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Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters

Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters

Richard Rumelt

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Bad strategy may actively avoid analyzing obstacles because a leader believes that negative thoughts get in the way. Leaders may create bad strategy by mistakenly treating strategy work as an exercise in goal setting rather than problem solving. Or they may avoid hard choices because they do not wish to offend anyone—generating a bad strategy that tries to cover all the bases rather than focus resources and actions.
The leader of an organization lacking a good strategy may simply believe that strategy is unnecessary. But more often the lack is due to the presence of bad strategy. Like weeds crowding out the grass, bad strategy crowds out good strategy. Leaders using bad strategies have not just chosen the wrong goals or made implementation errors. Rather, they have mistaken views about what strategy is and how it works.
it argued that having a true competitive strategy meant engaging in actions that imposed exorbitant costs on the other side. In particular, it recommended investing in technologies that were expensive to counter and where the counters did not add to Soviet offensive capabilities. For instance, increasing the accuracy of missiles or the quietness of submarines forced the Soviet Union to spend scarce resources on counters without increasing the threat to the United States. Investments in systems that made Soviet systems obsolete would also force them to spend,
Their insight was framed in the language of business strategy: identify your strengths and weaknesses, assess the opportunities and risks (your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses), and build on your strengths. But the power of that strategy derived from their discovery of a different way of viewing competitive advantage—a shift from thinking about pure military capability to one of looking for ways to impose asymmetric costs on an opponent.
A hallmark of true expertise and insight is making a complex subject understandable. A hallmark of mediocrity and bad strategy is unnecessary complexity—a flurry of fluff masking an absence of substance.
A strategy is a way through a difficulty, an approach to overcoming an obstacle, a response to a challenge. If the challenge is not defined, it is difficult or impossible to assess the quality of the strategy. And if you cannot assess a strategy’s quality, you cannot reject a bad strategy or improve a good one.
it retains program managers for only four to six years to limit empire building and to bring in fresh talent. The expectation is that a new program manager will be willing to challenge the ideas and work of predecessors. In addition, DARPA has a very limited investment in overhead and physical facilities in order to prevent entrenched interests from thwarting progress in new directions.
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. One form of bad strategic objectives occurs when there is a scrambled mess of things to accomplish—a “dog’s dinner” of strategic objectives. A long list of “things to do,” often mislabeled as “strategies” or “objectives,” is not a strategy. It is just a list of things to do. Such lists usually grow out of planning meetings in which a wide variety of stakeholders make suggestions as to things they would like to see done. Rather than focus on a few important items, the group sweeps the whole day’s collection into the “strategic plan.” Then, in recognition that it is a dog’s dinner, the label “long-term” is added so that none of them need be done today.
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.
One would hope that the experience of North Korea would have cured people of the idea that forcing everyone to believe in and value the same things is the road to high performance.
When a strategy works, we tend to remember what was accomplished, not the possibilities that were painfully set aside.
Strategies focus resources, energy, and attention on some objectives rather than others.
The kernel of a strategy contains three elements: A diagnosis that defines or explains the nature of the challenge. A good diagnosis simplifies the often overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation as critical. A guiding policy for dealing with the challenge. This is an overall approach chosen to cope with or overcome the obstacles identified in the diagnosis. A set of coherent actions that are designed to carry out the guiding policy. These are steps that are coordinated with one another to work together in accomplishing the guiding policy.
In business, the challenge is usually dealing with change and competition. The first step toward effective strategy is diagnosing the specific structure of the challenge rather than simply naming performance goals. The second step is choosing an overall guiding policy for dealing with the situation that builds on or creates some type of leverage or advantage. The third step is the design of a configuration of actions and resource allocations that implement the chosen guiding policy.
In business, most deep strategic changes are brought about by a change in diagnosis—a change in the definition of the company’s situation.
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. Kennan’s containment and Gerstner’s drawing on all of IBM’s resources to solve customers’ problems are examples of guiding policies. Like the guardrails on a highway, the guiding policy directs and constrains action without fully defining its content.
Good strategy is not just “what” you are trying to do. It is also “why” and “how” you are doing it.
“Without action, the world would still be an idea.”
