Jun 232012
 

No leader in their right mind would deliberately take their company on a suicide mission. No one would initiate projects, programmes or activities that would foul up their organization’s culture, operations or results. Or agree to major commitments that would be a deadweight on performance. Or assign valuable people to tasks they never should have been doing. Or waste their own time and energy confusing and demotivating their people. Or wear themselves out trying to drive an agenda that was full of flaws.

Or would they?

More often than they know it, executives are their own worst enemies. Their good intentions cause endless trouble for themselves and their firms. They create the very problems that they worry about. They pour resources down the drain and wonder why they never get the results they seek. And perhaps worst of all, they never discover just how well they might have done.

Here’s what I call The Performance Paradox: In trying to improve results, managers deliberately, systematically and at considerable cost apply measures that come back to bite them in the butt by hurting performance. 

If you think this is a hysterical rant with no foundation, think again. And look at how easily it happens—and why it’s so common.

Management’s cycle of self-destruction

Start with the fact that every leader wants to better yesterday’s results. Sales should go up. Costs and waste should fall. Productivity and quality should surpass previous levels. Innovation and improvement should take customer satisfaction to new heights and make it possible to capture new markets. Profits should rise.

Wanting all this, the first question is, “Why haven’t we got it?” So introspection and diagnosis begins. And inevitably—between comments about fickle customers, competitors playing foul, IT problems, a lack of resources and so on—answers like these pop up:

  • “Our strategy’s not working—we need a new vision, mission and values”
  • “Our culture is wrong, so we need to change it”
  • “There’s no teamwork—our people operate in silos”
  • “They’re disengaged”
  • “We have a skills shortage, so everything is up to the top team”

The second question is, “What should we do?” And the fixes seem obvious:

  • Get a new vision, mission and values (preferably through a companywide conversation)
  • Change the culture
  • Teach people change management and involve them in change management projects
  • Start some teambuilding
  • Become “customer-centric” by making speeches, running workshops for all staff and putting up some posters
  • Motivate the people—get a motivational speaker for the company conference, improve the canteen food, spruce up the place, set up coffee bars in open spaces, put happy faces on all screensavers, introduce “casual Fridays”
  • Have HR find a new performance management process
  • Make empowerment a way of life—spread the word about “servant leadership”, get an expert on “ubuntu” or offer some courses on personal branding and self-actualization

But are these the right fixes? Chances are, definitely not. The management field is abuzz with nonsense. Too many vendors peddle one-size-fits-all panaceas. Flaky fads and unproven “solutions” are a dime a dozen. There are more tools than can ever be understood or used—many of them utterly worthless. And for every one of them there’s sure to be a champion, all too eager to take charge of a budget, make work and build an empire.

Besides, what appears at first sight to be an obvious problem might not be where an intervention is needed.

Take culture, for example. What exactly might be meant by the sweeping statement, “We need to change the culture”? Is culture a proxy for lousy leadership, skills gaps, a toxic climate, a dysfunctional structure, uninspiring incentives, weak systems, inadequate performance reviews, poor communication or some other factor? And if one or more of these is the real problem, isn’t that where attention should be aimed?

Or take another favorite—team building—trotted out as the answer to almost all corporate ills. Is teamwork really a problem, and if so, why? Could it be that no one knows where “the hill” is, so they’re all picking their own? Do they understand the company’s priorities? Are roles and responsibilities clear, and do people know what to expect from others? Are the right people in the right jobs? Are there enough meetings, are they about the right things, do they include the right people and are they well managed?

Follow a poor diagnosis with inappropriate treatment—or treatment you don’t know how to apply—and it’s all downhill from there. In no time, you’re in a doom loop. The “solutions” that looked so smart either cause whatever problems might exist to become even more entrenched, or quickly lead to others. Suddenly, there’s a flurry of new activities all over the place and people are bogged down under their weight. Complexity increases, confusion mounts and frustration grows.

But hey—you’re busy, busy, busy! You’re being proactive! You’re taking action!

All of which costs money and distracts people from what they should be focused on. The same old problems keep coming up in meeting after meeting. And again and again, the same solutions are offered: work harder at the initiatives that aren’t working, or get another one … or a bunch more. Or make a video and some T-shirts to rally the troops and drive the message home. Or send some of the team to a course. Or … whatever.

So how do you avoid this cycle of self-destruction?

  1. Face reality. Get your diagnosis right. Separate facts from mere opinions. Be alert to how politics, agendas and emotions color things, and don’t let them get in the way or distort your views.
  2. Be especially wary of too quickly settling on the “vision, mission and values” issue, trying to change the culture, or teambuilding or “empowerment” projects.
  3. Don’t buy any initiative with a funny name. Avoid tools you don’t understand. Beware of hucksters selling quick-fixes, or wielding a hammer and treating everything as a nail.
  4. Take an inventory of projects already under way. What is essential (and why)? What’s showing progress? What’s not working, or simply lurking on someone’s desk? Stuff piles up. The old suffocates the new. You can’t do everything. So agree what you’ll stop doing to make way for what’s next. And chuck out whatever you can (which probably means more than you thought!) as fast as you can.
  5. Don’t launch anything new until you’re satisfied that what was on the agenda has been dealt with or no longer matters. When you do start something, be reasonably sure you can see it through to the end. Then, stick to what you set out to do. Don’t chop and change. Your people are watching. They’re cynical and skeptical.
  6. Agree on a very short to-do list with tight timelines and clarity about who will do what. Better to do a few things well than a lot badly. Better to act fast and learn quickly than to keep the wheels spinning while you plan for perfection.
  7. Clarify how you’ll communicate what’s going to happen next—and communicate like crazy.
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  •  23/06/2012
Jun 062012
 

The Bible tells us, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” According to Steven Covey, one of the “seven habits of highly effective people” is to “begin with the end in mind.” Norman Vincent Peale, Tony Robbins, and countless other self-help gurus have pitched the message that if you focus enough on what you want, you’ll get it.

Obviously, this may or may not be true. But it’s a seductive idea, and since the mid-1980s, a chorus of academics, consultants, authors, motivational speakers, and business leaders have echoed the same theme. They assure us that the future will belong to companies that have a bold dream, a huge ambition, a stretch target, a strategic intent, a powerful purpose, a “BHAG” (“Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal”)—or, to use the commonest term, a vision.

At the same time, we’ve been told that visionary leadership is critical for success. So for a firm to be a winner, it needs a leader who has the foresight to sense where his industry is going and can figure out how to seize the juiciest bit of it. Who challenges convention and refuses to accept the status quo, abhors what others take for granted, sees possibilities where they see only problems, and has the courage to lay big bets and venture into unchartered territory.

This line of thought has become an article of faith in business. When a company does well, you can be sure the leader’s vision will be cited as a key reason. If things sour, the leader will be accused of lacking vision. No fix is worth considering if it doesn’t include work on a vision. Developing, reviewing, or tinkering with a corporate vision is normally the first step in a strategy process.

Often, when a CEO briefs me, he’ll say, “We need a new vision. We have to re-focus and re-energize the company.” What he’s looking for is a point of view about how to move forward: possibilities for product or service innovation, whether to get out of a mature business or into a new one, or whether to expand overseas, adopt a new technology, outsource work, restructure or re-brand his organization, or explore alliances. And he wants a set of words that will point his team in a new direction and fire up their spirit. (Clearly, he’s not sure of that vision himself.)

When I ask people lower down in a firm why it’s not performing, I know what to expect. “There’s no vision at the top,” they usually say. We don’t know where we’re going.” They couldn’t care less about a glitzy new vision statement. They want to know they’re being led by someone who knows what lies ahead and what to do about it, and will take them on an exciting and successful ride.

Visionary leadership has become a Very Big Subject—but for all the chatter, it remains a slippery one.

Vision, we’re told, is a quality that sets leaders apart from mere managers. Individuals who “have vision”—however you determine that—are highly valued. But vision is widely held to be a trait people are born with, not one you can teach. So if you want it, you have to find someone who’s already got it.

But wait. Before you take off on a quest for one (or more) of these rare birds, or dive into yet another “visioning” exercise, think about what you really need to do to improve your company’s prospects, and where you should focus your attention. You might be starting in the wrong place.

BACK TO BASICS

In theory, a company’s vision should spur it to explore new opportunities, outperform its competitors, and achieve far more than it has in the past. It should give employees a sense of meaning in their work, and inspire them to be fully engaged and passionate about it so they’ll perform to their full potential. All fine, stirring stuff!

In practice, most vision statements do nothing of the kind. In fact, they’re about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike. Far from focusing and motivating people, they confuse them and make them even more cynical and distrustful than they were. And while they should lead to action, what they really lead to is snickers among employees who see them as just more management bullshit.

In practice, too, many so-called “visionary leaders” turn out to be value destroyers. They’re so busy peering into their crystal balls and making silly predictions about where their firms will be in five, 10, or 20 years that they fail to deal with issues that scream for immediate attention. They bog their teams down with new projects—that often don’t hang together. They mis-read how things will unfold, embark on lunatic ventures, and get high on their “blue sky” “out of the box” cleverness.

It is true that some firms struggle to do well, or get into trouble, because they lack vision. Or they run into difficulties because their vision is out of kilter with emerging realities. Or they set their sights too low and settle for ho-hum achievements. But I’m willing to bet that much more often the cause of their woes is nothing to do with vision, or a lack of it. It’s more immediate, more down to earth, and closer to home.

It’s that they just don’t do what they’re in business to do. They don’t understand the “rules of their game,” and don’t excel in them. They don’t deliver on their promises to customers. 

Simply put: they fail in the basics.

To use an analogy: think of a company as a car. Shareholders and management imagine that if it had wings it would take off and soar away from its competitors. But the real problem is that the driver doesn’t know how to drive. The engine is firing on four cylinders, not eight. The gas tank isn’t full. The tires are flat. So wings are not going to help.

Now, don’t get me wrong: every organization does need to know where it’s trying to go. A sense of purpose—of “why we exist”—is vital. You do need to look ahead for new opportunities. You do need to give your people some idea of which “hill” you’re aiming for, so they know where to focus. You do need to ensure that they “do the right things” and don’t  just “do things right.”

But the first task for the leaders of most companies should be to “do things right” and make today’s business work as well as possible. After all, that is their “growth engine,” and it has to generate or attract the funding needed for tomorrow’s ventures. What’s more, it probably has greater potential for further growth than is realized. Anything that distracts managers from getting it to peak performance should be treated warily.

This is especially important in these tough times, when sales are hard to come by and customers are skittish and shopping around. Your current customers are vital to your future. Keeping them is critical, as is winning their enthusiastic support. To lose them or piss them off because your “engine” is sputtering is daft.

Big dreams are important, but the biggest opportunities for most companies may lie in fixing the basics—and that also creates a solid platform for the future

This isn’t a message that goes down well. After all, it’s hardly a big turn-on, and thinking big thoughts is much more exciting. But it’s one you need to consider carefully before you shoot for the moon.

If you don’t think it worth your time, ask yourself:

Why do so many customers have such a hard time buying almost anything—from the very companies that spend so much trying to attract them in the first place? Why do they have such lousy experiences with the products and services they buy? Why are they so disloyal?

