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)

  •  11/03/2013
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 212013
 

Strategic planning has a long history—and a dismal track record. Just about every company does it, obviously because they think it’s important, yet it’s value is highly questionable.

Ask almost any senior manager, “Is planning important to your company?” and you’ll get a strange look and a resounding “Yes.” But ask, “What exactly does it do for you?” and the answer is likely to be vague and unconvincing. Even when you do get a confident story, it’s easy to poke holes in it. There’s almost always a gap between intentions, expectations, and results.

In many firms strategy is reduced to an annual ritual tied to the budget cycle rather than timed to deal with critical challenges. It’s a stop-start activity that distracts people from “real work,” incites political games, and results in boring PowerPoint presentations and piles of paper which no one looks at again. While it’s happening, new challenges keep arising and decisions are made that override what was decided the year before. When it’s done, there’s a huge sigh of relief.

What should be a very serious matter is a recurring joke. “The Stratplan” is a calendar event more notable for what goes into it than what comes out of it. The best that can be said of it is that it keeps a lot of people busy while life goes on.

In consulting assignments and business school classes, I typically get questions like these:

  1. Does planning work?
  2. What’s the best process?
  3. Who should be involved?
  4. How can you communicate the plan throughout an organization?
  5. How long should a plan last, and when should you change it?
  6. How can you improve execution?
  7. How can a balance be struck between planning and innovation?
  8. What’s the best way to measure strategy?

This used to surprise me. After all, “everyone knows” that strategy is the overarching management discipline, the one that comes before all other and informs every management decision and action.

It’s a topic that has been researched and commented on for decades by academics, business leaders and journalists. There are countless books, articles and courses on it, and more than enough models, frameworks and opinions to provide the guidance any manager could want.

But having watched countless high-level executives struggle to make sense of strategy, I’ve come to the view that in their quest for better tools and techniques they have utterly confused themselves and everyone around them. Equally serious, their ceaseless experimentation keeps them from ever mastering and embedding any single approach that will serve them over time.

The questions above are not profound ones: they deal with what you might at best call “the basics.” So surely the answers should be well known to anyone with even limited exposure to strategy theory and a modicum of experience in making and executing strategy. But clearly they’re not. This very important—and very influential—subject is shrouded in mystery and mumbo-jumbo.

To develop strategy, managers tend to use an arbitrary mix of familiar tools and fashionable new ideas. SWOT analysis seems mandatory and Porter’s five forces framework is popular. During the past three decades, the vision, mission, values approach has gained a strong hold. Terms like core competence, agility, strategy maps, and balanced scorecards are tossed about.

In the introduction to Competence-Based Competition, a 1994 book they edited for the Strategic Management Society, Gary Hamel and Aimé Heene said this:

“After almost 40 years of development and theory building, the field of strategic management is today, more than ever, characterized by contrasting and sometimes competing paradigms … the strategy field seems to be as far away as ever from a ‘grand unified theory’ of competitiveness. Indeed, there is still much divergence of opinion within the strategy field on questions as basic as ‘what is a theory of strategic management about?’ and, more importantly, ‘what should a theory of strategic management be about?’”

A few years later, Hamel, one of the most prominent strategy gurus of all, wrote in the Financial Times that “The dirty little secret is that we don’t have a theory of strategy creation. We don’t know how it’s done.”

I disagree with both these comments. Hamel and Heene are right to say that there are many opinions about strategy theory, but there are not many strategy theories. In fact, there are just a few—and they underpin all the other stuff that “thought leaders” spin as breakthrough ideas. The real “dirty little secret” about strategy creation is we know more than enough about it but just don’t do it very well!

