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. So an expert strategy facilitator is essential.

Having worked with hundreds of management teams over more than 30 years, I’ve learned some valuable lessons in how to make strategy 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
Mar 112013
 

Strategy is the first and most important responsibility of business leaders. But although it’s a big deal in most companies of any size, it’s a major weakness in many of them and they get less from it than they think.

Research by McKinsey & Co. has shown executives to be largely dissatisfied with what strategy does for them. Many prominent academics who’ve spent lifetimes in the study of strategy-making are critical of how it happens and uncertain about its impact. Numerous studies report on the gap between companies’ intended strategies and their actual results. Many managers ask, “Does strategy matter?”

According to regular surveys of management tools by Bain & Company, another global management consultancy, strategic planning did not rank among the top 10 tools as recently as 1993. In 2000 and 2006, it was No. 1 in both usage and satisfaction—perhaps not surprisingly, as this was a period marked by the bursting of the tech bubble, extraordinary uncertainty and change, and hyper-competition.

But then in 2008 and 2010, strategic planning was displaced by, of all things, benchmarking. So at the height of the world’s worst financial crisis in 50 years, when sales, profits, and growth were all being hammered and competition in every sector was exploding, firms apparently thought it more important to watch each other than think about their future.

For all the attention strategy gets, there remains a lot of disagreement about what it is and how to make it. Neither have decades of academic research and theorizing, coupled with the real-world experience of any number of executives and consultants, added much to what we know about strategy or made managers more confident.

Will we see important advances anytime soon? Not likely. For some time—decades, in fact—the quest for new knowledge about strategy has yielded diminishing returns. So this critical subject, with innovation at its very core and so critical in driving innovation, will itself see little new thinking.

I expect a lot of people with an interest in strategy to take issue with this view. They’ll point to many past instances of similar predictions being overturned by advances in knowledge, by new technologies, and so on. But perhaps they should reflect on this challenge:

Name one major idea about strategy that we did not know about 10, 20, or even 50 years ago. Just one.

I’d be interested to hear the answer.

CONFUSION IN THE C-SUITE

There are numerous schools of thought about strategy, and a plethora of concepts, models, frameworks, checklists and other tools, all with their own champions and fans. But where is the “best practice”—a much-used management term—in this “body of knowledge”?

Answer: there isn’t one.

Most executives have attended management courses, read many books and articles on the subject and one way or another been involved with strategy for many years. Yet they lack a point of view about how to deal with strategy.

They’re somewhat familiar with the lingo, and may even be enthusiastic cheerleaders for this or that catchphrase. But question them, and it’s evident that they’re unsure about what various concepts mean and how to use them.

The result is that even close-knit management teams are divided about the best way “to do it.” They lack conviction about one point of view or another, and never commit to any process. So they keep flailing about and searching for a silver bullet that’ll deliver the results they want, and they chop and change on a whim.

It’s impossible to know all the consequences. But you can be sure that firms playing these games never do as well as they might. There’s always a gap between their potential and their performance.

HOW UNCERTAINTY BECOMES THE ENEMY OF STRATEGY

Strategy is, in essence, about the management of dilemmas. There’s an incessant barrage of these, and new ones arise continually. But strategists need to pay particular attention to four of them—all of which they ironically create for themselves.

First, is the question: What is the purpose of a company? Why does it exist? What should it achieve? Whose interests should it serve—and whose come first?

The answer used to be, to make a profit for investors. For only when that happens is anything else possible. But in recent years things have become more complicated. Firms are now expected to think beyond the bottom line to the triple bottom line—to concern themselves not just with profit, but also with people and the planet. To satisfy an array of stakeholders affected by their presence. “Sustainability” is the in word.

This is by no means a new idea but it’s one that’s gaining popularity. And it goes beyond mere altruism.

Harvard Business School strategy guru Michael Porter, who for almost his entire career has said that the measure of strategy is superior financial returns, has recently been arguing that companies would improve their competitiveness by creating value not just for shareholders, but for all stakeholders (the theme of my 2002 book, Competing Through Value Management.) That while setting out to alleviate poverty, for example, they might find opportunities to sell more products or services and produce superior profits. Other commentators are jumping on the same bandwagon.

