It is atypical for me to write a book review for this blog, but Nilofer Merchant’s “The New How: Creating Business Solutions Through Collaborative Strategy” is very respectable contribution to both audiences of this blog and the process of strategy development in general. In particular, the book does two important things beyond other strategy books:
- it breaks down the ivory tower of centralized strategy and addresses, in detail, the roles and responsibilities that each employee must fulfill in the new model, and
- the book explicitly documents a collaborative process that one can use to develop strategy, a process which from my vantage point has only been addressed either through mentorship and transfer of tacit knowledge or in fragments within other documents.
The book divides strategy into two domains – 1) where a company competes, and 2) how a company competes. The premise of the book is that the former topic (where a company competes) is well-addressed by existing strategy books, such as those by Porter, Chan, Kim, and Mauborgne. Nilofer’s book addresses the gap in business texts regarding the latter topic, which includes day-to-day and quarter-to-quarter strategies, such as “how do we grow sales of product XYZ” or “how do we grow sales of division Y by Q%?” As she writes, “One person’ strategy is another’s tactics. The unnecessary and fruitless war of what is tactics or strategy or execution must end.”
Part 1 of the book provides a call to action for individual employees and leaders. But the book goes further by providing specific responsibilities that each person must fulfill. Where I admire the book is in its approach to addressing each employee’s role. Whereas “older” methods of strategy may have been focused on executive management teams, this book provides context, terminology, and frameworks for educating a broader audience. As an aside, I am also struck by the fact that Nilofer does a good job of incorporating concepts of improvisation into the strategy development process, culture, and mindset of employees. Improvisation is especially a soft spot for me given my involvement with Business Improvisations, a collaboration between business academics and improvisation instructors which helps companies in areas such as innovation, leadership, teamwork, etc. through customized, experiential learning sessions.
Part 2 of the book goes into greater detail on process of strategy development. It breaks down the process into four major areas:
- Question Phase – articulating the problem scope and assessing the current state of the organization
- Envision Phase – creating options for the organization developing criteria that would be used to evaluate options
- Select Phase – using a “MurderBoarding” process to sort, tune, fix, etc. options
- Take Phase – creating accountability, identifying who does what, and getting down to interdependencies and execution.
Although the book goes into much greater detail on all of these areas (with specific examples, charts, tables, etc.), one of my favorite charts is the MurderBoarding overview chart (copyright image reproduced below from “The New How” via permission from Nilofer Merchant). I often find this part of the strategy development process to be at risk of falling apart – this part of the strategy process is inherently messy, and unless the team focuses on a disciplined reference framework (like the one here), it becomes too tempting and easy to try to cut corners. Look carefully at the chart and see if you have been tempted to cut corners in the process. For example, did you forget to test the idea in part before finalizing the strategy? Or did you forget to vet and refine the criteria used to evaluate a strategic option?
Even as an experienced management consultant and manager, I would highly recommend this book (I’ve also added it to my popular Crash Course Consulting Reading List). The book is practical and covers a body of knowledge that has been largely undocumented to date. Whether one explicitly uses the processes Nilofer describes, the book still provides a good framework for assessing how one is doing. This book is well-suited for corporate executives, strategic planners, general managers, and management consultants. It would also be good as a textbook to supplement strategy and/or consulting courses.
Feel free to let me know your thoughts!