Max McKeown, author, consultant and popular speaker in the strategy field, shares his thoughts on the importance of strategy and the relevance of his new book.
McKeown has a PhD and MBA with a speciality in strategy and strategic change. His clients sit across multiple sectors including Microsoft, Virgin, Sun International, 2012 Olympics, Toyota and TopShop. He is the author of several books including E-Customer, Why They Don’t Buy, Unshrink and The Truth about Innovation.
Why do you think strategy is important?
Strategy is about shaping the future. Great strategy is the shortest effective distance between ends and means. In the second decade of a new millennium, this seems particularly urgent because we’ve experienced what has felt like crisis after crisis, disaster after disaster, attack after attack. It’s never been more important to understand the best ways of creating a better future. Systems have failed to live up to expectations of perpetual growth and prosperity. Governments and businesses understand that there is a problem, they may even understand that they would like to solve the problem, but this is not the same as understanding how to get from where they are to where they want to be. This is the function of strategy.
We have been trying to shape our future for as long as we have been human. Along the way we’ve picked up some enduring principles about how to do that better – from the political writings of Machiavelli to the art of war espoused by Sun Tzu to the research of Ansoff, Chandler, Porter or Mintzberg. You don’t need to get an MBA or a doctorate but it’s helpful to be informed. And it’s very helpful to understand better how the creative and analytical sides of strategy work, and how they can work together to achieve exceptional results.
Why do you think a gap between strategy as an academic discipline and strategy in business has developed? What can be done to close the gap?
There are more than two camps in strategy. There is considerable research conducted into strategy that is not intended to directly inform the work of the strategist. This is not a failing of the research: social scientists shouldn’t have to justify their work based on how useful it appears to be in its raw, academic form – that’s not its purpose. And it’s not the problem either.
The problem is that there is not enough focus on improving strategy in the real world. The problem is that strategy has become divorced from leadership and entrepreneurship. Strategy has become separated from imagination and creativity. Leaders are impatient with the layers upon layers of models and flowcharts that get in the way of them actually doing strategy. They don’t want to read 1,000 page textbooks or academic journals. They don’t want out-of-date advice. They don’t want codified knowledge banks. They don’t want to work with cults that believe in the magical power of a few models. They want fast, effective, powerful help to shape their future.
What are your thoughts on the SPS professionalising strategy agenda?
My support for professionalising depends on what is meant by the term. If the focus is on practical ways of creating better strategic thinkers, that’s a good thing. If the focus is on compartmentalising the most obvious information about strategy and turning it into a set of anti-imaginative hurdles and cookie-cutter templates, then I’m against it. The language of the effective strategist is to the point. The language of the ineffective strategy consultant is flowery, grey and dull. Great strategy requires non-obvious answers to obvious questions. It’s not about nonsensical distinctions between mission, visions and goals.
There are strategy tools and processes that can help but the real heart of strategy is the strategist. It’s what you know, how you think and how you get people to care enough about what you are doing to help you get where you want to go. It’s about setting in motion a sequence of events that will shape the future in a way you like. People use strategy to get a lot of what they have. They get a job. They get an education to get a job. They save money for a holiday or a home. They used strategies to romance their partners, wives or husbands. It’s important that strategy stays powerful and effective in the real world.
How do these issues fit in with the content of your latest books?
The Strategy Book has its own competitive advantage: it’s easy to read without dumbing down its strategic ideas. It’s simple to use but is still based on a core set of intelligent strategic foundations. It offers clear explanations of tools and concepts that will help make sense of complex leadership situations. My next book, Adaptability, expands on these ideas, exploring how all success is successful adaptation.
The ideas in The Strategy Book are also based on hard-won experience and knowledge. I’ve worked with some of the most admired and most ambitious companies in the world. This real world experience is built into the book. Some of those companies are facing problems and crisis points. All of them wanted success. They wanted to move from where they were to somewhere better. The Strategy Book helps with all of those situations. It’s been designed to help people to become better strategic thinkers. And because strategic thinking is the difference between good managers and great leaders, these new skills will help any reader to shape their future deliberately – especially when faced with great external turmoil and uncertainty.
The Strategy Bookis organised into six parts. The first five tackle the really important challenges that a leader of any team of any size will face in creating strategy and making that strategy work. Each part is subdivided into specific action topics. You can dip in and out of each section as you feel relevant. The book has been written clearly so you, or your clients or students, can benefit from my experience as a strategist whether the reader is a novice or expert. The sixth part is the strategist toolkit. It contains nearly 30 hand-picked tools and models explained in very precise, practical and efficient terms.
So far it’s being used in several different ways: in business schools to supplement the standard text books; with executive teams to improve the strategy process; on leadership development programmes to raise the level of understanding and keep a shared strategy language between colleagues. It’s also being used to reinvigorate the idea of strategy as a way of winning, protecting and growing the business.
What role does strategy play in your professional life?
Apart from my research, and writing, my time is spent in two main ways: First with large groups, hundreds or more, making strategy come alive in an entertaining, memorable and thought-provoking way. This is not strategy as an academic subject. This is strategic thinking applied in imaginative ways to the real world problems and opportunities of the whole business. It’s a holistic approach that blends threads from inside the company with trends and events outside the company.
Second, I spend time working with executive teams, and boards of directors, acting as a strategic coach and facilitator. The role here is to ask demanding questions, get the most out of the team dynamic, reveal parts of the big picture that have not been noticed, and help leaders with powerful, effective strategic thinking. We shape the future together.