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Reading list

October 2013
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Reading list

Books and articles that matter

By Dean Andy Boynton

Reading a spy thriller might not seem the most likely way to gain insight into a critical aspect of management. But there’s something to learn from British journalist Ben Macintyre’s 2007 book Agent Zigzag (Crown, 2007), now being made into a motion picture co-produced by Tom Hanks. The specific lesson is about strategy.

Senior executives speak often of their strategies for branding, acquisitions, or some other facet of their business. When they do, they are usually talking about goals and intentions—all of which are important. But they don’t add up to a strategy, “an integrated, overarching concept of how the business will achieve its objectives,” as management scholars and consultants Donald C. Hambrick and James W. Fredrickson have defined it.

The operative word in that definition is “how.”

I’ve seen strategic plans go awry for lack of attention to the fine points of execution. Frequently, managers fail to align aspects of an organization, such as its capabilities and rewards structure, with strategic goals. They may also forget to keep an eye out for unintended consequences.

These thoughts came back to me recently while reading Macintyre’s superb book. Subtitled A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal, it’s a work of narrative nonfiction about a handsome, roguish, British professional criminal named Eddie Chapman. In his twenties he became a secret agent for the Nazis and, at his earliest opportunity, a double agent for the British—one of the most illustrious and effective in espionage history.

Agent Zigzag sabotaged the German war effort in many ways. He gave the Nazis false information about where their bombs were landing in London, leading them to re-adjust the targets of their V-1 missiles.

To win the Germans’ confidence in his espionage abilities, Chapman urged British Intelligence to stage an elaborate hoax at the DeHaviland aircraft factory outside London. A British team led by a magician, and assisted by a meteorologist, a cartoonist, a stage designer, a chemist, and a carpenter, simulated the aftermath of a bombing attack successfully enough to convince low-flying Luftwaffe pilots that Chapman had carried out a secret German bombing mission: the plant was going up in smoke.

The British planners chose an evening in January 1943 when there was expected to be little cloud cover, so the pilots could witness the aftermath. It was one among scores of details that were essential to the mission’s success.

I don’t want to make it sound as if details and execution are everything (or that many management strategies are as highstakes as those of British Intelligence officers in World War II). But strategy, at least initially, is about choice. The British chose to place a bet on Eddie Chapman—not only his loyalty but also his courage and competence. At the Carroll School, we place bets all the time on professors, programs, and initiatives aimed at improving what has already become one of the nation’s premier schools of management. But then come the details.

Follow Andy Boynton on http://twitter.com/Andy_Boynton

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