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HBR Guide to Thinking Strategically: A book review by Bob Morris

HBR Guide to Thinking Strategically
Various Contributors
Harvard Business Review Press (January 2019)

“We did what all wise men do. We began at the end.”  Menachem Begin

Prime Minister Begin’s comment was his response when asked how he and President Anwar Sadat were able to reach a peace agreement after decades of bloodshed in battles between Egyptian and Israeli forces.

To me, that perspective is the essence of strategic thinking. First, agree on an ultimate objective. Then collaborate on an agreement on how best to achieve it.

As you probably know already, most of the volumes in the “HBR Guide to” series are anthologies of articles previously published in Harvard Business Review in which various contributors share their insights concerning a major business subject such as Better Business Writing, Getting the Right Work Done, and Project Management. In this instance, the focus is on strategic thinking.

As is also true of volumes in other such series, notably HBR Essentials, HBR Must Reads, and HBR Management TipsHBR Guides offer substantial value in cutting-edge thinking from 25-30 sources in a single volume at a price (each at about $15-20 from Amazon in the bound version) for a fraction of what article reprints would cost. What we have in this paperbound edition are 29 articles previously published by Harvard Business Review. If purchased separately as reprints, the total cost would be about $260. Amazon US currently sells this volume for only $14.11.

In the Introduction, the HBR editors explain why everyone needs to think strategically. Those who do “demonstrate specific personal traits, behaviors, and attitudes, some of which can seem to conflict.”

They explain the importance of these:

o Curiosity
o Consistency
o Agility
o Future focus
o Outward focus
o Openness
o Breadth
o Questioning

Then they recommend six key elements for “putting strategic thinking into action.”

1. Understand your organization’s overarching strategic objectives.
2. Keep a big-picture perspective.
3. Make decisions with the organization in mind.
4. Set strategic priorities and manage trade-offs.
5. Align your team around organizational goals.
6. Move beyond strategy and start to execute.

“This book is geared to help you change the way you think and to align your work and the work of your team with the larger objectives and purpose of your company.”

The material is organized within eight sections. The individual essays in each section address specific issues related to a general objective:

Section One: How to become a more effective strategic thinker in your daily work
Two: How to determine and then understand your organization’s strategy
Three: How to develop a “Big Picture” perspective
Four: How to align decisions with your organization’s strategic objectives
Five: How to set priorities and manage trade-offs
Six: How to align your team around strategic goals
Seven: How to transition from thinking strategically to executing the strategy
Eight: How to navigate (or around) through challenges to strategic thinking

The HBR Editors include two appendices: “Questions to Inspire Strategic Thinking” (adapted from HBR Pocket Mentor: Thinking Strategically, published by Harvard Business Press), and, “Organizational Strategy: A Primer” (adapted from Harvard Business Review Manager’s Handbook, also published by Harvard Business Review Press).

It remains for each reader to determine which of the material is of greatest interest and value to them but I do recommend that all of the material be read so as to create a context, a frame of reference, from which to select information, insights, and suggestions that are most relevant. I also suggest that key passages be highlighted and that a lined notebook be kept near at hand in which to record comments, questions, cross references, etc.

Reading strategically should be guided and informed by thinking strategically. That is especially true of volumes such as this one that are anthologies of articles. Hence the importance of checking out the “Contents” and “Introduction” first.

For some executives, this may well be the most valuable volume in HBR’s “Guide to” series.

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