But the balancing act is not easy—as companies in virtually every sector are showing. And it will get harder as stakeholders become more vociferous and more empowered by social media, and as politicians and regulators try to appease them.

Most CEOs are hesitant about publicly confessing to be focused first and foremost on profit. But watch them when times are tough and sales and margins take a hit. Without so much as a blink, they shove their virtuous intentions aside, become obsessed by the numbers and do whatever it takes to get things back on track. Their own wealth and survival hinge on satisfying their investors, so that’s what they focus on—if necessary at the expense of jobs, training and development, innovation, and social initiatives.

When the purpose of a business is undecided, every other decision is compromised. Many bad decisions will follow.

Second, is the presence of conflicting views about the causes of corporate success and failure. Do companies become great through focus or diversification? Should they think local or act global? Should they make or buy what they sell? Are there ideal business models for particular industries? Is the “first-mover” advantage a reality or should you be a fast follower? What’s the role of luck? Does leadership matter? And so on.

The answer to all these questions is, “It depends.” But that’s not an answer that makes executives sleep easier. So they keep searching, keep changing their minds, and keep blocking their own progress.

The causes of business success are many and varied, and they change from time to time. But if strategy is a point of view about where and how to compete, business leaders need to think through the “why” that underpins these decisions.

This leads to the third issue: which strategy concepts or tools to use. Should you begin with a review of your vision and mission, do a SWOT analysis, or a “five forces” exercise, or try to define your core competence? Can you disrupt your industry? What about exploring “blue oceans?” How important is agility, and how might you achieve it? Will a balanced scorecard help you implement your strategy?

As with the second issue, this leads to endless questioning, second-guessing, and dysfunctionality. A stream of self-inflicted upheavals keeps people off balance. And while the wheel is being reinvented the world moves on.

Fourth, is the question: which consultant to use. In more than 25 years as a consultant, I’ve never been the first one to facilitate a strategy session for any company. Others have always been there before me. Each arrived with their own process and language, their own pet ideas, and their own style. So each intervention was, in effect, a new beginning. Then I arrive, do my thing and move on too. Next year … another stab by someone else.

This may be entertaining, and management teams may enjoy the variety, but it definitely isn’t smart. In fact, it’s ridiculous.

For one thing, all consultants are not equal. Some do have the experience, knowledge and skill to make a real difference. Many others are hot on buzzwords, but have little practical understanding of how business works. And then there are those who are stuck on a particular theory or approach—and, as the adage says, “When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

The executives who hire them admit that, “Ketso went down well.” “Dave was so-so” Or, “Meg was disappointing.” But ask them exactly what they mean, and their answers are vague. Yet that doesn’t deter them from starting from scratch yet again—and again—with another stranger and another unfamiliar approach.

Of course, there’s much more. But these dilemmas are real performance-killers. Fortunately, they don’t have to be.

STRATEGY MASTERY REQUIRES BOTH CONTINUITY AND CHANGE

Running a business well requires both continuity and change. Strategy also needs this balance. It takes practice to master a particular way of designing and driving strategy, entrench the processes that flow from it and build the capabilities to support it. There’s no short cut.

Companies should obviously keep abreast of new management thinking, and adopt tools and techniques that will improve performance. A new consultant may well bring a breath of fresh air to a strategy conversation. But these are serious matters, and to be careless—or reckless—about them is an astonishing breach of sound practice and good governance.

It’s easier to sow confusion in an organization than to curb it. To continually replace one set of management ideas with another is to court trouble.  Companies might strike it lucky from time to time with a slant on strategy that really does make a difference, but chances are much greater that they’ll do long-lasting hurt to themselves. By shifting goalposts, processes, tools, and resources, they create uncertainty, disrupt programmes and activities, and stir up even more cynicism and distrust than already exists.

But that’s not the only downside. Because they never stick with one approach to strategy—or one strategy—for long enough, they never become as good as they should be at what they do. They never develop a sound “way we do things around here.” Instead of becoming better strategists and relentlessly honing their strategy, they scramble after new approaches, struggle to apply them, and dump them prematurely.

