“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”
– Richard Bach
How hard can it be?
My first book, Agile Strategy, will be published by Pearson/Financial Times Publishing in June 2019. To coin that old cliche, it has been quite a journey – at times Odyssean, at times fool’s errand, and at times both at once.
It almost did not happen.
My motive was clear. Years spent supporting strategy development both in companies in which I have worked, and in companies I have consulted, had convinced me that our whole approach to strategy, and the transformation of organisational performance, needed to change.
Strategy, when done well, should be gritty, practical and inspiring. It should also enable organisations to respond and adapt effectively to the increasingly dynamic environments in which they now operate. Yet so much of what passes as strategy seemed to focus on “fixing” an organisation on a particular path, whilst market and organisational changes soon made that path unsuitable.
I had spent over five years developing and testing a new approach that addressed these shortcomings, and I wanted to share it with others and encourage a new movement in strategy. All I needed to do was document it – how hard could that be?
Reflecting on the process of writing, I have distilled down my experience into four key learnings:
I) Do it for the write reasons
The sentiment “I just need to document it” proved more than a little naive. The act of developing, structuring and expressing ideas in an engaging way is surprisingly hard – even when you know the subject matter very well. It is as much about perseverance and refinement as it is about ideas and inspiration (hence the Richard Bach quotation).
Furthermore, the self-effacing cynic in me (I am British after all!) wrestled with the idea that writing a book might be nothing more than a vanity project; for every great strategy book out there (Richard Rumelt’s Good Strategy/Bad Strategy or Kim and Mauborgne’s Blue Ocean Strategy) there are dozens that do nothing to move the field on or provide practical guidance. The real question was not “Should I write it?” but rather “Should you read it?”.
I made a list of four things that would make me want to read a new book on strategy – it become the touchstone to which I returned throughout the writing process:
- A new perspective: I felt that a lot of strategy books, with some notable exceptions, seemed to cover the same old ground: mission; vision; values and implementation. I wanted to offer a new approach that met the demands of organisations operating in increasingly dynamic environments.
- A practical guide: I wanted the book to be a practitioners’ guide – an approach leaders could actually apply to their organisations
- Rich content: One frustration I have with many businesses books is that they are essentially a short paper stretched gossamer thin across an entire book. I wanted to offer “ideological density” – a thought planet, not a thought cloud.
- An engaging read: Asking someone to read a strategy book is no small request, so I wanted to make it as engaging as possible. That had implications for both style and content – the Case Story running through the whole book that exemplifies the approach, regular examples from “the real world” and an easy-to-read but sharp writing style were all important to me.
Ultimately, my reasons for reading were my reasons for writing.
II) I am alone, together
Authoring a book is, by definition, a solitary experience. It is not, however, a solo one. Without the support, understanding and patience of my family, it would never have happened. Snatched time at weekends, locking myself in London’s British Library for weeks on end and grabbing some dinner and “getting back down to it” are not easy things to have to live with. At one point Aaron, my younger son, gave me his five-year-old’s review of the book that had been encroaching into his playtime with daddy: “I hate your book!” Here is hoping that second review is better…
I don’t owe Marielle (my wife), Aaron and Lucas (my eldest son) one – I owe them many.
The opinions and viewpoints of colleagues, past and present, and my wider network of friends were also key. Perspectives are the key to creativity and insight, and I benefited greatly from them.
III) Estimate the time you think it will take, and then triple it
If you consider yourself a pessimist, estimate the time you think it will take to do something that you care about and then see how long it actually takes. In the case of writing my book, I was out by a factor of three. It turns out we are all optimists (or at least very poor estimators of our own time).
IV) Don’t be precious
“The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” – Michelangelo
Perceptions of how good or important something is can become quite skewed when writing a book (or engaging in any longer-term project). Restructure if necessary; edit mercilessly. “Chisel away the superfluous material” and only include the things that are essential to your vision. Thus I restructured the middle section of the book and left whole sections on the cutting room floor in the pursuit of a streamlined, fluid read.
V) Just keep going (and know when to stop)
There were days (ok, sometimes weeks) when the thought of having to go on writing just left me cold. That was when the support network, write reasons and sheer stubbornness mattered most. Conversely, at the end my tinkering risked driving my publisher to distraction. Knowing when to stop is an art form that I have still not mastered. But I plan to. Soon. Once I have reflected more on it. And sought the advice of friends. Possibly…