Mar 192018
 

Around the world, strategy workshops—also known as retreats or breakaways—are a favourite way to plan and review business strategies. Run them well, and they can play an extremely positive role in your firm’s success. Do it badly, and they’re a waste of time and money.

Having facilitated hundreds of them over the past 30 years, I’ve learned some valuable lessons in how to make workshops work. Here are some guidelines:

1.    Be clear about why you need a workshop at all. Why do you need to to discuss your strategy? What specific challenge (opportunity or problem) must you deal with? What should the outcomes of your deliberations be? Some executives have thought these questions through and can provide a useful brief to whoever will facilitate the discussion. But a surprising number are astonishingly vague, and even C-suite colleagues differ in their expectations. Many CEOs routinely jot “Strategy breakaway” into their diaries at the start of each year, and then scratch for a way to justify spending time and money on taking their top team away from the office for a couple of days. Their agenda typically centres on a review their existing strategy, how they’re progressing towards it, and what they need to do next, and no brief is complete without emphasis on “blue-sky thinking” or “disruption.” And, hey, there has to be room for “team building” and “motivation.”

But this generic template is no guarantee of success. In fact, without careful thought and preparation, and expert design, it may lead to boring and aimless conversations which in no way improve a firm’s competitiveness. And even if a good time is had by all, many people are likely to leave feeling, “What the hell was that all about?”

So what, exactly, should it be about? That’s Decision #1.

2.   Get the right people into the room. Since strategy informs everything a company does and the way it does everything, and since it’s widely seen as a top-management function, I t’s not surprising that only top teams get invited to most workshops. But this can be a costly mistake.

When CEOs ask me, “Who should we include?” I almost always say, “Everyone.” And I’m not kidding. Firstly, because you never know who’ll offer the most valuable insights or the best ideas. Second, because I think it’s important to have everyone hear the same message at the same time, as communicating it later is always a hassle and poor communication is a major cause of strategy failures. And third, because being invited sends a powerful message that “You matter. You’re important. We need to hear your opinions and ideas.” (While not being invited sends an equally powerful message: “You don’t matter. You’re not important. Your opinions and ideas aren’t worth anything.”)

Obviously, you won’t always be able to invite everyone. There will be times when you do need to confine sensitive discussions to just a few people. Or there might be logistical issues. Or it might be impractical to take everyone away from their jobs. Or doing it might be unaffordable.

But remember: the  first—and biggest—challenge in implementing your strategy is to take your people with you. Without their support, the wheels will spin and performance will be disappointing. Fat strategy documents and detailed strategy maps will be of little help. Yet while it’s an article of faith for senior executives to say, “People are our most important asset,” it’s a fact that more often than not, when it comes to strategy, they’re an afterthought.

3.  Recognise that people have different views of strategy, and confusion can kill a strategic conversation. Ask almost any group of even the most seasoned managers to define strategy and how to “do it,” and you’ll get an array of views. They walk into the room not only with different mindsets and different views of why they’re there, but also with different opinions on what strategy is all about and how to craft it. One person thinks competitors are the problem, while another says it’s a lack of R&D; one believes they should rewrite the mission statement, while another argues for developing some scenarios; one likes the idea of Porter’s “five forces,” and another votes for a debate about “blue oceans.” They zig-zag between visions and missions, from strengths to weaknesses, from threats to opportunities. Not surprisingly, this leads to poorly-informed and haphazard conversations that end with ambiguous intentions rather than firm decisions,

4.   Keep it simple. Keep it brief. This should be the guiding principle in every company. Strategy is partly a matter of analysis, choices, and decisions—and largely a social process. It’s easy to complicate, so you can easily make it impractical and unworkable. And although you might be tempted to chuck everything into your strategy, don’t fall into that trap. Simple language makes the right actions much likelier than wads of complex verbiage. A few clear ideas beat a laundry list of to-do’s every time.

START WELL TO END WELL

If your organization is to be a winner, you have to tap into the imagination and spirit of your people and they must all pull in the same direction. So they need a shared understanding of your strategy, and they must know what’s expected of them personally, and by when.

Getting their support starts from the moment you begin crafting your strategy. And it’s most likely when:

  • Your company has one strategy toolkit with just a few tools in it.
  • Your people speak a common strategy language.
  • They own the strategy.

