Posts Tagged ‘competitive advantage’

3 Times When You May Need To Change Your Strategy

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

We all do things that are crazy.

One of my things is telling people that they shouldn’t be changing their strategy.

I do it when business owners – or CEOs – say things like “It’s time for our annual strategy meeting”. The implication – for me at any rate – is that they change their strategy every year.

But that would be just plain wrong.

Changes to a well thought-out, well-crafted strategy shouldn’t be driven simply because it’s been in place 1, 3 or 5 years.

A strategy shouldn’t necessarily be changed even if it isn’t producing results. In this situation I always look at how well (or badly) the strategy is being executed before I look at the strategy itself.

So when should a company review its strategy? And what makes that review and any subsequent adaptation, revision or recreation necessary?

Here are three occasions.

1.    When the company has outgrown its strategy.

There’s research which suggests that companies can “plateau” when they achieve certain levels of revenue. Depending on the industry those levels are around $5 million, approx. $10 -12 million, somewhere between $18 – 30 million and so on.

Typical symptoms of “plateauing” are upward spikes in revenue which can’t be maintained, increasing lead times delivering the product or service, decreasing levels of customer satisfaction and higher employee turnover.

The plateauing occurs because the things – e.g. strategy, processes – the company has done up to that point in its life can’t support any more growth. It’s like expecting a teenager to fit into the clothes they wore when they were eight.

To rekindle growth the owner either has to change the strategy, the way it’s executed – or both.

2.    Significant internal change.

This occurs when, for example, a company develops a game changing new product or service or finds a new way of doing its existing business. This gives it an edge over its competitors by e.g. reducing costs or increasing efficiencies.

To reap maximum benefit from this new competitive advantage the owner will have to adapt or change the existing strategy.

3.    Significant external change.

In this case the owner or CEO has to react to e.g.:

  • A competitor who is taking advantage of a significant internal change.
  • The industry “maturing”. In other words the business has been around long enough for a number of competitors to have become large enough to e.g.:
    • Reduce their costs and pass this on as reductions in the selling price or,
    • Buy up smaller players who introduce game changing technology or process improvements. This is also known as industry consolidation.
  • Major changes in e.g. the economy, labour pool, legislation governing the industry, or all of the above.

Continuing with a “business as usual” approach under any of these situations is clearly not going to be effective.

To be fair, when business owners and CEOs say “It’s time for our annual strategy meeting” they usually mean that it’s time to start the annual business planning process. That is something that must be done every year.

And, since we have services which can make the annual business planning process more effective, perhaps I’m not as crazy as I look – I mean sound…….

If you enjoyed this you will also enjoy 2 Things That Cause Bad Strategy

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I’m Not Alone………

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

It started last year.

It continued to bother me this year but I didn’t say anything to anyone. I couldn’t, I wasn’t sure how to put it.

Then I found out that someone else felt the same way. He has a much higher, more public profile than me. And he wasn’t afraid to speak out.

That tipped me over the edge.

Just as I took my first couple of tentative steps, I discovered there’s someone else, also with a higher profile than mine, who is talking about it too.

I feel so much better. So I’ll say it out loud……..

The words strategy and strategic are being overused and misused. And it’s wrong because it’s causing confusion and doing harm.

It first became clear to me………….

…..when I read Richard Rumelt’s book “Good Strategy: Bad Strategy, The Difference and Why It Matters”.  I believe 3 of Rumelt’s 4 major hallmarks of bad strategy involve misuse of the words strategy or strategic.

He describes “Fluff” as a superficial restatement of the obvious combined with a generous sprinkling of buzzwords.

Rumelt’s example of fluff is a major bank stating “Our fundamental strategy is one of customer-centric intermediation.” Intermediation, accepting deposits and lending them to others, is what all banks do. And this one’s processes didn’t make it any more customer friendly than its competitors. The statement is fluff not strategy.

Then there’s “Mistaking goals for strategy”. For example he talks about a document labeled “Our Key Strategies” which was no more than a list of goals with no reference to a key strength the company could leverage to achieve the goals.

The third one is “Bad strategic objectives”. Rumelt talks about “dog’s dinner objectives”, a list of things to do with the label strategies or objectives, where 1 of the “to do’s” is to create a strategic plan. There are also “blue sky objectives”, which are simply a restatement of the desired state of affairs.

And now there’s someone else……………….

…..who is making a similar point. This week Harvard Business Review published a blog post by Joan Magretta called “5 Common Strategy Mistakes”. I think 3 of them also involve confusing strategy with something else.
First is confusing marketing with strategy. Doing that, she argues, means overlooking the point that a strategy not only requires a value proposition, it also requires a unique configuration of (companywide) activities that best delivers the value.

Next is confusing competitive advantage with what you’re good at. Companies often look inward, see a strength – and overestimate it. But to form the basis for a strategy a strength has to be something the company does better than its rivals. And that judgment can only be made by the market.

Finally there’s thinking that growth or reaching a revenue goal is a strategy. Sound familiar? Mistaking goals for strategy is on Rumelt’s list too. It’s not the goal (e.g., reach $50 million in revenue), nor is it a specific action (e.g., launch a new product, enter a new market, make acquisitions). Strategy is the set of integrated choices that define how you will achieve the goal; the actions are the path you take to execute or realize the strategy.

Now that I feel better, that I’m not alone…………

…..I’m going to continue speaking about it.

Because it will only get better if we get it into the open, get people, business owners, talking about it.

We have to stop overusing and misusing strategy and strategic. It’s causing confusion and doing harm to the most important part of a company – its business strategy.

By the way, you can see my first couple of tentative steps here and here

Bad Strategy – How To Spot It

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

Many business owners are in the middle of their business planning or budgeting process for 2012.

