Dec 012012
 

Disruption must surely be the hottest strategy concept of the past decade. But it is less of a breakthrough than it’s made out to be. And it may unnecessarily impede your strategic thinking.

The idea grew out of a study by Joseph Bower and Clayton Christensen, both professors at Harvard Business School, which saw light in a 1995 Harvard Business Review article titled “Disruptive Technologies, Catching The Wave.” It was subsequently moulded into a theory by Christensen, making him a superstar and spawning many books and articles by him and others. Thanks to determined promotion, it’s now a term you hear in almost every management discussion—though it’s seldom used as precisely as Christensen proposes.

The gospel according to Christensen goes like this:

In their quest for the most profitable customers, companies innovate and improve aggressively—and give customers more than they need or will pay for. And the more intently they listen to their customers, the more they up their game and sustain that gap.

While they focus on the next-generation performance needs of the most attractive customers, guerilla competitors sneak in under their price umbrella and target less attractive customers who’re being overlooked, ignored or under-served. The upstarts ask, “Who is not getting attention?” “What is value to those customers?”

The customers they aim at aren’t in the market for state-of-the-art products. So these firms can ditch the bells and whistles and keep costs and prices low.

Initially, the leaders don’t see a threat. The challengers are of no appeal to their best customers and aren’t chasing them anyway. Those customers they do lure are likely to be ones who always want a deal, are satisfied with “good enough” offerings, and won’t be missed.

But this is just a lull before the storm. Quite soon, more mainstream customers are tempted by the no-frills competitors. They need to forego some of the “value” they’ve grown used to, but what they get does the job—plus it’s easier to use, more convenient, and more affordable. So it offers them value, albeit not the kind they’ve been used to.

Many established players have been hurt this way—think clothing, airlines, steel, medical devices, consumer electronics, autos, and so on. But then they make things worse for themselves.

In an effort to counter competitors who won’t play by their rules, they typically race even faster up the value path. They invest even more in innovation and pile on features and benefits. But in their efforts to stay ahead of their enemies, they also stay ahead of their customers; and the cost of their overkill forces them to keep hiking their prices.

Some customers stick with them because they don’t mind paying more for products that they perceive to be at the leading edge. But the pool gets smaller. And the harder these firms try to hang on to their traditional business, the more they lock themselves into their “superior” strategy—and the worse things get for them.

FEW OPTIONS

If the leader wishes to retain its low-end customers, it has three options:

  1. Pump up its promotional activities, to hopefully persuade those customers to stay loyal.
  2. Keep offering the same products, but at a lower price.
  3. Eliminate some features and benefits, and cut prices.

The problem with Option 1 is that if customers learn that a competitor’s low-end offering is OK and costs less, some will leave. No amount of hype will convince them to keep paying top dollar for “value” they don’t need.

Option 2 may keep customers coming back, but margins will take a hit and buyers who’d paid the higher price will feel they ‘d been screwed.

Option 3 will result in the loss of top-end customers. The company will cannibalize itself. By offering less and tacitly admitting to customers that they’ve been paying too much, it’ll drive them into the arms of cheaper competitors.

Faced with these unpalatable choices, and trying desperately to evade the pesky newcomers, firms tend to even more doggedly pursue their current customers—whose numbers keep shrinking. Meanwhile, their low-priced competitors improve their offerings, hone their processes, and become more and more dangerous. And as their sales and profits grow, they can afford to intensify their advance.

Market-leading firms attained their dominance by focusing on an attractive target market and working furiously to satisfy it. They have a lot invested in their current strategy—money, resources, capabilities, relationships, processes—and are weighed down by these sunk costs. But even more by their mindset. So they can’t suddenly or easily change. Newcomers, on the other hand, have little baggage and can switch tack with relative ease.

OLD INSIGHTS REPACKAGED

Following Christensen’s thinking over the years, it’s hard to avoid a sense of deja vu. Even a quick glance back into the history of management thought makes it hard not to conclude that much of his “theory” is to be found in Marketing 101 and Strategy 101. And that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

Take, for example, the notion of “the job to be done”—a Christensen favourite that’s sure to crop up in any discussion about disruption. This is, in fact, one of the oldest ideas in the marketing playbook.

