Good Strategy Bad Strategy

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Snippets of Rumelt’s Good Strategy/Bad Strategy collected in by Mike Burrows, Karl Scotland, and Thorbjørn Sigberg. Collected here by Martien van Steenbergen.


Good Stategy

A good strategy includes a set of coherent actions. They are not “implementation” details; they are the punch in the strategy. A strategy that fails to define a variety of plausible and feasible immediate actions is missing a critical component. Executives who complain about “execution” problems have usually confused strategy with goal setting.

Strategy is about how an organization will move forward. Doing strategy is figuring out how to advance the organization’s interests.

A good strategy has an essential logical structure that I call the kernel. The kernel of a strategy contains three elements: a diagnosis, a guiding policy, and coherent action. The guiding policy specifies the approach to dealing with the obstacles called out in the diagnosis. It is like a signpost, marking the direction forward but not defining the details of the trip. Coherent actions are feasible coordinated policies, resource commitments, and actions designed to carry out the guiding policy.

The most basic idea of strategy is the application of strength against weakness. Or, if you prefer, strength applied to the most promising opportunity. …misses two huge, incredibly important natural sources of strength:

  1. Having a coherent strategy—one that coordinates policies and actions. A good strategy doesn’t just draw on existing strength; it creates strength through the coherence of its design."…
  2. The creation of new strengths through subtle shifts in viewpoint. An insightful reframing of a competitive situation can create whole new patterns of advantage and weakness. The most powerful strategies arise from such game-changing insights.

Bad Strategy

Hallmarks of bad strategy:

  1. Fluff
  2. Failure to face the challenge
  3. Mistaking goals for strategy
  4. Bad strategic objectives

Bad strategy…is not the same thing as no strategy or strategy that fails rather than succeeds. Rather, it is an identifiable way of thinking and writing about strategy that has, unfortunately, been gaining ground. Bad strategy is long on goals and short on policy or action. It assumes that goals are all you need. It puts forward strategic objectives that are incoherent and, sometimes, totally impracticable. It uses high-sounding words and phrases to hide these failings.

If you fail to identify and analyze the obstacles, you don’t have a strategy. Instead, you have either a stretch goal, a budget, or a list of things you wish would happen.

Entropy makes it necessary for leaders to constantly work on maintaining an organisation's purpose, form, and methods even if there are no changes in strategy or competition.

…business competition is not just a battle of strength and wills; it is also a competition over insights and competencies.


Effective senior leaders don’t chase arbitrary goals. Rather, they decide which general goals should be pursued. And they design the subgoals that various pieces of the organization work toward. Indeed, the cutting edge of any strategy is the set of strategic objectives (subgoals) it lays out. One of the challenges of being a leader is mastering this shift from having others define your goals to being the architect of the organization’s purposes and objectives.

Good strategy works by focusing energy and resources on one, or a very few, pivotal objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favorable outcomes.

…contained 7 “strategies,” 26 “tactics,” and 234 “action steps,” a true dog’s dinner of things to do.

Quite glad to read this. Structure and even meta model are no guarantee of coherence

When a leader characterizes the challenge as underperformance, it sets the stage for bad strategy. Underperformance is a result. The true challenges are the reasons for the underperformance. Unless leadership offers a theory of why things haven’t worked in the past, or why the challenge is difficult, it is hard to generate good strategy.

Such [vague] goals are direct evidence of leadership’s insufficient will or political power to make or enforce hard choices. Put differently, universal buy-in usually signals the absence of choice.

The key innovation in this growing stream has been the reduction of charismatic leadership to a formula. The general outline goes like this: the transformational leader (1) develops or has a vision, (2) inspires people to sacrifice (change) for the good of the organization, and (3) empowers people to accomplish the vision. … This conceptual scheme has been hugely popular with college-educated people who have to manage other college-educated people. It satisfies their sense that organizations should somehow be forced to change and improve while also satisfying their contradictory sense that it is awkward to tell other people what to do.


The diagnosis for the situation should replace the overwhelming complexity of reality with a simpler story, a story that calls attention to its crucial aspects. This simplified model of reality allows one to make sense of the situation and engage in further problem solving. Furthermore, a good strategic diagnosis does more than explain a situation—it also defines a domain of action. Whereas a social scientist seeks a diagnosis that best predicts outcomes, good strategy tends to be based on the diagnosis promising leverage over outcomes.

A diagnosis is generally denoted by metaphor, analogy, or reference to a diagnosis or framework that has already gained acceptance.

Guiding Policy

The guiding policy outlines an overall approach for overcoming the obstacles highlighted by the diagnosis. It is “guiding” because it channels action in certain directions without defining exactly what shall be done.

You may correctly observe that many other people use the term “strategy” for what I am calling the “guiding policy.” I have found that defining a strategy as just a broad guiding policy is a mistake. Without a diagnosis, one cannot evaluate alternative guiding policies. Without working through to at least the first round of action one cannot be sure that the guiding policy can be implemented. Good strategy is not just “what” you are trying to do. It is also “why” and “how” you are doing it.

A guiding policy creates advantage by anticipating the actions and reactions of others, by reducing the complexity and ambiguity in the situation, by exploiting the leverage inherent in concentrating effort on a pivotal or decisive aspect of the situation, and by creating policies and actions that are coherent, each building on the other rather than canceling one another out.


Coherent action: The actions within the kernel of strategy should be coherent. That is, the resource deployments, policies, and maneuvers that are undertaken should be consistent and coordinated. The coordination of action provides the most basic source of leverage or advantage available in strategy.

The idea that coordination, by itself, can be a source of advantage is a very deep principle. It is often underappreciated because people tend to think of coordination in terms of continuing mutual adjustments among agents. Strategic coordination, or coherence, is not ad hoc mutual adjustment. It is coherence imposed on a system by policy and design. More specifically, design is the engineering of fit among parts, specifying how actions and resources will be combined.