Strategy Bites Back: It’s Far More, and Less, Than You Ever Imagined

By Henry Mintzberg, Bruce Ahlstrand, and Joseph Lampel
Prentice Hall, 2005
296 pages, $29.95

It has been 33 years since Henry Mintzberg wrote his first book, The Nature of Managerial Work (Harper & Row, 1973). In it he criticized the smooth, orthodox advice of management academics that managers should plan, organize, control, and coordinate, arguing that the fragmented, chaotic way in which they actually behaved was adaptive to the situations in which they found themselves. The Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University has played this disruptive role ever since. In Strategy Bites Back: It’s Far More, and Less, Than You Ever Imagined, he teams up with former collaborators (see Strategy Safari: A Guided Tour Through the Wilds of Strategic Management, Free Press, 1998) Bruce Ahlstrand and Joseph Lampel, professors at Trent University in Canada and the Cass Business School at the City University of London, respectively, to write and edit an anthology of pieces on the messy, paradoxical, and often contradictory nature of strategy making.

The intention of the authors is to take strategy rather less seriously and thus create better strategies — strategies that inspire the heart as well as please the brain. The result is a collection of 69 “bytes” (small morsels of writing by leading commentators in the field), followed by “bites” (critical comments from the authors). Organized in nine chapters — an introduction, seven points of view, and a conclusion — the book uses diagrams wherever possible to illustrate the ideas under discussion.

The sequence of fast thrusts and rapid ripostes makes for easy reading and gives the reader the ability to dip in and out of the book. As for the image of strategy, it advances and recedes by turns, like an object in a picture by M.C. Escher: First it’s figure, then it’s ground, and then it’s figure again. Perhaps this is as good an understanding of the strategic dynamic as one can get. If strategy starts off as “figure,” a text produced from the top of the organization, then to be effective it must become “ground,” a context against which every member of the organization can see his or her own actions highlighted. If, on the other hand, strategy starts off as ground (or context, something implicit in the way the organization has developed), then it needs to become figure, to be articulated and made explicit, so that its hidden assumptions can be examined. This would seem to be the essence of the book’s subtitle: Strategy truly is both far more and far less than we ever imagined.

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