on March 3, 2010
The debate over the value of high-level strategic consultants and academics has waged for decades. I was one such consultant for the better part of ten years who often spent the first part of any conversation defending my profession (I have since moved to advertising and now defend that profession). Kiechel covers the rise of strategy consulting firms--BCG, McKinsey, and Bain--and notable business school professors who contributed to the strategy revolution. His background provides the credibility to do so, he was a former Managing Editor at Fortune magazine and was the Editorial Director of Harvard Business Publishing from 1998 to 2002.
He sees the best strategists as objective intellectuals who see patterns of evidence and put them through conceptual frameworks to produce pragmatic insights. This largely began in the sixties and seventies when strategy began to be systematized and integrated. Cost, customer and competitors were the three primary areas strategists looked for patterns to exploit. In the nineties, the practices were more fad-like including reengineering and total quality management. This was the era I practiced in and I felt like the lone voice extolling the virtue of a simple but robust strategic planning process. I jumped for joy when in June, 1997, BusinessWeek had on their cover, The Return of Strategic Planning: Once More With Feeling. Which was the pivot point for Taylorism-like monitoring and measurement processes becoming more humanistic and holistic in their design.
The author tells some great industry stories but what struck me is just how important the role of strategy and management consultants is to business. The influence that such a small number of people and firms have had on modern business is truly staggering. This is where the subtitle of the book comes from: The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World. Just a handful of models and frameworks devised by a small number of minds have been used by countless businesses to generate their strategies - this is what is so amazing.
From my experience, the best strategists retain a child-like wonder and a natural intellectual curiosity that is backed by analytic rigor - an incredibly hard combination of skills to possess in one person. I suggest this book only if you are interested in the history it covers and/or are a follower of the strategist value debate. In other words, this is not a strategy how-to book. Other books in this area I have read are The Management Myth, The McKinsey Mind, Rip-Off!, House of Lies, and Consulting Demons - so you may want to check them out too.
on February 26, 2010
Those who have studied business have probably heard of the Boston Consulting Group Matrix, the McKinsey 7-S Framework, Michael Porter's Value Chain, and various other strategy tools. But where did they all come from, and how did the theory behind them develop? The former managing editor at Fortune Magazine, Walter Kiechel III, explains the history of ideas in the field of strategy over the past 40 years in this book.
This is the most interesting book on strategy that I have read, because it tells the story of the individuals and consulting firms who created the strategy concepts and tools which revolutionised corporations around the world towards the end of the 20th century. The idiosyncrasies of brilliant strategists are described, as are their struggles to have their ideas accepted. The author's personal knowledge of the major players makes the narrative more compelling.
The author even-handedly discusses both the good points and the bad points of the various strategic ideas, but on the whole he is an admirer of the lords of strategy and tends to exonerate them from blame for the mess the world now finds itself in, whereas others might be inclined to accuse them of encouraging companies to undertake unwise levels of risk in order to maximise short-term shareholder returns. I found some parts of the book a bit dry, but for the most part it was highly engaging.
on October 19, 2011
Let's clarify what The Lords of Strategy is and what it isn't.
It is ...
... a historical view of the strategy consulting industry as driven by Boston Consulting Group, Bain & Co., and McKinsey& Co. in the US, and eventually worldwide, from 1963 until 2010. Some other consultancies are acknowledged to have existed but with minimal impact on the industry.
... a look into the careers and personalities that were successful in influencing the strategy consulting industry, in how clients were procured, how projects were run, and how the products/ideas that were sold.
... a view that the academic contributions to business strategy thought stemmed mostly from Michael Porter alone although sometimes with some help from a handful of others with Harvard connections.
... a rosy view of strategy consultants and their work. There are times when the author talks about when the consultants steered into some trouble, but they come off as brilliant, well-intentioned souls who have made the world a far better place.
... a well-written story. M. Kiechel tells the tale in a very readable manner and likes to pepper in words that you don't often read in business books. If you like reading lines like this, "Begin with the element of propinquity.", you will enjoy reading this book.
... biased towards all things associated with Harvard. M. Kiechel goes a long way to explain the education credentials of people and ideas and how they relate in some way to Harvard. It starts to feel like the author is being paid for a Harvard commercial, and it gets tedious by the end.
It is not ...
... a beginner's guide to business strategy. The reader is assumed to have some familiarity with the subject. The book will be enjoyed best by MBA types - especially strategy consultants.
