The Strategy Book, by Max Mckeown – book review

The Strategy Book by Max Mckeown
My copy of The Strategy Book is getting a little tatty, and that’s just how author Max Mckeown likes it. On the final page, he states: ’Write in the margins, read it in the bath…it doesn’t matter if it gets wrecked.’ This is a guide that is meant to be highly practical. You are meant to read it, select the appropriate ideas, and then go off and make things happen.

In my experience (and on my shelf), strategy books fall into three main categories: there are the thousand-page textbooks, filled with graphs and flowcharts, the quirky and creative like Images of Strategy (my favourite) or the more well-known Strategy Safari, or the highly practical such as Angwin and Cummings’ Strategy Pathfinder. The Strategy Book falls firmly into the last category. It maps a great deal of ground, but at a necessarily low resolution. It knows that most readers will need to set up camp in their own defined areas and the book is designed to help readers fill in the detail for those areas. Mckeown is clear to set some useful principles. In a passionate introduction, he reminds us that strategy in action is about shaping the future, and that therefore the practice of strategy is about being a future-maker. That is an excellent lens through which to view the many models that he lists.

I say ‘lists’ because by the end of the book, the models are presented in a pretty cursory way with a short example and a couple of paragraphs of commentary on each one. That’s no bad thing though because one of the problems with general strategy books is that they can’t explore concepts in the detail that a practitioner really needs. Mckeown wants you to decide which ones are useful to your situation and is open that it’s up to you to study them further. I suspect that many of Mckeown’s readers will already have studied some of the models, and for them this section of the book will serve as a useful aide-memoire.

But before the models comes a detailed, actionable, practical guide about what it is like to embed strategic thought into your workplace or function. The thing about strategy is that many people forget that it is both science and art. They get too excited about the analytical bit at the beginning, looking at the big picture and drawing conclusions. They miss that strategic delivery depends on commitment, engaged creativity and the hard yards of skills, discipline, resource allocation and flexibility to adapt. These are the elements that Mckeown covers in spades. His examples are often as not stories of people noticing that things have gone wrong and what they do about it (even if they often relate to failings at the top of an organisation rather than a malaise within it). The stories are eclectic – they range from Taylor Swift to Lenovo – but they are firmly stories rather than the traditional business school case study. All this keeps the emphasis firmly on the reader and their needs and thoughts rather than on the writer. Throughout this book, Mckeown takes the role of facilitator rather than lecturer – though he also provides detail on how to facilitate your own strategic discussions. He tells you which exercises to carry out, when and with whom, and gives you some thoughts on how to judge the resulting output. If that sounds like spoon-feeding, it couldn’t be farther from the truth. By Mckeown’s demystification of the process of thinking about strategy, the reader is set free to think more deeply. The result is incredibly powerful and empowering for leaders at all levels.

Get The Strategy Book here.

Thanks to Maverick and Strong for the review copy.

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