Strategic Recognition

Five Forces vs. The Customer?

You may have seen the reports of Monitor Group's recent demise. Steve Denning of Forbes wrote a forceful blog post entitled, "What Killed Michael Porter's Monitor Group? The One Force That Really Mattered." This article has been the basis of a lot of bandwagon jumping lately. Not in a good way in my view.

I like strong opinions. As such, I like the Denning piece. But as a skeptical consumer of information, I'm not convinced that the conclusions he's drawn are correct.

Are we to believe the very approach that Porter and Monitor were famous for was exactly what lead to their demise? It may be a poetic and clever assertion, but I don't buy it for a second. You'd also have to forgive me for questioning the motive of the article itself, since Denning is clearly a management consultant. It feels a tad righteous and self-promotional as well.

But that's not my real beef with the article.

I take umbrage with anyone who thinks they can stand back from a safe distance and accurately assess why a particular business succeeded or failed. Looking retrospectively at any event, whether it is a game of schoolyard basketball or the management of a multinational, is incredibly problematic. Suggesting you have the definitive viewpoint is just plain fatuous.

There are thousands of moving pieces, decisions, people and contributing and conflicting influences that we could never appreciate or comprehend. Even if we are intimately involved in the enterprise we still don't know the totality of things that were going on around us. If you’ve ever worked in a dissolving business you’ll know what I’m talking about. Everyone on the outside has an “expert” opinion as to why the company failed. And yet, I doubt any of them are fully correct.

Just as the validity of predictive forecasting is suspect, so is the validity of retrospective analysis of business failure. It would be nice if things were as cut and dried as some would have us believe.

“When the number of factors coming into play in a phenomenological complex is too large scientific method in most cases fails. One need only think of the weather, in which case the prediction even for a few days ahead is impossible.”
― Albert Einstein

“The cord that tethers ability to success is both loose and elastic. It is easy to see fine qualities in successful books or to see unpublished manuscripts, inexpensive vodkas, or people struggling in any field as somehow lacking. It is easy to believe that ideas that worked were good ideas, that plans that succeeded were well designed, and that ideas and plans that did not were ill conceived. And it is easy to make heroes out of the most successful and to glance with disdain at the least. But ability does not guarantee achievement, nor is achievement proportional to ability. And so it is important to always keep in mind the other term in the equation—the role of chance…What I’ve learned, above all, is to keep marching forward because the best news is that since chance does play a role, one important factor in success is under our control: the number of at bats, the number of chances taken, the number of opportunities seized.”
Leonard Mlodinow, The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives

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"Killzone" Economics. Why You Should Care.

Decreasing interaction costs and sublinear enterprise productivity could create market volatility that can be your friend, or your enemy, when building and managing your enterprise. Are they your friends?

Let’s start with some definitions.

Killzone is a military term, or at the very least a gamer term (from Urban Dictionary):


“A military term describing an area of ground that is well defended, possibly including pre-sighted machine guns, mortars, artillery, as well as a variety of obstacles such as razor wire and tripflares. (Weapons will be pre-sighted to these obstacles, as approaching troops will get caught in them, making them ideal targets.) This creates a literal "killing zone," hence the name.”


Clearly from that definition, this is not somewhere you want to end up as a company. Your odds of surviving a trip to the Killzone are low.

To understand interaction costs, you need first to understand transaction costs. Transaction costs, which were the focus of Ronald Coase’s Nobel Prize winning work in the 1930’s, include the costs related to the formal exchange of goods and services between companies, or between companies and customers (ie. How much does it cost me as a company to sell you, the customer, my goods or services?).

These costs play a critical role in determining how large your firm can grow. Coase’s work included a linkage between transaction costs and the size of a firm. Simply put, Coase’s Nature of the Firm suggested that a firm will continue to grow to the point where an internal transaction can be outsourced more cheaply than if executed within a company. When a transaction can be accomplished more cheaply outside of the firm, there is no incentive to continue growing.

Interaction costs are now more widely used than transaction costs as they include transaction costs, but also add the costs of exchanging ideas and information. Thus they cover a more full picture of economic interactions between companies and their customers. Interaction costs are comprised of search, information, bargaining, decision, policing and enforcement costs. As more and more work is information related in our economy, interaction costs can be incredibly important to watch and manage.

Most importantly perhaps, interaction costs are exactly the kinds of costs that are rapidly decreasing due to the ubiquity of connected devices and the growing power of functionality facilitated by this connectivity.

Now for sublinear enterprise productivity. Wha? Yes, sublinear enterprise productivity. In short, this refers to some interesting work done by Geoffrey West and his collaborator Luis Bettencourt recently where they discovered when studying 23,000 publicly traded companies, that as the number of employees grows, the amount of profit per employee shrinks. Corporate productivity then, was shown to be entirely sublinear. This should not be taken as the last word on the topic, but they are interesting results. In particular their assertion that, “the bleak reality of corporate growth, in which efficiencies of scale are almost always outweighed by the burdens of bureaucracy.” Furthermore, they go on to state that, “the inevitable decline in profit per employee makes large companies increasingly vulnerable to market volatility.”