... a comprehensive view of the history of business strategy thought. For that, I would HIGHLY recommend Strategy Safari: A Guided Tour Through The Wilds of Strategic Management by Mintzberg, et al.
on February 10, 2010
In the Lords of Strategy, Walter Kiechel deftly unpacks many of the ideas that many of us take for granted -- from competitive advantage to value chain to core competencies -- and explains their history, impact, and relevance with insight and wit. He takes material that could have been as dry as day-old toast and instead creates an engaging and compelling read.
Kiechel approaches his subject neither with reverence nor venom: he helps us understand the pioneering thinkers who created the world of "business strategy" by exploring the ways in which they reshaped the corporate landscape, how their personalities influenced their work, and the lasting impact (for better and worse) that they have had. He's equally prescient about how the Lords bolstered the careers of their client CEOs and enriched shareholders (eventually) -- and why, especially for middle managers, a deep consulting engagement can feel more like a rectal exam than an exercise in improving the company. He traces the rising dominance of left-brained analytical thinking in the consulting firm and the executive suite as well as the increasing "fierceness" of capitalism.
I've learned more reading this book than in any 10 average business books (and I've read a lot of them). It really is a must-read for anyone in business or entering the corporate world. It will explain much, prepare you well, and expand your understanding of contemporary business thinking.
Full disclosure: the author is a former colleague. The principal impact that has had on this review is that I can say unabashedly that in this book he demonstrates the same erudition, wit, and ability to bring together seemingly disparate ideas, people, and events into a thoroughly compelling narrative just as he did when we worked together. I've already purchased multiple copies of this book for associates so my money is co-located with my mouth.
on March 13, 2011
Some of those who have reviewed "Lords of Strategy" have worked as consultants for Bain, McKinsey or BCG. Please read those reviews for valuable insights into the accuracy of Kiechel's portrayal of the top consulting firms. Kiechel himself, however, has never worked for either of these firms, and his expertise comes from his tenure as editor of the Harvard Business Review and its book publishing wing. Thus, he treats his subject journalistically in the best sense of the word -- with characters (their strengths and real flaws), a compelling storyline (which moves briskly), and several reversals of fortune (as one house flourishes and other missteps and falls). At the same time, Kiechel does not add intrigue to his story, neither settling scores, nor taking cheap shots at one personality or another, one consulting method or another. Kiechel truly respects his subject and treats the consulting industry as a higher calling with many of its practitioners as having the "best intentions" for its clients. A less generous observer could easily find fault with consultants who have pumped up "shareholder value" at the expense of employees, or who lead many financial companies down a primrose path on the way to the banking meltdown of 2007. While Kiechel acknowledges these weaknesses, one wishes he would be more ruthless towards his subject in these areas. Nevertheless, as a history of this industry, or as an introduction to consulting trends and practices, I can think of no better place to start. Eminently readable and enjoyable as a work on non-fiction.
on October 9, 2014
In the permeable world of consultants, each claiming the impact of its work or offering on the business of their clients, defining what strategy consulting really is, how it started & how it evolved, & what does the star cast look like constitutes a fascinating story, not just for its method, order & depth of research but, in my mind, in equal measure, for its slightly acerbic but always witty representation.
It was interesting for me to learn along the way how each firm looked at itself (McKinsey - the champions of C-Suite relationships, BCG - pioneers of many strategy constructs drunk on its own intellect, Bain - impact stock price over multi-year engagements & the like). The other interesting part was that this story is not just the story of consulting firms & their businesses. It is also a story of Harvard Business School & how its curricula, faculty, & the overall MBA program changed over the years on the back of Porter's contributions to strategy. Thirdly, nothing of any significant impact has been tabled supporting people as a strategic asset though right from Tom Peters & many others like him have never really had any dearth of constructs (The S Curve, for example) that center on people as a strategic asset. Along the way, came the stark definition of strategy parred down to "means of creating shareholder value" culminating in PE firms - the ultra-rational business - that became big recruiters of strategy firms. The breakdown of the value chain model of a business tying suppliers, financiers, businesses & consumers started to wobble with the coming of the internet & the ensuing search for a new model to led rather esoteric "network models" that nobody could implement.
The twenty first century story of strategy, as you'd imagine given the collapse of the financial system, is not the most redeeming. And while a bulk of blame might reside within both the actual financial services companies & the lax regulatory environment, Kiechel points out that these Financial Services companies were all great recruiters of strategy consulting firms, albeit by the time of the crisis, these firms were no longer in the C-suite as much as they used to be earlier. Having said that "strategy as risk management", many concede, was a concept that never really took off. The final chapter is really a lot of very interesting speculation on the future of strategy & how to build strategy in the DNA of organizations, how strategy needs to be "adaptive" & the kind of organization that'll thrive is a learning & a democratic one where strategic insights are fostered from just about anywhere & these are then assimilated into the organization's functions.
