Book Brief: StrategyMan vs. the Anti-Strategy Squad
A fun “graphic novel” teaching about strategy development
Title: StrategyMan vs. the Anti-Strategy Squad: Using Strategic Thinking to Defeat Bad Strategy and Save Your Plan
Authors: Rich Horwath
Illustrated By: Nathan Lueth
Published: 2018 by Greenleaf Book Group Press
What It Teaches: The author, Rich Horwath, is a consultant who helps companies with their strategic planning. StrategyMan uses a super-hero vs. super-villain comic book to teach Horwath’s approach to strategic planning. It does so by introducing the factors common in businesses that lead to “bad strategy” in the form of the villains who are set on killing the strategy for TechnoBody, a fictional company. At each step in the process, the villains show up, only to be defeated by the heroes from the Strategic Thinking Institute (Horwath’s company). The heroes teach basic principles and tools that lead to successful strategic planning.
When To Use It: StrategyMan is a fun and informative book. While a relatively quick and enjoyable read, it contains much to help business leaders recognize common behaviors that can impede strategic planning and learn tools and principles for doing it right. Optimally, the book would make a good pre-read for a team heading into the strategic planning process. Unfortunately, Horwath leans heavily on the terminology and some frameworks that are unique to his approach to strategic planning. While there’s nothing wrong with the Strategic Thinking Institute approach, companies that already have their own terminology, processes, tools, and timelines may be hesitant to confuse participants by introducing an alternative framework.
I’m writing this on a Saturday afternoon. I’m guessing many of you will read it on Sunday. When I was young, I looked forward to reading the “Sunday comics”, and in my day, this book would be called a “comic book”. However, as an adult holding a hard cover book about strategy, I’m told that the modern term for this type of publication is a “graphic novel.”
Whatever you want to call it, StrategyMan vs. the Anti-Strategy Squad is a blast to read and full of great content for anyone involved in strategic planning. I love the concept and it is incredibly well done. The format in no way “dumbs down” the content but instead makes a serious, and sometimes boring topic fun and exciting.
The plotline is, of course, somewhat predictable. Super-villains from the Anti-Strategy Squad set out to destroy an innocent company. Super-heroes, led by StrategyMan and Rich (i.e. the author), from the Strategic Thinking Institute (the author’s company) thwart their efforts at every step and [spoiler alert] in the end the company is saved!
But the author (and the wonderful illustrator) do a great job of using that plotline to introduce attributes of modern companies that get in the way of successfully developing strategic plans, the approaches and tools that can overcome those challenges, and to teach how to do well at developing strategy. Along the way they introduce many facts, stats, and quotes to emphasize the importance of strategic planning.
In Chapter 1 the Jargon Goblin shows up and tries to confuse TechnoBody’s leadership team with made up (according to the author) phrases like “strategic imperatives” and “strategic objectivew”. StrategyMan shows up and introduces the GOST framework of Goals, Objectives, Strategies, and Tactics, as well as the SMART model for objectives.
In Chapter 2, the Jargon Goblin shows up again, this time trying to obfuscate the company’s mission, vision, and values. This time, Purposeidon shows up with his Purpose Trident clarifying the roles of the three prongs of that trident.
In Chapter 3, Time Twister and Fire Driller show up to get the leaders consumed with urgent, but not important topics. StrategyMan teaches about the importance of good habits, a checklist for dealing with “fires” when they pop up, and the Strategic Thinking Disciplines of Acumen, Allocation, and Action.
Chapter 4 introduces a new super-heroine, Innovatara, who battles The Same and Status Quo-Lock, getting TechnoBody’s leaders out of their fixed habits and innovating to create competitive differentiation.
A couple of quotes from this chapter will give a sense for how the author introduces relevant content into the storyline. Innovatara says “Operational effectiveness is the wolf in strategy’s clothing. The majority of companies in nearly all industries are constantly fighting battles of operational effectiveness: trying to do the same activities in the same tactical ways as others.”