This is a shaky foundation on which to build any new initiative or grow a business over time. And given that firms are playing for increasingly high stakes, in increasingly tough circumstances, it should surely be avoided.

Running any company is hard work. So it makes no sense to undermine strategy  with a string of theories and dodgy experiments, and a constant quest for glitzier answers.

Managers will always face more dilemmas than they can easily cope with. But to add to them is a sure way to become uncompetitive and unprofitable. Until they acknowledge these five dilemmas and tackle them head on, they will never get as much from strategy as they should do. It will continue to be a matter they know they should know about, but never quite grasp; one that gives rise to buzzwords and bullshit, but whose impact on results is questionable.

LESSONS 

I’ve spent a lot of time studying these issues and thinking about them. As a consultant to many large organisations, I’ve had a front-row seat at their strategy deliberations for more than 25 years.  And I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t.

Here are some lessons:

  1. The business of business is profit. But profit is a product of value created for many stakeholders.
  2. There is no magical strategy process or theory. Everything we need to know has been known for decades. Stop searching!
  3. Business success is about making a difference for the “right” customers.
  4. Value up, costs down has to be the mantra in every company. It requires the input of every employee.
  5. Every company is a prisoner of its context, and every industry has its own “rules of the game.” So while innovation is critical, and “thinking out of the box” is an attractive notion, most firms could become more competitive by just fixing their basics.
  6. Strategy is partly a matter of analysis, logic and hard choices, and largely a social process. Job #1 is to take your people with you.
  7. Communication is the ultimate driver of business performance.
  8. Simpler is better.
  9. The time to start executing a strategy is when it’s created.
  10. By breaking all work down into 30-day chunks, and assigning them to specific people, you put pressure into the system, learn fast what’s working and what’s not and see who’s performing and who’s not.

Study and repeat. Again. And again. The more you practice, the luckier you’ll get!

(A version of this article first appeared in Directorship, the journal of the South African Institute of Directors, in January 2013)

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  •  11/03/2013
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
Jan 262013
 

My motto is, “If you don’t make a difference, you don’t matter.”

Business competitiveness is all about making a difference. So key questions in strategy are: “What is our difference?” “Why does it matter?” and “How will we deliver?”

Any firm wanting to be successful has to be able to do some thing exceptionally well. Innovation, for example. Or operating across borders. Or recruiting and managing people with rare skills. Or developing alliances, design, manufacturing, marketing, service—or any of the many other activities that add up to the production of value.

That thing must set the firm apart from competitors and offer unique value to customers especially, but also to various other stakeholders. It must be durable and defendable. And most importantly, it must have “multiplier potential” so that excelling in it today will enable delivery of further value in the future.

Experts on business have been telling us this for ages, using terms like “core competence” or “core capabilities.” Most executives understand it well and will swear they’re driven by it—though in most companies there’s a surprising lack of focus on actually making a difference. Rather, it’s one of those taken-for-granted notions that hovers in the background but is not the central and explicit issue in every conversation or decision. I’ve sat in countless management discussions where no one mentions it at all.

What’s even more of a surprise is that strategy itself isn’t seen as a capability worthy of special focus or mastery. Almost everyone agrees it’s important and knows you have to have one, so you have to “do it.” But get it out of the way, and you can get on with making and selling stuff and making a profit.

Why do I say this? Here are some reasons, gleaned from my own 25-plus years of consulting as well as lots of research by others:

1. Just about every manager you talk to in any company—let alone across firms—has a different take on what strategy is about. They’re all over the place when it comes to why it matters, what it should do, or how to make and execute it. They’ve all read strategy books and attended courses, but they’re unclear about why one approach to strategy works while another is less satisfactory. So ask six senior people about this and you’ll likely get six different opinions. Ask the same questions outside the C-suite, and you can expect blank looks.

2. Few companies have a consistent approach to strategy. They bounce from this concept to that, switching tools and techniques on a whim. They don’t have a “strategy language” that their people understand and that anchors their discussions. As a result, their strategic conversations are poorly framed and conducting them over time is ineffective. A process that should cut through complexity, clarify priorities, and focus resources and efforts has the unintended consequence of constantly adding confusion.