So, for those pressed for time, I’ll summarize a timely article by Richard Rumelt, adapted from his new book “Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters”, and published in the McKinsey Quarterly.

Here are Rumelt’s 4 hallmarks of bad strategy.

1.    Failure To Face The Problem

A strategy, according to Rumelt, is a response to a challenge. But if the challenge isn’t defined, it’s impossible to assess the quality of the strategy. And if you can’t do that you can’t reject it as bad or improve on it.

For example in 1979 International Harvester produced a Strategic Plan which was thorough and rich in detail. The overall direction was to increase share in each of their served markets while reducing costs.

Unfortunately the Plan didn’t address Harvester’s main problem – its inefficient work organization. This stemmed from grossly inefficient production facilities and the worst labour relations in US industry.

This problem could not be fixed by driving people to increase market share or by investing in new equipment. Harvester survived for a couple of years but began to collapse after a disastrous 6 month strike. The rest, as they say, is history.

2.    Mistaking Goals For Strategy

Rumelt describes a CEO who had a plan to grow revenues 20% a year with profit margins of 20% or more.When asked how this aggressive plan would be achieved, the CEO replied “With the drive to succeed – by picking stretch goals and pushing until we get there”.

The CEO then quoted Jack Welch who said “We have found that by reaching for what appears to be the impossible, we often actually do the impossible.” But he had forgotten that Welch also said “If you don’t have a competitive advantage, don’t compete.”

Rumelt argues that a company needs a unique internal strength or an opportunity created by a change in the industry for this type of growth. Stretch goals and motivation alone are not enough.

He illustrates the inadequacy of this “push until we get there” type of thinking, by referring to the great pushes in the 1914-18 war. The troops who were slaughtered didn’t suffer from a lack of motivation – they suffered from a lack of competent, strategic leadership.

3.    Bad Strategic Objectives

This can take the form of a long list of things to do – often labeled strategies or objectives. These lists result from planning sessions in which the focus is on doing a wide variety of things, not a few, key things.

Rumelt refers to the planning committee for a small city whose strategic plan contained 47 strategies and 178 action items. Action item number 122 was “create a strategic plan.”

Another type of weak strategic objective is one that is “blue sky”. It’s typically a restatement of the desired state of affairs or the challenge- and skips over the fact that no one knows how to get there.

Good strategy works by focusing energy and resources on a very few, pivotal objectives and builds a bridge between the critical challenge and action. Thus, the objectives a good strategy sets stand a good chance of being accomplished.

4.    Fluff

The final hallmark of bad strategy is a restatement of the obvious, combined with a generous sprinkling of buzzwords. Rumelt’s example is a retail bank which said “Our fundamental strategy is one of customer-centric intermediation.”

An intermediate is a company that accepts deposits and then lends the money – in other words, a bank. The buzz phrase “customer centric” could mean that they compete by offering better terms and service. But their policies didn’t reveal any distinction between it and other banks.

So “customer-centric intermediation” is pure fluff. Eliminate it and the bank’s fundamental strategy is being a bank.

5.    My final words

In my next post I’ll finish summarizing the article and talk about why there is so much bad strategy.

Follow Your Dreams, But Chase The Money

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

Our first guest blogger is.………………Jeremy Miller, the President of Sticky Branding — a brand consultancy specialized in building brands that sell themselves online.

The best way to grow profits is to cut your own path. 

You never hear about companies who achieved immense success by doing what everyone else did.  No.  Successful companies challenge the status quo, and create new categories and sub-categories.

Companies that break the mold and create new categories create immense competitive advantage.  You can see these breakout businesses in almost every industry.  Wal-Mart rewrote the business model for discount retailers, and set the standard for big box retailers.  The Chrysler minivan went 16 years without a viable competitor.  And Apple epitomizes the creation of new categories with the iPod, iPhone and iPad – each product causing structural shifts in consumer electronics.

Every business owner has an opportunity to break the mold and find their own path.  It takes vision, commitment and quick reflexes.

New categories aren’t made in a vacuum

Innovative new categories are not created in isolation.  Thousands of brilliant business ideas have died on the vine, because there just wasn’t enough demand for them.  The entrepreneur saw a need that no one else cared about.

Successful companies challenge the status quo.  Steve Jobs said in a Fortune Magazine interview, “When we created the iTunes Music Store, we did that because we thought it would be great to be able to buy music electronically, not because we had plans to redefine the music industry.  I mean, it just seemed like writing on the wall.”

When forming a new category it’s always in comparison to the current alternatives.  Your customers already have solutions for their business challenges; they just might not be the most optimal.  Challenge those solutions head-on, and provide them a better option.

Constantly Tinker

Businesses rarely get it right the first time.  Wal-Mart’s dominance didn’t happen overnight.  It was Sam Walton’s life’s work, and came out of his constant tinkering and risk taking.

Walton was always on the hunt for fresh ideas he could implement in his own stores.  He said, “I probably have traveled and walked into more variety stores than anybody in America.  I am just trying to get ideas, any kind of ideas that will help our company.  Most of us don’t invent ideas.  We take the best ideas from someone else.”

Creating a new category is a work in progress.  It takes a significant commitment of time, resources and energy to give your customers a new alternative.

Nothing relieves pressure like sales

It always boils down to money.  If your customers don’t get it, they won’t pay for it.  Customer feedback is the best feedback.  It will tell you if you’re on the right track or not.

Chances are your first time to market may not be a whopping success.  So persist, tinker, reinvest and continue to push the bar forward.  It’s your vision and dreams that will help you find a new category, but it’s your customers that will form it and make it a reality.  When it does come together you will be on the path to immense profit growth.

For more information on Jeremy Miller and Sticky Branding visit http://www.StickyBranding.com

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