Stephen Bungay

Stephen Bungay

As a child, I could never understand why people made up stories about people who had never existed, when there was so much to find out about some fascinating real people and what they actually did.  At school, however, we had to write stories of our own.   It turned out that I was quite good at this, so I ended up doing languages.  So it was that while history remained a hobby, my work was studying literature.  That taught me how to write.

In reading literature I had great difficulty in remembering the names of characters in novels, but dodged this by focussing on ideas.  At university I went to philosophy lectures whenever I could and when I went on to do a doctorate I managed to persuade the department of German that it should be about the philosopher Hegel.  As a sop to literature, my subject was his aesthetics, but in fact I spent most of my time trying to understand the philosophical system he expounded in his Science of Logic.  That taught me how to think.

By then I had got fed up with academic life and wanted to engage with the world outside universities.  I stumbled across a firm called The Boston Consulting Group who claimed to use ‘conceptual tools’ to analyse businesses. This mysterious approach sounded very much like applying philosophy to economic phenomena, so I persuaded them to give me a job. BCG taught me how to use thinking to guide action and how to understand how organisations work.  It also introduced me to lots of fascinating and delightful people, many of whom have remained friends for life.

But the problems that interested me most of all were not those of business but of understanding why certain historical events took the course they did. The one foremost in my mind was how it was that the RAF had won the Battle of Britain.  Nothing I read provided me with a convincing answer. So I decided to work it out for myself.  The opportunity arose when I moved from BCG Munich to BCG London and I told London I wanted to take off six months before re-starting.  I worked 16 hour days, fusing the techniques of data analysis I had learned at BCG with the literary techniques I had learned at university to produce my own history of the battle which was ready in time for the 60th anniversary in 2000.

That publisher then asked me to follow up with a short book about the desert war, and Alamein came out on the 60th anniversary of that battle, in 2002.  It was while writing that book that I discovered that the German Army used an operating model that was brilliant at turning strategy into action. Doing that was just what my business clients were struggling with. Why couldn’t they copy the German Army?

So after a brief return to BCG, I left to pursue that idea.  I pulled the principles and the practices together in my first business book, The Art of Action, which came out in 2011.  It continues to sell and I now spend most of my time helping business organisations to embed the approach in their daily operations.  So it is that I am one of the lucky few whose hobby is their job.

None of this was planned.  Most of it was serendipity.  I made some of the luck. But mostly the luck made me.

Circle Square Member Q&A

What 3 words best describe you?
Bewildered, (but still) curious and resilient.

If you could offer your younger self one piece of advice, what would that be? 
Follow your passion.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
Improving the quality of people’s working lives.

Which person (dead or alive) would you most like to invite to dinner?
Helmuth von Moltke the Elder

How has age strengthened your advantage?
As time gets shorter, you focus more carefully.

What inspired you to join Circle Square?
The chance to meet some interesting new people.

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