3. They chop and change consultants as if whom they work with doesn’t matter. (Why don’t they do the same with their auditors or lawyers?) They think that outsiders can add value to a strategy process, but are careless about choosing them, often leaving it to some low-level, uninformed person to call around or do a Google search for someone new. They’re not fussy about whether the latest “guru” is really a strategy expert—or a sales trainer or retired factory manager hungry for a new assignment. So the value of the advice they get is spotty, and they’re jerked this way and that by it.

4. They fail to look back and learn, and to use each strategy discussion as a building block for the next one. Amazingly, there’s evidence that only a few firms systematically review their strategies or keep building on them. They make one, get on with life… make a new one… get on with life… and so on. Equally amazing, they rarely review their approach to strategy, asking whether it’s the best they can do or needs to be changed, or debating how to improve it.

5. Strategy is seen as a parallel activity to “real work,” not as real work. And certainly not as the most important of all real work. It’s not woven into the everyday agenda. It isn’t seen as the over-arching issue in business, or as something that concerns literally every person in an organization. It’s a task that has to be dealt with. It gets the spotlight from time to time, and then only a privileged few people get involved with it.

Competing in the future will be quite unlike competing in the past. Things will be much, much tougher. Firms will have to be cleverer and quicker in dealing with the challenges they’ll face. Making strategy “on the fly” will be increasingly necessary. Strategy smarts will matter more and more.

So if there’s one deep competence companies need to develop, strategy is it. The ability to craft and conduct strategic conversation —to design and execute effective strategy—will be the skill that “makes the difference that matters.”

Nothing else—not financial wizardry, innovation, collaboration, “human capital” management, technology, or whatever—counts as much. For without strategy, nothing else will get companies the results they want. And the difference between good strategy and bad strategy will count as never before.

MAKING STRATEGY MATTER
  1. Make building the strongest possible strategy capability an explicit goal and a priority—”Topic #1″ in your company. And involve everyone.
  2. Taking into account your specific needs, choose one approach to strategy and stick to it. Communicate it widely and constantly within your organisation. 
  3. Use a few tools and learn to use them well. Keep checking that they’re working for you (but beware of dumping them too readily). 
  4. Develop a “strategy language” so people talk about things the same way. 
  5. If you need help, pick your advisors carefully. Make it clear to them that while you want their outsider’s views and expert knowledge, you aim to develop a consistent process and to develop the strategic IQ of your team. Make sure that what they’ll bring to the party will be additive and not blow holes in your approach or take you in a totally different direction.
  6. Constantly review with your team what new knowledge and insights about strategy they may have picked up, and rigorously debate whether or not to integrate them into your approach. If you really think they have merit, plug them in carefully.
  7. Always review your current strategy before moving on. It’s tempting to race forward, especially when you face new challenges, but that can hurt programmes and initiatives already in place.
  8. Practice! Practice! Practice! Create opportunities to talk strategy. Begin every strategy discussion with the intention that it will be a building block for the next one. Keep asking, “Why is this working for us?” “How can we do it better?”
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  •  26/01/2013
Jan 182013
 

When developed economies slumped as a result of the financial meltdown which began in 2007, companies everywhere scrambled frantically to find new markets for their goods and services. Overnight, “emerging” markets (developing nations) became everyone’s target.

By the time of the crash, it was already clear that a massive economic shift was under way from the West to the East, and that future global growth would come more from developing nations rather than the established powerhouses: the U.S., Europe, and Japan.

From the earliest days of global trade, the lure of foreign customers in strange places has been a strong one. Following World War II, innovative technologies and logistics systems, the spread of democracy, and the increasing wealth of billions of the world’s citizens have led to fabulous opportunities for companies selling everything from cement to soap, from food to financial services. But it’s really only been in the past 30-odd years that emerging market mania has taken hold.

