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Magnificent - but is it War?
on 19 May 2013
I have mixed feelings about this!
The reference is to "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre: c'est de la folie" ("It is magnificent, but it is not war: it is madness"), the comment of Marshal Canrobert on the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. That might also apply here.
This is a massive, well-researched and thorough tome. The first section offers a good overview of various strategy concepts - sources of competitive advantage, analysis, vertical and horizontal integration, value chain analysis and so on. The second section offers a good selection of twenty four up to date case studies with a broad range and coverage. The standard is very good - it's intelligent, well organised and thought out, and well written. The author clearly brings insight to the task of presenting this rather than just trotting out standard models. For example, he debunks the "SWOT" model (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats), pointing out that this doesn't really add much you wouldn't get from just thinking about internal and external factors. That's a breath of fresh air, as is the writing overall. In this genre, this is a very good book.
My reservation is that despite nods to the role of creativity, this is necessarily a reductionist view of the world. It assumes that everything can be analysed to determine key factors that cause it, and that those key factors can then be understood and applied elsewhere. I'm not so sure. Other perspectives exist - from Feyerbrand's The Tyranny of Science through Iain McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary to the Demna translation of Sun Tzu The Art of War and even Borges and Lao Tze. I suspect this kind of analytic approach has greater limitations than we generally recognise, in a kind of "Texas Barn Shooting" kind of way. Rationalization is applied to those businesses which are known because they have succeeded at some point, and we believe we can determine the cause of success or subsequent failure. But in the end you can't be sure it's any more than post hoc rationalization - you can't tell if other factors made a difference, and if you try to apply the ideas elsewhere and they don't work, you can't tell whether it's your analysis that's the problem, or that the context was different. And if you can't replicate it, it's not science (with a nod to Karl Popper there).
Machiavelli once suggested that about 50% of success is down to chance, and I've yet to see anything that improves on that estimate. As Sun Tzu says, "victory cannot be determined in advance".
Of its type this is good, but in the end I'm not sure this kind of detailed, analytic and academic approach is as useful as it seems. Ultimately, success (in any field) is a performance art. Frank Zappa once said "writing about music is like dancing about architecture" - the same might well apply to business.
It's a solid or even excellent book, in its own terms. I just think those terms have limitations!