For these reasons, I believe in starting a workshop with two building blocks:

  1. A short “Making sense of strategy” presentation—to suggest the tools and provide the language. It clarifies what strategy is about, what can be expected of it, and how it’s best created and implemented.
  2. “Strategy snapshot”—which captures the essence of the firm’s situation, options, and strategic priorities. It gets conversation going, and since the workshop delegates provide much of the information on which it’s based, they’re involved from the very start.
THE “STRATEGY SNAPSHOT”

To prepare for a workshop, I need to be thoroughly briefed—at least by the CEO, and perhaps by other senior people, too—and see whatever strategy documents you might have. I may also see various parts of an organization, talk to industry experts, customers, and suppliers, and spend time on desk research. And I reply heavily on questionnaires which are sent to everyone who’ll attend the strategy workshop—and maybe to  wider audience who won’t be there. This not only brings many voices into the process, but also gives people a sense of involvement and meaning. It also gives me a deep understanding of why a firm is where it is, what issues really affect its performance, and where the strategic conversation needs to go.

Then, looking at your business through the lens of my knowledge and experience, I develop a “strategy snapshot” from what I’ve learned and what it all seems to imply. This usually takes much longer than the workshop itself, but it always pays.

There’s no beating about the bush. My conclusions, comments, questions, and advice during a workshop are often provocative, and maybe uncomfortable. They untangle complex issues, make people face reality, and assist them in reframing the way they see things. They also enable us to cut straight to the chase and deal with what matters, instead of wasting workshop time trying to surface issues and figure out how to begin.

Your most urgent need may be to get back to basics and fix them. Or perhaps to counter a competitive threat or cut costs. Or maybe you should review your supplier network, rethink your “difference,” intensify your innovation efforts, redesign your business model—or even radically reinvent your business.

The “strategy snapshot” points to where the focus should be. In just a few slides, I sum up your firm’s current situation and its challenges—and suggest possibilities for action. 

This guides our debate, gets you and your team talking about the right stuff as quickly as possible, and leads to a simple, sound, and practical “strategy story.”

(Of course, you could argue that all consultants do this—hence the old joke that a consultant is someone who steals your watch and then tells you the time! But if you want someone who can cut to the chase, challenge your assumptions, push back against easy answers, and ensure a rich and robust strategic conversation, we should talk.)

BALANCING FIXES, CAPACITY-BUILDING, AND BLUE-SKY THINKING

Every business has to attend to countless short-term issues, while at the same time preparing for the future. You have to manage the present and the future concurrently—not sequentially. So improvement and innovation are both imperatives. How you balance your time between each depends on your circumstances.

The priority for some companies should be to “get back to basics”—they need to urgently fix what’s broken or not working optimally, drive down costs, ramp up productivity, or hire more sales people. Others should make tomorrow’s customers, investments, technologies, and value the focus of their strategy discussions. Mostly, though, it’s a bit of both.

Striking the right balance makes all the difference between success and failure.

I’ll help you find it.

TAKE-AWAY SLIDES FOR FAST EXECUTION

Companies love strategy documents. By now, though, there’s plenty of evidence that they’re almost always a waste of time and paper. Writing them takes longer than a workshop, and things change so fast that they’re out of date before they’re done. They get in the way of reality and destroy agility. They mostly wind up on a shelf or in a bin.

I’ve written plenty of them, but I now I hardly ever do. Instead, I capture all key decisions on a handful of PowerPoint slides, and give you a set immediately. That way, you can start executing your strategy right away. And you can keep adjusting your story quickly and easily to suit new circumstances.

FLEXIBILITY, NOT A FORMULA

I look at every consulting assignment through fresh eyes. Unlike many consultants, I never try to “force-fit” concepts or activities that are just plain wrong for you.

The process described here is not cast in stone. I’m not stuck on a single method or tied to one concept, and I won’t drag you through a prescribed set of steps. Strategy is too dynamic for that. Your needs are different to those of other firms; what you need to focus on today is not the same as yesterday. So I make sure that we do only what’s most appropriate to get you the best possible strategy. From start to finish, there’s a sensible mix of structure and flexibility.

