Takeaways: Good Strategy / Bad Strategy (Rumelt)

5% progress

Annual planning season was upon us, and it was time to refresh myself on the basics. However, instead of reaching for Porter or Kotter, I was drawn to Good Strategy / Bad Strategy. I did my usual diligence by skimming the table of contents, book reviews, online summaries, and this quote from the book caught my eye:

“A good strategy has an essential logical structure that I call the kernel. The kernel of a strategy contains three elements: a diagnosis, a guiding policy, and coherent action. The guiding policy specifies the approach to dealing with the obstacles called out in the diagnosis. It is like a signpost, marking the direction forward but not defining the details of the trip. Coherent actions are feasible coordinated policies, resource commitments, and actions designed to carry out the guiding policy”.

I was sold by the kernel 🍿. Let’s see what I take away from reading it.


  • Takeaway #1: “Good strategy always looks…simple and obvious”

Right on page 1, starting with the basics, exactly what I was looking for from this book. promising!

  • Takeaway #2: “A leader’s most important responsibility is identifying the biggest challenges to forward progress and devising a coherent approach to overcoming them”

Love this clarity. As a leader and contributor to a larger organization, this is a healthy reminder to spend time at that 50k foot view of things. Depending on the level of maturity, your company may need you to look further ahead and be planning for obstacles down the road. Not only that, but distilling those solutions into a coherent approach takes time and focus.

  • Takeaway #3: “A good strategy recognizes the nature of the challenge and offers a way of surmounting it”

⭐ One of my jobs is to run our technology platform team. When we’re looking at our goals for 2021, I have to ask, are we solving for budget? joy? revenue? performance? culture? This quarter, the answer is “customer go-live time”. The nature of our problem is such that we have to give enormously padded timelines to our customers because we aren’t geared for large EMR interoperability jobs. That will change in Q1 of 2021. We’ll change this by developing a service dedicated to interoperability with its own delivery pipeline (and eventually, dedicated headcount). We’ll measure success by decreasing go-live times, increasing confidence in our estimates, and maintaining customer satisfaction.

  • Takeaway #4: “A good strategy honestly acknowledges the challenges being faced…”

  • Takeaway #5: “Bad strategy…believes negative thoughts get in the way”

⭐ There’s more to this quote, but the first part is what really struck me. In my last four startup jobs, I’ve only been at one that honestly acknowledged the challenges on any consistent basis. Rumelt goes on to say “bad strategy tends to skip over pesky details such as problems. It ignores the power of choice and focus, trying instead to accommodate a multitude of conflicting demands and interests.”

⭐ This begins to describe one or two CEOs I’ve worked with. Barking out “Let’s win!” to drown out the gaping holes in their plan. Strategy was a synonym for success (and the book breaks down why this is the case 👏).

On an opposite, but similar note, conflict can be a light that shines on important challenges.

  • Takeaway #6: “Strategy creates strength through coherence”

The book is still laying groundwork for more nuanced ideas, but these basics are what I came for. Achieving success with a dozen disconnected goals is like trying to take down a bear with bird shot. It’s going to be a wild few moments, but won’t end well. 🎭

  • Takeaway #7: “Subtle shifts in viewpoint can create unseen strengths”

This is a kernel of the Design Thinking methodology. When performing research it encourages you to examine extreme use cases. The diversity of these viewpoints can synthesize a position you could not create on your own.

🎆 Read on! Click here for Part 2 ⏭ where Rumelt puts meat on the bone with case studies and analysis of what makes bad strategy so bad!


The book again is Good Strategy / Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why it Matters by Richard Rumelt. So far I’m digging it. I’ve already been able to put a few of these fundamentals to work by revising how I usually explain strategic planning. Thanks, Rumelt!

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