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  •  21/01/2013
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
May 232012
 

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

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

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

  1. Your #1 challenge as a leader is to take your people with you. So create a climate for high performance and engage them constantly in a rich, robust conversation.
  2. Accept complexity, but simplify everything you can. Cut through clutter and focus on the few things that make the most difference. You have limited resources and a lot to do, so don’t try to do everything and be everything to everybody.
  3. Know what you’re aiming for, and spell it out loud and clear and often. Make sure your entire team understands your purpose, strategy, values, and priorities. You can never communicate enough, so keep repeating yourself.
  4. Focus on your “right” customer … forget the rest. Create clear criteria for defining your “right” customer (industry, size, growth potential, reputation, buying power, ease of doing business, ability and willingness to pay, what they can teach you, etc.) Make these criteria clear to all your people. Be ruthless about customers that don’t fit—they’re a dangerous distraction and you can’t afford them.
  5. Get your “basics” right. Put “gas in your tank and air in your tyres” and do what you must to get your “engine” firing on eight cylinders, not four. Strike a balance between consistently meeting customers’ current expectations and surprising them with something new, better, or different.
  6. Relentlessly drive value up, costs down. It’s the only way to compete.
  7. Learn from everything you do, and share new insights with your whole team fast. The more you learn, and the quicker you do it, the more adaptable your company will become.
  8. Hold your course. Be boringly consistent and persistent. Don’t be tempted to zig-zag. Sustainable strategy might be an impossible dream, but you have to repeat yourself for some time to hone your performance and build key resources and capabilities.
  9. Be ready to change when you must … then do it with everything you’ve got. Gather all the information you might need. Think about what you might need to change, and how. Develop the strengths that will matter. Practice, practice, practice. And when the time comes, don’t dilly-dally—go for it!
  10. Pace yourself … when you think it’s time to make a new decision, ask, “Is this really the time? If it’s not, wait. Sometimes, doing nothing is best. In another day, week, or month, you’ll have more information and a clearer picture of what you need to deal with. And it’s quite possible the risks you see right now, or the challenges you think you need to respond to, will have come to nought.
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  •  23/05/2012
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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Mar 052012
 

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

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

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

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

One set of questions helps you evaluate your overall strategy:

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

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

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

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

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

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  •  05/03/2012
Feb 092012
 

As a voracious reader of business books and journals, I’ve become increasingly jaded and disillusioned. I’ve spent countless hours over the past quarter century searching for insights, concepts, and tools that might really change things. Yet for all the hype that “management” gives rise to and is prone to, most of what I’ve seen is just more of the same, repackaged for a new time and possibly a new audience. Some of it is vaguely interesting. A good deal of it is just plain nonsense.

For all the efforts of academics, consultants, executives, and writers, there’s been surprisingly little progress in the field of management thinking. A handful of concepts cooked up 30, 40, 50 – or even close to 100 years ago – are still the ones that matter; and they are the core of what now gets touted as “new,” “breakthrough,” or “revolutionary.”

The DuPont chart, a tool for thinking about how companies create wealth, appeared almost a century ago. Fifty-odd years ago, Peter Drucker noted that every company needs to answer three questions: 1) who is the customer? 2) what is value to that customer? and 3) how can we deliver it? And around the same time, the human resources school of organizational behavior gathered momentum with its message that people are the most important resource, and treating them well is smarter than treating them badly. So what has changed? Answer: nothing. What better advice is on offer? Answer: none. These long-in-the-tooth ideas remain the bedrock of today’s “freshest” management thinking. Again and again, they’re tarted up for a new audience by management’s “thought leaders.”

Of course, there will be howls of protest at this view. After all, a lot of people have a lot riding on the world being eager to hear what they have to say – and being willing to pay for it. But one thing I’ve learned about management is that we have a very good idea of what works. Get these few things right, and you have a chance of success; get them wrong, and you’re roadkill. Another lesson is that there are no silver bullets in business. And in this time of great change, we really can’t afford to keep reinventing the wheel or flailing around for answers that don’t exist.

There are three possible tests of the value of any new insight or concept: 1) how useful it is to busy, practicing managers; 2) whether it advances our understanding of a particular topic such as strategy, leadership, change management, customer service, or operations; or 3) whether it becomes a catalyst for further investigation and thought. By these tests, very little of what’s dished up is worthwhile.

This is alarming, given that management is the discipline at the very centre of human affairs. The one that makes pretty much everything happen. That makes businesses competitive and schools, hospitals, and armies effective. That makes cities, ships, trains, power stations, and much else work. And that drives innovation and progress.

You’d think that, by now, we’d have figured out how to manage things. That we’d have settled on a set of core principles and a proven set of practices. But we haven’t. Instead, we keep on searching. And searching…

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  •  09/02/2012