A wise little book on making strategy

Strategy & Leadership

ISSN: 1087-8572

Article publication date: 1 August 2004


Henry, C. (2004), "A wise little book on making strategy", Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 32 No. 4. https://doi.org/10.1108/sl.2004.26132dae.002



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

A wise little book on making strategy

Craig HenryMarketing consultant in Carlisle, Pennsylvania (craighenry@aol.com). He has held marketing positions with First Chicago, First Union, and John Deere.

The Subtle Art of Strategy: Organizational Planning in Uncertain Times

Ian WilsonPublished by Praeger, 2003, 178 pp.

A new book on business strategy enters a crowded field. Amazon.com lists over 7,000 titles under that heading. We have reached a point where scholars can write hefty strategy books that simply categorize what other books and scholars have said on the subject. Managers have a right to ask what any new title brings to the table.

In the case of Ian Wilson's brilliant little book, the answer is simple: The Subtle Art of Strategy is a clear, readable, and thoughtful work on strategic management by one of the most accomplished practitioners in the field. It distills a lifetime of experience and scholarship into a short work that is packed with insight.

Wilson was "present at the creation" of strategic management. He worked for GE in the early 1970s when that company led the way to formalized strategic planning. He was still linked to GE when Jack Welch transformed the company's strategy, planning systems, and culture. Later Wilson worked for SRI International for 13 years as a consultant, which allowed him to see how a variety of businesses do strategy. But this book is not just a collection of "war stories". Wilson also draws upon the recent research on strategy and corporate performance.

The book begins with an honest, concise examination of "What went wrong?" with the first wave of strategic planning. He identifies the common problems such as the tendency for process to squeeze out strategic thinking and the inadequacy of single-point forecasting in the face of uncertainty.

This chapter is more than a valuable history lesson; it also provides a quick benchmark for current planning systems. Quite a few companies still live with the legacies of the failed "whiz-kids" approach. Reviewing his analysis will help managers identify these unwanted artifacts in their own companies.

For Wilson, the key lesson of the last two decades is that "it is strategic thinking, rather than strategic planning per se, that should be our goal". His description of strategic thinking highlights its multifaceted nature and the necessity of balancing contradictory impulses. For example, strategic thinking must be both visionary (defining what the company should be several years out) and practical (it must lead to action, not just plans and analyses). Likewise, good planning is holistic and focused, flexible and decisive.

It is this need to meld contradictory impulses that makes strategy and strategic thinking "subtle". For Wilson, it is not just a matter of managerial mindset. He also applies this idea to corporate strategy itself in chapter 4 ("Harnessing the power of opposites"). In his view, a real strategic plan has to deal with matters that only seemingly are contradictions, for example, low prices versus high quality, or cost control versus sales growth.

For years managers were trained to treat these as either/or questions. Wilson suggests instead that we begin by thinking in terms of both/and. By doing so, we avoid simplistic formulas, encourage more creative thinking on strategic issues and confront important long-term issues as well as the urgent crisis of the present.

For example, while controlling costs may be a short-term necessity, a real strategy also has to look at how the company will grow in the future. As Wilson points out, both "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap and Jack Welch were fearless cost-cutters and downsizers when circumstances demanded it. What made Welch a great CEO was that, even when he was restructuring GE, he had a vision of how the new company would compete and grow in the future. Dunlap simply pared the balance sheets to the bare bones to boost short-term earnings – a one-time slick trick, not a strategy.

Many authorities have a tendency to treat strategic management as a discrete issue separate from questions of culture. Similarly, companies often separate the development of a corporate vision statement from the creation of strategic plans. Wilson argues persuasively that such approaches are misguided.

He points out that "regardless of whether culture change is or is not a part of the strategy, companies have to recognize that the very introduction of strategic management into a company requires a change in that organization's culture". Moreover, this transformation will require executive leadership which in turn is marked by a commitment to a vision: "nothing sets the leader apart from the manager [more] than a belief in – and the use of – the power of strategic vision".

The Subtle Art of Strategy is a gem of a book – small, crystal clear, and sharp. The writing is lucid and intelligent. Few works in this field deliver so much insight in so few pages. Nearly every executive reader will come away from reading it with several clear, concrete ideas to improve strategic performance in her or his organization. More importantly, readers will likely find this to be true each time they reread it in the future. That is high praise, but it is richly deserved.