Rumelt’s Good Strategy Bad Strategy and Wardley Mapping

Good Strategy Bad Strategy, by Richard Rumelt, is an excellent addition to the stack of books you ought to regularly read. It pairs well with Wardley Mapping, and I recommend both if you want to develop an advantageous, self-taught strategic practice.

I’ll spare you my superlatives and allow the book to speak for itself:

Having conflicting goals, dedicating resources to unconnected targets and accommodating incompatible interests are the luxuries of the rich and powerful, but they make for bad strategy.

When I talk with teams about organizational strategy, I emphasize how the entire point of organizing is to focus labor, not to spread it out haphazardly. And we all know what far too many organizations do instead!

Bad strategy is a luxury. Thanks to Rumelt, I will never forget that.

Common Ground with Wardley Mapping

Wardley Mapping is strategy for the self-taught. You won’t find it in your MBA program (although that is changing), but many leaders (aspirational and experienced alike) find it useful for developing sensible strategies. They get to skip the consultants and their terrible slide decks. Instead, they work with their teams to build a common language, learn from a diversity of perspectives, and discover the abundant opportunities hiding in plain sight.

In Wardley Mapping, we sketch a map of our competitive environment in order to make sense of the situation together. Rumelt easily finds common ground, as he writes:

A great deal of strategy work is trying to figure out what is going on. Not just deciding what to do, but the more fundamental problem of comprehending the situation.

In Wardley Mapping, that comprehension is about developing situational awareness by making maps.

You need a way of discovering, communicating and learning about changes in the environment. This is what situational awareness is all about.

—Simon Wardley (tweet: swardley/status/1164698366980382720)

And situational awareness is what sets decisions that are informed and intentional apart from decisions based on gut feelings and a nice story.

Wardley Mapping and the “Kernel” of Good Strategy

Rumelt writes that good strategy comes from a “kernel” which contains:

  1. a diagnosis describing the challenge of the situation at hand,
  2. a guiding policy for dealing with it, and
  3. coherent actions that carry out the guiding policy.

He goes on to say:

Strategic coordination, or coherence, is not ad hoc mutual adjustment. It is coherence imposed on a system by policy and design. 

This way of viewing strategy is enhanced by Wardley Mapping.

We make Wardley Maps to understand the situation and diagnose its problematic aspects. We also design guiding policy and coherent actions by using our maps to discuss Wardley’s climate patterns, doctrinal principles, and strategic gameplays. Furthermore, the maps expose our assumptions to challenge, which helps us ensure our guiding policy and coherent actions actually make sense with respect to the diagnosis.

There’s quite a bit more to explore in the book, but suffice it to say that Wardley Mapping fits Rumelt’s view of strategy as design, and the two go together rather well.

Credit Where It’s Due

As far as I know, Mario Platt was the first to pair Good Strategy Bad Strategy with Wardley Mapping. As evidenced by his talk on evolution-informed security strategy from 2019:

Tweet by Ben Mosior: HiredThought/status/1507618711364112394


It took him countless recommendations of the book to get me to finally read it. I’m grateful for his persistence.

I also want to thank Ionut Craciunescu for the insightful conversation that prompted this post.

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