  •  19/03/2018
Feb 222016
 

To emphasize their bold, overarching, and long-term intentions, nations and armies have a long tradition of packaging them as “grand strategy.” This is stirring stuff, so management thinkers were bound to follow suit. In an early definition of corporate strategy, Harvard Business School professor Kenneth Andrews said this:

Corporate strategy is the pattern of decisions in a company that determines and reveals its objectives, purposes, or goals, produces the principal policies and plans for achieving those goals, and defines the range of businesses the company is to pursue, the kind of economic and human organization it is or intends to be, and the nature of the economic or noneconomic contribution it intends to make to its shareholders, employees, customers, and communities.

Business strategy, he said—or what would now be termed competitive strategy—was “less comprehensive and defines the choice of product or service and market of individual businesses within the firm.”[i]

Andrews and his HBS cohort taught legions of managers to think of strategy as a high-level view of how a firm should go about its business. Their students happily accepted this, given the virtually universal belief at the time in top-down control. They were more than content to wallow in platitudes and vagueness while giving short shrift to activities and action. If they were ultimately responsible for tough decisions, the laborious analysis that underpinned them was for lesser mortals. Micro-management was a pejorative term, and being branded a micro-manager plainly marked you as not being a leader.

The “vision, mission, values” gang continues in this tradition, as sure as ever that lofty notions and fine intentions will bring the results they want admid the scrum of hypercompetition. But this ignores two costly disconnects between strategic intentions and results:

  • Messages are lost in translation between the C-suite and the front line. Strategists decide one thing, and people who’re supposed to make it happen choose to do something else. Or they follow instructions, but do it badly. Or they fail to adapt what they must do as circumstances change.

You have only to suffer through one or two strategy sessions where senior people argue about the precise wording in vision, mission, or values statements to understand just how hard it is to create shared meaning. “Excellent,” “the leader,” “world class,” and “integrity” mean different things to different people. Deciding whether to declare that shareholders rank above customers, or the other way around, can waste a ridiculous amount of time. Even worse are debates about whether to insert a comma in a sentence, or a full stop; or to call your employees “associates” or “colleagues”; or to include an instruction to ‘Have fun!”

When CEOs brief me ahead of a strategy project, they almost always tell me, “We need to revisit our vision and mission.” But often, they can’t remember what these say, and when I talk to their colleagues, it turns out that none of them do either. It’s the same in my business school classes, where 20 or 30 senior people from a range of large firms have no idea of what’s in their own statements. (And these are the very people who so diligently crafted that guff!)

This happens with values too. Companies inevitably use the same words—customer service, innovation, integrity, responsibility, accountability, delivery, excellence, professionalism….blather, blather, blather. But again, these mean different things to different people, and are forgotten before the ink dries.

Strategy documents and presentations don’t help: there’s usually too much in them, and their logic is hard to follow. And few people pay attention to them after they’re produced.

Mixed messages are a fact of organizational life. It’s normal for high-level strategy to be ignored, misinterpreted, or side-stepped at other levels—sometimes deliberately, and sometimes because nothing is clear. And managers themselves either cause or worsen both problems.

They overestimate their ability to make themselves understood, and underestimate how much ongoing time and effort it takes. They assume that saying something once is enough. And that what they say arrives in other people’s heads exactly the way they said it, and means exactly what they intended.  And they kid themselves that when they speak, they’re believed.

Communication is without question the biggest challenge in any company. Just because we all do it every day, is no reason to think it’s easy or that we’re good at it. More than anything else, it makes the difference between success and failure.

  • The future is highly unlikely to turn out as the masterminds upstairs assume it will. Despite their best efforts to stay in tune and in touch, they only become aware of many changes long after they’ve emerged—and certainly long after people anywhere near the action can sense them. By the time they snap into action, and get around to redesigning their strategy and issuing new orders, it’s too late. If, like so many, they stick to a one-, three-, or five-year planning cycle, there is no chance they can stay in sync with their context. A divide between what they do and what they should do is assured. And the gap keeps getting wider.

These disconnects are so normal and so evident, and their impact so serious, that you’d think there would be more alarm about them. But managers keep getting predictable surprises on both counts. Things seldom work out as they expect. Their scintillating schemes are constantly upset by human nature, the internal machinations of their organizations, and the unpredictability of the outside world. Good intentions turn out to be no match for harsh reality.

