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Strategy and the Fat Smoker

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —December 20, 2007
Filed in Strategy

I’ll remember Strategy and the Fat Smoker (SATFS) by David Maister for two things: helping me realise that creating a resolve in a group to take action is more important than merely creating insights into what should be done; and putting me on to the weight-loss analogy as a way of talking about facilitating change in a business context.

I’ve put both ideas into practice. First, I’ve recognised that our storytelling work is an important way to create resolve in a change initiative, such as developing a knowledge strategy. Second, we have incorporated the weight-loss analogy in our workshops and seminars to help people to think more deeply about what’s required for people to change.

I have to admit, when I received my copy of SATFS I was in two minds about the book. I admire David’s work and I’ve read most of his papers, listened to the podcasts and watched the online videos (is this a little too obsessive?). So when I heard that SATFS was a compilation of articles written from 2005, I thought, “Oh well, I guess it will be nice to have all the articles in one place.”

So I was pleasantly surprised by just how fresh the articles felt and how many good ideas I rediscovered. David creates an appealing flow of topics reinforcing the main theme of getting people to take action. This action-oriented approach makes tremendous sense because, as the business environment becomes even more complex and the issues we try to solve don’t have clear answers (even defining the problems will become more illusive), a good way to proceed is to take action and see what emerges. Then nurture the good and disrupt the bad.

There are two specific writing habits David employs that I really enjoy: first he gives the nitty-gritty details and even provides examples of what you might say in a given situation. For example, when talking about being a trusted advisor and helping clients find a professional service they need when you are not best placed to provide it, David suggests saying something like, “We are not your best choice for that new need. We can do it if you insist, but you may be better served to go to a specialist who can focus on providing the particular client benefit you seek.” And then take the next step to help your client find that needed specialist.

I also like the way David peppers each chapter with questions that prompt us to think differently about strategy. Here are a couple of examples:
“If so many people have offered such practical wisdom, and their work has been so well disseminated, publicized and understood, why do so many managers fail to actually apply all this practical wisdom?”

“The essential questions of strategy are these: ‘Which of our habits are we really prepared to change, permanently and forever? Which lifestyle changes are we really prepared to make? What issues are we really ready to tackle?’”

Because each chapter was originally written as a standalone article, it’s easy to dip into the book at any point. I found myself reading from the beginning to about the middle of the book and then I jumped around following my current interests.

My only suggestion for improvement would be to add end notes so we can follow up references more easily.

David’s passion and field of focus is the professional service firm but this book has a much wider appeal and relevance. Personally, I was able to immediately translate many of the ideas in what we are doing in the field of knowledge management and the application of business narrative techniques. Strategy and the Fat Smoker has the main characteristics that I look for in a book: a good read, new ideas, practical, thought provoking, and most importantly, helping to create new conversations. I thoroughly recommend you to pick up a copy.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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