All in all, this is a story of remarkably gifted people, high on analytical ability, aggressive & champions of devising constructs that had a tremendous impact on many businesses & lifted the business school from the lower rungs of the academic ladder to one of the top ones.If nothing else, this one fact remains indisputable.
on June 16, 2010
As the author of "Extract Value From Consultants" which provides a critical perspective on how executives should manage their consultants and how consultants leverage their client relationships for their own revenue advantage, I was intrigued by the implied glorification of strategy consultants based on the title `The Lords of Strategy'. I was not disappointed. Walter Kiechel III, perhaps unintentionally, leads us to conclude that a new upper caste of management has emerged with McKinsey, Bain, and BCG alumni populating the CEO chambers and upper echelons of the corporate world with two thirds of them routinely hiring their brethren on assignments lasting multiple years. The question as to whether external third parties with such extensive influence accompanied by so little transparency and accountability while disenfranchising the broader organization, is an appropriate business model for corporate America (or corporate Europe for that matter) is never adequately addressed - but nonetheless, the book takes you on an insightful adventure visiting the key tenets identified along the journey of strategy development.
In a highly readable manner, the book unfolds from the 1960s, when ideas and analytical techniques began to be applied to the practice of management supplementing the traditional approach of applying personal perceptions of common sense drawn from personal past experiences. As we all come to realize, common sense is usually not very common. Thus, a touch of structured analytical thinking can have a delirious impact on uncovering new opportunities to improve competitive positioning and business performance.
According to Kiechel, corporate strategy seems to have evolved from cost accounting where microeconomic analysis of internal and competitor functional and process cost structures uncover niches of opportunities for repositioning a company or even a business unit within a corporate portfolio. The term `Greater Taylorism' crops up continuously throughout the book as the metaphor to be applied to this numbers-driven approach, even as it passes through different stages of refinement.
Through the chapters we learn how Bain, BCG, McKinsey, and of course, Michael Porter's Monitor Group, struggle - rise - stumble- then reascend while contributing to the theory and practice of strategy development spanning experience curves, share-growth matrices, 7 S framework, 5 forces models, and so on. Lesser beings in strategic insight are acknowledged along the roadside of the book's journey but none seem to measure up to the grand Lords of Strategy. And while the people issue, that is, those disenfranchised executives, managers and employees who fail to keep pace with the Lords, is acknowledged as not being sufficiently addressed - it seems to matter not to the fortunes of the Lords of Strategy.
As Walter Kiechel III explains in the Preface, Bruce Doolin Henderson and his associates at the Boston Consulting Group (that he founded in 1963) launched the corporate strategy revolution. Kiechel then suggests that understanding it requires getting beyond three common beliefs: "The first is that at bottom, ideas don't really matter much in business." In fact, ideas that are sharp with a purpose to answer questions, solve problems, and facing challenges are essential. Another common belief to be overcome is that strategy has no intellectual history. In fact, "smart companies throughout history have had a sense of how they wanted to make money...What companies didn't have before the strategy revolution was a way of systematically putting together all the elements that determined their corporate fate, in particular, the three Cs central to any good strategy: the company's costs, especially costs relative to other companies; the definition of the markets the company served - its customers, in other words - and its position vis a vis competitors." The third common belief to be overcome is that consultants are at best "hangers-on of only occasional, limited usefulness" or at worst "rapacious parasites whose slightest presence in the corporate body indicates gullibility, weakness, and insecurity on the par of its leadership."
The "lords" to which the book's title refers include Henderson, of course, as well as Bill Bain, Fred Gluck, and Michael Porter. Kiechel devotes a separate chapter to each and frequently refers to all of them throughout his lively narrative. Moreover, he also discusses the significance of several others who - to varying degree - also participated in the "invention" of corporate strategy. "This is a story not if paradigm shift, but of the bit-by-bit creation of the first comprehensive paradigm that pulled together all of the elements most vital for a company to take into account if it is to compete, win, and survive."