If that doesn’t convince you, ask this:

Why does product development always seem to run late in so many companies? Why do their inventories keep swelling, while their out-of-stock level of key items gets worse? Why do their sales people make so few calls, and why are their calls are so ineffective? Why do their debtors’ days keep moving up? Why do their suppliers let them down so often? Why do their machines keep breaking down? Why do their warranty costs keep rising? Why is there so much scrap and waste in their plants? Why is the volume of paperwork growing? Why do their teams work in silos? Why does the left hand not know what the right hand is doing?

And the list goes on.

Surely this doesn’t make sense. Surely it points to internal weaknesses that could and should be fixed. Surely it suggests massive opportunities—right under your nose—to make your organization stand out from the crowd and steal a march on your competitors. (And if you think your company is different, maybe talk to some of your customers, suppliers, distributors, or employees!)

If your business is in good shape, many things are possible. If it’s not, your most brilliant ideas will never take off.

BABY STEPS…AND ACTIVE WAITING

No strategy lasts forever. You have to prepare to change when it’s necessary. But you also have to acknowledge that:

  1. You know less than you think about the challenges and opportunities ahead
  2. There’s no way you can be sure that the direction you choose will turn out to be the best one
  3. The more radical your vision, the bigger your risks.

The fact is, most winning companies get there not by making bold leaps, but by methodically putting in place the building blocks for the future. They take one small step at a time, and they make every step count.

Track the history of almost any firm, and you’ll see there’s not a straight line from where it started to where it is today. A leader may intend to follow a specific path to a glorious future, but that seldom happens. Strategy is only partly about hard choices and trade-offs, and largely about adaptation to new circumstances. There are many detours, blind alleys, and dead-ends.

If there’s one industry in which vision should be a very serious matter, it’s information technology. Yet consider how four extraordinary leaders have dealt with the matter of vision:

  • Bill Gates labelled it “trivial.”
  • When IBM got into trouble two decades ago, analysts said that the only course was to break up the company and sell the bits. Lou Gerstner took the helm and spent six months travelling the world to talk to customers and staff. He faced enormous pressure to spell out a new vision for the company. But he famously told analysts, “The last thing IBM needs right now is a vision.” In his book Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? he explains that “if you’re going to have a vision for a company, the first frame of that vision better be that you’re making money and that the company has got its economics correct …. execution is really the critical part of a successful strategy. Getting it done, getting it done right, getting it done better than the next person is far more important than dreaming up new visions of the future.” Gerstner did lay some big bets, but job #1 was to get on with making “Big Blue” a great computer company again, selling both hardware and software.
  • Steve Jobs was widely admired for his vision and his obsession with design. Yet he was always reluctant to comment on where he intended taking Apple. Instead, he said that he was “waiting for the next big thing.” And while customers, competitors, analysts, and others never let up on trying to figure out his “long view,” he was busy building one of the world’s most effective engineering companies, obsessed with detail and operational excellence.
  • When Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, was asked why he wouldn’t sell shares in the company in its early years, his consistent answer was, “We have no idea how big this thing will become.” No amount of visionary thinking could have told him that or prepared him for where he is today. Neither he nor anyone else can possibly know what Facebook will look like tomorrow.

In each case, these leaders focussed the present, on doing a great job one day at a time. Not on making crowd-pleasing statements about a future nobody could see. The lesson is an important one. More companies and leaders would do well to listen up.

Visionary leaders can make a huge difference to a firm’s fortunes. They can also cause it to plunge to earth. You might think that visionary leadership is what your firm needs right now. But maybe it’s the last thing you should seek.

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  •  06/06/2012
May 232012
 

Every company today faces growing uncertainty and complexity. Executives are under increasing pressure. Employees are nervy, and many are not fully engaged in their work. So how do you stay competitive and keep producing results?

What you don’t need now is another complex formula. So instead, here’s a simple checklist to remind you of what’s really important and to keep you focused.

Keep it on your desk. Pin it on your wall. Share it with your team. Use it in your meetings and strategy review sessions. And if you think it’s just too simple, read it again, and ask, “Is this what I do?… Is this the way we work around here?… What must change?”

  1. Your #1 challenge as a leader is to take your people with you. So create a climate for high performance and engage them constantly in a rich, robust conversation.
  2. Accept complexity, but simplify everything you can. Cut through clutter and focus on the few things that make the most difference. You have limited resources and a lot to do, so don’t try to do everything and be everything to everybody.
  3. Know what you’re aiming for, and spell it out loud and clear and often. Make sure your entire team understands your purpose, strategy, values, and priorities. You can never communicate enough, so keep repeating yourself.
  4. Focus on your “right” customer … forget the rest. Create clear criteria for defining your “right” customer (industry, size, growth potential, reputation, buying power, ease of doing business, ability and willingness to pay, what they can teach you, etc.) Make these criteria clear to all your people. Be ruthless about customers that don’t fit—they’re a dangerous distraction and you can’t afford them.
  5. Get your “basics” right. Put “gas in your tank and air in your tyres” and do what you must to get your “engine” firing on eight cylinders, not four. Strike a balance between consistently meeting customers’ current expectations and surprising them with something new, better, or different.
  6. Relentlessly drive value up, costs down. It’s the only way to compete.
  7. Learn from everything you do, and share new insights with your whole team fast. The more you learn, and the quicker you do it, the more adaptable your company will become.
  8. Hold your course. Be boringly consistent and persistent. Don’t be tempted to zig-zag. Sustainable strategy might be an impossible dream, but you have to repeat yourself for some time to hone your performance and build key resources and capabilities.
  9. Be ready to change when you must … then do it with everything you’ve got. Gather all the information you might need. Think about what you might need to change, and how. Develop the strengths that will matter. Practice, practice, practice. And when the time comes, don’t dilly-dally—go for it!
  10. Pace yourself … when you think it’s time to make a new decision, ask, “Is this really the time? If it’s not, wait. Sometimes, doing nothing is best. In another day, week, or month, you’ll have more information and a clearer picture of what you need to deal with. And it’s quite possible the risks you see right now, or the challenges you think you need to respond to, will have come to nought.
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  •  23/05/2012
May 182012
 

The news out of Europe is terrible. Day by day, things get more dire. However difficult the past four years were, there’s much worse to come. As The Economist puts it (May 12), “the night terrors are back.”

First quarter growth for Germany came in at 0.5%; the Netherlands and France showed no growth; Italy contracted by 0.8%. Greece by 6.3%. The Eurozone as a whole came in flat. More than half of Eurozone countries are now in recession. Unemployment in the 17 hit 10.9% in March.

After years of dithering about what to do about Greece, it’s now clear that kicking that can down the road was always a bad idea. Policymakers have run out of road and hard decisions must now be made. U.K. prime minister David Cameron sees this as “make or break” time.

The only thing that came out of the recent Greek non-elections was proof—as if it were needed—that Greek voters can’t live with the tough conditions imposed on them by the ECB/IMF bailout package that was signed only a few months ago. Their economy has shrunk by 20% in five years. Their lifestyle has gone to hell in a hand basket. Many of them are struggling to survive. They’ve lost hope. The tragedy of their plight is captured in a headline in the New York Times“Increasingly in Europe, suicides ‘by economic crisis.'”

Greece has been in recession for five years, and can’t pay its bills without even more more help. The central bank now holds just $1.9 billion in cash. There are fears of a run on banks, as withdrawals rise. Even if everything goes Greece’s way from now on, it will take decades for the country to trade its way out of the hole. (Will tourism, olive oil, and goat cheese do the trick? Will Greece suddenly become a manufacturing powerhouse, a financial hub, or the next Silicon Valley?)

The elections failed to produce a new government and highlighted deep disagreement about the best way forward. No party won enough support to assume power, and despite days of intense haggling after the poll, politicians were unable to put together a coalition to govern. A judge has been sworn in as interim prime minister to “manage” the place until new elections are be held on June 17—and who knows what will happen afterwards?

Even though it seems most Greeks would prefer to stay in the Eurozone, most analysts believe Greece has no choice but to default on its debts and get out. The bust-up would be traumatic, and the impact nasty. There are massive legal hurdles, and no agreed way of making it happen.

BLEAK TIMES GET BLEAKER

The European dream is unravelling. Whatever Greece does, a long period of deep uncertainty and insecurity lies ahead. And while it drags on, the rest of the world will struggle to grow.

French and German voters have joined the anti-austerity chorus. Francois Hollande became France’s first socialist president in 17 years after defeating Nicholas Sarkozy, and centre-left voters in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia hammered Angela Merkel’s conservatives. (Merkel’s overall support has plummeted from 34.6% to 26.3%.) Hollande has promised to stimulate growth; Merkel is holding her ground on austerity. So it’ll be interesting to see who blinks first.

Spain is a basket case. The banks are in terrible shape, and it’s getting worse. Moody’s downgraded 16 of them on May 16. Shares in the second largest, Bankia, fell by 29% after reports that customers had withdrawn €1 billion in less than a week. Writing in the New York Times (April 15, 2012), Nobel economics laureate Paul Krugman proclaimed the country to be “in full-on depression, with the overall employment rate at 23.6 percent, comparable to America at the depths of the Great Depression, and the youth unemployment at over 50 percent.”

The Spanish economy, of course, is much larger than that of Greece.

And then there’s Italy… and Portugal… and Ireland… and …

A VICIOUS CYCLE MEANS TROUBLE FOR ALL

Any country that sells into Europe is feeling the freeze. Demand in the region is weak, with finished goods, components, and raw materials all taking strain. Many suppliers are from emerging markets, and the slowdown is hurting their economies—just when they were seen as the growth opportunity of the future. So the ripples are spreading outwards. From India to South Africa to Latin America, growth forecasts are being cut.

GDP in the UK shrank by 0.2% in the first quarter, putting the country into a double-dip recession. The official forecast is for 0.8% for this year; and a return to pre-2008 growth is not likely before 2014. Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, is preparing for more fallout from Greece.

China’s growth has slowed month after month, and a Bloomberg survey shows it at a 13-year low. Pimco, the world’s biggest bond trader, now sees 7% as the likely number for 2012. Both imports and exports are sharply down. Domestic demand is sluggish. Bank lending in April was way below expectations. Investment in fixed assets is at level not seen in a decade. Foreign direct investment has fallen six months in a row. Electricity consumption, rail freight, and bank loans are all slipping. The property market is taking strain (house prices are falling at a record pace) as a result of government measures to avoid a credit-driven bubble, and the construction industry is in a funk. And to complicate matters, the inflation rate is heading upwards.

The U.S. economy seems to be getting some of its spark back, but there are still weaknesses. Growth this year should be around 2.2%, but a survey of economists had most of them confessing that their forecasts were probably too optimistic. Krugman says the country (like Spain) is in a depression, not just a recession. Economists warn of a “fiscal cliff” at the end of 2012, when the Bush tax cuts expire and new taxes must kick in, but in this election year, politicians will avoid committing to any action to deal with the problem. March jobs figures were disappointing—unemployment fell slightly to 8.1%, but only because more people have given up looking for work. One American in six can’t always get enough to eat.

Punting his latest book, Paul Krugman warns that the world is in a dangerous place and stimulus is the only way out

 A TEST FOR OPTIMISTS

I could offer many more facts to show just how shaky things are. I could toss in the gloomy views of any number of economists, think tanks, business people, and others worth listening to. But you only have to watch Bloomberg or CNBC, or read the daily news, to get more than enough evidence that the world is in a precarious state.