Most firms continue in this futile mode. But as it has become increasingly apparent that strategy is only as sound as the activities that underpin it, and that turning strategy into action is finally what counts and is always a challenge, smart managers have come to realize two things.

First, no amount of analyzing and scheming will on their own bring success. The only thing that will do that is being better at a selected set of activities than rivals are. Since deciding what not to do is every bit as important as deciding what to do, every component of a company’s business model must carefully chosen. They must all mesh with each other, and the effect of each must be amplified through meticulous execution. The whole must be greater than the sum of the parts.

And second, strategy is a learning process. Commitments must be made, but they’re for a future you can’t quite see. So the best you can do is face up to that risk and then learn and adjust as fast as possible.

The past three decades have thus seen a distinct shift in thinking about strategy—at least by some people. Whereas once it was considered to be an intellectual undertaking, all about decisions and quite separate from the messy business of doing actual work, now the line is blurred. Whereas once it was assumed that the future would be much like the past, and that strategy could and should be designed to unfold in a predictable way over multiple years, today even the shrewdest strategy can unravel in days or weeks. If ever there was merit in fussing about the difference between strategy and tactics or about the relative importance of strategy and operational excellence, that time is long gone. Such hoary debates slow things down just when they need to be speeded up.

Strategy is not a desk job. Strategic thinking guides action, but learning through action is the only way to keep strategy relevant and effective.

The famous Tom Peters battle cry to “Try lots of stuff” is just what many companies need to hear. “Ready, fire, aim” goes down a treat in management conferences, and Nike’s “Just Do It” has been filched by any number of managers keen to show their mojo. But just being busy won’t make any company competitive. Action without reason is likelier to bring costs and risks than positive results. Action that doesn’t lead to useful learning is wasteful.

Studies by McKinsey Global Institute have shown that in the same industry across countries there are “almost always dramatic differences in either labor productivity or total factor productivity.” These differences says Robert Solow, who has long served as academic advisor to MGI, were to be explained not by differences in technology or investment, but rather by “organizational differences, to the way tasks were allocated within a firm or division—essentially to failures in management decisions.”[ii]

For strategy to be effective, it must be specific, not only about high-level aims, but also about the actions that will occupy low-level people. Anything less is just hot air. Fred Gluck, founder of McKinsey’s strategy practice, made a point of this in a 1979 paper that he drafted for the consulting firm’s staff, in which he advised that strategic planning should result in an “integrated set of actions designed to create a sustainable advantage over competitors.”[iii]

  • According to UCLA professor Richard Rumelt, “Strategy is a way through a difficulty, an approach to overcoming an obstacle, a response to a challenge.” The cleverest strategies, “the ones we study down through the years, begin with very few strategic resources, obtaining their results through the adroit coordination of actions in time and across functions.”[iv]
  • Michael Porter writes, “The essence of strategy is choosing to perform activities differently than rivals do.”[v] The primary purpose of a strategy is “to inform each of the thousands of things that get done every day, and to ensure that those things are all aligned in the same direction.”[vi]
  • And Eric Van den Steen, a member of the HBS Strategy Unit, provides the best definition of strategy that I know of, saying it’s “the smallest set of choices and decisions sufficient to guide all other choices and decisions,”[vii]

All of these experts make it plain that strategy is not an end in itself, but rather a means to getting the right things done. This has led to another shift: in the way managers understand their roles and how best to drive performance.

Struggling to wring results from strategies that too often ape those of their competitors, they’ve relied increasingly on execution to differentiate themselves. This has led to a sharp rise in the number of books, articles, courses, and conferences on execution, many pointing to the need for intense, hands-on involvement in operational matters. So management by vague decree has given way to managing by getting down and dirty in the trenches with the troops. Micro-management is alive and well—though practiced under the cloak of empowerment, delegation, trust, and other fashionable notions.

The “loose-tight” approach identified by Peters and Waterman in In Search Of Excellence is vital.[viii] Managers have everything to gain from being more overt about it, and everything to lose by pretending that loose is good and tight is bad.

The dilemma, as with so much else, is how to strike the balance.

