.  No more, no less.

Every Chapter is formatted with a stated objective, the context of the objective, the challenges involved, how to recognize/measure success of implementing the objective, and the potential limits and pitfalls involved.  The 235 pages walk you through understanding strategy as a subject, how to internalize strategy in yourself, create and implement it in a business organization; and a collection of his favorite business strategy tools like SWOT, Porter’s 5 forces, various idea maps, visualization matrices, and processes that he has had success with.  It’s a Strategy MBA in a single book, with a decent index.

And the best part is he gives plenty of advice on how the reader, likely not being an executive, but likely an analyst or middle manager can navigate corporate culture to make use of the knowledge of the book.  Yes, kids, there is some good wisdom in the pages too.  He has a chapter entitled “Understanding what can go wrong.” He spends time on the fact the strategy is change management.  If you can get your mind outside the box, it covers layman’s strategy well and can be useful for most decision making and problem solving, especially where you face a group dynamic (friends, family, organizations, and businesses).

Most business strategy books are trying to sell a theory, process, or system.  Max chose to give us a useful broad reference instead.  And he intentionally filled every topical chapter with thought provoking questions intended to guide your own critical thinking process, and teach you how to think like a strategist.

As I said, It’s a good, educational book.  You can find it on Amazon or at   Paperback only, which has a cool slick polymer finish that feels good in my hands but couldn’t find it on Kindle.  Sorry Kids. (Update – as of 2016 on Kindle)

After writing this, I think I’ll read The Strategy Book again after I finish The Japanese Art of War, something Thomas Cleary wrote that I have to reread whenever I get caught in my own OODA Sprial, something that appropriately describes my past 2 years.  Which is another lesson learned; it doesn’t matter how much they pay you, a painful job is a painful job, no amount of money can change that.

So if you want a good read in business strategy 1o1, Max McKeown wrote the book for you.

That’s all I got today.  Thanks for reading,

Ted S Galpin, SPP


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