Ted Levitt at Harvard Business School alerted companies in 1983 to “The globalization of markets,” and the opportunities in marketing across borders. Jim O’Neill, chief economist at Goldman Sachs coined the catchy terms “BRICs” (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and “the next 11” (Mexico, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Indonesia, South Korea, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Vietnam). C.K. Prahalad wrote about “the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid.” New York Times columnist Tom Friedman’s books, The Lexus and The Olive Tree (1999) and The World is Flat (2005), were best-sellers. Many other observers spewed out analyses, reports, articles, and books on the same topic. And it gets hyped to the hilt at the World Economic Forum’s annual Davos get-together.

Growth in rich countries remains sluggish. All evidence suggests that developing countries are where companies will find the sales they need. So competition there will become increasingly hostile, and the demand for fresh thinking on it will rise fast.

But there are some realities that cannot be ignored.

A LITTLE THEORY GOES A LONG WAY

Interest in emerging markets has brought with it an outpouring of views on the attractions of specific countries and what it takes to succeed in them. Usually, these are couched in stirring tales of how this or that entrepreneur beat the odds to make a fortune in some poverty-stricken place; how companies from India, Mexico, or South Africa became admired multinationals; and how firms in rich countries found opportunities in poor ones. Much of what’s on offer is entertaining and even inspiring, but contributes little to a theory of emerging market strategy.

The need for advice on how to crack emerging markets is a big one, and its growth is explosive. So we shouldn’t be surprised if zealous researchers and managers underplay what is already known, and what expansionary firms have learned over many decades—even centuries. Breakthroughs are always more seductive than “the basics.”

A few experts have provided useful insights about emerging market strategy. But by and large, efforts to produce useful concepts or tools specific to this field have been less than fruitful, and will continue to disappoint.

As with other areas of management, there’s only so much that can be said. There will be some incremental advances, but executives should not expect revolutionary new models or frameworks. Those in the advice business will add most value by providing information about particular countries and sectors (context), and what it takes to win in them, rather than about strategy itself (concepts).

THE GLOBALIZATION OF … MANAGEMENT

As I pointed out in a previous post, virtually every market for everything is today an emerging market, in the sense that conditions are in flux, the future is unclear, competitive intensity is high, and the rules of the game are evolving. Strategies and business models that once worked well can quickly become recipes for failure, so both must be adjusted or maybe reinvented to meet new circumstances.

But it also means that whether you’re doing business in Europe or the U.S., or trying to get moving in Malawi or Myanmar, many of the challenges are fundamentally alike. And solutions to them will be much the same, too.

The principles of management that produce results are similar across industries. They’re also similar across countries. It may be fashionable to suggest otherwise, but the evidence is clear.

Management know-how has not only been commoditized, it has also been globalized. So instead of wasting time trying to reinvent this wheel, you can focus on the really hard work of getting to know the market you’re aiming at, and figuring out how to apply the best practices within it.

CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING

The first and most important question every firm must answer when it ventures into new territory is, How will we fit in? This is the make-or-break issue. Deep local knowledge makes all the difference. Personal relationships count for a lot. Most executives who’ve worked in developing markets talk about their steep learning curve, the time it took to gain traction there.

Wherever in the world you do business, you have to be wise to politics, culture, and economics; to the structure and character of whatever market you’re in; to customer expectations and behaviour; and to what competitors are doing. But in developing countries, three issues demand particular attention.

First, there’s the fact that “things don’t work”—or at least not as they do in developed nations. Companies are dogged by what Tarun Khanna and Krishna G. Palepu have termed “institutional voids”: poor infrastructure, dodgy regulation, weak capital markets, lousy services, a lack of skills, and much else. Unhelpful bureaucrats make things worse. Corruption may be a huge problem (although it also occurs in even the most advanced nations). Protecting intellectual property can be a nightmare.

Second, is the difficulty in connecting sellers and buyers. Informal trade is probably the norm; business ecosystems are ill-formed. There’s little information about customers or competitors. Promotions, logistics, and support all present hurdles.

Third, is the management of people. Individuals with appropriate capabilities and experience are in short supply. Productivity, quality, and customer service are not their priorities. They’re unfamiliar with sophisticated working methods. They have to be introduced to a host of new ideas—roles and responsibilities, technical systems, performance management, communication, disciplinary processes, and so on. So foreign executives need to be firm and persistent in providing new direction, while at the same time acutely conscious of local custom.