So old, in fact, that it’s impossible to pin down its origin. But I suspect it gained explicit understanding in the 1930s, thanks to a famous American sales trainer named Elmer Wheeler who coined the phrase, “Don’t sell the steak—sell the sizzle.” His point was that it’s not a chunk of meat that customers want, it’s the pleasure that goes with it: the sizzle and aroma from the barbecue, companionship and fun with family and friends, and so on. This lesson has been drummed into copywriters and sales people for years.

In “Marketing Myopia,” a HBR article that won the 1960 McKinsey Award, Ted Levitt made the then-provocative case that too many companies limited their growth by defining their industries too narrowly, and by being more concerned with what their products could do than what their customers want done. Discussing the oil industry, for example, he noted: “People do not buy gasoline. They cannot see it, taste it, feel it, appreciate it, or really test it. What they buy is the right to continue driving their cars.”

Peter Drucker told us in his 1973 book Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices:“The customer never buys a product. By definition the customer buys the satisfaction of a want.”

Levitt echoed this in his 1983 book The Marketing Imagination, writing that “people don’t buy things but buy solutions.” To illustrate his point, he recycled a quote from one Leo McGinneva, who’d said that when people buy a quarter-inch drill, “they don’t want quarter-inch bits; they want quarter-inch holes.” (Something another marketing guru, Philip Kotler, had said in 1980.) Levitt also observed that “The customer may actually want and expect less.” (My italics.)

Within months of his book appearing, Levitt also published an article in HBR titled “The Globalization of Markets.” The basic argument was that by stripping away the features and benefits that made products particularly appropriate for particular markets, firms could sell them to many more customers across the world. Citing the example of Japanese firms, he said: “They have discovered the one great thing all markets have in common—an overwhelming desire for dependable, world-standard modernity in all things, at aggressively low prices. In response, they deliver irresistible value everywhere, attracting people with products that market-research technocrats described with superficial certainty as being unsuitable and uncompetitive….”

And what about Christensen’s observation that the more closely firms listen to customers, and the harder they work to deliver what those customers say they’d like, the more likely they are to offer too much? Or that to compete with disruptors, the leader should spin off a totally separate business unit?

Nothing new here, either. This, and much else that he says, has been written about for decades. That disruption, as described by Christensen, has become such a fetish is a sad indictment of academic thought and management practice.

DEFINE “DISRUPTION” WITH CARE

The theory of disruptive strategy that so many people swoon over offers a very narrow view of how market disruption may occur, which firms are disruptors, or what disruptive strategy might be.

Can you possibly argue that Apple, say, is not a disrupter, because it sells beautiful, innovative products at high-end prices? (No “good enough” thinking here!)

And what would you say about Elon Musk’s award-winning Tesla S car? Or Woolworths, Nando’s peri-peri chicken, Discovery Health’s Vitality programme, Emirates airline, or Reckitt and Coleman’s household products?

By Christensen’s criteria, none of these deserves to be called “disruptor.” These products are all excellent, and priced accordingly. Their target market is not the “bottom of the pyramid.” Cheaper, “good enough” options are available from other firms.

But all have challenged convention and redefined their categories. And surely, that’s what disruption means.

The fact that some of these big names may face competitors who offer “good enough” products doesn’t shift the disruptor label from them to those upstarts. To split hairs about an arbitrary interpretation of what a word means is ridiculous.

Christensen has chosen one interpretation of what disruption means, and made it his own. He has focused on one strategic formula which highlights a very serious threat to market leaders, and also offers challengers a way to take them on. But no established firm should imagine it’ll be bulletproof if it follows his advice exclusively. Neither should any ambitious attacker close off strategic possibilities. Most managers would do better with a broader definition.

To disrupt something is to overturn the order of things. So how could you do that? Surely, not only by offering cheaper but “good enough” products to customers who’ve previously been ignored or overlooked.

The reality is that, in most markets, there are many ways to compete, many ways to upend convention. So strategic thinking should be about creating possibilities, not shutting them down. It should be about understanding the many ways you could be toppled, not just one.

If there’s one important thing all the chatter about disruption has achieved, it’s to focus managers’ attention on the three most critical strategy questions: who is your customer, what is value to them, and how will you deliver it? (Though you have to ask what else they’ve been thinking about!)

And yes, Christensen has added many examples of why this matters and some advice on making the most of your answers.

But three, five, or 25 years from now, will we look back on the Christensen era as a disruptive one in the annals of strategic thought, or one in which we woke up and went back to basics?

