Michael Porter's Big Ideas
The world's most famous business-school professor is fed up with CEOs who claim that the world
changes too fast for their companies to have a long-term strategy. If you want to make a difference
as a leader, you've got to make time for strategy.
Keith H. Hammonds
Here is how Michael E. Porter regards the business landscape: Beginning in the mid-1980s, he
more or less left the strategy world to its own devices, focusing his attention instead on the
question of international competitiveness. He advised foreign governments on their economic
policies and headed a U.S. presidential commission. He wrote books and papers on industry
dynamics -- from ceramics manufacturing in Italy to the robotics sector in Japan. He spoke
everywhere. He was consumed by understanding the competitive advantage of nations.
Then, in the mid-1990s, he resurfaced. "I was reading articles about corporate strategy, too many
of which began with 'Porter said . . . and that's wrong.' " Strategy had lost its intellectual currency. It
was losing adherents. "People were being tricked and misled by other ideas," he says.
Like a domineering parent, Porter seems both miffed by the betrayal and pleased by his apparent
indispensability. I can't turn my back for five minutes. Well, kids, the man is back. Porter seeks to
return strategy to its place atop the executive pyramid.
Business strategy probably predates Michael Porter. Probably. But today, it is hard to imagine
confronting the discipline without reckoning with the Harvard Business School professor, perhaps
the world's best-known business academic. His first book,
Competitive Strategy: Techniques for
Analyzing Industries and Competitors
(Free Press, 1980), is in its 53rd printing and has been
translated into 17 languages. For years, excerpts from that and other Porter works have been
required reading in "Competition and Strategy," the first-year course that every Harvard MBA
student must take. Porter's strategy frameworks have suffered some ambivalence over the years in
academic circles -- yet they have proved wildly compelling among business leaders around the
This is the paradox that Porter faces. His notions on strategy are more widely disseminated than
ever and are preached at business schools and in seminars around the globe. Yet the idea of
strategy itself has, in fact, taken a backseat to newfangled notions about competition hatched
during the Internet frenzy: Who needs a long-term strategy when everyone's goal is simply to "get
With his research group, Porter operates from a suite of offices tucked into a corner of Harvard
Business School's main classroom building. At 53, his blond hair graying, he is no longer the
wunderkind who, in his early thirties, changed the way CEOs thought about their companies and
industries. Yet he's no less passionate about his pursuit -- and no less certain of his ability. In a
series of interviews, Porter told Fast Company why strategy still matters.
Business keeps moving faster -- but you better make time for strategy.