[i] Kenneth R. Andrews, The Concept of Corporate Strategy, Homewood, Illinois: Richard D. Irwin Inc., 1980

[ii] Martin Neil Baily and Frank Comes, “Prospects For Growth: An Interview With Robert Solow,” McKinsey Quarterly, September 2014

[iii] Fred Gluck, Michael G. Jacobides, and Dan Simpson, “Synthesis, Capabilities, And Overlooked Insights: Next Frontiers For Strategists,” McKinsey Quarterly, September 2014

[iv] Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy, Bad Strategy,” New York: Crown Business, 2011

[v] Michael E. Porter, “What Is Strategy?” Harvard Business Review, November-December 1996

[vi] Michael Porter, “CEO As Strategist,” Leadership Excellence, September 2005

[vii] Eric Van den Steen, “A Theory Of Explicitly Formulated Strategy,” Working Paper 12-102, Harvard Business School, May 2012

[viii] Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, In Search Of Excellence, New York: Harper & Row, 1982

Tony Manning book cover 2015 IMG_0602

This is an excerpt from my book What’s Wrong With Management And How To Get It Right, Penguin Random House 2015

  •  22/02/2016
Jan 312013
 

One question I’m constantly asked, by both consulting clients and business school classes, is, “When should you review and possibly change your strategy?”

A second question—one that’s almost never asked—is just as important: When should you rethink the way you make strategy?

The answer to both questions, as with most others in management, is “It depends.”

There is never a “right” time to take a fresh look at your strategy. After all, strategy is a dynamic activity. You may create it at a specific moment, but you execute it over weeks, months or years—and meanwhile, things change constantly both inside and outside your organization.

Let’s say you develop a five-year plan. Let’s say, too, that you’ve laid out in great detail what you expect to happen in your world from year to year, what you must do, and what results you will get. You bind that story into a thick document, and start moving.

In no time at all, though, the assumptions you made about the future turn out to be wrong. You try to execute your plan as well as possible, but the world you designed it for is not the world you find yourself in. There are many surprises. Things don’t go as smoothly as you’d like. Problems distract you. New challenges engulf you.

Politicians fighting for voters seem intent on making life tough for business. The economy  grows and slows. Regulators keep you on your toes with a string of new laws and adjustments to old ones. Machines fail. People present you with a constant flow of problems. Suppliers let you down. Competitors surprise you. Customers change their spending habits. And so on.

The result is, you spend more time fighting fires than thinking about the future. You miss some of your targets. And you realize that that you’re doing a lot of things that no longer make sense.

There’s no point in persisting with a strategy that’s out of kilter with the world. So you need to rethink what you’re doing. But it’s not enough to do it at long intervals, or as a one-off response to factors that have popped up on your radar screen.

NEW REALITIES DEMAND A NEW STRATEGIC CONVERSATION

If 2011 was a year of astonishing tumult and upheaval, 2012 is bringing even more of it. “The new normal” is defined by austerity, volatility, and surprise, and much of the world will struggle for years through “The Great Contraction.” At the same time, we face rapid and radical shifts in politics, society, the environment, regulation, and technology—and in customer and competitor behavior.

Today, virtually every market—for any product or service—is an emerging market demanding fresh insights and ideas.

To survive and thrive in this new era, companies need to take a new look at the purpose and role of business, what “value creation” means—and which stakeholders really matter. They need to out-learn and out-run the competition. They need to understand the “rules of their game” and excel at them, while simultaneously making innovation a way of life. And they need to balance long-term capability building with short term action.

Strategic thinking is a living process. Strategy is a here-and-now view of where and how you’ll compete, which will almost inevitably have to change faster than you might imagine. So you need to review it constantly, to be sure you’re dealing in the best possible way with emerging conditions.

But it’s not enough just to re-look at the assumptions you made and the decisions and choices that followed. The content of your strategy is obviously important. But equally important—and largely overlooked—is the way you got to it. In other words, the way you think about strategy.

Right now, job #1 for most executives is not only to reset their strategies, but also to rethink what strategy should do for them and how they use it. That’s job #1 for me too!

 This is no time for business as usual. Neither can you risk strategy as usual.

 
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  •  31/01/2013
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 082012
 

The market shares of South Africa’s four big banks—Standard Bank, Absa, First National Bank, and Nedbank—go up and down, but with few big swings. Despite government pressure to do more for the bottom end of the market, and some stabs at doing so, all have continued to focus on their traditional middle- to upper-end customers. That, they’ve held, is where the money is.

