The Lords Of Strategy: The Secret Intellectual History Of The New Corporate World, by Walter Kiechel III, performed by Robertson Dean
As someone who appreciates intellectual history related to business culture , I found this to be an intriguing and worthwhile book, and written with a good degree of humility from someone who has spent plenty of time talking with people involved in the strategy revolution and having a strong groundwork in the business context of strategy consultants. It is a shame that many people think of this book as something that is likely to be too harsh and too damaging to the reputation or honor of strategy firms, as this book offers some correctives to the excesses of shareholder capitalism but represents a fair-minded and largely positive view of the complexities of strategy as it was undertaken by the leading lights among management consultants and their academic boosters. The result is a book that is notable both in terms of its intellectual heft as well as its historical value, and is the sort of book that is a slow burn, amusing its readers who approach it with a sense of cynicism and then surprising the reader (or listener) with thought provoking insights that remind us of the sorts of massive cultural changes that are needed to make business just and also successful.
For the most part, the author approaches this subject in a chronological fashion, looking first at the origins of the strategic revolution in the people responsible at Boston Financial Group (later BFG): Bruce Henderson, Bill Bain of Bain & Company (whose story includes a cameo appearance by one Mitt Romney), and McKinsey & Company[s Fred Gluck, along with longtime Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter. The author examines their own biographical stories, along with that of other people, as well as the histories of the companies and institutions they served as well as the companies who were helped, and manages to discuss academic disciplines like Organizational Studies and finance alongside the intellectual remnants of decades of books on strategy filled with all kinds of hype and best-selling books that offered to help managers and executives get a grip of matters like competitive threats, customer needs, and business costs. The result is something that is as entertaining as the intellectual history of fad diets, which is what many of these strategic approaches most resemble, combined with a scary real-world influence on history and the course of civilizations in our contemporary world. It is this combination between the ephemeral and the vitally important that makes this such a notable and worthwhile book of intellectual history, even if there are ways that the author acknowledges that he failed to cover the entirety of the intellectual domain he wrote about, specifically omitting a discussion of the corporate planners who are nearly invisible in this book except as a foil to strategy consultants.
There are a few areas of this book that give a lasting feeling of deep unease. For one, the rise of strategic thought within business came with a certain degree of intellectual baggage from areas of military strategy , where competition was viewed as a matter of life and death, giving it a degree of seriousness. For another, strategic thinking, up to this day, has greatly valued what could be easily measured, accounted for, and controlled in a vein of “greater Taylorism,” and has subsequently disregarded areas of human factors, despite their obvious importance. For another, the rapid spread of strategic consulting within the United States and abroad has occurred during a time of increasing decline for the businesses of the United States even as a fierce and mean capitalism, in the author’s terms, has increasingly spread around the world. On top of this, strategic thought has tended to be rapidly commoditized at its basic levels even as the essential aspects of business strategy have proved immensely difficult to implement because of the difficulty many companies have in either changing their culture or valuing the well-being and interests of customers and employees. The book manages to be intensely critical of many aspects of contemporary business culture while also aware of the immense and difficult constraints that executives and consultants are under as they attempt to succeed and innovate. The author leaves the reader or listener with the hope that to do right by others will be the right thing with regards to the longevity and profitability and reputation of companies, but that remains a hope that is seldom put into practice in companies that are egalitarian and just in their dealings.
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