As I wrote in my February 28 post (“Where is the global economy going, and what does it mean to you?”) we’re in the middle of a colossal economic experiment, and while many people have strong opinions on what to do, there are questions about every “answer.” The past may or may not be a reliable guide to the future. Well accepted theories may or may not hold up in a complex new world.

Economics and politics are on a collision course. Society is caught in the middle and is thoroughly pissed off.  Any leader dispensing unpleasant medicine risks losing support and being voted out of office. But without unpleasant medicine, the Great Recession will run and run—and the entire world might be ungulfed by a new Great Depression before we know it.

There is no reason to think we might be in calmer waters anytime soon. There’s every reason to fear some dramatic event ahead that will be calamitous. And to accept that the difficulties we face right now are just the precursor of more to come. The Greek problem is Europe’s problem. Europe’s problem is everyone’s problem.

Here’s Krugman again:

“…it’s hard to avoid a sense of despair. Rather than admit that they’ve been wrong, European leaders seem determined to drive their economy—and their society—off a cliff. And the whole world will pay the price.”

A NEW ERA IN GLOBAL COMPETITION

As I’ve observed many times before, competitive hostility has risen dramatically in recent years. But if companies thought they were walking through fire in the past four years, that was just warm-up time. There’s a new array of daunting challenges ahead. They’re coming from all directions, and they’re coming thick and fast.

Firms in many countries are sitting on piles of cash, too nervous to lay new bets. They face the hard choice: seize the moment and invest in the hope of capturing today’s opportunities and preparing for tomorrow’s, ahead of the herd; or preserve their war chests in case more bad stuff hits the fan. But one thing they cannot avoid is taking another clear-eyed look—and another, and another—at the world around them.

Some companies will sensibly decide to continue with their current strategies, perhaps with some incremental changes. Others will have to pursue a more radical course. And for many, a bit of both will be best.

What no management team should bank on is that their business performance will soon get a lift from either an economic upswing or a breakthrough in strategy. What they should do is:

  1. Stay tuned in to their environment so they quickly sense significant changes.
  2. Get back to basics, dump any activities that weigh them down or distract them, and shorten their “to-do” lists.
  3. Focus on making a difference that matters to the “right” customers.
  4. Fine-tune their business models to deliver, and keep innovating and improving.
  5. Make sure there’s clarity—across their organization—about what they must do, 30 days at a time.

Strategy is always about laying bets for a world you can’t see. That’s becoming trickier by the day.

  •  18/05/2012
Apr 162012
 

Managing a business of any size is a hell of a job. The world is a complex and dangerous place. Change is constant. There are surprises around every corner. And there’s unending pressure to perform through good times and bad.

Companies are complex, too. And the bigger they get, the more complex they become. Coordinating their efforts was always a challenge. But today, many firms sprawl across the world, so there are facilities, people, and many other factors to worry about. Just-in-time production, a growing amount of outsourced work, and intricate networks of suppliers all add logistical challenges. Relations with governments and regulators are of increasing concern. Investors, analysts, unions, environmentalists, lobbyists, and a host of other stakeholders all demand attention. And of course, there’s always the need to drive innovation, improvement, and cost cutting; to adopt new technologies and ways of delivering world class quality, productivity, and customer service; and to survive the daily deluge of seemingly trivial matters which may quickly explode.

Executives face a stream of dilemmas with no easy answers. Their to-do lists keep getting longer. They’re torn this way and that by people with competing agendas, and bogged down by meetings, video conferences, phone calls, e-mails, and so on. Many of them also have grueling travel schedules. Time is their scarcest resource.

It goes without saying that any war on complexity must be fought with a determined drive for simplicity. That in itself must be an ongoing effort with targets, projects, champions, regular reviews, and whatever else it might take. But on its own, it’s not enough. For there’s an over-arching problem of managers themselves creating conditions in which complexity flourishes. They introduce ideas and activities that often don’t line up, won’t produce the results they expect, and lead to unnecessary work, waste, and costs—all as a result of how they manage.

With few exceptions, they’d do well to ask themselves:

Why they so readily make life even more difficult, with management ideas, practices, and tools that in theory should help them, but in reality make little sense?

Why they keep searching for new answers to their management questions, when the answers they need are probably already well known?

Why they develop strategies that are either too vague to be useful, or too complex to explain?

Why they’re such suckers for buzzwords and bullshit when they have so much on their plates, and so many people expecting guidance from them? 

These are questions that have bothered me for the past 30-odd years. During this time, I’ve read countless management books, scholarly journals, and popular articles, and talked to many of the most prominent thinkers in the field, trying to learn three things:

  1. How should firms compete?
  2. What causes some succeed over the long term, and others to fail?
  3. Why do some executives produce better results than others?

You’d think by now the answers would be clear and widely accepted. But apparently not. For the quest for new ones is accelerating, not slowing. Or, at least, the amount of stuff published on these matters is growing by the second. And someone is grabbing all those books off airport bookstands!

Whatever you want to know, a Google search will instantly yield tens of thousands, if not millions, of links to possible answers. Authors of business books and articles slice and dice management issues into ever narrower opinion. The internet gives voice to anyone and everyone who has anything to say about strategy, structure, organizational behavior, people management, change management, analytics, leadership, IT, systems thinking, six sigma, values, culture, presentation skills, or whatever.

With all this “expertise” to hand, it’s little wonder that firms are jammed up by initiatives, or that managers are totally shell-shocked from being bombarded with information and advice about their world and their craft. The exploding volume of management flim-flam has made managing increasingly difficult.

Executives get in their own way because they’re always looking for another answer to their management questions—a quick fix or “silver bullet”—when the answers they need are right under their noses. And to compound their problems, they radically over-complicate things, and cause much of the mess and muddle that bogs things down. They also continually introduce new initiatives—or allow others to do so—while seeing few to a sensible end. And even as the pile deepens, they chop and change their priorities so fast that their people haven’t a clue what’s going on or what they should focus on.

Put differently, only by getting back to basics, simplifying things, lightening your load, and sticking to one view of how to manage will you ever make the progress you want.

I’m willing to bet that, right now:

  • you’re using management-speak that you don’t fully understand
  • your strategy is a mystery to many or maybe most of your people (and possibly to you, too!)
  • you struggle to turn your strategy into action
  • your priorities are not really what you should be focusing on
  • your people are doing things for reasons that aren’t clear to them, and don’t make sense to them
  • they’re expected to use tools that they don’t grasp
  • there are too many projects in your firm, many of which should never have been started, and many others past their sell-by date
  • quite soon, you’ll latch onto some new management idea, and launch a flurry of new initiatives to replace the ones you haven’t properly finished
  • there is a better, simpler way to get the results you want.

Sound crazy? A lot of nonsense? Well, think about this:

  1. When I ask company employees or participants in my business school classes why their firms’ strategies don’t work, the number one reason is, “We don’t know what the strategy is.” Many say, “We don’t have a strategy” (they probably do, but no one told them or they just weren’t paying attention).
  2. Companies love strategy documents. And usually, the thicker the better. I read these things for a living, and when I get to the end of many of them I have no idea who is supposed to do what. They’re heavy on detail that should have been left on a functional manager’s desk. A clutter of thoughts, lack of logic, poor structure, big words, and long sentences make them murky. So they say too much, but explain too little.
  3. Management tools are mostly not all they’re cracked up to be. They’re as fashionable as hemlines. As Bain Consulting’s periodic tools survey shows, usage and satisfaction scores go up and down. Besides, very few tools are truly new, based on sound research, or proven across industries, companies, or even functions; and what works at one time, in one set of conditions, may not work when things change. The catchy language that management “thinkers” use to draw attention to their recipes should be cause for suspicion.
  4. When a new tool is adopted, others that are already in place tend to stay there. So the pile grows. Each new idea creates a blast of activity, and sucks time, attention, and money from others. It becomes a nightmare trying to figure where to focus, how to integrate all this work, and what comes first, second, or third. And it becomes impossible to know which intervention caused what result.
  5. Explaining strategy is a never-ending job. I once heard a senior manager ask former GE chairman Jack Welch, “How often do you have to tell people what your strategy is?” Said Welch: “You have to explain it, and explain it, and explain it, and explain it, and explain it, until you drive yourself crazy. Because nobody is paying attention!”

So where to from here?

For starters, clarify your own point of view about what you’re trying to do. Think of strategy as the frame through which people see your company’s future. What exactly do they need to know? Answer: not much. In fact, the four things here tell the whole story.

Framing your strategy – keep it simple, or you won’t make it work!

Get this story right, and you have a good chance of success. Get it wrong, and you make a really bad start. So keep it simple. Keep it short. Cut to the chase. Maybe, at last, your team will get the message.

And what comes next?

First, a few tools, carefully chosen, well understood, and relentlessly applied so you and your people become expert in their use. (I’ll talk more about these in a future post.) Toss out anything you don’t really, really, really understand; anything you can’t use properly; anything that doesn’t produce the results you expect. And any duplicates.

Second, make a list of all the initiatives currently in your organization. (Some will be in use, others just lurking somewhere, and probably at some cost.) Ask: what do we really need to do? Which of these initiatives helps us? What should we kill right away? Then, zap as many as you can, fast, and slam the door on new ones.

Third, keep reminding yourself—and drum it into your colleagues—that whatever approaches, methods, models,tools,  or processes you go for, all work hinges on conversation. On what you talk about, how you do that, and who you involve. So make sure you talk about the right things, in the right way, to the right people.

Above all, understand that everything follows from your point of view. And the surest way to cut complexity is by avoiding it in the first place with your ideas about managing.

Life is hard. Managing is one of the toughest jobs around. There’s no point in making it harder for yourself.

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  •  16/04/2012
Mar 282012
 

If there’s one topic that gets more than its share of airtime today, it’s the shift in economic power from West to East, and the importance of emerging markets to companies seeking growth. This had to happen given that more than half the world’s population lives in those regions and have recently joined the mainstream of commerce. Three-and-a-half billion new customers are not be be sneezed at.

The Great Recession has given new urgency to capturing those shoppers. Hypercompetition affects all but a few industries, and managers everywhere are in a dogfight over customers. Sales have slowed in the big developed markets—the U.S., Europe, and Japan—so must be found elsewhere. Asia, Latin America, Africa, and central Europe now look particularly attractive.

Not too long ago, developed countries ran surpluses, while developing ones ran deficits. Now, the picture is largely reversed: many developing nations run surpluses and export capital, while developed ones have racked up huge deficits. And whereas infrastructure in many developed nations is in a sorry state, developing nations are spending vast sums on it. They’re also becoming more amenable to foreign investment, sucking up resources from everywhere, and rapidly advancing up the competitiveness ranks.

A key message from the World Economic Forum’s January 2012 Davos shindig was that emerging markets are where many firms will find their future growth. This is hardly news, as we’ve heard the same thing from countless commentators for at least the past 30 years. But repeating it yet again will surely spur more executives to leave their comfort zones and venture into new territory.

Before they rush ahead and do this, though, they should think hard about what it might mean. They should beware of doing it while starving the opportunities that exist where they already operate. They should be careful not to overlook the treasure that’s right under their noses in their own backyards. And they should ask themselves a critical question:

“Are the ‘developed markets’ we think we know not in fact ‘emerging markets’ that we need to learn about fast?”