None of this should be under-estimated. No one should imagine that building a business in a developing country is a cake-walk. It’s folly to believe you can simply charge out of New York and set up shop in New Delhi.

Joburg and Lagos may both be in Africa, but South African managers who think they can easily crack the Nigerian market because “We are African, we understand Africa,” are in for a shock. Success in one country in Africa, Asia, or Latin America is no guarantee of success in others in the same region, let alone elsewhere. Sony’s notion of “glocalization”—”think global, and act local”—is as valid today as it was when it was coined about three decades ago.

Emerging markets—in the sense of developing markets in developing countries—offer exciting prospects for many firms. They differ in many ways from developed markets, but managers should not hope for fantastic new theories for entering them or competing in them. Instead, they need to do their homework, strike a careful balance between importing ideas that worked elsewhere and developing new ones, and recognize that as outsiders they have special responsibilities towards their hosts.

Strategy is always a learning process, and even more so in emerging markets. But emphasis needs to be on learning about these places, not about new strategy concepts or management tools.

IN SUMMARY

Success in these markets depends, more than anything, on putting the right people on the ground with all the support they need.

They should balance a core set of strategic principles and a proven management approach with a sensitivity to local attitudes, customs, and behaviours, and always be respectful of these.

They should understand the importance of local knowledge, and never stop searching for new insights.

And most importantly, they should couple these practical actions with a preparedness to do what it takes to fit in (within reason) and the determination to improvise through difficulties.

Tony Manning_Essentials for emerging market success

A CHECKLIST TO GET YOU GOING
  1. Mindset matters. Given the hurdles you’ll face, you and your people have to really, really, really want to try. You have to be bold, you have to be able to adapt, and you’ll need both courage and perseverance. Above all, you’ll need to be resourceful—your ability to “make a plan” will be constantly tested.
  2. Appoint people who’ll be happy there. Living in Luanda or Laos is not like living in Los Angeles or London. It can be tough. Especially on families. Everyone can’t do it. So give them every chance to understand what they’re taking on, and all the encouragement and support they’ll need.
  3. Go “where the warm armpits are.” As Ted Levitt liked to say, there’s only one way to really understand any market, and that’s to go there and immerse yourself in it. To watch the locals and listen to them. To get to know what turns them on and off, and to learn how things work.
  4. Remember the first principles. Just as focus, value, and costs must be your mantra in developed markets, so they must guide your every action in emerging markets.
  5. Explore, experiment and learn fast. No matter how you prepare, no matter how good your initial information seems to be, and no matter how carefully you think through your strategy, you will get things wrong. This is a fact of life in any market, and especially so in developing ones.
  6. Get stakeholders on your side. You have to gain the support of government, communities, workers—the same array of players you deal with in your home market. But in emerging markets you probably have to work much harder to educate people about business in general and your business in particular. They have to understand not just what you expect of them, but what you can do for them. “Out there,” they can make or break you.
  7. Develop local partnerships. In some countries, they may be mandatory. In many, they’re necessary to open doors, smooth your entry, build alliances, and facilitate your growth. Their knowledge, experience, and contacts can be invaluable and make the difference between success and failure.
  8. Clear values, no compromises. While adaptability is critical, you have to be certain about how you need to behave and what you will and will not do, or you’ll be jerked around constantly—and a sitting duck for crazy demands and corruption. So set the rules early, or someone with another agenda will set them for you.
  9. Be willing to build your own infrastructure. This may mean anything from a shopping centre to a power plant or a water purification facility, roads or runways, a sewage system, accommodation for your staff, or schools and clinics for communities. It could mean offering to train local officials or upgrade their IT systems. Or it could mean working closely with PR or advertising agencies, or other service suppliers, to develop their capacity.
  10. Try, try, and try again. Cracking an emerging market is not a quick process. It’ll take most companies a lot longer than they expect, and cost far more. If you don’t go in for the long haul, you’re wasting your time. If you can’t keep picking yourself up, and adjusting your strategy, you may as well stay at home.
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  •  18/01/2013
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 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