Igor Ansoff was the pre-eminent thinker who codified the way we consider business strategy. Other strategic thinkers have since either followed him or reacted against him. His first major book, Corporate Strategy, laid the groundwork for the discipline and set the direction for Ansoff’s whole academic career.
Ansoff lived a long life, that encompassed three continents (if you include his conception in Japan). He was born to a Russian mother and US diplomat father in 1918, in Vladivostock, as Russia was becoming the Soviet Union. When the family returned to the United States, he was educated in New York, studying physics and mechanical engineering, before serving in the 1939-1945 war. On his return, he took a service scholarship and completed a PhD in applied mathematics at Brown University, in 1948.
His first job was at the Rand Corporation, where he used his mathematics to contribute to operations research and strategic management, but he became frustrated with the lack of application of his work and also by his inability to truly excel as a mathematician. Seeking a new direction, he moved to Lockheed, first as a long-range planner, then leading acquisitions and diversification, and finally, taking a senior management role, where he learned how to manage people. He was successful in leading a profitable division, but wanted something else from his life, so he deliberately left Lockheed and sought an academic role.
A series of academic appointments followed, first at Carnegie-Mellon University (from 1963), where he wrote his seminal book, Corporate Strategy, then to found the Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University (from 1969). Here, he published the paper: ‘The Concept of Strategic Management‘ that led people to refer to Ansoff as the ‘father of strategic management’. Finding the distractions of running a school not to his taste, Ansoff moved to Europe in 1975, to join the European Institute for Advanced Studies in Management, in Brussels. Here, he wrote the book that was to address the need to incorporate strategic thinking into day-to-day implementation, Strategic Management, 1n 1979. He saw this as his most important work.
Ansoff’s final academic post was back in the US, when he joined the US International University in 1983. Here he wrote the follow up to Strategic Management in 1984: Implanting Strategic Management. He retired from academic life in 2000, becoming a distinguished emeritus professor, and died in 2002.
At the heart of Ansoff’s thinking was the idea that strategic planning could be approached in a rigorous way, using a variety of practical tools. Most notable of these tools is his 2×2 matrix, now best known as The Ansoff Matrix. This first appeared in a paper in 1957, while he was at Lockheed. The matrix offers a simple tool for assessing four growth strategies.
Ansoff introduced many new concepts, two of which have become management commonplaces. The first is the much over-used and often misunderstood concept of synergy: that by bringing together the right components and integrating them effectively, the final result is more valuable than the sum of its parts – ‘2 + 2 = 5’ in Ansoff’s memorably simple explanation. The second is the concept of ‘gap analysis’. This is the idea of determining where you want to get to, understanding where you are, and then identifying what it will take to bridge the gap.
The problem that Ansoff found was that his focus on rationality and his extensive kit of strategic thinking and decision-making tools were leading managers into what he called ‘paralysis by analysis’ – another coinage that has become commonplace. This led him to focus his efforts on understanding why this was happening and how to overcome it. In so doing, he effectively became his own most ardent critic. This led him from Corporate Strategy to Strategic Management – an understanding of how people behaved strategically. This was quite a theoretical analysis, synthesising ideas from many fields. So his 1979 Implanting Corporate Management put the focus on practical ‘how-to-do-it’ techniques.
His later research sought to underpin many of his hypotheses with strong empirical evidence. Ansoff always stayed close to working business leaders and his students were able to conduct detailed research into what Ansoff called his ‘Strategic Success Hypothesis’. This asserted that a business could optimise its returns by matching strategic activities to its changing environment, and by developing internal structures and capabilities to support its strategy. In this way, he anticipated the McKinsey 7S model, in much the same way as Ansoff anticipated a lot of our modern understanding of strategic management.
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