A BRIEF LOOK BACKWARDS

The term “emerging markets” was coined in the early 1980s by Antoine Van Achtmael, an economist at the World Bank’s International Financial Corporation, to draw attention to investment opportunities in low- to middle-income countries. Then, after the Berlin Wall fell and eastern Europe opened up, and as southeast Asia began its own economic revolution, things started to get interesting.

Democracy and consumerism spread and firms became increasingly keen on globalization. They started to shift from focusing purely on exports to setting up their own facilities across the world. New technologies made it easier for them to coordinate complex networks of suppliers; and new logistical systems enabled them to move raw materials, components, and finished products swiftly to wherever they were needed.

In 2001, Jim O’Neill, chief economist at Goldman Sachs (he’s now chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management) invented the “BRICs” acronym—Brazil, Russia, India, China. These four populous and economically ambitious countries, he said, would propel the growth of the global economy in coming decades. So they offered huge opportunities for both investment and business.

That story got wide coverage and created a lot of interest. Then, in 2002, two business school academics, C.K. Prahalad and Stuart L. Hart, added both impetus and an important insight to it with an article in Strategy+Business which they seductively titled, “The fortune at the bottom of the pyramid.” Their unremarkable observation was that the populations of poor countries comprised a few wealthy people at the top of the pile, and untold millions mired in poverty at the bottom. Individually, the bottom lot had little spending power; but taken together, they made up an attractive target.

In 2005, O’Neill’s team sought to identify another group of developing countries that would follow the BRICs closely, and came up with the “Next Eleven,” or N-11—Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, South Korea, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey, and Vietnam.

Six years later, O’Neill decided that “emerging markets” was no longer the right label for the BRICs or four of the N-11—Indonesia, South Korea, Mexico, and Turkey. “These are now countries with largely sound government debt and deficit positions, robust trading networks, and huge numbers of people all moving steadily up the economic ladder,” he says (Jim O’Neill, The Growth Map, New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2011). “I decided that a more accurate term would be “Growth Markets.”

This new language of “BRICs” and “BOP” (bottom of the pyramid), of the “N-11” and “growth markets,” has provided plenty of inspiration for new ventures. Executives trot the terms out at every opportunity. Companies that not long ago were nervous about operating in backward and unfamiliar places are now trying it. And every day there are more good reasons to do so.

The spread of industrialization is creating a new global middle class. Angola, Estonia, Cambodia, and Argentina are exploding with newly affluent shoppers.  More and more people, including large numbers are women, are finding steady employment. Income and education levels are rising in one country after another. Medical advances and healthier living mean more ageing people (many with savings, welfare support, or even pensions). And at the same time, new media, new distribution processes, and new branding strategies are changing buyers’ behaviour and encouraging them to experiment, shop around, and flaunt what they buy—and in the process, to keep moving the marketing goalposts.

These markets are a complex mix of young and old, rich and poor, sophisticated and unsophisticated consumers, who buy both branded goods and commodities. They’re mostly served by local businesses, but increasingly by outsiders, too. Their attraction is that they bulge with potential customers who’ve largely been overlooked or underserved. And a big plus is that competition may not be as tough as in developed markets.

There is absolutely no doubt about it: the BRICs and the N-11 merit close attention. As do many even less developed countries. And there’s a case for moving fast, for in no time at all the fight for customers in all these places will intensify.

But companies should not ignore the opportunities in their traditional markets. For that’s where they’re comfortable and where they earn the bulk of their profits today. That’s also where they are most vulnerable right now.

Customers in rich countries like the U.S., Europe, Britain, Japan, and Sweden have a lot of spending to do. Losing them will come at a heavy cost.

EVERYTHING IS UNFAMILIAR, EVERYWHERE
Anyone contemplating a foray into developing countries should consider two facts:
  1. Doing business there will be harder than you think.
  2. It will distract you and divert resources from where your priorities should be and where your best opportunities may lie—in the developed markets you already know.

Developing countries might look exciting, but they present a host of major problems: political interference, bureaucratic blockages, institutional voids, poor or nonexistent infrastructure, lousy services, entrenched social traditions, widespread poverty, health issues, security, crime, and corruption. Key skills are in short supply. Many industries are immature, and often hard to break into because of vested interests or old relationships. Supply chains are unreliable. Distribution channels and media are not what they should be. Protecting intellectual capital is a nightmare. Customers must be taught the value of new products and services, and companies must learn how to deliver them. So altogether, getting things done may be extremely difficult—especially for executives used to places where things work.

But look at the changes under way in developed countries. In virtually every market for every kind of product or service, the game of business is being turned on its head. “The new normal” is not “the old normal.” Conditions have changed in untold ways, and there’s novelty all around.

There are new political realities, new regulation, new infrastructure. Populations are ageing, shrinking, and moving; and migrants are radically changing their structure, language, beliefs, and habits. Old ways of life are giving way to new ones. Competition is hotting up and new strategies are making old ones obsolete. Technology makes possible new offerings and new ways of reaching and satisfying customers. And just as in developing nations, there are new customers with new needs, values, expectations, and behaviour.

Today, in the most advanced markets, there’s probably not a company whose managers can say, “Nothing has changed for us in the past decade or two.” Neither would they be smart to think, “There aren’t any major changes ahead, so we don’t have to do anything drastic.”

The reality is that selling almost anything, to almost anyone, anywhere in the world is a brand new challenge.

Few products or services—or the companies that sell them—have made it into this new era without significant innovation. Further progress will demand even more of it.

Yesterday’s business models can’t be expected to deliver the same results as they used to. The shelf-life of today’s models is limited. A tweak here or there will undoubtedly help some companies do better, but sooner or later more radical change will be vital. And for growing numbers of firms, the time for that is right now.

It’s time for a strategy reset!

INDUSTRIES IN TURMOIL

To make the point, some examples:

  • Think media—where’s it headed? Do newspapers have a future (and what about the paper industry and the printing press manufacturers that serve it”) What further impact will technology have on it? Where are social media taking us? What about “citizen journalism”? How will the widespread availability of ultra-fast wi-fi change things?  What’s the future of television in an age of Tivo, PVRs, and streaming video?
  • Think photography—How will cell phones with high-resolution still and video cameras affect makers of stand-alone digital cameras? What breakthroughs lie ahead in lens technologies, sensors, and storage devices? What new post-processing software is on the way?
  • Think laptop computers—who needs them when tablets are so handy? What might they be used for tomorrow? What will new processors and memory technologies enable them to do? How much smaller can they get, and how much sharper and brighter can their screens become? What new battery technologies can we expect? How will applications be sold?
  • Think fast-moving consumer goods—what’s going on with formulas, packaging, distribution, promotions, pricing, recycling? What will be the impact of new health concerns? How important will store brands become?
  • Think autos—how much smarter, lighter, more economical, and safe will they become? What new energy systems can we expect (and what is the prospect for “green” cars?) Where will vehicles be produced? What further mergers and acquisitions can we expect, and how will they alter the industry’s structure? How will traffic congestion be managed, and what might that mean for vehicle makers?
  • Think clothing—what are the fashion trends to watch … and what can be ignored? What new fabrics are coming? What new production technologies lie ahead, and where will garments be made?  How much more time can be cut between design and in-store display? What will be the future role of haute couture and fashion shows?
  • Think retail—what shopping trends are emerging, and what might be next? What are the prospects for online sales, and what changes will we see in that area? What’s the outlook for malls … big discounters … speciality retailers … small independent stores? What new stock control systems are down the line? How will customers pay?

These questions address just a few of the changes already under way. And of course, there’s also the impact of new regulation, of environmentalism, and  of a host of other factors that are restructuring the business landscape. So this you can be sure of: there’s massive change to come. The market you’ve come to know so well—whatever sector you’re in— is not the one you’ll play in tomorrow.

Much of what we though we understood about “developed” markets is no longer useful. Almost all of them are today, in effect, emerging markets. Not in the sense of being poor and backward, but rather in the sense of taking shape, of not being fully understood, and whose potential is unclear.

This process has been under way for some time. Buyers of everything have been learning about new ways to satisfy their needs and wants, communicate and participate, enjoy and express themselves, and shop and pay. They’ve discovered that just as quality should be a “taken-for-granted” fact, so should low price. They’ve taken to buying portfolios of products and services, some bearing names like Louis Vuitton, Ford, Swatch, Tumi, Gap, Hyundai, or Samsung, and many with names you’ve never heard of, but offering “good enough” design, feel, durability, and so on—often at rock-bottom prices.

Recently, the spread of financial trouble has had a dramatic impact on customer behaviour. Collapsing asset prices, government austerity programs, and rising unemployment have forced shoppers to save rather than spend. Companies serving them have had to do the same. So prices and costs have become more important than ever. Buying down is the new norm. “Frugality” is today’s reality.

 HOW (AND WHERE) WILL YOU COMPETE TOMORROW?

Dramatic changes are under way in even the richest, most developed parts of the world. They present both breathtaking opportunities and deadly threats to virtually every business. And the one thing you can be sure of is that the situation will get more challenging.

Today, there’s no shortage of new market possibilities. The growth prospects offered by what we call emerging markets are phenomenal. But developed markets are the most important markets for most major companies today—as they will be tomorrow.

Your traditional competitors are not the only ones you should worry about. You’re probably surrounded by upstarts from down the road. Emerging market multinationals are swarming into rich nations fast and aggressively to eat the lunch of local champions. Protecting yourself in your backyard is getting harder by the minute—but doing so is imperative. This is a turf war you shouldn’t lose.

So how will you compete tomorrow? Which customers should you focus on? What do you need to learn about them (what do they value?… how, when, and where do they shop?… what media do they use?… what influences their decisions?) How should you reach them? What should you promise them? What kind of business model do you need to capture and keep them?

For many firms, developing countries are where the future lies. But think before you label those “emerging” and the ones you’re in right now “developed,” “traditional,” or “mature.” There are obviously differences, but here’s what’s the same everywhere:

  1. The rules of tomorrow’s game aren’t clear.
  2. You don’t understand them.
  3. They will keep changing.
  4. You will face more competition—and more hostile competitors from all over the world—than you think.

Developing regions that you don’t know may look extremely appealing. But the ones you’re familiar with—those where you trade now, that you see as “developed,” and that maybe bore you—have their own possibilities. However, to take advantage of them, you need to start by accepting that you don’t really understand them, and then spend the time getting to know them from scratch.

Every market is now an emerging market. We’re all feeling our way into the future.

WHAT”S YOUR NEXT MOVE?

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  •  28/03/2012
Mar 172012
 

When Greg Smith, a 33-year-old London-based Goldman Sachs executive director published reasons for his resignation in the New York Times on March 14, he was scathing in his criticism. In a knife-to-the-heart Op-Ed piece heavy on praise for himself, he wrote:

“…I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.”

“…culture was always a vital part of Goldman Sachs’s success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients. The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years. It wasn’t just about making money; this alone will not sustain a firm for so long. It had something to do with pride and belief in the organization. I am sad to say that I look around today and see virtually no trace of the culture that made me love working for this firm for many years. I no longer have the pride, or the belief”…

“It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as ‘muppets,’ sometimes over internal e-mail. Even after the S.E.C., Fabulous Fab, Abacus, God’s Work, Carl Levin, Vampire Squids? No humility? I mean, come on. Integrity? It is eroding.