As Levitt said, “Man lives not by bread alone, but mostly by catchwords.” So it’s important to pick those catchwords with care, and to be clear about what they mean and how they might be applied.

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  •  01/12/2012
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
Apr 042012
 

When Samsung announced in mid-2010 that to grow its business in Africa, it would design products specifically for Africa, it confirmed two facts about global competition today:

  1. As growth in developed markets gets more difficult, firms must seek and exploit opportunities in developing markets.
  2. To succeed there, they need to “act local.”

Explaining Samsung’s plan, George Ferreira, COO of Samsung Electronics SA, said:

“In line with our key value of co-prosperity, coupled with our business and development sector partnerships, we have a vision of developing technology that is built in Africa, for Africa, by Africa”…We will over the next few years be allocating more local R&D investment for further local product planning, design and development.”

A press release from the company added:

“Samsung have undertaken extensive research and development (R&D) to develop technology innovations, specific to the African consumers’ needs. These include, TVs with built in power surge protectors, triple protector technology for air conditioners to ensure durability, power surge protection and safeguarding against high temperatures and humidity, deep foam washing machines that are 70% energy efficient – saving up to 30% water use, dura-cool refrigerators with cool pack – allowing the refrigerators to stay cool without power, as well as dual-sim technology and long battery life phones with battery standby times of up to 25 days.”

According to a report on Moneyweb, “The electronics group hopes to attract the African market with a range of television and refrigeration products that are designed to withstand power surges, dust particles and humidity and camera and camcorders that are designed to take “better” pictures of dark toned people.”

In one example of how it will pursue its strategy, Samsung has teamed up with the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa and Strathmore University in Kenya to develop unique mobile phone applications for Africa. Such collaboration is sure to yield ideas that the company wouldn’t develop on its own, and to speed up the time-to-market process.

However, what the electronics giant did not say was that innovations in developing markets may prove valuable in developed markets (a process known as “reverse innovation” or “frugal innovation”). This has been the experience of companies producing products as diverse as soap, tractors, and medical scanners. And innovations may include not just new products, but also processes and business models.

Innovations from developing markets give firms new opportunities in developed markets by providing simpler, cheaper products

Reverse innovation will be one of the most important trends of coming years. It opens many new opportunities for developing markets and for the companies and innovators in them. And it provides new reasons to go to places you weren’t really sold on, to invest there, and to make a deliberate effort to learn whatever you can from being there.

Champion of the movement is V.J. Govindarajan, professor of international business at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, and the first professor in residence and chief innovation consultant at General Electric. His October 2009 Harvard Business Review article, “How GE is disrupting itself,” co-authored with GE chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt and Chris Trimble, another Tuck faculty member, won the McKinsey Award. His new book, Reverse Innovation (co-authored again with Trimble), will probably draw similar praise—and stoke interest in the concept. They provide many examples of how firms have gone about it, plus advice for those who want to.

In an interview with [email protected] (April 2, 2012), Govindarajan explained some of the rationale behind the concept:

The fundamental driver of reverse innovation is the income gap that exists between emerging markets and the developed countries. The per capita income of India, for instance, is about US$3,000, whereas it is about $50,000 in the U.S. There is no way to design a product for the American mass market and then simply adapt it and hope to capture middle India. You need to innovate for India, not simply export to India. Buyers in poor countries demand solutions on an entirely different price-performance curve. They demand new, high-tech solutions that deliver ultra-low costs and “good enough” quality.”

“Poor countries will become R&D labs for breakthrough innovations in diverse fields as housing, transportation, energy, health care, entertainment, telecommunications, financial services, clean water and many more.

Reverse innovation has the potential to transform wealth in the world. Growth in developed countries has slowed down. Much of the growth is now in developing countries. The 2008 financial crisis and the more recent debt crisis [in Europe] have only exacerbated this situation. As such, we are likely to see the center of gravity for innovation shifting from rich to poor countries.”

Questions to ask now:

  • What will developing countries do to promote not just their market opportunities, but also their innovation opportunities?
  • What will local firms in those countries do to take advantage of this trend?
  • How will local universities and other potential partners respond?
  • How can you exploit this idea?

The entire world is a learning laboratory. No place has a monopoly on ideas. Today, it’s foolish—and potentially costly and risky as well—to be myopic.

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  •  04/04/2012
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 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