So what if your firm is experiencing both decreasing profit per employee from the growth dynamic described by West and Bettencourt, and is also seeing interaction costs drop as value chain activities migrate more to information-driven interactions so as to be more exposed to interaction cost decreases? Wouldn’t that lead to even more volatility? Wouldn’t that that promote unequal rates of change inside and outside of companies?

It’s a hypothesis at this point. And it’s probably not original. I’m inclined to invoke Bob Sutton’s law in this regard, “If you think you have a new idea, you are wrong. Somebody else probably already had it. This idea isn't original either; I stole it from someone else."



 

If there is any validity to the hypothesis, it might suggest there is a systemic way to identify which markets and companies are ripe for disruption. If interaction costs are dropping around you in your market, and your profit per employee is declining, perhaps it’s time to think about disrupting yourself before someone else does? At the very least, you’d better get a grip on your interaction costs so they are in line with the market.

If you’re an insurgent, this seems to be a particularly good time. Dropping external interaction costs and decreasing profit per employee might suggest a market which is stumbling into your Killzone.

 

[Author’s note: I am not an economist. The post above is based on a hypothesis only. The underlying science surrounding transaction and interaction costs and sublinear enterprise productivity are well-known and evidence-based to the best of my knowledge. However, my leap to a meaningful connection between the two is only hypothetical at this time. Contributions and refutations are welcomed. My goal is to explore some of the possible underlying reasons (outside of the current political and monetary policy upheaval, of course) for what I perceive to be the current economic conditions for enterprises: characterized by hypercompetitiveness and increasingly volatile markets.]

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Hustle As Strategy

I was scanning through a stockpile of saved research/articles that I have accumulated on my drive over the past 25 years, and came across Amar Bhide's HBR article from September-October 1986 entitled, "Hustle as Strategy."

While I don't think this is Amar's best work (to be expected as he was a doctoral candidate at the time), it contains a nugget that I love:

"The competitive scriptures almost systematically ignore the importance of hustle and energy. While they preach strategic planning, competitive strategy, and competitive advantage, they overlook the record of a surprisingly large number of very successful companies that vigorously practice a different kind of religion. These companies don't have long-term strategic plans with an obsessive preoccupation on rivalry. They concentrate on operating details and doing things well. Hustle is their style and their strategy. They move fast, and they get it right."

It's a nice idea that you could spend your time as an executive creating and managing strategy. I've even seen fancy titles that suggest someone is the "Chief Strategy Officer." Sounds incredibly cool and rarefied.

In my experience though, it doesn't seem to matter if you've chosen to use a Competitive (Porter), Resource-based (Hamel & Prahalad), Blue Ocean (Kim & Mauborgne), Disruptive (Christensen & Raynor) or Emergent (Hamel, Mintzberg)...it does all come back to execution.

Reminds me of that old saw, "Great ideas are a dime a dozen; only execution counts."

 

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The Strategy-to-Performance Gap - Part I










...continued from previous post

"Strategies are approved but poorly communicated. This in
turn, makes the translation of strategy into specific actions and resource
plans all but impossible. Lower levels in the organization don't know what they
need to do, when they need to do it, or what resources will be required to
deliver the performance senior management expects. Consequently, the expected
results never materialize. And because no one is held responsible for the
shortfall, the cycle of underperformance gets repeated, often for many years."
1


Let's address the communication problem as it was mentioned
first. When the strategy off-site breaks up, people run for the doors to catch
their planes, cabs, trains, etc. and some unlucky soul who either lives locally
or who is a little slow out of their chair, gets tasked with "consolidating and
documenting the plan."

 

And where does several days of conversation, debate, wisdom
and guidance provided by the most expensive resources in your enterprise get
captured and distilled? Unfortunately, more times than not the answer is within
an Excel spreadsheet or a Word document. Authored by someone doing the best
they can, but still rushing to get back to their "regular" job.

 

We're big fans of Excel and Word, so don't get us wrong. But
for their intended purposes; number crunching and word processing. Using these
tools for the purposes of strategy management encourages the filing and
dismissal of this critical information until the end of the quarter arrives, when
people pull them out just long enough to justify why they missed their forgotten
targets.

 

Strategy isn't a once-and-done operation. Targets need to be
rigid, but your supporting actions need to be able to sense and respond to the
current environment. As Mike Tyson is famous for saying, "Yeah, they all got a
plan for how to fight me. Until they get hit!"

Embedding your plan in a static
document almost guarantees that it will be treated as a sometime-thing rather
than an all-the-time thing. Our view is that if you aren't working on something
that is furthering the strategy, exploring emerging opportunities, or listening to customers then you may want to recalibrate.

 

We'll resist going on a (lengthy) rant here about how this static
document problem multiplies itself as it cascades down each successive layer of
your organization. How every unit develops their own version with their own
required supporting initiatives and actions each abstracted from the abstracted
layer above. Oh, and efficiently rolling-up meaningful activity, relevant
feedback, status and results across the organization? "Forgetaboutit."

...to be continued...

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