The character Rich (i.e. the author) says: “Research shows that companies tend to allocate 90% or more of their resources to the same places year in and year out. But, during the 15-year study, the firms that reallocated the most resources — more than 50% of capital on average across divisions — achieved 30% higher shareholder returns than those firms that reallocated least.” Rich then introduces the Trade-Off Zone as a tool for identify opportunities to differentiate.
In Chapter 5, Innovatara discovers that TechnoBody has been invaded by Business Modelectomytes and encourages the leadership team to revisit the three phases of a business model using the strategic thinking disciplines. Rich shows up again to teach the three ways to develop an innovative thinking mindset: solve their challenge, jump the domain, and deviate the norm. He also introduces the Value Mining Matrix.
Dr. Yes, the leader of the Anti-Strategy Squad sends in Silo-Clops and Meeting Menace for Chapter 6. StrategyMan to the rescue, helping the team break down communication barriers between teams and focus on productive meetings.
In Chapter 7, the Multi-Taskinators and Decision Demon sneak into a TechnoBody planning meeting to wreak havoc. StrategyMan sends them flying, showing how multi-tasking is counter-productive and helps the team see the nine traps that lead teams to make bad decisions when they may not even realize a decision has been made.
TechnoBody holds their National Sales Meeting in Chapter 8. Before the meeting, Megalo-Plan adds 70 text-heavy slides to the plan presentation, while Dr. Yes has managed to get the spot as keynote speaker. During a lunch break, Rich and StrategyMan help one of the leaders understand how clear presentations are critical for effectively communicating strategies and how making tradeoffs is necessary, rather than saying “yes” to everything.
Chapter 9 starts with SWOT-bot leading a pointless situation analysis session with the leadership team before Frankenstrategy shows up to try to muddle together the different functional strategies into a worthless mess. Once again StrategyMan fights them off, then he and Rich explain the right way to use a SWOT.
The Anti-Strategy Squad seems to be getting desperate in Chapter 10. Miss Alignment hopes to derail strategic coordination while The Executioner tries to use firefighting, too many priorities, and status quo mindset to cause execution of the strategy to fail. Once again StrategyMan uses the Strategic Thinking Disciplines to overcome the villains. At the end of the chapter, Rich introduces his StrategyPrint two-page strategy framework.
Things get really desperate in Chapter 11 when the Culturello starts literally eating TechnoBody’s strategic plan. But the leadership team has learned enough to figure out on their own that they need to do the hard work to make sure that their culture is aligned with their strategy. StrategyMan introduces the Strategy Conversation Framework to explain how to gain buy-in to the strategic plan.
Finally, in the exciting climax, our heroes attack the Anti-Strategy Squad’s secret lair. The good guys win and the leaders of TechnoBody realize that “thinking strategically is like stepping into a chamber of insights, into a whole new reality where you can see your business and your opportunities more clearly.”
Obviously, the entire story is pretty contrived and a stretch, but what good superhero graphic novel isn’t? I’m really impressed with how the author managed to keep it interesting and entertaining while teaching so much about strategy and strategy development.
My biggest issue with the book is how tightly it is linked to the frameworks and terminology apparently used at the Strategic Thinking Institute. I have no problem with the terminology they choose to use, the frameworks they introduce, and the tools they explain.
My problem is that their choices are merely one set among many other valid choices. If you want to call your top level purpose a “mission” or a “vision” or a “purpose” doesn’t really matter, as long as you know what it is and are consistent internally. The book, however, seems fairly dogmatic about doing things the STI way. That may significantly limit the audience for the book.
If your organization has already adopted some terminology or frameworks or tools that are different (and just as effective), you may hesitate to recommend that people on your team read StrategyMan. At best, that may introduce confusion. At worst, it may cause some team members to become critical of the approach that the organization is taking. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t consider whether “the way we’ve always done things” is the best way. But I think there are more important battles we could fight than whether we call something a mission or a purpose.
With that one (relatively minor) warning, I recommend StrategyMan as a fun and informative way to get a team up to speed on strategic planning.
If you want to buy this book, would you consider buying it through my affiliate link at Amazon? StrategyMan vs. The Anti-Strategy Squad (SDG Strategy will earn a small affiliate commission.)