Back to basics for strategists

Journal of Business Strategy

ISSN: 0275-6668

Article publication date: 1 June 2004



Mainelli, M. (2004), "Back to basics for strategists", Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 25 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Back to basics for strategists

Michael Mainellioriginally did aerospace and computing research before stooping to strategy and finance. He was a partner in a large international accountancy practice for seven years before a spell as corporate development director of Europe's largest R&D organization, the UK's Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. He is presently a director of Z/Yen (

20:21 Vision: The Lessons of the 20th Century for the 21st

Bill Emmott and Allen LanePublished by The Penguin Press

Journalists are often ridiculed for their lack of perspective. They are criticized for seeming ignorant of history much earlier than yesterday's news event and heedless of the deeper implications beneath the surface of today's ephemera. So when the editor of The Economist tries to provide 200 years of perspective, policy makers, strategists and decision-makers should pay attention.

Mr Emmott's premise is simple – what lessons does the 20th century hold for the 21st? He is not jumping on a millenarian bandwagon since he is publishing his book a bit late – in 2003 whereas most millenarian books had to make a 1999 sales deadline. This is a reflective book lacking the single-minded evangelical streak of the fin-de-siecle genre. Mr Emmott is not trying to provide answers; rather he puts forward considered observations from a review of history and current events. His core observation is that the history of this century is likely to be written primarily about two things – the role of the US and the nature of capitalism.

It is a fun and easy read, but remains a bit rich. Despite the fact that he has reduced the 21st century to two basic themes, Mr Emmott manages to imbue each theme with considerable importance through an eye to detail. Nor does Mr Emmott forget the horrors, the gulags, the concentration camps, the wars, the deaths. He examines the US with an eye on Chinese aspirations, Japanese confusion, European envy and the apparent rise of terrorism. Capitalism is explored through its criticisms – unpopular, unstable, unequal and unclean. Mr Emmott succeeds in convincing the reader that both themes are worth applying to most major strategic analyses. If anything, I wanted greater exploration of the challenges to capitalism and some of the more complex responses that might emerge.

As a regular reader of The Economist, I find many of the observations familiar. For habitual readers, The Economist it is a bit like a soap opera. We know and love all of the characters, even the villains, such as over-zealous bureaucrats, regulatory über-egalitarians or unthinking anti-free-trade protesters. As with many soap opera fans, I have long wished for a condensed edition of back episodes that would permit friends to join The Economist community more rapidly. This book is that condensed edition. Having read this book, any friend could confidently pick up the latest issue of The Economist and join me in the plot without feeling left out of the "in" crowd of loyal readers.

It is difficult to write a book like this without suffering a bit from "on the one hand ... but on the other". While this does occur from time to time, Mr Emmott is good at tossing out the obvious observations, leaving the reader to contemplate the deeper issues. For instance, on global warming he confidently forecasts that responses will fall short of needs, technological change will be crucial and there will be genuine geopolitical change as oil loses importance. By stating the obvious consequences so clearly, he leaves strategists to consider their place in promoting change, the knock-on effects of a hydrogen economy (direct home power? the hydro-chip?) or the geopolitics of a dollar unsupported by the petrodollar.

Another problem is a question of scale and ephemera. For instance, are the problems with American servicemen in Okinawa of global importance over the next 100 years? Well, perhaps. While a reader will disagree from time to time with the weighting placed on this piece of evidence or that, it is a disagreement that refreshes. It becomes clear that you have to reach your own conclusions, but concede to Mr Emmott his own point of view. The book achieves its objective: to get readers to engage with the fact that history is made from innumerable small decisions, each influenced by the perceptions of the decision-makers, us.

Mr Emmott concludes on a note of paranoid optimism. Things will work out, but we must be very, very careful. Or perhaps it is optimistic paranoia – we ought to be terrified and mistrustful, but things ultimately have a tendency to work out. Many critics will find his approach Panglossian – since we manage to wake up every morning so we'll wake up forever. However, it is a welcome change to have a distinguished author conclude with a positive message, even if he feels compelled to add, "stay on your toes".

For strategists, corporate or armchair, this is a welcome book. The booklists of strategists are too often full of books viewing the world through an overly strong lens; too infrequently are there competent books that survey the world as it is. This is a pragmatist's book, short on theory yet long on interpretation. It's an opportunity to re-engage with the realities of the world before forming your new, world-changing strategy.

Related articles