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The True Influencers
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.