And it’s true, that’s where the money was. But growth in that sector has slowed. Profits are under pressure. So the giants been forced to look downmarket, where there are an estimated 8 million “unbanked” and “unsecured” customers, and plenty of growth to come.

The fight will be brutal. They’re all charging into the same arena at the same time, so they’re tripping over each other. The big banks have clout, and are deadly serious about this new venture. But they’re stepping onto the home turf of two smaller banks—African Bank and Capitec—which know how to fight there.

These two operate in different niches. They’ve been growing fast, and extending their presence into new areas with appealing offerings. They’re also solidly established, and far from rolling over under the current onslaught, they now have no choice but to become even smarter and more aggressive.

The bigger of them, African Bank, hardly advertises at all, but has many years of hard-earned experience at the lower end of the market, a sophisticated approach to credit management, almost 16,000 highly motivated people, and a large pool of customers who are real fans and not just locked-in by some gimmick.

Capitec is a younger business, but its promise of simpler, cheaper, and more convenient banking has strong appeal. After initially aiming at poorer black customers, it’s now opening branches in wealthy areas and attracting whites, professionals, and suburban housewives.

There’s a classic disruption strategy at work here, as described by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen:

  1. Incumbent firms keep improving what they’ve been doing, assuming they’ll keep customers happy by doing more of the same better.  But they do lots of stuff customers don’t care about. As they add more and more bells and whistles, their costs rise and they create a “price umbrella” for upstarts.
  2. One or more newcomers sneak in under that umbrella. They focus on customers the dominant firms have overlooked or underserved, with products tailored precisely for “the job they want done.” Unencumbered by entrenched mindsets and legacy policies, practices, and infrastructure, they’re able to keep costs and prices low. They go unnoticed while they fine-tune their processes and build awareness, capabilities, experience, and muscle.
  3. Stuck with a price disadvantage and lots of baggage, the big players struggle to move downmarket. At the same time, the disruptors start moving upwards, to pick off their customers.

The current process has a way to go. The latest phase in the banking war illustrates just how hard it is to stand out in the marketplace today—and why “sustainable advantage” is for more and more companies an impossible dream. It highlights the importance of delivering a “difference” that really is different, but also that matters to customers so they’ll pay for it.

THE DELIBERATE DESTRUCTION OF DIFFERENCE

Virtually in unison, the big guys have announced a flurry of new products and services (or re-promoted existing ones), and started to move downmarket. They’re hoping for the best of several worlds: to keep customers they’ve got, while also stealing some from each other—and to snatch business from African Bank and Capitec, while also luring unbanked customers in that territory.

Since March, print media have been stuffed with one page of ads after another extolling the promises of three of the Big Four: Absa, Standard Bank, and First National Bank.

Absa promises “Better banking”:

IMMEDIATE PAYMENTS…STAMPED BANK STATEMENTS…APPLY ONLINE…SCAN AND PAY…SEND CASH AROUND THE WORLD…FREE eSTATEMENTS…CELLPHONE BANKING…CASH ACCEPTING ATMs…UNIT TRUSTS ONLINE…OPEN ACCOUNTS ONLINE…OVER 8 000 ATMs AND 900 BRANCHES…RECHARGE WITHOUT CHARGE…LOW-COST BANKING…REAL BUYING POWER…REAL CASH REWARDS…

Turn the page, and there’s Standard Bank “Moving forward:

THE CONVENIENCE OF 18 450 PLACES YOU CAN DO YOUR BANKING…HELPING CUSTOMERS SAVE UP TO 50%…ELITE BANKING COSTS R99.00 A MONTH…YOUTH…STUDENT ACHIEVER…GRADUATE AND PROFESSIONAL BANKING…ACHIEVER ELECTRONIC…PRESTIGE BANKING…PRIVATE BANKING…

And without a gap, you get First National Bank, answering its “How can we help you?” slogan with its own laundry list of promises, and its claim to be the industry innovator:

INNOVATION…VALUE…PAY2CELL…KRUGERRANDS…ONLINE FOREX…FNB LIFE COVER…SLOW LOUNGE…eBUCKS…SELF-SERVICE BANKING…INCONTACT…INSTANT ACCOUNTING…FNB BANKING APP…SHARE INVESTING…FUEL REWARDS…MULTICURRENCY ACCOUNTS…eWALLET…TABLET & SMARTPHONE OFFER…

Now, as a customer, what do you make all of this? What’s the difference—or is there really any difference? What does it mean to you? Are you impressed by this growing range of offerings? Or overwhelmed? Or perhaps you just don’t care.

