THE STRATEGIC LAWYER + + + politics.::. get the jist.::

Formulating a Strategy

gsbscoverA few weeks ago, I posted a general commentary about Richard Rumelt’s book Good Strategy / Bad Strategy: the Difference and Why It Matters. This week, I want to go into a few further specifics about his definition of “strategy”, which I find useful in that it is general enough to be widely applicable, but specific enough that it cannot be conflated with “vision statement” or “mission” and other such concepts. It also aligns very closely with my own, pre-existing notions of what strategy is—and what it isn’t.

So, rather than reinvent the wheel, I will be making use of his model. In this, as in future posts, I will do my best to clarify where I am interpolating or straying from what he has described, into my own take on the subject. And, as discussed in the above post, a 300 + page book cannot be distilled into a >1200 word blog post without losing 99.9% of its nuance, depth and conceptual underpinnings. I will be focussing on very specific aspects of his book in my posts.

So, if this glimpse into Rumelt’s model intrigues you, I encourage you to pick up a copy of the book and give it a read.

Note: I initially purchased the Audible edition to listen to in the car, but ended up subsequently purchasing the print edition as well, so I can refer back to sections and delve into specific topics he touches on in greater depth than is possible while listening to a reading of it while driving.

The Kernel

Rumelt refers to the core of a strategy as “the kernel”, which consists of the following three elements:

  • Diagnosis
  • Guiding Policy
  • Coherent Action


The diagnosis identifies and defines the nature of the challenge being faced. Reality is big. It’s messy. In any particular situation, there will be many different factors that must be considered. Though Rumelt doesn’t quite put it this way, formulating the diagnosis will involve significant amounts of research. The strategist/analyst will need to pull in and process a vast range of data from multiple sources in order to determine whether a particular factor is key to the situation, relevant but not determinative of itself, or whether it is simply data noise. And so, though this step appears to be about gathering information, there are important, qualitative assessments and decisions to be made here.

The decision that a particular factor is relevant and another is simply data noise will determine what kind of guiding policy you formulate and which actions you choose to undertake at the next two stages of the process, because part of the necessity of the diagnostic process is weighing the contributing factors and simplifying your sense of the problem into key factors and touchpoints. So, you know, spend enough time at this stage to obtain the kind of data you need to proceed, with some grounding in what the problem might be. Do some research. Perform an honest self-assessment of strengths and shortcomings. Ask people you trust to do the same for you. Take the time to formulate a diagnosis that is valuable and that will focus your energies and resources.

One of the things I like about Rumelt’s discussion here is that he points out that while a diagnosis is essential (agreed), there is no guarantee that it will be the correct diagnosis to resolve the challenge being faced (also agreed). That’s part of the risk of the process. If, in making the diagnosis, you mis-identify what is key and what is data noise, then it may be that your guiding policy and coherent actions will yield few useful results. But given limited time and resources, I ultimately feel that it’s more important to undertake the exercise, then mitigate the risks with regular check ins, progress reviews and even possible re-evaluations, than it is to skip it and hope for the best.

To use the analogy of taking a vacation to Paris, the diagnosis would be the process of information gathering around different things to see and do in the city—museums, monuments, shopping, food and drink, ambience. What are the things that most appeal to you, based on your reading and research? How energetic are you and what kinds of activities are realistic, given your budget? How do you want to spend your limited time, money and energy?

Guiding Policy

The guiding policy arises out of the diagnosis. It’s your overall approach, given the challenges you have identified at the diagnostic stage. In the case of the hypothetical trip to Paris, this would be your time, energy and financial resources, as well as your interests and fascinations. Your guiding policy in the case of such a trip might not be as formal as all that, but you may, for instance, know that if you’re hungry, you shut down. So, the plan might be to sightsee in the mornings when your energy is at its highest, while planning to take the time to relax, recoup and eat while soaking in ambience at midday and then exploring key areas of the city in a leisurely way in the afternoons and evenings. Now, obviously, the idea of planning a holiday in such detail will only appeal to a subset of vacationers, but the analogy is a useful one because it makes it easier to see how the concepts can be applied in a circumscribed context that is easy to grasp, and that many of us can identify with.

The guiding policy, then is the portion of the process in which you decide on general directions to take in support of the outcomes sought at the diagnostic stage.

Coherent Action

The coherent action is the implementation. In the case of the trip to Paris, it is the route you plan on your city map, following a path that will most effectively take you from sights to sites in a manner that is consistent with your guiding policy. More generally, it is the tactical deployment of specific resources, the mapping out of your direction and route, the specific steps you plan to take over time, in the application of your guiding policy.


None of this is complex in theory. Indeed, the strategy that ultimately emerges via the articulation of a guiding policy, can be simple indeed—often breathtakingly so. But, it is a mistake to believe that  because the strategy arrived at is simple, the process of arriving at that strategy is also a simple one.

In my next few posts, I will juxtapose the concepts I have described above, and which comprise Rumelt’s “kernel”, with the kinds of factors to consider and steps to undertake in formulating personal strategies for legal practice, career planning and indeed, for life in general.

Note: this is part of a series of blog posts related to my upcoming book for new lawyers, law students and students considering a law degree. The project is tentatively titled “Strategy for New Lawyers: Career, Practice, Life”. Posts in this series are tagged “strategy for new lawyers” and are listed in the category “Strategy.” If you are interested in learning more about this book, please subscribe to this blog, as I will be posting posting updates and information as it becomes available, in the weeks and months to come!


One comment on “Formulating a Strategy

  1. Pingback: Diagramming the Diagnosis | THE STRATEGIC LAWYER

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This entry was posted on September 5, 2014 by in Strategy and tagged , .
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