A Foundation for Modern Business Strategy

Written by:
William M. Duke

Three books for your strategy library

The business section of your local bookstore is filled with business strategy titles. Even the most avid and disciplined reader can’t read them all. So, we wanted to give you a short list of titles worth your time that we believe will provide a better understanding of strategy fundamentals in the complex and turbulent business world.

Each of our recommendations are current from authors that are highly experienced and credentialed. These are works that focus specifically on strategy in complexity, the greatest challenge to businesses today.

Implementing an execution strategy in a complex environment

The first recommendation will help you get your mind in the right place for thinking strategically. The Upside of Turbulence: Seizing Opportunity in an Uncertain World by Donald Sull explores what complexity is and how it can be an opportunity rather than a threat. Sull is an internationally recognized expert on business strategy and currently serves as a senior lecturer on strategy at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.[1]  One of the prominent ideas the author introduces is that execution isn’t just an operational capability. Rather, execution itself is a strategic advantage in turbulent environments. It’s not just about having a strategy, but also about having the capacity to execute that strategy and adapt to new learning that creates a strategic advantage.

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One of the pitfalls of strategic execution that Sull points out is the propensity leaders have for getting stuck in outdated frames or maps of turbulent markets. The speed of change can invalidate assumptions almost instantly. If a business doesn’t constantly update its understanding of the market, the strategy can, at any moment, become obsolete. “When frames harden into blinders,” Sull writes, “executives, like generals, tend to fight the last war.”[2] Thus, businesses must update their understanding frequently. To accomplish this, he proposes utilizing an agility loop of four fundamental, iterative steps – make sense, make choices, make it happen and make revisions. The first two steps correspond roughly to the first step in Flawless Execution, to plan. The following two map directly on to execute and debrief, the final two steps in the Flawless Execution Cycle. We will see a similar pattern emerge as a solution to strategic execution in the next book recommendation.

Learn from execution

Willie Pietersen’s excellent work, Strategic Learning, as one might infer from the title, also recognizes the importance of learning in turbulent environments. Pietersen is a former CEO of several multi-billion-dollar businesses and a Professor at Columbia University.  His prescription for strategy development, execution, and learning is a near mirror-image to the process outlined in Flawless Execution. Of central importance in his work is that strategy must create an intense focus on only a few critical things. Similarly, these focus points are called critical leverage points in Flawless Execution terminology.

Strategic Learning is a rich source of wisdom that business leaders should absorb and put into practice. Readers that are familiar with Flawless Execution will find parallel ideas to situational awareness, designing the future, leader’s intent, the fractal structure of planning, and much more. He frequently references the military concept, VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) as the fundamental context of modern business environments while invoking the importance of an iterative cycle like Sull’s Agility Loop and the Flawless Execution Cycle to adapt to it. “Great execution is not just about doing.” Writes Pieterson, “It is also about learning from what you do, so you keep doing it better.”[3] Pietersen’s learning cycle is, like Flawless Execution and the Agility Loop, a four-part cycle of learn, focus, align, and execute. Also like Sull, Pietersen cites the importance of conducting formal debriefing sessions as a critical part of the learning process.

Building a strong plan

The final book we recommend is by the world-renowned management consultant and author Ram Charan who is probably best known for his best-selling book Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done that he co-authored with Larry Bossidy. His latest book, The Attacker’s Advantage, makes it to our list of best strategy books because, in addition to supplementing the reader’s understanding of VUCA, Charan has an extraordinary capacity to synthesize the multitude of trends and required abilities necessary for success.  Fundamentally it’s about being relentlessly ahead of the game – the strongest defense against uncertainty is a strong offense.  And, a good offense means peering as far around the next bend as you can, anticipating change, acting on it, and then learning from it to repeat the cycle.

One of the most helpful techniques that he advises readers to pursue is the Joint Practice Session (JPS) which he defines as a “meeting of all critical people whose work is highly interdependent” where “all members put forward their progress on their five to ten most critical tasks.”[4]  He states that the product of this JPS is “ruthless honesty” in which “candor becomes a habit.”  The JPS is a combination of the X-Gap and the Debrief in the Flawless Execution methodology. Applied at the strategic level, these are powerful tools for an agile organization. Charan’s thesis supplements some of the main focal points of the preceding texts, that of speed, agility, and a bias for action.

Together, these three books provide an excellent foundational education in modern business strategy and will help readers think strategically according to a disciplined and iterative process.

[1] In full disclosure, Donald Sull serves on Afterburner’s Board of Advisors and the author of this review assisted Professor Sull in reviewing some of the text of this work.

[2] Donald Sull. The Upside of Turbulence: Seizing Opportunity in an Uncertain World. (Harper Business, 2009) Pg. 83.

[3] Willie Pietersen. Strategic Learning. (Wiley, 2010). Pg. 172.

[4] Ram Charan. The Attackers Advantage. (Public Affairs, 2015). Pg. 135.