Richard Rumelt on what it takes to become an effective strategist

There’s a boulder in Fontainebleau that’s affectionately known as “Le Toit du Cul de Chien” or “The Roof of the Dog’s Ass”.

Describing it Richard Rumelt writes:

“Standing at its base, I see a smooth twelve-foot face capped by a horizontal roof that extends out over me for about four feet. Above the roof is another vertical section leading to the top.”

Rumelt explains that climbers call the toughest part of the climb “the crux”.

He adds that solving the crux takes more than strength or ambition; you also need the “courage to make delicate moves almost two stories above the ground.”

Rumelt explains that climbers pick the rocks that offer the greatest climbing experience and whose crux they can solve.

Rumelts writes that “In a flash of insight, I realise this describes the approaches of many of the more effecting people I have known and observed.”

He adds that when facing a problem or an opportunity “they focused on the way forward promising the greatest achievable progress.”

In other words, they picked the challenges that offered the greatest reward and had the best “chance of being solved by coherent action.” (Rumelt 2022)

Rumelt describes the Crux as a three-part strategic skill:

  1. Judgment about what’s truly important and what isn’t
  2. Judgment about the difficulty dealing with these issues.
  3. Ability to focus and not try to do everything.

“[W]e all need motivation, ambition, and strength. But, by themselves, they are not enough. To deal with a set of challenges, there is power in locating your crux—where you can gain the most by designing, discovering, or finding a way to move through and past it.”

— Richard Rumelt

In his first book “Good Strategy. Bad Strategy.”, Rumelt describes strategy as a mix of policy and coherent action based on a thorough diagnosis of the problem.

Rumelt states that “the concept of the crux narrows attention to a critical issue” and explains that the “art of strategy is in defining the crux that can be mastered, and in seeing or designing a way through it.”

From “Good Strategy. Bad Strategy” I learnt the process which turns an ordinary analysis into a strategy.

In his book “The Crux” Rumelt advises strategists to make the crux the only focus of all their attention.

He writes, “If the power is weak, nothing happens. If it is strong but scattered and diffused across targets, nothing happens. If power is focused on the wrong target, nothing happens. But when power is focused on the right target, breakthroughs occur.”

Decision-making is not a strategy.

Rumelt states, “the discipline assumes that you have been handed a list of possible actions from among which to choose.”

To be a strategist, Rumelt advises, you need to cultivate these skills:

  • Embrace the complexity and uncertainty of the challenges you face.
  • Develop a sense to find critical issues where your effort gives you the biggest chance of success.
  • Be patient and stay persistent until you find the critical issues.

Rumelt reminds us that effective strategists also hold themselves accountable for the health of the organisation.

And they understand how to balance multiple issues, values, and ambitions. Their own and those of others.

Rumelt concludes that effective strategists focus their attention on the part of the tangle of issues that is important as well as addressable.

Goal setting is not a strategy.

People in decision-making positions are often quick to lay down the law.

Throw in some hyperbole and sprinkle ‘ambitious KPIs’ on top.

But that’s not a strategy.

Strategists work with systems.

You can’t be an effective strategist without understanding that all actions have consequences – and those consequences have consequences.

Fortunately, we’re predisposed to doing something over nothing.

But that doesn’t always lead to a solution.

In the book, “The One-Straw Revolution”, talking about how farmers end up relying on chemicals, Masanobu Fukuoka writes:

“Human beings with their tampering to do something wrong, leave the damage unrepaired, and when worse results accumulate, work with all their might to correct them. When corrective actions appear to be successful, they come to view these measures as splendid accomplishments. People do this over and over again.”

It takes guts to pull the breaks until you’ve found what’s truly important.

To become an effective strategist, Rumelt recommends to “fully examine the mix of problems and opportunities, identify the crux, and take actions aimed at overcoming it. Ignoring it doesn’t work.”

“Start with the challenge”, he advises, “and diagnose its structure and the forces at work”.

This might sound odd, but I’ve always enjoyed the diagnosis more than the execution.

Maybe that’s because I value finding the ‘purpose’ of things far more than running them.

I truly believe that whatever success I’ve had in my career so far, has been due to doing boring work.

Not laying out inspiring visions and promises of a grand future, but rather rolling up my sleeves and finding the parts of the problem that we can actually expect to solve.

And then keep moving forward, one solution at a time.

Perhaps that’s what has held me back in other ways.

For planners like me, Rumelt advises to “understand the sources of power and leverage that are relevant to your situation. Willpower is not enough.”