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How To Be Strategic (book review)

Reading the great recommendation by Richard Rumelt – author of “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy” – encouraged me to pick up “How To Be Strategic”. This book came out in October last year, written by Fred Pelard, who specialises in strategic thinking and works with a range of business on their strategies. In “How To Be Strategic”, Pelard covers the strategic process, complemented with useful techniques from strategy experts like Barbara Minto and Eric Ries.

I personally found the first half of the book the most helpful. In its chapters Pelard describes how being strategic is a mindset, it’s a way to solve problems. He describes problem solving as “an activity that takes a group of people, over time, on a journey from Complexity to Conviction.” Pelard goes on to outline four different ways to travel from from Complexity to Conviction:

  1. The Staircase of Expert Execution – This is the approach we tend to use when we don’t actually realise that we’re solving a problem. We just execute a solution we already know, or we ask another expert to solve the problem for us. In other words, the staircase of expert execution applies best to known problems that we’ve tackled before.
  2. The Submarine of Analytical Research – The submarine of analytical research approach is geared towards those situations where you can’t really see what the answer might look like. This is a ‘facts first’ play; spending time upfront to turn unknowns into facts. I like how Pelard summarises this approach as “no data, no solution”.
  3. The Helicopter of Creative Discovery – So what do you do when there’s no expert or when the available data is sparse or unreliable?! In this scenario you keep things moving by creating some initial structure through three or four creative options. Pelard explains: “the Helicopter of Creative Discovery is the path that problem solving activities follow when quickly generating many creative options, without much data, to rapidly reach clarity for all stakeholders.”
  4. The Rollercoaster of Strategic Thinking – This fourth and final approach applies best to a situation where you’re faced with a number of constraints: no clear answer at the beginning (so the Staircase approach won’t work); very little data available throughout (so the Submarine won’t work); stakeholders insisting on data at the end (so the Helicopter alone isn’t enough). The Rollercoaster combines the Helicopter at the beginning of a project with the Submarine at the back end of a project. Pelard wraps up this approach in the following equation: Strategic = Creative + Analytical.

In the book, Pelard points out that The Rollercoaster of Strategic Thinking always contains three distinct sections:

  • ‘Up’ – How to generate great ideas quickly.
  • ‘Down’ – How to eliminate options in no time.
  • ‘Push’ – How to best get the best solution approved.

For each of these Rollercoaster stages, Pelard offers an number of techniques to apply. Just to give you a flavour of some of these techniques:

  • Pyramid Principle (‘Up’) – The Pyramid Principle is a logic tree which was developed in the late Sixties by Barbara Minto at McKinsey. You can start with writing down the most desired outcome, followed by asking yourself “what would need to be true for this to be true?” and “can we think of a scenario where the two conditions identified are true, and one that isn’t automatically true” (Minto named this the MECE principle; separating a set of items into subsets that are mutually exclusive -ME- and collectively exhaustive -CE-). Similarly, you could use an opportunity solution tree, developed by Teresa Torres, to generate and map ideas quickly.
  • Payoff Profiles (‘Down’) – When you’ve got to quickly discard ideas or opportunities, you can do so by looking at payoffs. There are two main components of a Payoff Profiles Matrix: Postures and Bets. There are three ‘postures’: to shape the future, to adapt to the future or to reserve the right to play. There are broadly three types of ‘bets’ that companies go for: ‘no regret’ moves, options and big bets.

Main learning point: I’ve found “How To Be Strategic” to be a nice addition to “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy”. The Rollercoaster approach and associated techniques can be very helpful for anyone struggling to be strategic or unsure where to start with creating a strategy.

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