“I don’t know of any illegal behavior, but will people push the envelope and pitch lucrative and complicated products to clients even if they are not the simplest investments or the ones most directly aligned with the client’s goals? Absolutely. Every day, in fact.”

Andy Rosenthal, the Times editorial page editor, told The Huffington Post that Smith had approached them about writing the article. “We checked him out,” he said. “…the whole idea of Op-Ed is to generate debate and discussion, so the more, the better.” The article has certainly generated plenty of both. Its all over the internet and according to BloombergBusinessWeek, book agents and publishers are keen to sign a deal with him.

THE FIRST RESPONSE

According to the NYT, Smith’s “wake up call to the directors” exploded “like a bomb” within Goldman. “He just took a howitzer and blew the entire firm away,” said one observer. Within a day, investors stripped $2.15bn from the bank’s value.

As happens in this age of instant opinions, citizen journalism, and social media, the story “went viral.” The public and the media quickly added fuel to the fire with a mixture of praise and condemnation. Smith was variously described as “brave,” “reckless,” “foolish,” “disgruntled,” and “disloyal.” The fact that he’d held back his resignation until he’d been paid his $500,000 bonus for 2011 drew snide jabs. But journalists who dug into his background and talked to people who knew him when he was growing up in South Africa reported that he had a reputation for integrity.

A Bloomberg News item in the San Franscisco Chronicle tackled Smith for his naiveté, implicitly supporting Goldman and saying what many business leaders no doubt thought:

“It must have been a terrible shock when Smith concluded that Goldman actually was primarily about making money. He spares us the sordid details, but apparently it took more than a decade for the scales to finally fall from his eyes…

“We have some advice for Smith, as well as the thousands of college students who apply to work at Goldman Sachs each year: If you want to dedicate your life to serving humanity, do not go to work for Goldman Sachs. That’s not its function, and it never will be. Go to work for Goldman Sachs if you wish to work hard and get paid more than you deserve even so. (Or if you want to make your living selling derivatives but don’t know what a derivative is, as Smith concedes in passing that he didn’t at first.)”

Forbes columnist argues that this event is a mere a storm in a teacup, and says the excitement over it will soon blow away:

“So what should our reaction to this be? No, not as clients of the firm, that’s obvious. Similarly for the management, what they need to change is obvious. But what should we, the people out here in the public and political square be trying to do about the company?

“Nothing of course, we should be doing nothing at all. For one of the great joys of this mixed capitalism and free markets system is that mistakes like those allegedly being made by Goldman Sachs are self-limiting, indeed, self-correcting.”

Of course, Goldman—the target of much criticism in the past few years—quickly denied Smith’s accusations:

We were disappointed to read the assertions by this individual that do not reflect our values, our culture and how the vast majority of people at Goldman think about the firm and the work it does on behalf of our clients.”

WHAT’S NEXT?

So where do things go from here? How will Goldman deal with Smith and the continuing fallout? What does this drama mean for other banks—and, indeed, for other companies of any kind? (And let’s not forget to ask, how will Smith’s career be affected?)

Unfortunately for banks, they’ve made themselves a juicy target for outrage. When Smith’s article appeared, a lot of people probably thought to themselves—or said to others: “I knew it. Here we go again. Scumbag bankers. Can’t trust them an inch. Bastards got bailed out, but keep stealing our money!” So what’s likely out in the “public and political square” is that this story will get so much airtime it will be impossible to ignore. The media will continue to make a feast of it. Politicians and regulators will seize the chance to sound off, and maybe try to force change. The anti-capitalist, anti-business crowd will jam the infosphere and the profit motive will take another beating. Smith’s act will become a popular dinner table topic, the stuff of business school class debates, and a trigger for massive introspection at both Goldman and other firms.

Business leaders need to tread carefully through this minefield. The CEO of Morgan Stanley told his staff not to circulate the Smith piece. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase & Co., sent word to his people that they should continue to act in the above-board way they always had. In a widely-publicized e-mail, he warned:

I want to be clear that I don’t want anyone here to seek advantage from a competitor’s alleged issues or hearsay—ever. It’s not the way we do business.”

You can bet the bosses of other financial institutions have sent similar messages to their staff and clients, and will spend a lot of time and money trying to distance themselves from the blast and confirm that they’re above reproach. And you can bet that a lot of people, from spin doctors to corporate governance gurus, from HR executives to career coaches, from management consultants to IT security experts, will hop onto the bandwagon and make new work for themselves.

Make no mistake, this event has huge implications. It affects not just financial institutions, but all of business.

THE DIFFICULTY OF PROTECTING A REPUTATION WHEN YOU CAN’T PROTECT SECRETS

One of the most important social trends of the past half century has been the move towards openness and transparency. That’s a very good thing. But it doesn’t make life easy for business.

Windows to the internal workings of organizations are being forced wide open. Largely as a result of scandals at Enron, Anderson, and many other firms, corporate governance has become a growth industry. Firms are required to provide more and more information about themselves. They face a growing number of regulators and a growing tide of regulation, vigilant law enforcement agencies, and courts that are under pressure to impose severe sanctions for shenanigans.

News-hungry media are quick to spot wrongdoing. Consumer hotlines not only give disgruntled customers a voice, but also make it likely that one complaint will trigger a shitstorm of others. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, e-mail, instant messaging, and other social media make it increasingly hard to keep anything under wraps, and easy to be a critic or spread dirt. And reasonableness, objectivity, balance, and truth do not always prevail.

Wikileaks, has created awful problems for governments, the military, corporates, and individuals by splashing confidential material all over the internet. A growing community of criminal hackers break into government and business databases, and don’t hesitate to fraudulently use credit card details or post personal information on the web.

Whistleblowers like Greg Smith have long been a concern to employers. But if once they were vilified, they’re now encouraged, protected, applauded, and rewarded—true social heroes. Their motives don’t matter; the fact that they’re insiders, and therefore must know what’s going on, gives their views credibility and clout. And in a verbal war between a whistleblower and a company’s leaders, the underdog invariably wins most sympathy and support.

Dealing with anonymous attackers is no easy task. Fighting back when your attacker is a valued member of your team, apparently with nothing to gain by opening up—and apparently of unquestionable integrity, too—may be worse.  The reputational damage that follows leaks is hard to contain or fix. A carefully-crafted image that has taken years to establish can be shredded in an instant.

VALUES DON’T GUARANTEE “GOOD” BEHAVIOUR

Surveys show that public trust in companies and their executives is at an all-time low. The trust level in many teams is also nowhere near where it should be. So what now? Do you demand that your new hires all sign confidentiality agreements? (And how enforceable are those, and do you really want to explain yourself in court?) Do you require the same of the people you already employ? How do you deal with those who refuse? How do you deal with violators?

According to Smith, Goldman has a culture problem. He has just provided the culture-change crowd with new inspiration—and a new promotional drum to beat.

One of their favorite tools is values. “Values-based management” (not the same thing as value management) or “managing by values” is a hot fad, and thanks to Smith, just got hotter. The theory is that if you spell out how you expect your people to behave, they’ll stay on the straight and narrow, be nice to each other, bust a gut for customers, and produce innovations galore. But that’s a very big “if.” And anxious executives should beware: changing culture is never easy and always slow, and values are no silver bullet. So while we’re in for a noisy debate about all this, and opportunists will make pots of money peddling “new” ways to make things better, don’t expect miracles.

Most values statements include the same handful of terms—”integrity,” “respect,” “innovation,” “service,” “responsibility,” “teamwork,” “accountability.” Yet precisely what these mean is often open to interpretation. And you have to ask: if this guff  features so strongly in business books and leadership courses, if so much prominence is given to it in company documents and presentations and on office walls, and if it’s discussed so often and so seriously in team-building sessions and strategy workshops, why is “walking the talk” so uncommon?

The first reason is that it’s damned difficult. (The 10 Commandments haven’t done too well, have they?) It’s one thing to say that companies would solve many of their problems if they “just did the right thing,” but it’s quite another to actually do it. Values that sound so right when you adopt them are almost certain to clash with future circumstances, and what then? How much “flexibility” should you tolerate? When and how should you bend the rules? After all, values can’t be cast in stone … or can they? Should everyone be allowed to bend them, or just a special few?

The second reason is that all too often the very people who espouse a set of values are the ones who violate them. And are seen to violate them. They set a bad example—”Do what I say, not what I do.” Perhaps they never really believed in those values in the first place, but needed something to improve their company’s performance and thought a values statement might do the trick. Or maybe they were just humouring the HR department. Or they just wanted to be seen to be standing for the right things and to be in tune with the latest management thinking.

Individual and groups all have values of one sort or another. These may be either implicit or explicit. But it’s sheer delusion to think that merely drafting an explicit set of values will keep a company out of trouble. Take another look at Goldman’s response to Greg Smith:

“We were disappointed to read the assertions by this individual that DO NOT REFLECT OUR VALUES…”

This begs several questions: What exactly are those values? How were they defined and how are they communicated? Who champions them? How rigorously does the firm test itself against them? What sanctions exist for violating them?

It also illustrates the high probability of mixed messages about this very central, very potent subject. Leaders do not always send consistent signals. People interpret things differently. And they misinterpret things very easily.

For all the value in  values, there’s also a risk in making a big deal of them. When you tell your team that you expect them to adhere to a certain code, every word immediately becomes a potential rod for your own back. From the minute you utter them, the people around you listen, watch, and wait: “Oh yes … let’s see if she really means this.” And if you’re not 100% resolute and consistent in your own behaviour, their response will be, “If she was so serious about those values, but then didn’t stick to them, what else is she not being honest about? How can I trust her about anything?”

DID SMITH DO THE RIGHT THING?

It’s easy to be critical of corporate behaviour—and much of it deserves major criticism. Whistleblowers do have an important role to play in exposing corporate misdemeanors and ensuring that executives are held to account. But while Smith complains that “It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off,” he also admits, “I don’t know of any illegal behaviour…” No doubt, we’ll hear more about that. Meanwhile, several clients have commented on the internet that they use Goldman because it gets results for them.

Smith spent 12 years at Goldman, in New York and London, so had plenty of time to choose to leave. For at least a decade he “recruited and mentored candidates through our grueling interview process”—most likely in the last 10 years of his career there, not the first. So how was he able to suppress his growing disgust at Goldman’s ethos and its leaders, and what did he tell those young people? Why did he agree to keep selling something he abhorred?

In his essay, he makes a strong effort to establish his own bona fides, but doesn’t say whether he ever spoke up before he savaged the hand that fed him. We’re left to guess whether the practices that caused his disappointment in Goldman in any way helped him earn his bonuses.

Smith isn’t the first person to leave a firm in a public huff. He won’t be the last. But his use of the New York Times to strike at his employer was a particularly spiteful move.

The Greg Smith/Goldman Sachs case is a special one in many ways, and the story is a work in progress. It has a long, long way to run.

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  •  17/03/2012
Mar 092012
 

In these uncertain times, the value of strategy is often questioned by anxious executives. Is there any point in having a strategy, they wonder, when conditions change so fast and it’s so hard to be sure what might happen next? What’s the best way to make strategy? Can we still reply on the process we’ve always used, or is there some new way to go about it? Are we wasting our time on long-term plans when we’d be better off just tackling what’s on our agenda right now? Should we spend less time trying to fine-tune our strategy, and more on building our capabilities and honing our ability to flex and adapt as things change around us?