In many situations, the main impediment to action is the forlorn hope that certain painful choices or actions can be avoided—that the whole long list of hoped-for “priorities” can all be achieved. It is the hard craft of strategy to decide which priority shall take precedence. Only then can action be taken. And, interestingly, there is no greater tool for sharpening strategic ideas than the necessity to act.
A “threshold effect” exists when there is a critical level of effort necessary to affect the system. Levels of effort below this threshold have little payoff. When there are threshold effects, it is prudent to limit objectives to those that can be affected by the resources at the strategist’s disposal. For example, there seems to be a threshold effect in advertising. That is, a very small amount of advertising will produce no result at all. One has to get over this hump, or threshold, to start getting a response to advertising efforts.5
every organization faces a situation where the full complexity and ambiguity of the situation is daunting. An important duty of any leader is to absorb a large part of that complexity and ambiguity, passing on to the organization a simpler problem—one that is solvable. Many leaders fail badly at this responsibility, announcing ambitious goals without resolving a good chunk of ambiguity about the specific obstacles to be overcome. To take responsibility is more than a willingness to accept the blame. It is setting proximate objectives and handing the organization a problem it can actually solve.
the more uncertain and dynamic the situation, the more proximate a strategic objective must be. The proximate objective is guided by forecasts of the future, but the more uncertain the future, the more its essential logic is that of “taking a strong position and creating options,” not of looking far ahead.
Two masters trying to defeat each other in a chess game are, during a large part of the game, likely to be making moves that have no immediate end other than to “improve my position.” One does not win a chess game by always selecting moves that are directly aimed at trying to mate the opponent or even at trying to win a particular piece. For the most part, the aim of a move is to find positions for one’s pieces that (a) increase their mobility, that is, increase the options open to them and decrease the freedom of operation of the opponent’s pieces; and (b) impose certain relatively stable patterns on the board that induce enduring strength for oneself and enduring weakness for the opponent. If and when sufficient positional advantages have been accumulated, they generally can be cashed in with greater or less ease by tactical maneuvers (combinations) against specific targets that are no longer defensible or only at terrible cost.5
It is also human nature to associate current profit with recent actions, even though it should be evident that current plenty is the harvest of planting seasons long past.
the incumbent laxity and inertia that gave these upstarts their openings applies to them as well. In time, most will loosen their tight integration and begin to rely more on accumulated resources and less on clever business design. Relying on the profits accruing to accumulated resources, they will lose the discipline of tight integration, allowing independent fiefdoms to flourish and adding so many products and projects that integration becomes impossible. Faced with the natural slowing of growth over time, they will try to create an appearance of youthful vigor with bolt-on acquisitions. Then, when their resource base eventually becomes obsolete, they, too, will become prey to another generation of upstarts. It is the cycle of life. Its important lesson is that we should learn design-type strategy from an upstart’s early conquests rather than from the mature company’s posturing.
it is usually quite difficult to convince buyers to pay an up-front premium for future savings, even if the numbers are clear. People tend to be more myopic than economic theory would suggest.
how can we independently identify a company’s strategy? We do this by looking at each policy of the company and noticing those that are different from the norm in the industry. We then try to figure out the common target of such distinctive policies—what they are coordinated on accomplishing.”
wealth increases when competitive advantage increases or when the demand for the resources underlying it increases. In particular, increasing value requires a strategy for progress on at least one of four different fronts: deepening advantages, broadening the extent of advantages, creating higher demand for advantaged products or services, or strengthening the isolating mechanisms that block easy replication and imitation by competitors.
Another broad approach to strengthening isolating mechanisms is to have a moving target for imitators. In a static setting, rivals will sooner or later figure out how to duplicate much of your proprietary know-how and other specialized resources. However, if you can continually improve, or simply alter, your methods and products, rivals will have a much harder time with imitation.
Good hardware and software engineers are both expensive. The big difference lies in the cost of prototyping, upgrading, and, especially, the cost of fixing a mistake. Design always involves a certain amount of trial and error, and hardware trials and errors are much more costly. If a hardware design doesn’t work correctly, it can mean months of expensive redesign. If software doesn’t work, a software engineer fixes the problem by typing new instructions into a file, recompiling, and trying again in a few minutes or a few days. And software can be quickly fixed and upgraded even after the product has shipped.