The South African banking industry ranks among the healthiest in the world—thanks to tough regulation. But banks have long been accused of over-charging, lousy service, and bullying tactics. Nobody I know is excited about dealing with their bank. Nobody has ever recommended their bank to me.

As a customer myself, I have absolutely no idea what sets banks apart. I deal with them because I need to, not because I want to. They make a lot of noise, but I can’t hear what they say.

Bank strategists would do well to pay close attention to Beating The Commodity Trap by strategy professor Richard D’Aveni of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. Because that’s exactly the trap they’re creating for themselves—at huge cost, and despite their desperate efforts.

Describing why firms get into a commodity trap, D’Aveni writes:

“…the reasons most companies find themselves in the trap in the first place is because they failed to innovate early enough to avoid it or they later differentiated and cut prices so much that they have exacerbated the trap.”

They’d also to well to heed to these words of Harvard Business School professor Youngme Moon in her excellent book Different:

“Competition and conformity will always be fraternally linked, for the simple reason that a race can only be run if everyone is facing the same direction.”

“…the way to think about differentiation is not as the offspring of competition, but as an escape from competition altogether.”

“There is a kind of difference that says nothing, and there is a kind of difference that speaks volumes.”

Making a “difference that speaks volumes” has always been a challenge to companies and their ad agencies. It’s getting harder as competitors crowd into a field, and as they watch and learn from each other, benchmark themselves against each other, recruit people from each other, attend the same industry events, read the same publications, buy from the same suppliers, and so on. They strive to be different, but do everything possible to look alike.

First National Bank has seized an advantage by not just re-segmenting the market, but by using product innovation as its differentiator and a character called “Steve” to grab attention in broadcast media. But how long will it be before others do the same? Technology constraints might slow some of its competitors down, but they’re sure to fix that. So the rapid reinvention of business models will continue. Future ad campaigns will surely become both more factual and more emotional.

If experience from other industries is anything to go by, the banks have started what could be a costly “race to the bottom” (and not just the bottom of the market). Together, they’re transforming their world. The best they can hope for is that none of them does anything really silly, and that the market stays reasonably stable. They also need to hope that their efforts don’t create a credit bubble and provoke their regulator to clamp down on them.

Whichever way things go, we’re about to see:

  • What difference strategy can make, vs. the importance of being able to think on your feet, change direction in a blink, and run faster than your enemies.
  • How important real product innovation is vs. vaguer corporate branding.
  • Whether conventional forces can take on guerrilla fighters and win, and what it takes.
  • How guerrillas can withstand an onslaught from multiple well-armed attackers.

There will be important lessons here for all managers, so  this is a battle worth watching closely. (More on this in a coming post.)

 Capitec and African Bank have given the South African banking industry a long-overdue wake-up. Now, watch the shake-up.

 

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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
Apr 032012
 

Harvard Business School recently announced a stand-alone course on Strategic IQ that “examines the essential concepts and practices that will help you make your organization more agile and better equipped to prosper in a changing marketplace.” This is good news, and it’s sure to be an excellent programme—but why has it taken so long? Why is strategic IQ not as big a deal for business schools, academics, authors, consultants, and conference organizers as emotional intelligence? Why has so little been said about it?

As I’ve pointed out for as long as I can remember, in articles, books, talks, business school lectures, and conversations with clients, strategic IQ is not just an essential factor in any company’s competitiveness, it’s the essential factor.

To survive and thrive in a rapidly-changing world, you need people who can think and act strategically—not just efficient drones who’re oblivious to their environment, mindlessly take orders, and just do as they’re told. But while much has been said about the importance of people, teams, empowerment, “virtual organizations,” “organizational learning,” “emergent strategy,” “the wisdom of crowds,” innovation, and so on, one key point is glossed over: without a particular set of intelligences, no one will ever be worth of the label “strategist.” And which company do you know where there is a deliberate, systematic effort to develop strategic capabilities outside of the executive ranks?