While different companies and consultants may go about developing strategy in slightly different ways, every management team needs to ask and answer three fundamental questions:

  1. What’s happening around us, and what might happen next?
  2. What are we trying to achieve?
  3. How shall we go about it?

To help answer these questions, firms may commission market studies, gather detailed competitor information, conduct benchmarking exercises, or create future scenarios. Many default to a SWOT exercise (but wind up listing most of the same strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats that they wrote up last time around!) Some are fans of Michael Porter’s “five-forces” or “value chain” analysis. Others prefer to talk about “core competences” or “capabilities,” or about finding a “blue ocean” in which they’ll happily have no competition.

A lot of companies do much of the work internally, perhaps using off-site retreats for focused debate. Many hire consultants to do the grunt work, guide their discussions, and provide an outsider’s perspectives—and hopefully some fresh insights. Or they bring in economists, political analysts, demographers, trend watchers, or functional experts to enhance their understanding of the environment and their industry.

Invariably, the end result is some kind of document. Answers to those three questions should—but don’t always—provide the basis for allocating resources and developing budgets. (Strategizing and budgeting don’t always sit easily together!)

Of course, you might ask any number of other questions to enhance your strategy discussion. There are many tools, developed by very smart people, to help you. But these three questions are the ones that matter. If you avoid them or treat them carelessly, you’ll be sorry.

Now, let’s consider them from a slightly different perspective, and using slightly different language. Let’s look at a model that will help you shape your future agenda … and your business.

THE 3Cs OF COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE

Almost always, when CEOs brief me for a strategy assignment, they start by telling me, “Our business is different.” Then they spell out their situation and challenges in much the same way as others in quite different firms and industries have done. So I’ve heard the same script over and over.

While it’s true that businesses are different, there are many similarities, too. There is a common story. Whether you sell hot dogs or passenger jets, luxury goods or financial services, there’s a core set of issues you just have to think about. I call them the 3Cs. They are:

  1. Your operating context (external and internal)
  2. The concepts that shape your thinking and that you use to manage your business
  3. How you conduct your affairs.

The 3Cs are the foundations of strategy

  • Your external context is largely out of your control. It’s the hand you’ve been dealt. You might be able to influence parts of it, but never all of it. But you have to fit into it, so the best you can do is adapt to what’s happening around you. Your internal context, on the other hand, is something you can mould and change. You can shape both the culture and climate in your firm. You can choose the people you hire; what processes, systems, and technologies to use; and what kind of working conditions to create.
  • Concepts help us make sense of things. They help us cut through complexity and make things simple enough to understand. So we have concepts of how the world works. Of how businesses should work (business models). Of how we can make them work (management ideas, philosophies, and tools). And of what a business might look like in 3, 5, or 35 years.
  • Conduct is about what we do and how we do it. It’s our behaviour—as individuals or a team—at work and towards each other. And towards customers, competitors, investors, government, unions, and other stakeholders. It also describes the processes, systems, and technologies we use, and how we deal with matters ranging from discipline to customer service, from quality and productivity to innovation and acquisitions.
MANAGERS TEND TO PUT CONCEPTS FIRST … BUT NOT ALWAYS THE MOST IMPORTANT ONES

In my experience, most companies spend most of their time thinking about concepts. But instead of dreaming up new ideas about how to compete, and designing new business models, they flail around in search of the latest tools—most of which turn out to be fads—that may save their skin. Too often, they have no idea whether they have a hammer or a saw in their hands, and no clue about using either. Besides, they fail to master whichever new “thing” they fall for, or to entrench it in their organizations. And when it doesn’t work quite as they expected, they dump it and dash after something even sexier. So it’s little wonder that they make less progress than they’d like.

Competing for tomorrow’s customers involves many factors, and management concepts (ideas, philosophies, and tools) are critical. But first you need a business concept—a point of view about how best to compete. For without a clear model, map, or blueprint, you’ll not only struggle to make sensible decisions, you’ll also fail to focus and integrate your activities. And it will be impossible to choose the right management concepts.

Today, one industry after another is being transformed by companies inventing new ways of creating and capturing value. The boundaries between sectors are blurring and even disappearing. There are overlaps everywhere. Suddenly, yesterday’s friends are eating each other’s lunch.

Executives who understand the “new normal” and the need for “business unusual,” are frantically clawing their way into the future. They’re cooking up new business models to make old ones irrelevant. And because it’s happening on so many fronts, and so fast, the shelf life of these models is shrinking—which, in turn, leads to even more frenetic activity.

Upstart firms with no baggage pose an obvious threat because they’re not encumbered by installed infrastructure, sunk costs, or deeply ingrained beliefs and habits. Their founders are usually determined to turn convention on its head, and to raise the customer service bar from day one. Their focus is on creating new concepts of business, rather than tweaking old ones with some new-fangled management tool.

Established firms can be even more dangerous, simply because they are established. They’ve survived good times and bad and periodically reinvented themselves. They know how things work in their sector, so they don’t have to figure that out from scratch. They have deep skills and valuable relationships, and their delivery mechanisms are in place. They have a presence and a reputation in the marketplace, so customers know what they offer and how to find them. And they can afford to conduct research, experiment, explore—and make mistakes.

IT’S WHAT YOU DO THAT COUNTS, NOT WHAT YOU SAY

Concepts are clearly important. You need a mental picture of how your industry works and how best to compete in it.  You also need to understand what management ideas are available, which are best for you, and how to use them.

But it’s equally important to understand how your company should act (its conduct) and to make that behavior a way of life. (This was highlighted for me in a discussion with Willie Pietersen, professor of strategy at Columbia Business School. At that time I was focusing on context and concepts. He pointed out that there was a missing factor—conduct—that could make all the difference. For that, I thank him.)

Strategy does matter. In fact, it matters more today than ever. But it has limitations. The whole notion of “sustainable advantage,” the core idea in most strategy books, is under siege.

Because we live in an information age, it’s easier than ever to find out what you need to know about markets, customers, competitors, and so forth. At the same time, executives are taught more or less the same things in business schools, read the same books and journals, attend the same conferences, and network with peers in their industry and with analysts and journalists who watch it.  And companies belong to the same industry bodies, hire the same consultants, recruit  each other’s people, buy from common suppliers, and—increasingly—collaborate with their competitors.

The result: there are very few secrets, and even the most closely-guarded of strategies is unlikely to stay under wraps for long. Breakthrough ideas and strategic shifts in one company are quickly noted, decoded, and adopted by others. Sustainable advantage is a fine ideal, but the reality for most firms is that the best they can hope for is a series of unsustainable advantages.

Harvard strategy guru Michael Porter advises that companies should avoid “running the same race” as their competitors, and rather “run a different race.” The theory is sound, but in practice that’s mostly a pipe-dream. Like it or not, you’re going to wind up running the same race as your enemies. And it’ll happen faster than you think.

Staying ahead of the game today depends increasingly on the ability of your organization to constantly adjust its conduct to fit your changing context. Or, as I tell my clients, to run faster than the other guy.

The external environment is where companies usually focus their search for opportunities. But as I’ve already said, “in-the-box” thinking may be even more profitable than “out-of-the-box thinking. For the internal environment is where things go right or wrong, where external opportunities are captured or squandered, and where you can score some quick wins and build some long-term advantages.

THE NEW BUSINESS ARENA

Concepts and conduct deserve attention. But whatever you do in those areas will only pay off if it fits your context—your zeitgeist, or the “spirit of your time.” Without a deep understanding of the environment around you, and of the context inside your firm in which your people work, you will never design the most appropriate business model, choose the most suitable management tools, or settle on the most appropriate behaviours.

The astonishing changes that are now taking place around the world, in every aspect of our lives, have profound implications for business. This is a time to reset your strategy. To dissect it, put it under a microscope, and think long and hard about what you see. And then to make whatever changes might be needed.

But first, you need to know more about the context in which you do business. You need to understand the trends that affect you, and the players who influence your organization in one way or another. You need to review your assumptions about politics, the economy, society, technology, customers, and competitors, and other “stakeholders.” And you need to keep testing those assumptions, embracing new information and insights, and  sharing them with your colleagues.

Starting today, make it an obsession to understand your context. Change the way you spend your time to make this your priority. Talk about it in every conversation. And watch how soon you start to see new possibilities, and your team gets the message that change must be normal.

A NEW AGENDA FOR EXECUTIVE DEVELOPMENT

For the past 100-odd years, most management and leadership programmes have focused on skills development. In the future, they’ll need to redirect their attention from management concepts (ideas, philosophies, tools) to concepts of business (business model design) and to the context of business (the environment in which business gets done).

The fact is, there is just a handful of management concepts that matter, and they can be taught very quickly; after that, practice has to kick in. The real challenge for tomorrow’s leaders is to know about new business models, and to know how to create them. And for that, they need to have a deep understanding of the world around them.

This will be a big shift, so I’ll have more to say about it in a future blog post!

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  •  09/03/2012
Mar 052012
 

Most companies have a strategy, but the quality of those strategies varies greatly. Not all are equally sound. A lot are utterly useless. And all too often, even the best of strategies won’t get turned into action because of organizational weaknesses.

You might wonder if strategy really is necessary in today’s environment of extreme uncertainty, roller-coaster volatility, resource constraints, and rising competitive hostility. The answer: unequivocally yes! In fact, right now, strategy matters more than ever. Precisely because the world is so hard to understand and there are so many surprises, you need a strategy in order to give you the best possible chance of defining your own future.

This is no time to be careless or vague, to bet on yesterday’s strategy taking you into the future, or to bank on your competitors being idiots. A carefully thought-through, robust strategy is essential for riding the “white waters” we’re in, and that in turn requires a systematic, disciplined strategy process. Now, more than ever, you need to subject your strategy—and the way you made it—to tough, dispassionate review.

No doubt you and your colleagues have put a lot of effort into your strategy. You’ve probably thought long and hard about the best process to use, what it should address, what you should finally say, and how you should communicate the outcome. But before you rush ahead with implementation, pause for a moment. Stand back and take another long, hard look a what you’ve decided. Use this checklist to stress-test your strategy. These 20 questions may highlight weaknesses, trigger new insights, or lead to new decisions.

One set of questions helps you evaluate your overall strategy:

  1. Is your strategy based on specific and sound assumptions?
  2. Is it based on adequate and accurate information—most importantly, about customers, competitors, your operating context, and your own capabilities?
  3. Does it address all the key issues facing your company, or have you overlooked some or skirted around the tricky ones?
  4. Are you clear about the results you want, and will it raise your chances of delivering them?
  5. Will it give you a meaningful advantage over competitors, and can you capture the value of that edge?
  6. Have you made the right trade-offs, or are you making too many compromises?
  7. Do you have what it takes to make it work—resources, capabilities, attitude, stakeholder support, etc?
  8. Will it be sufficiently hard for competitors to understand, copy, or nullify?
  9. Will important competitors worry about it, and wish they’d thought of it first?
  10. Does it lock you into a particular course, or will you be able to change direction when you need to?
  11. Is this strategy unquestionably the best you can do given your current circumstances?
  12. Does it have legs – i.e., will it give you the results you want for long enough to make it pay off?

