The Crux by Richard Rumelt is a fantastic follow on to his Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, providing many of the same core ideas but in a more readable format, and a clearer target to take down: the incoherent outputs of process and goal-driven strategy.
Recently, I’ve been looking for more strategy books to read, and
folks pointed out that I’d missed a new book from Richard Rumelt,
No book has influenced my thinking about strategy more than Rumelt’s previous work,
Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, so I felt obligated to
pop this one to the top of my reading queue.
The short summary here is that I think The Crux is quite good, and that it does a better job of concisely
landing the problem areas to avoid than Good Strategy, Bad Strategy.
Conversely, I think that the later’s focus on structured exploration of problems is a bit more useful for
someone who is trying to deploy strategy in their own environment.
If you had to pick just one, I’d still recommend Good Strategy, Bad Strategy first, but I certainly
recommend reading both.
With that said, a brief exploration of some of the core ideas in the book.
Starting with Rumelt’s definition of the “crux” (p4):
I began to use the term crux to denote the outcome of a three-part strategic skill.
The first part is judgment about which issues are truly important and which are secondary.
The second part is judgment about the difficulties of dealing with these issues.
And the third part is the ability to focus, to avoid spreading resources too thinly, not trying to do everything at once.
This definition captures much of what resonated with his earlier focus on diagnosis,
and sharpens it a bit further.
Rumelts summarizes his goals for the book as (p11):
I explore four themes in the pages that follow.
First, the best way to deal with strategic issues is by squarely facing the challenge…
Second, understand the sources of power and leverage that are relevant to your situation…
Third, avoid the bright, shiny distractions that abound…
Fourth, there are multiple pitfalls when executives work in a group, or workshop, to formulate strategy…
We emphasizes several recurring reasons why strategy-work tends to go wrong and
produce low value results, the most prominent and recurring theme is:
Don’t start with goals–start by understanding the challenge and finding its crux.
There’s another theme that comes up in a variety of ways, including a dedicated chapter:
Don’t Confuse Current Financial Results with Strategy
Both of these resonate quite a bit. The first feels right but somewhat asbtractly:
I’ve seen so many clueless strategy statements that don’t solve any problem I have.
The second hits very close to home: the longer that I’m an executive, the more I wonder if I’m balancing properly between
the financial, business, and engineering perspectives.
The financial perspective is very reassuring, because the numbers always add up,
which isn’t true on the business or engineering sides of the house.
Conversely, the financial lens provides guardrails but it doesn’t
actually tell us what to do, and can never convicingly break an impasse
preventing us from reaching a compelling future.
Challenge-based vs constraint-based strategy
As I read through the book, I thought more and more about two related
but subtly different ideas: challenge-based strategy as described by
Rumelt, and constraint-based strategy which is closer to my opinion
of what defines engineering strategy.
Exploring the difference a bit:
- Challenge-based strategy is reasoning forward from your current problems
to identify actions that will address those challenges
- Constraint-based strategy is defining guiding policies that help everyone
within your organization to understand how to craft appropriate actions
of their own that are in alignment with the other decisions being made
concurrently by other individuals in the same organization
This highlights a key difference between what Rumelt’s most interested in–how do
businesses make strategic decisions–and what I’m interested in–how do engineering
organizations position themselves to be strategic within a wider corporate context.
More to explore here, but an interesting learning for me.
Deduction versus design
Rumelt quotes Gary Hamel, describing an awkward reality of discussing strategy (p17):
The dirty little secret of the strategy industry is that it doesn’t have any theory of strategy creation.
This is, I think, the biggest issue I have found reading work on strategy, which he connects to a larger
pedagolical issue within modern education that eskews the study of the exact things that folks in
industry need the most (p36):
My own life experience supports Simon’s comments about the replacement
of design with deduction in professional schools.
For the academics who currently populate top professional schools, design
is a bit like shop class, akin to automobile repair or welding, and
residing at a far remove from respectable activities like the mathematical modeling
of stochastic processes and the statistical analysis of selection bias.
Viewing most industry work as beneath academic interest very much is something I’ve encountered
in management and leadership, somewhat to my confusion. Although I find this less directly
applicable to software development, where many of the issues at hand can successfully be rendered
into mathematics, but not all of them. There’s a reason we have highly sophisticated typing theory
paired with largely ad-hoc bags of practices labeled as “agile” or whatnot in the industry,
and it’s in part because the former attracts academic attention and the later does not.
Strategy as creation
Rumelt talks about strategy as a sort of design,
and of design as an act of creation (p32):
The result is a design rather than a choice.
It is a creation embodying purpose.
I call it a “creation” because it is nonobvious to most others, the prodcut of insight
and judgment ratehr than an algorithm.
This connects back to the Gary Hamel quote regarding the void that exists where ideally we’d have
a clear set of steps for creating strategy. I need to ponder this one a bit more as well,
but something that resonates with me is the idea that creation is not well understood,
and also that creation “in committee” is exceptionally difficult.
I’ve always found that strategy is best driven by a single mind, with all relevant context
loaded into that mind, as opposed to being spread across a diffuse group,
which I think is true for all truly creative activities. Art evolves through discussion (literal and
among many artists, but the creation of each individual piece of art is created by a single individual
operating from a place of focus.
Like I started with, I think this is a worthwhile read, and the biggest idea that stood out for
me is the tension between executives needing to prioritize working the Crux with the entirety
of managing the team and business around them.
There’s a real art to that balance, and one that many executives struggle with.
More generally, this book has very much helped me refine my thesis for writing a book
on engineering strategy, which I’m not totally confident I’ll actually write, but I’m
coming to have a decent bit of an outline after my recent binge of strategy reading
and the tangential work in the writing of my third book.