Already I have suggested several recurring themes in Kiechel's brilliant account of what was assembled "from the spoils of many an intellectual and business battle" that began in 1963. There is another theme that also needs to be mentioned: several significant "jolts" that sometimes seemed like the Four Horsemen of the Corporate Apocalypse. Specifically, the first, "though not necessarily chronologically, was the deregulation of industries in which competition had traditionally been held in check by government rules, as in airlines, banking, and telecommunications. The second consisted of the ever-widening effect of new technologies, including the increase in computer power, its spread to desktops everywhere, and the coming of the Internet. In the third, capital markets freed themselves up, shedding inhibitions against hostile takeovers, establishing a genuine market for the control of companies. The fourth horseman usually goes by the name [begin italics] globalization [end italics], the fact that companies find themselves buying from, selling to, and competing with enterprises and customers from around the world." With exceptional skill, Kiechel develops these and other themes during various phases of strategy's development since the early-1960s.
Here are three excerpts that suggest the thrust and flavor of Kiechel's insights:
"Part of the strategy revolution was the coming of what I'll call `Greater Taylorism,' the corporation's application of sharp-penciled analytics this time not to the performance of an individual worker - how fast a person could load bars of pig iron or reset a machine - but more widely to the totality of its functions and processes...Greater Taylorism has chewed its way across the corporate landscape to virtually everywhere large companies practice twenty-first century capitalism, which means on just about every continent. Its appetite for more numbers, more data, seems only to increase with the computer power available to crunch those numbers. And it has become steadily less patient for results, in part because now you can get those numbers back from the market overnight." (Pages 4-5)
"Competitive Strategy did more than any other book to consolidate the advances of the strategy revolution, bring scholarly respectability to its subject matter, and brand the paradigm as one that needed to be at the center of both corporate deliberation and business school education...[Michael Porter] might dismiss their work, but - to pile trope on trope to the point of toppling over into silliness - it was the consultants' shoulders Porter stood on to capture the lightning he bottled in Competitive Strategy. It was they, particularly at BCG, who over the course of the prior fifteen years had pushed both the concept and the word `strategy' into the corporate consciousness." (Page 133)
"Implementation was not the only problem dogging the strategy revolution as it tried to consolidate its gains. The tools had to be continually sharpened, if not discarded altogether for something else, as began to become apparent in the 1970s and by the 1980s was glaringly obvious. The experience curve in particular needed reexamination. To their surprise, consultants were also discovering that there appeared to be industries for which low cost was no guarantee of competitive advantage. Enter the possibilities for `differentiation'." (Page 185)
Kiechel provides a lively account of how countless executives and business school professors helped to create and then refine a new business discipline, strategy. Over time, they gave it intellectual structure, inclusive processes, systematic execution, reliable analytics and most important of all, clarity of purpose. The revolution continues to evolve.
on March 14, 2012
The Lords of Strategy fills a void - the history of Strategy and how it came about. As a management consultant who had worked for one of the major consultancies, I was first a bit bored reading the beginnings of Strategy, as many things are well known both in consulting circles and beyond. More and more, however, I was drawn into the fantastic writing of the author. He finally convinced me with many details that proved over and over again his deep research (e.g., his knowledge about the importance of the German market for consulting firms). The author also managed to tell the "story", a story that stretches over many decades in a very captivating way. The only thing that I found strange is that the book reads in its majority like a history of BCG (as if the author was paid by BCG to write a history book); companies like McKinsey are introduced late in the book and appear often as an afterthought - strange given the respective size of the two firms. The author tries to solve this "riddle" towards the end of the book when his focus shifts more onto the challenges of using Strategy as a product - Strategy needs implementation, and what it is in the first place? Overall a book that is interesting for those in the consulting industry but certainly more of value for those on the corporate site and all those not familiar with the various consulting tools and frameworks. All in all, a very solid business book - and much more informative than all the "consulting trashing" literature that is out there.
on October 11, 2015
As a history of the evolution of ideas and concepts that make much of strategy oriented discussions in modern enterprises, the book succeeds in building an engaging narrative of how strategy as an intellectual pursuit has driven the development of consulting firms over the past century. Once you complete reading this book, you'll understand and appreciate how the latest bestseller book/theme in strategy often stands on the shoulders of people with profound ability to borrow ideas and simplify them.
I do wish that the book went beyond the idea that Strategy is a vocation will go further into a metamodel of how people make or break organizations and markets. For a book written post 2008 , we hear less of how the lords of strategy ( past and those evolving now) understand the impact of widespread access to information and data as well as the ability to rapidly process information to develop and prove/disprove hypotheses.
However, the book is an absolute must-read for anyone with an interest in the profession of strategic planning and strategy consulting.