A second set of questions looks at your chances of making your strategy work:

  1. Is your strategy simple, clear, and specific (i.e., will it be easy to explain, will it make sense, and will you be able to stay “on message”)?
  2. Does it have just a few (3-5) key goals that are unquestionably the priorities, and will achieving them get you where you want to go?
  3. Are those goals followed by (3-5) well-defined actions, and are specific individuals responsible for those actions within specified time-frames?
  4. Do you have the right people in all functions, and are they excited about your strategy and aligned behind it?
  5. Do the “pivotal people” on your team (the few who are the most critical “gears in the system”) have the skills and clout they need to make things happen?
  6. Do they have the information, resources, and support they need, and will they continue to get it?
  7. Will your organizational arrangements (structure, processes, systems, culture, incentives, etc.) support your strategy?
  8. Do you understand the risks that lie ahead, and do you have plans to deal with them?

All of these appear to be quite simple questions. But they may be tougher than you imagine. Getting to the answers may be painful, and you and your colleagues may not like them.

But remember, strategy is not just about logic, analysis, and hard decisions. It’s also a highly-charged social, political, and emotional subject. If you don’t start out with that understanding, and if you fail to confront reality while you craft your strategy, don’t expect great results. The world is just too tough for that, and it’s getting tougher.

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  •  05/03/2012
Feb 282012
 

Like many other countries today, South Africa has an awful unemployment problem. But ours is not a new problem. For too long it has simply been denied, and only recently has it become a “big issue.” Now, there’s panic in the land.

As other countries are discovering, disaffected young people who have no hope are extremely dangerous. So it’s in everyone’s interests to do everything possible to deal with the matter. Government must play a key role, not just in employing people and providing a welfare net for those who don’t find jobs, but also in creating a policy and regulatory environment that makes hiring people a good idea. And business, naturally, has a huge part to play too.

Here is a speech I made at a graduation ceremony at the University of Johannesburg on September 29, 2009, which, hopefully, will trigger some reflection … and action.

 

Tony Manning

Graduation Address

University of Johannesburg 

September 29, 2009

Good afternoon, and thank you for inviting me to be here today.

Let me begin by congratulating you on your achievement. I can only imagine the hard work and sacrifice that has brought you to this graduation. I’m very proud to be part of your celebration.

Obviously, when you invite someone to talk at an event like this, you expect them to tell you something interesting or useful or entertaining. But I’d like to start by asking you a question. One that I hope you’ll think hard about in days and weeks to come.

The question is this: what are you going to do to make a difference in this world?

It’s especially important to ask that right now, for the world is in a delicate and dangerous state.

A year ago, Lehmann Brothers collapsed, and the global financial system went into meltdown. Research by some economists shows that on many indicators, the crisis we’re still working through is worse than the Great Depression 60 years ago.

There are massive challenges ahead. As Jeffrey Immelt, the chairman of General Electric has said, this a time of “reset” in which organizations, institutions, systems, processes and values are being turned on their heads. Ideas and deeply-held beliefs about everything from capitalism to climate change, from consumerism to corporate governance—and yes, business education too—are all under the microscope.

But I’d like to focus on just one issue.

Exactly five years ago, in September of 2004, I wrote an article in Business Day headlined, “What if unemployment can’t be fixed?” The former editor of a major newspaper suggested in a letter to the paper that I was being racist—the same tactic now used so quickly when someone doesn’t like what you say.

But consider where we are now.

Some jobs were created as growth improved after 1994. But there weren’t enough of them, given the increase in population, to soak up the new job seekers. So while the unemployment level came down, it remained stubbornly high.

When ASGISA was announced with much fanfare in February 2006, the intention was to light a fuse under the economy in order to halve poverty and unemployment by 2014. And for a brief moment, we happily rode the wave of an international economic super-cycle that was like nothing anyone had seen before.

But then, along with just about everyone else’s, our economy dived from strong positive growth into negative territory. And right now, we’re bumping along, with many things just getting less worse rather than really better.

Even as pressures grow for government to add to an already long list of things to do and expensive promises to meet, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan warns that the tax take is in a nosedive and the budget deficit is rising fast. Economists see growth in the next few years hovering at perhaps 3% to 4% rather than the 6%-plus ASGISA goal.

This year, anywhere from 250 000 to 475 000 jobs have been lost, depending on which survey you use. And while there is now quite a lot of chatter about “green shoots” of recovery, there are also worrying signs that when it does come, it’s likely to be weaker than we’d wish.

Globally, massive long-term unemployment will plague societies for years. Add this burden to exploding government debt, weak consumer spending, and massive overcapacity in many industries, and there’s a very good prospect of a recovery that’s not V-shaped or U-shaped, but W-shaped – in other words, some short-term good news followed by another sharp slump.

For many years, I have made the point in books and speeches that manufacturing will never be the job-creation miracle it was expected to be. So it’s no surprise that we now hear Ebrahim Patel, the Minister of Economic Development, warning that this country could become de-industrialised. That risk will grow as aggressive foreign companies appear on our doorstep and chase after our local customers in their efforts to recover from this recession.  It really is a dog-eat dog world, and the fight will be deadly.

Other sectors of the South African economy—tourism and commodity exports particularly—will take up some of the slack. Infrastructure spending is a timely boon. The FIFA 2010 Football World Cup will undoubtedly give us a boost. But the harsh fact is that in this knowledge age, South Africa is not making the progress it should in creating knowledge work and knowledge workers. At the same time, we’re stuck with a legacy of many millions of people who simply aren’t equipped to get or hold a job in the information age. And we have a basic education system which has been labeled a toxic mess, and which will not produce those workers—perhaps for decades.

The bottom line is that for all the promises, plans, and grand intentions that fly about, we’ll struggle to grow this economy as fast as we must to lift people out of poverty and create a better life for all.

Which brings me to the critical point.

A few months back, Johnny Steinberg wrote an article in Business Day in which he commented on a UCT study of young people in three communities around Cape Town. He noted especially how very hopeful they were of a bright future. This, in the face of the harsh reality that most will be disappointed, frustrated, and deeply angered by their inability to ever escape their lives of perhaps not-so-quiet desperation.

Then about two weeks ago, Brian Whittaker, the Chief Executive of the Business Trust, picked up on that article, and in an article of his own in the same paper said this:

“… leaders are going to have to build a shared understanding of where we want to go as a nation and lead their constituencies to places they would not go on their own.

“For business leadership, this means coming to terms with the fact that the building of a prosperous nation requires simultaneous attention to growth inequality and poverty.”

And he posed this question: “…if we expect those who have the least to defer their demand for a better life, what will those of us who have prospered in this land give in return?”

What indeed? This is the big question—our elephant in the room. The Development Indicators report released last week by the Presidency  paints a disappointing picture of our fight against poverty. As Professor Haroon Bhorat commented, South Africa is “the most consistently unequal society in the world.”

The 2009 Budget Review reports that government spending on social protection shot up from R72.3bn in 2005/06 to R118.1bn this year. About 13.4 million people rely on grants. We are entrenching dependence, poverty, inequality, and exclusion.

Pre-empting other commentators, I ended my 2004 article by saying, “As a matter of extreme urgency, leaders in all sectors need to consider not just how to create jobs, but also how to deal with a society in which expectations are high and jobs do not come. There are dangers ahead, and we are denying them.”

So back to my question: what are you going to do to make a difference in this world? This should be the question that keeps you awake at night.

Many years ago, Marshall McLuhan, a famous media expert, coined the term “global village.” In his book, Understanding Media, which became a best-seller long before anyone imagined the Internet and cellphones, he made the point that courtesy of new media “none of us can any longer think of ourselves as passengers on Spaceship Earth; all of us are crew.” And so it is with Spaceship South Africa—all of us are crew.

You are among the fortunate few, educated to succeed in a modern economy.  You are our best and brightest, our hope for the future. The choice now is whether to be just another passenger on Spaceship South Africa … or one of the crew.

 

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  •  28/02/2012
Feb 282012
 

What on earth is going on? Just what is the outlook for the world economy? Are there better times ahead … or will things get worse? Are we entering a new recovery phase … or are we in for a protracted period of little or no growth? Or are we on the edge of an abyss? What should companies plan for?

Opinions are all over the place. The signals are mixed, and making sense of them isn’t easy (and this is such an important issue, that everyone and his dog has an opinion on it!)

UNDERESTIMATING THE CHALLENGE

When the global economy hit the skids in 2008, few people saw real trouble ahead. Fewer still saw lasting trouble. Most “experts” forecast a quick turnaround. After all, wasn’t the subprime problem in the US an isolated one, affecting just a small sector of that country’s property market? Weren’t the major economies of the world “decoupled” from each other, so that cracks in one wouldn’t appear elsewhere? Hadn’t central banks worked out how to run things smoothly and avoid sudden ups and downs? And weren’t we, in any event, all in the midst of a “long boom” which would last for decades, narrow the global poverty gap, and enable billions of people to enjoy a better life?

Of course, there were reasons to imagine that a temporary glitch would not lead to long-term pain. And of course, most people wanted to believe that everything was OK, and that soon conditions would return to normal.

But as things got steadily worse, opinions began to diverge. Some pundits argued that the trend would be V-shaped, with a short, sharp downturn followed by a rapid upturn. Others said it would be U-shaped: sharply down, bumping along the bottom for a while, then sharply up. Or perhaps a “bathtub” shape, with more time on the bottom. Or, worst of all, W-shaped, with a quick recovery followed just as fast by another nosedive. Even now, there are arguments about which of these is right, and whether or not the world is on the brink of a dreaded double-dip recession—or, God forbid!—a fully-fledged depression. So every day we’re treated to talking heads on business TV channels arguing vehemently for one view or another. And to widespread confusion.

Looking back, it’s clear that most economists misread what was to come. Optimists outnumbered pessimists by a wide margin. Most growth forecasts were too high. And even now, the human tendency to pounce on the positive and brush aside the negative continues to shape opinion.

A TROUBLING PICTURE

What’s ahead for the world economy depends primarily on what happens in just three places: the United States, Europe, and China. But it could also be impacted by events that are already unfolding elsewhere—in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Somalia, and so on. And given the recent surge in natural calamities, more “black swan” disruptions should not surprise us—but they will.

In a sharp downward revision, the World Bank recently forecast global economic growth of 2.5% this year, down from a June estimate of 3.6%. The Euro area may contract by 0.3%, down from a previous estimate of a 1.8% gain. The U.S. growth outlook was cut to 2.2% from 2.9%. The forecast for China was unchanged, at 8.4%—though the Chinese government has since cut its own forecast for the medium-to-long term to 7.5%.

Growth will be uneven. High-income economies are expected to grow by 1.4% this year, down from a June estimate of 2.7 percent while emerging economies will grow by 5.4%. However, there is many a slip twixt cup and lip, and predictions have been ratcheted down so fast recently that it makes sense to be edgy. Besides, there’s a risk that turmoil in the Eurozone and problems elsewhere will feed on each other, leading to a worse outlook for everyone.

The U.S. economy appears to be gaining steam: Consumer confidence is the highest in a year. January jobless claims were down for the third month in a row (albeit largely because a growing number of unemployed people have given up searching for work). Car sales have been accelerating for some time, as evidenced by General Motors’ announcement of a record $9.7 billion annual profit. On February 21, the Dow rose above 13 000 for the first time since 2008 (it’s up more than 60% on Obama’s watch). Companies are flush with cash, and some are starting to rebuild inventories.

