Book Review: Strategy and the Fat Smoker

Today’s book review is Strategy and the Fat Smoker; Doing What’s Obvious But Not Easy, by David Maister. First, a disclosure. In a first for me, I got this book as an advance copy for review on my blog. And given that David Maister has been one of my favourite business writers for a while (since I read his book Managing the Professional Services Firm), it was probably a good call.

Most of the book has appeared in articles on Maister’s blog, so as a subscriber to the blog, it felt like a re-read, rather than a new and exciting book. And since I became hooked on David Maister, business writer, I’ve moved from professional services into corporate life, so it’s not quite as relevant as it used to be to me.

But I now manage an internal professional services team, so many of the issues are the same. And this book, with numerous good humoured examples points out what we all know – it’s not hard to figure out what you should be doing, the trick is in doing it. The title, Strategy and the Fat Smoker comes from the Maister’s headline article about a fat smoker – any fat smoker knows that to become healthier s/he should probably lose weight and give up smoker. But s/he doesn’t. Why not? There are lots of reasons. But they are rarely that the fat smoker doesn’t know that it would be a good idea.

It’s the same when running a professional services firm (or team). Most professional services firms, when asked, will come up with similar strategies – deeper relationships with clients, excellent client service, develop your staff through stretch assignments and investing in their development. But only a small proportion manage to follow through, despite knowing what they have to do. This book consists of a number of chapters about what that follow through really means – subdivided into strategy, client relationships, management and putting it together.

There is no one big insight (as befits a book with a subtitle “Doing what’s obvious but not easy”), but for me the lesson was really about how important it is to model and reward the right behaviours, and punish the wrong behaviours (not necessarily using remuneration, often using recognition and shame). There is always an example in any organisation of someone who succeeds the wrong way. In a professional services firm going after high value work, it might be taking on commodity work because the revenue was certain. For managers, it might be that the tyrant who gets results is tolerated because his/her short term results are what we need, even though the turnover of staff that results shows the unsustainability of the management style.

For me as a manager, it is a great reminder of all the simple things about managing that I know will work. Take an interest in my team. Give them positive and negative feedback quickly and relevantly. Help them through their next challenge in a way that makes sure they learn and grow, but doesn’t spoonfeed them. The best chapter in the book, for me was A Great Coach in Action, Maister’s story of how a senior colleague got him started with his first research project. Read the whole article, but the lessons are articulated at the end:

  • There need to be real, agreed upon standards for behaviour
  • Informal and unscheduled coaching has the most powerful effect
  • Make it personal – don’t talk about the organisation, but talk about the person
  • Don’t criticize – if there are real, agreed upon standards, then you both know when they haven’t been met
  • Provide some concrete, tangible assistance with whatever needs to be done
  • Focus on simple, do-able, next steps, not the long term goal that seems impossible
  • Show you have confidence in the person’s ability to get things done.

This is the kind of book that takes re-reading. I have dipped into it several times, and every time it gives me a new way of thinking about a challenge at work. It’s not the kind of book to be read in a sitting, but one that adds to the library of professional services leaders and managers.