Why did I write this book? For at least four reasons. The first three may help explain the “secret” in this secret intellectual history.
The stories that always intrigued me most as a journalist were the undercovered ones, particularly when the lack of coverage seemed crazy when measured against the import of the subject. Little phenomena like the fact that the world’s population has been getting steadily richer over the last five decades, and remarkably more literate. Or the shift of the majority of the global population to cities, towns, and suburbs. (A militantly conservative friend of mine, veteran of two miserable years teaching in an upstate New England college, claims the only thing Marx got right was his crack that there was at least one good thing to be said for capitalism: it saved mankind from the idiocy of rural life.)
When I got to thinking about it ten years ago it struck me that the rise of strategy was just such a subject. Companies had been talking about their “strategies” since at least the 1970s. Nowadays no self-respecting corporation would be without one. But where had that construct come from, and did it represent meaningful progress from past practice? One thinks of Moliere’s Monsieur Jourdain, astonished to learn he’d been speaking prose all his life. Is that what companies were doing, and this just old wine in a highfalutin new bottle? No, as it turns out.
Ideas in business were and are undercovered. Strategy is only the grandest example. About 8,500 new books on business were published in the U.S. last year; before In Search of Excellence in 1982 the comparable yearly total was probably less than a thousand. Lots contain valuable insights. But how many discuss ideas as ideas, weighing constructs against competing concepts, recounting where they came from?
As a journalist I’ve always been curious about ideas, sometimes to the bewilderment or dismay of my colleagues. (They don’t want to be thought of as “intellectuals” any more than the typical businessperson or consultant does.) Ideas explain how the world, or some tiny part of it, works. Which is useful if you’re trying to solve a problem or chart a fresh course. They’re also wonderfully generalizable, if that’s a word. What the bright managerial minds at GE—or Apple, or Wal-Mart—have figured out may help as you tackle similar challenges. (Funny that we’re comfortable talking about “best practices,” less so with “best ideas.”)
The contribution of strategy consultants may be the most hitherto secret part of the story. In terms of their influence, pound for pound I’ve long thought high-level consulting probably the least covered and least understood of industries. While consultants frequently are right there at the coalface when companies chip away at their scariest problems—or try to avert a cave-in—how many otherwise well-informed businesspeople really understand what this high-priced talent actually does for their clients? There’s a small genre of books I think of as the “memoir of the self-hating consultant”—think of Consulting Demons or, more recently, The Myth of Management—in which repentant sinners recount the sleazy frauds they perpetrated on hapless corporations. These don’t do much, though, to explain why a whopping majority of giant companies use the strategy firms, or why 85% of McKinsey’s is repeat business. Nor do the self-haters tell us a lot about how consultants’ ideas powered the history of strategy, particularly the early history.
A final and probably selfish reason for The Lords was my desire to get back to talking-with-people and poring-over-the-written-record journalism. (This after ten or fifteen years largely devoted to managerial work, mostly in meetings and offices—many, many meetings.) The best explanation I’ve come across for why people write books is that they do it to explain the world to themselves. The Lords of Strategy represents that kind of attempt, going back to try to get beneath a history I’ve been witnessing for 30 years. A great part of the pleasure in the work has been the interviews conducted with consultants, professors, gurus, and sharp-witted business practitioners. This because the best of them are pre-occupied, as I was, with figuring out how the world works and what of value can be done with that knowledge. My sessions with historical figures such as Bill Bain and Fred Gluck stretched over days. Michael Porter has his own building on the Harvard Business School campus, a modest Georgian temple to the rise of strategy I enjoyed visiting. Other interviews took me to London, Paris, Munich and Shanghai. Long ago a smart interviewee told me how he knew when he’d had a good day: he had learned something new. The days reporting this book were almost invariably good days.
In that spirit I hope the result provides at least a few good moments for its readers.
Readers who want to consult the classic works on corporate strategy can download a selective bibliography by clicking here.