In my 1988 book The New Age Strategist, I wrote:

“…while the ‘strategist’ might be one person, or even a small team, strategy formulation is not the strict preserve of that person or group—and certainly not of top management. The fact is, because so many of a firm’s people might set off a response to environmental changes, strategic management is a task almost everyone must be involved in.”

Then, in a 1997 article titled “Questions of strategy,” I said:

“Business strategy, like every journey through life, is a learning process. The first goal of every organisation should be to raise its “strategic IQ”—the ability of every person to participate to the best of their ability in scanning the environment, providing new insights, applying their imagination, and exploring the bounds of what’s possible.”

But this led to two questions: 1) what capabilities did an individual need to be able to participate that way? and 2) how to develop them?

These were questions I wrestled with for a long time. For answers, I dug into books and journals on management, psychology, and education, talked to leaders about their growth experiences, and watched people making decisions at work. And the more I read, saw, and heard, and the more deeply I reflected on it, the more convinced I became that the answer was, in fact, both clear and simple—and right under our noses.

It lay in strategic conversation.

After pointing out, in my 2001 book, Making Sense of Strategy, that “The ‘strategic IQ’ of your firm is, literally, a life and death factor,” I went on to say:

“Most valuable human development takes place in”the school of hard knocks, not in the classroom. Most people’s growth and inspiration results from their day-to-day activities and interactions. The conversations they’re involved in shape their attitudes and aspirations, and impact on their capabilities. Yet, common practices ensure that too many individuals are constrained rather than liberated, and that only a few are able to think and act strategically.

“… In effect, people are forced to short-change their companies, because their companies cut them out of the conversational loop and limit what they can do and what they can become.

“While the ‘heavies’ engage in a ‘big conversation’ about the firm’s context, its challenges, its strategy, and so on, the majority of employees are allowed to take part only in a ‘small conversation’ which focuses narrowly on their jobs, their specific tasks, the methods they use, and the results they must get.

The strategic IQ of most firms is pathetically low—because of the way they make strategy. But you can change that fast, by immediately involving as many people as possible in your company’s ‘big conversation.’ This single step will do more than anything else to align and motivate your team, and to empower them to conquer tomorrow.”

Harvard’s new programme focuses on four intelligences:

  1. Rational
  2. Creative
  3. Emotional
  4. Social

These are undoubtedly important, but I have a different take on the matter. Let me explain it like this:

Assume you’re about to hire a consultant to help you with your strategy. You obviously want the best strategy you can get. What mental skills would you expect of the person you’re about to rely on? Surely they’d be these:

  1. Foresight—the ability to look ahead into the future and anticipate what lies ahead, what’s likely to happen, and how things are likely to unfold.
  2. Insight—the ability to cut through clutter and complexity and to understand things incisively and in a new way.
  3. Analysis—the ability to collect information, decipher and make sense of it, and make it useful.
  4. Imagination—the ability to see what others have not seen, to think “what could be” where others are content with what is.
  5. Synthesis—the ability to connect disparate snippets of information, different sensations and perceptions, and unrelated ideas, to give them new meaning.
  6. Judgment—the ability to weigh up situations, facts, feelings, opinions, and so on, and to make choices about what must be done in a way that best balances risk and reward and leads to the most desirable outcomes possible.

Now, if these are the traits you’d want in a consultant, what about the people on your own team? What should you seek in them? What should you strive to develop in them? Other capabilities? Or these ones?

Answer: these ones.

This isn’t a contest between Harvard’s list and mine. In fact, there’s a strong case for putting them together, for they work as one. But it is important to recognize that strategic thinking skills are quite different from equally critical social and emotional skills.

What happened to creative IQ, you might ask? And the answer is, it’s a product of all the six elements in my model. Creativity is a complex process. It’s not just about wacky ideas.

And rational IQ? Same thing: if the term refers to the ability to confront and deal with reality, to keep a cool head under pressure, and to make well-reasoned decisions, all of those come from the capabilities in my model. Couple those strategic thinking skills with social and emotional skills, and everything is covered.

The fact that strategic IQ has made it as a Harvard Business School course is an important breakthrough. Now, watch the “thought leadership” mob leap onto the bandwagon.

Thanks, Harvard!

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  •  03/04/2012
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