The problem with the self-taught, is that they can be sloppy. It takes only confidence with a few terms in an obscure field’s lexicon for the average listener to deduce that the speaker is an expert – but any casual reading in any given field can make you sound like an expert. This is not the same thing as being an expert. For example, it is entirely possible for me to memorize a medical textbook. Every term, every drawing, and every paragraph – I can recite back to you – chapter and verse. This does not mean you’d want me to be the one who performs your heart surgery.

Non-fiction is a wide enough field that you can literally teach yourself anything. If you have a sudden interest in, say, Data Analytics, simply buy fifteen books in the category and you would know more than most. Ensure that two or three of the books you read are textbooks – and you will also command a theoretical framework that gives you relatively comprehensive theoretical mastery of a subject. Add practice and skills-based executions, some real world experience, and the autodidact may in fact be worth his claims. Careful of big egos – they hide petty people.

Strategy is a field awash in nonsense, and often run by people with a very mysterious sense of self confidence. I know a few ‘strategists’ that aren’t half as smart as they think they are, and who are worse than useless – they can actually damage whatever business or cause they apply their minds to. But there is truth to strategic thinking as a field of business… and it is too useful to ignore it.

Perhaps the best starting point for getting into strategic thinking is Michael Porter’s Book – Competitive Advantage. Prof Porter lectures at Harvard, and I was privileged to hear him lecture on Competitive Advantage. The book is a sequel to his work Competitive Strategy – but whereas the latter discussed generalities and the analyses of industries, Competitive Advantage focuses on competitive strategy on the level of an individual business.

A very important disclaimer to all strategy is that CULTURE EATS STRATEGY FOR BREAKFAST. Any day of the week, and twice on Sunday. When an apathetic bunch of lazy middle managers are provided with earth-shattering new thinking that can change the fate of millions, chances are you’ll end up with an apathetic bunch of middle management.

Organizational Development and Change has a bad rep because very often it coincides with that class of professional wokesters that charge fortunes to mess up firms by bringing applied postmodernism to the HR department, or management fad du jour to the C-suite boardrooms. But a culture can and should be developed. It’s just beyond the scope of strategy.

An additional caution – just before we get to the good stuff – would be the other big peddlers of strategy – the so-called “consultants”. The big name Consulting Firms have proven that they are snakes, in jurisdictions like South Africa, and also elsewhere, most abundantly. They take no risk, sit on the sidelines, pretend to know things others don’t, and point to businesses what they should do. If it works they take the credit. If it doesn’t, there is no consequence to them. I will summarily fire anyone who brings a ‘consultant’ through my door.

Now – Strategy – from someone who knows it better than most. Broadly, which activities can a business engage in that creates additional value for its customers, thereby providing it with sustainable superior performance, relative to its competitors in the market.

Porters teaches principles, and looks at every possible angle – price, tech, service, product lines, structures in the industry… He also proposes remedial actions to take if your company finds itself in specific situations.

The book is a textbook – so it isn’t casual reading. But it does take you through all the basics and it covers all the bases. He begins with how to look at an industry (his famous 5 Forces model) and introducing some generic competitive strategies. He looks at the value chain and how to find advantages for the firm there. He looks at Cost – including cost behaviour – and methods as well as pitfalls around playing with cost as competitive differentiator. He continues by looking at other ways to differentiate – and the associated costs involved. He looks at Technology and Segmentation as ways to gain the upper hand – including deliberately selecting your competitors. How to create or combat substitutes. Interrelationships and horizontal strategy, complementary products, playing offense and defence, and the best ways to attack an industry leader.

Many of the most valuable books on Strategy are so ancient and generic that its difficult to apply their principles… Machiavelli’s The Prince, The Art of War and the Book Of Five Rings are often held up as masterpieces, and they are. But they often read like quirky one liners or nice quotes. What Porter’s book does is deliberately and masterfully limit itself to business strategy – and then it lays out very clear, very specific and very practical guidelines and scenarios. If you have limited time and can only read one book on business strategy – this should be the one.