Even with its engines on hard reverse, a supertanker can take one mile to come to a stop. This property of mass—resistance to a change in motion—is inertia. In business, inertia is an organization’s unwillingness or inability to adapt to changing circumstances. Even with change programs running at full throttle, it can take many years to alter a large company’s basic functioning.
Successful strategies often owe a great deal to the inertia and inefficiency of rivals. For example, Netflix pushed past the now-bankrupt Blockbuster because the latter could not, or would not, abandon its focus on retail stores.
The reaction to a request for demonstration code was as if Boeing engineers had been asked to design toy airplanes. Just as in a large university, the breakthroughs of a tiny number of very talented individuals had been used to justify a contemplative life for thousands of others.
good product-market strategy is useless if important competencies, assumed present, are absent and their development is blocked by long-established culture.
I call this a hump chart. Whenever you can assign profit or gain to individual products, outlets, areas, segments, or any other portion of the total, you can build a hump chart.
in general, if you have a “me-too” product, you prefer fragmented retail buyers. On the other hand, if you have a better product, a powerful buyer such as Dell can help it see the light of day.
The problem of coming up with a good strategy has the same logical structure as the problem of coming up with a good scientific hypothesis. The key differences are that most scientific knowledge is broadly shared, whereas you are working with accumulated wisdom about your business and your industry that is unlike anyone else’s. A good strategy is, in the end, a hypothesis about what will work. Not a wild theory, but an educated judgment.
The presumption that all important knowledge is already known, or available through consultation with authorities, deadens innovation. It is this presumption that stifles change in traditional societies and blocks improvement in organizations and societies that come to believe that their way is the best way. To generate a strategy, one must put aside the comfort and security of pure deduction and launch into the murkier waters of induction, analogy, judgment, and insight.
The ultimate worth of a strategy is determined by its success, not its acceptability to a council of philosophers or a board of editors. Good strategy work is necessarily empirical and pragmatic. Especially in business, whatever grand notions a person may have about the products or services the world might need, or about human behavior, or about how organizations should be managed, what does not actually “work” cannot long survive.
the lack of universality does not make business unscientific. Science is a method, not an outcome, and the basic method of good businesspeople is intense attention to data and to what works.
The Boston Tea Party, the Revolution, and the War of 1812 interrupted trade in tea, reviving interest in coffee. Americans found in coffee an inexpensive tea substitute that could be drunk in quantity. By 1820, the transition was complete, and the United States became the largest market for coffee in the world.
Integration is not always a good idea. When a company can buy perfectly good products and services from outside suppliers, it is usually wasteful to go through the expense and trouble of mastering a new set of business operations. However, when the core of a business strategy requires the mutual adjustment of multiple elements, and especially when there is important learning to be captured about interactions across business elements, then it may be vital to own and control these elements of the business mix.
Making a list is a basic tool for overcoming our own cognitive limitations. The list itself counters forgetfulness. The act of making a list forces us to reflect on the relative urgency and importance of issues. And making a list of “things to do, now” rather than “things to worry about” forces us to resolve concerns into actions.
when we do come up with an idea, we tend to spend most of our effort justifying it rather than questioning it. That seems to be human nature, even in experienced executives. To put it simply, our minds dodge the painful work of questioning and letting go of our first early judgments, and we are not conscious of the dodge.
most of the time, when asked to generate more alternatives, people simply add one or two shallow alternatives to their initial insight. Consciously or unconsciously, they seem to resist developing several robust strategies. Instead, most people take their initial insight and tweak it slightly, adding a straw-man alternative,
a terrible industry looks like this: the product is an undifferentiated commodity; everyone has the same costs and access to the same technology; and buyers are price sensitive, knowledgeable, and willing to switch suppliers at a moment’s notice to get a better deal.
The original Jeffersonian ideal was a nation of citizen farmers, each owning the means of his or her own support. Today, this vision has morphed into one of a nation of homeowners, each working 100 days a year to pay their taxes and another 125 days a year to pay their mortgages.
Social herding presses us to think that everything is OK (or not OK) because everyone else is saying so. The inside view presses us to ignore the lessons of other times and other places, believing that our company, our nation, our new venture, or our era is different. It is important to push back against these biases. You can do this by paying attention to real-world data that refutes the echo-chamber chanting of the crowd—and by learning the lessons taught by history and by other people in other places.