Ram Charan’s The Attacker’s Advantage: A book review by Bob Morris

Attacker's AdvantageThe Attacker’s Advantage: Turning Uncertainty into Breakthrough Opportunities
Ram Charan
PublicAffairs (2015)

This is the most valuable contribution to business thought leadership that Ram Charan has made…thus far.

I have read and reviewed all of the books that Ram Charan has written or co-written and am convinced that The Attacker’s Advantage is the most valuable…thus far. Why? Because the abundance of information, insights, and counsel that he provides can be of substantial assistance to almost anyone, at any level and in any area of the given enterprise, to improve their leadership and management skills. The title of the book refers to “the world of large-scale [i.e. high-impact] entrepreneurs who create [or recognize] a new need, scale it up quickly, and put a bend in the road for traditional players…The attacker’s advantage is the ability to detect ahead of others those forces that are radically reshaping your marketplace, then position your business to make the next move first.”

Those who read and then re-read) this book with appropriate care will accelerate their development of five essential capabilities:

1. Perceptual acuity
2. A mindset to see opportunity in uncertainty
3. The ability to see as new path forward and commit to it
4. Adeptness in managing the transition to the next path
5. Skill in making the organization steerable and agile

Each of these is an important WHAT that countless other business thinkers have already identified. Charan explains HOW while in process revealing the WHY.

Consider, for example, the importance of anomalies. Years ago, Isaac Asimov observed, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’” Charan has a great deal of value to say about the importance of anomalies (on Pages 50-57) when suggesting “what to watch for.” Any fool can connect dots. Those whom Charan characterizes as “catalysts” know which dots to connect, to be sure, but of much greater importance, they recognize and grasp the significance of potentialities and implications such as causal relationships. Catalysts constantly practice the skill of “sorting, sifting, and selecting what matters from the vast and changing external landscape.”

Once again as he does in so many of his previously published works, he makes brilliant use of reader-friendly devices such as a checklist of Takeaways for each of the four Parts. They serve as study guide questions. Another section, “IN THE NEXT CHAPTER…,” concludes each chapter, offering a head’s up to key material in the next chapter. And also, real-world exempla that include companies such as Tata Communication, LEGO Group, Kaiser Permanente, and Merck as well as executives that include (in alpha order) Marc Andreessen, Tim Berners-Lee, Larry Fink, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Ruben Mettler, Ralph Nader, Hal Sperlich, and Steve Schwarzman. As Charan carefully indicates, there are valuable lessons to be learned from all of them. It is also true that the reader-friendly devices will help to facilitate, indeed expedite frequent review of the most important material later.

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Charan’s coverage:

o The Essentials of Leading in Uncertainty (Pages 5-10)
o Redefining an Industrial Icon: GE (23-26)
o Five Examples of Catalysts (41-47)
o Seek Contrary Viewpoints (61-63)
o Be a Voracious Reader (71-73)
o Consumers Hold the Key (89-94)
o Removing the Blockages to a Path of Uncertainty (103-112)
o Benefits of the Joint Practice Session (133-137)
o The Joint Practice Session: Transparency and Coordination (131-133)
o A JPS (Joint Practice Session) in Financial Services (139-145)
o Identifying [Critical] Decision Nodes (157-161)
o Assigning the Leaders of Critical Nodes (161-164)
o Monitoring How the Nodes Are Working (166-172)
o Setting Short-Term Milestones (174-179)
o Keep Others with You (191-194)

Obviously, no brief commentary such as mine can do full justice to the quality and value of the material that Ram Charan provides in this, his latest and as indicated, what I consider to be his most important work…thus far. I agree with him that “taking control of uncertainty is the fundamental leadership challenge of our time.” It is worth noting that the original meaning of the Chinese character for “crisis,” formulated centuries ago, is both “peril” and “opportunity.” Now and in months to come, uncertainty is certain to pose even greater challenges to leaders in all organizations, whatever their size and nature may be. Hence the importance of gaining and sustaining the attacker’s advantage. I urge those in organizations that now lack such an advantage to read and then re-read this book. Also, check out the resources here, especially the key capabilities assessment.

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