But all is not well in the world’s largest economy. Gas prices are going up, and eating into household budgets. There has been no net increase in jobs for a decade, even though the population has grown. Wages and benefits are being cut. Home sales and prices keep falling, and a third of homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth.

As USA Today reported on January 9, the nation’s debt of more than $15 trillion is now as big as the entire economy, and  growing faster. (The economy would have to expand by 6% a year to keep up!) President Obama’s budget sees debt of more than $26 trillion by 2022. And it’s sobering to reflect that Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Italy, and Portugal are the only advanced nations whose whose debts are bigger than their economies.

As if this sorry state of affairs were not worrying enough, political gridlock and a pandering to special interests is preventing necessary changes. Election-year rhetoric doesn’t help either. But whoever is sworn in as President in November faces the stark reality of that debt bomb, and will have to act fast and brutally to have any hope of dealing with it.

China, too, has hit a bump in the road (though many observers quip, “Which country wouldn’t welcome a drop in GDP growth to only 8% or so?”) It suits us to think it’ll keep powering ahead, because so much rides on that happening. But a slowdown has been in the making for a while, which could be worse than the World Bank thinks; some bearish analysts say growth of only 5% or 6% is likely.

Foreign direct investment into China has fallen sharply. Overseas customers are spending less, and Chinese exports are taking strain. A property bubble is inflating. Rising wage rates are starting to affect competitiveness, and Chinese companies are relocating manufacturing operations to other, lower-cost Asian countries. Social unrest has been spreading, and there are fears of more of it as new job seekers surge to the cities and many firms cut back on hiring.

However, Robert Zoellick, outgoing President of the World Bank, sees “a soft landing” for China. And Jim O’Neill, Chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management and author of The Growth Map, an excellent book on the rise of the BRIC nations, reminds us that “in the 6 weeks of 2012 so far, China will have created the equivalent of 1/2 another Greece.”

The Chinese central bank has just cut the level of reserves required of the country’s banks, to enable them to lend more easily. A range of other interventions is likely. In addition, China is under pressure to make much needed structural changes to its economy in coming years, and will surely tackle some of them. It will also continue its massive infrastructural spend, and keep importing raw materials. And its manufacturers will keep moving relentlessly up the value curve, churning out more high value-added products—at prices foreign competitors can’t match. So the 800-pound Asian gorilla will continue to grow at a good lick, and to play an increasingly pivotal role in the world economy.

And then there’s Europe—the elephant in the room. The region which has the rest of the world holding its collective breath.

According to the European Commission, the Eurozone is now in “mild recession.” Eight European economies will shrink in 2012—the double-dip we’ve been warned about. Better performance is possible, but it hinges on real progress in repairing the continent’s finances. And there’s no certainty this will happen.

For more than two years, Greece has been a nasty boil that should have been lanced and cleaned out decisively. But Europe is still kicking that can down the road. Doing as little as possible as late as possible to defer the inevitable. Pretending that if Greece gets a helping hand, it won’t default and leave the Eurozone, unleashing a wave of trouble across the continent—and the world. And imposing increasingly onerous conditions on a country that’s already on its knees, with truly pitiful prospects of lifting itself up.

Europe’s finance ministers have agreed to a second bailout package of $171 billion (€130 billion) by 2014, with private investors “voluntarily” writing off $53.3 billion of their Greek bonds (half of that country’s  private sector debt). In return, Greece must cut its budget deficit to 120.5% of GDP by 2020.

The architects of this charade are banking on Greek politicians being able to deliver their side of the bargain, and on voters in the countries Greece now relies on agreeing to all this. They’re hoping against hope, too, that the promise of yet another chunk of cash—which had to start flowing by March 20 to avoid Greece going bankrupt—will persuade rioting Greeks to get off the streets, accept even more crushing hardships for the next couple of decades, forget about state jobs for life, become successful entrepreneurs soon enough to buy their next meal, and rise past the humiliation of it all. Oh, and keep their money in Greece and pay their taxes!

While the Greek parliament has OK’d the deal, that’s just the beginning. Previous promises to reform came to nothing. Perhaps it’ll be different this time, because it’s clear there will be no quick or easy fix. But citizens will get angrier as life gets tougher for them. Igniting growth in Greece will be a very long, very hard slog. A Citigroup report warns that Greece is in for a long depression, and that its debt-to-GDP ratio will hit 160% by 2020, rather than the intended 120.5%. So there will come a time—quite soon—when the nasty truth has to be faced that Greece has to default, has to abandon the Euro, and has to paddle its own canoe.

The assumptions on which this bailout is based are daft. The chances that another bailout won’t be necessary are about zero. There’s a lot of agony to come—not least for the European banks that have been coerced into taking an ugly short-term “haircut” rather than face the prospect of losing everything. No one is sure just how bad the pain will be, but it will be bad. And it will be widely shared. And it will last a long time.

And that’s just Greece. There’s also Italy, Spain, Ireland, and Portugal. They’re all limping along on the edge of catastrophe, and a default by any of them would have worldwide repercussions that would be much worse than the Lehman effect. Their chances of simultaneously slashing their budgets and growing out of trouble are not good. So chances of further defaults—and resulting contagion—are high.

RE-THINKING ECONOMICS

The world is in the midst of a great economic experiment whose outcome is entirely uncertain. Capitalism is under siege. Governments are becoming more interventionist. Economists are rethinking their favorite theories. The Keynes vs. Heyek debate has a long way to run. The full impact of government stimulus efforts on the one hand, and austerity programmes on the other, is yet to be felt and understood.

So far, opinions are mixed. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, a long-time critic of the austerity camp, argues in his New York Times column of February 19 that things have been made worse than necessary “by the way Europe’s leaders, and more broadly its policy elite, substituted moralizing for analysis, fantasies for the lessons history.” Unfortunately, he adds, “the confidence fairy has failed to show up.”

In similar vein, Mohamed El-Erian, CEO of PIMCO, the largest US bond trader, warns that the lessons of Argentina a decade ago are being ignored by the financiers and politicians dealing with the Greek crisis today. Instead of boosting confidence, austerity measures in Argentina caused citizens to empty their bank accounts and spurred capital flight. The government failed to meet its policy commitments, social and political pressures mounted, and the country defaulted in December 2001.

But consider Britain—a clear leader in the austerity stakes. As David Smith points out in London’s Sunday Times of February 26, it’s on course to undershoot its £127 billion borrowing needs for 2011-12—perhaps by as much as £10 billion. Car manufacturers boosted production by 15.6% in January, compared to the same month a year ago. The CBI says export orders are well up on long-term averages. Austerity measures have not yet fully kicked in, but an analysis by Goldman Sachs says last year took the big hit.

To complicate matters, this high-stakes economic experiment is being conducted in a laboratory where scientists are coming and going, opinions are divided, political games are being played in the hallways, and surrounding societies are in spasms of anxiety. And it’s happening in a time of great change, when an array of major events is unfolding with the potential to throw even the best of plans off course and to radically affect our future.

Can you cut your way to growth? Will disgruntled citizens give governments the leeway to do their thing? What will become of the unemployed masses?

The world is undergoing a radical reset, not a minor tweak. There are no easy answers.

CRITICAL CHANGES ADD UNCERTAINTY

High unemployment has become a structural reality across the globe. Countless millions of people will never have a job in their lives—or get a new one. Countless millions will either retire later than they intend, or have to forget about retiring at all. Demographic shifts are altering the shape of societies: in some countries, the population is growing and young; in others, it’s slowing and old. Almost everywhere, people are streaming from rural areas towards towns and cities in the greatest migration ever.

The early promise of the “Arab spring” has given way to deep concerns about what comes next in the Middle East, and how events there will spill over into other regions. Iraq is still not at peace with itself. Afghanistan appears to be unravelling, and the Taliban are resurgent. Libya and Egypt are a mess. Syria is an unmitigated disaster. Iran’s obstinate stance over nuclear power could result in oil prices going through the roof and a nuclear race in its neighborhood (it also raises two questions with awful consequences: will Israel bomb first, or will Iran get a bomb first?)

Meanwhile, Nigeria is being torn apart by Boko Haram terror attacks and political strife. Terrorism is a growing threat in Kenya. Somali pirates are causing problems for shipping along Africa’s east coast, and hostage-taking is a growth industry. In major cities around the globe, the “Occupy” movement is already affecting views about the role and responsibilities of both both government and business, about social inequality, and about executive pay—debates that will surely intensify.

Coming months will see elections and possible leadership changes in some of the world’s most important countries. Outcomes of this year’s elections in Russia, France, and the United States are uncertain. In China, a succession process is under way with Vice-President Xi Jinping look set to to take the top job.

Other countries, too, have leadership issues. North Korea has just confirmed a 28-year-old, untested but belligerent new dictator, who is keen to prove himself.  Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez has cancer and may not be in office too much longer. Robert Mugabe will cling to power in Zimbabwe if his health holds up, no doubt to do further damage to his beautiful country. And South Africa will have a fractious year, as the ruling ANC gears up for its July policy conference and December elective conference, and politicians vie for power and tenders.

At the same time, extraordinary breakthroughs in technology are transforming industries, enabling companies to operate in new ways, and changing customers’ lives. Cyber-crime and attacks are becoming more plentiful, frequent, costly, and disruptive. And there’s growing pressure to deal with climate change.

In a year when Charles Dickens is being celebrated, his words from A Tale of Two Cities (1859) ring truer than ever:

It was the best of times,
It was the worst of times,
It was the age of wisdom,
It was the age of foolishness,
It was the epoch of belief,
It was the epoch of incredulity,
It was the spring of hope,
It was the winter of despair,
We had everything before us,
We had nothing before us,
We were all going direct to heaven,
We were all going direct the other way

BUSINESS IMPLICATIONS

So what does the future hold for business? Here’s what I think matters most:

  1. Tough economic times will be with us for many years. This truly is an age of frugality. But population and productivity growth will enable some countries and regions to do exceptionally well, and they’ll provide great opportunities for others.
  2. We can see quite a lot of what lies ahead, but not all of it, and there will be surprises. Companies need to strengthen their sensing capabilities and spend more time making sense of what they see. They also need to strike a careful balance between investments and activities that are “fixed” and those that are flexible, and develop the mindset and the processes that make swift change possible.
  3. Competition in virtually every industry is escalating at an astonishing rate. Companies everywhere are desperate to sell stuff to anyone they can—and selling anything is getting harder. They’re innovating and hustling as never before. If you blink, they’ll eat your lunch.
  4. Every market is an emerging market. The rules of the game are changing everywhere. They’re turned upside down by new customers, new customer behaviours, new competitors, new distribution possibilities, new regulations, new social trends, new media, etc., etc.
  5. Offering “good enough” products or services (a popular new mantra) might get you into a market, but it won’t give you an edge for long. As competitors drive value up and costs down, customer perceptions of “value” change rapidly. If you don’t keep making a difference that matters you just won’t stay in business.
  6. Business needs to keep rethinking its role and responsibilities in society. Companies need to create value for an array of stakeholders, not just for their shareholders.
  7. If your company is not fighting fit for this new world, you need to shape up fast. There really is no time to waste.
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  •  28/02/2012