Tag Archives: McKinsey

Book Review – The Lords of Strategy

Walter Kiechel III in the Lords of Strategy writes about two topics one narrow and uninteresting the second engaging. The first topic is a history of management consulting and the people involved in it. It’s not terribly interesting. Firstly the people aren’t explored in much depth beyond their educational backgrounds and mentors and the history of McKinsey, Bain and BCG is a rather esoteric subject anyway, unless perhaps you happen to work for one of those firms. The goal is to paint consultants as pioneering thought leaders in crafting the discipline of strategy, but it feels forced and the case is hard to defend anyway, as the formative years of BCG seem the only evidence of a consultancy truly advancing academic thought around business, and in fact, later in the book those ideas are shown to be fairly simplistic, bankrupting many of the clients who used them.

Fortunately the second topic the salvages the book. It is a history of the evolution of thinking on corporate strategy and this is interesting, obejctive and well charted. Starting with the experience curve and the portfolio strategy and moving on through Porter’s models, core competencies and change management. Also, fortunately, though the focus on management consultants is overdone, the ideas they propose are analyzed objectively. Even here the premise of the book is little off – the claim is corporate strategy originated with the rise of management consultants, yet the ideas of Adam Smith (late 1700s) , Frederick Winslow Taylor (late 1800s), Peter Drucker (1940s) Alfred Chandler (1960s) are all identified as key tenets of the thinking so the claim is hard to defend even with the book’s own reasoning.

Net if you’re looking for a good summary of the history of thinking on corporate strategy, this is not a bad place to look, especially since, as the book itself argues, academic synthesis on the topic is uncommon. You do have to put up with the repeated and painful insertion of the history of McKinsey, Bain and BCG throughout which takes up space rather than contributing, but seeing the progression of thinking on corporate strategy will likely further your understanding of the overall topic.

AIG And Outsourcing Portfolio Strategy

The government bailout recipient AIG recently dismissed McKinsey, management consultants who were undertaking work called ‘Project Destiny’ to layout a roadmap for the business. Some details are here. The rationale was apparently to take the work in house in order to reduce costs.

It raises some interesting questions about to what extent strategy can be outsourced, and whether the cost of this outsouring outweigh the benefits. In this case, internal politics may also be at play as the new CEO looks to impose his own agenda.

An interesting principle behind this is the cost of information. For example, if I stood to win $5 on a coin flip, and had to call heads or tails. Then the expected value of that wager to me is $2.50 ([$5 x 50%] + [$0 x 50%]). But if I had a way of knowing exactly what the outcome of the coin flip would be with certainty I would be willing to pay up to an incremental $2.49 for that information (if accurate) because I would be certain to get $5, rather than the expected value of $2.50 if I had no knowledge on whether it would be heads or tails.

This is to some extent the situation AIG is in, they have tremendous uncertainty around their business, it is not clear how the value of their assets and liabilities might change over time.  Their market cap has been fluctating in approximately $1-5B range so far this year, suggesting the market isn’t sure either. How much should AIG pay to improve their knowledge? That question is itself a large consulting project.

They have clearly decided that the incremental gain from the information McKinsey could provide is too great. In reality, cashflow issues might have impeded, what could have been an otherwise financially desirable decision.

Topics such as portfolio outsourcing as discussed in more detail in my book on Strategic Project Portfolio Management.