Friday, October 22, 2010

strategic planning analogy #359: Does It Fit?

I’m a real sucker for a great bargain. Unfortunately, not all great prices are great deals.

Take clothing, for example. I’ve seen lots of really great clearance prices over the years on clothes. Unfortunately, the clearance assortment usually leaves a lot to be desired. They almost never seem to have my exact size left in stock. Therefore, I’ve been known to buy clothing that doesn’t quite fit me exactly, just because I couldn’t resist the low price. Sometimes, I can make the clothing work. Other times, it just sits in my closet, never worn.

I may have paid a terrifically low price for the item, but it was a lousy deal because it didn’t fit and I never wore it.

It really doesn’t matter how little I paid for the clothes. If they don’t fit, they are worthless to me. It was wasted money.

The same can be said of certain strategic initiatives. They may appear to be excellent opportunities, but if they don’t have a strategic fit with the organization, you will never reap the full benefits of that opportunity. If fact, that great so-called “opportunity” could end up destroying value for your firm because of all the time, money and energy wasted in trying to make it fit, when in fact it does not and can not. You will always be at a competitive disadvantage versus others in that space who have a greater fit with the strategic initiative.

Just as you do not want a closet full of clothes you cannot wear, you do not want a business full of initiatives where you had no strategic advantage/fit. No matter how great the opportunity looks, it has to fit to be a great opportunity for you.

The principle here is that great strategies produce great cash flows over their life.

Two Factors Impacting Cash Flows
Two factors impact how much net cash a strategy will produce over its lifetime:

1) The amount of money/time/effort needed create and execute the strategy. These are the efforts which produce the INPUT for your strategy. For example, if your strategy is to become a major player in the smartphone business, you need to expend money/time/effort to design/develop your technology (hardware and software) and find a way to get the smartphone manufactured. Once this infrastructure is developed, you need a process to ensure your technology remains up-to-date and that daily operations run smoothly and efficiently. Without these inputs (a phone, software, and operations to produce them), you cannot be in the smartphone business.

2) The amount of money/time/effort needed to get customers aware of your strategy and make it easy to purchase what you are offering. These are the efforts which produce the OUTPUT for your strategy. Using modern terms, this is the concept of “monetizing” your strategy. For example, to monetize your smartphone, you need things like arrangements with the supply chain (mobile phone carriers and retailers), marketing campaigns, distribution capabilities, and a sales force. And if your business is advertising based, not only do you need a sales/marketing arm to reach end users, but also a sales/marketing arm to reach advertisers. In the case of the iPhone, Apple also needed to develop an infrastructure for developing and selling apps in order to fully monetize the strategy.

To maximize cash flow, one typically needs to keep the costs of inputs low and the net revenues from outputs high. A key way to do this is via strategic fit. Strategic fit is critical in both the inputs and the outputs. Without strategic fit, you will both expend more effort AND get less in return on your inputs as well as your outputs. And in a competitive marketplace, it is difficult to have a winning strategy when others, using strategic fit, can spend less and get more out of the same initiative.

Strategic Fit And Inputs
On the input side, strategic fit occurs when the competencies, skill sets, and infrastructure needed to get a strategic initiative up and running are similar to the competencies, skill sets and infrastructure already possessed by the firm. For example, it is easier to develop the software and hardware needed for a smartphone if you already have the engineering and technical experience to develop things like this in-house. Having brought similar technology to market in the past will put you further down the learning curve. This will make the process more efficient, more timely and more likely to succeed.

Similarly, experience in manufacturing similar products will give you an advantage in delivering the new product you have developed. You will get down the learning curve faster for everyday operations, thereby increasing the efficiencies of your input. If you can build the product using manufacturing infrastructure you already own and experienced employees who are already in place, you not only avoid the added expense of new infrastructure and new training, but you also get to spread your current infrastructure cost over more products. This makes your entire portfolio more profitable.

There was a strong strategic fit for Apple to enter the smartphone business, because it built upon the learnings, expertise and infrastructure developed for the iPod. This allowed Apple to get a quality, innovative product to market quickly and successfully. Conversely, Microsoft has been slow and far less successful in its smartphone strategy due to a poorer fit. Microsoft’s expertise and experience is more suited to developing and producing business productivity software. It knows little about designing gadgetry and is not the most savvy in understanding the consumer market.

Strategic Fit and Outputs
Outputs have a strategic fit when the necessary requirements to distribute, sell, market and monetize the strategy are similar to (or can piggy-back on) the distribution, selling, marketing and monetizing expertise/infrastructure already in place in the firm.

For example, the Apple iPad can take advantage of all of the expertise and infrastructure already in place to distribute, sell and monetize the iPod and the iPhone. Apple already has the needed relationships with the retailers and the phone carriers. They already have the apps infrastructure in place. Apple can use the same sales force and distribution infrastructure. They already know how to successfully market cool new technology to the target audience. This cuts out a lot of time and costs, as well as improving efficiency and effectiveness.

Contrast this to the experience Dell had in adopting its strategy from selling computers to business to selling computers to consumers. At first, you would think this to be a reasonable fit. Further examination says otherwise, particularly as it relates to outputs. Selling to consumers is quite different than selling to business. You need a different type of sales force, with a different type of sales pitch. You need different channels of distribution. You need a different product mix (less desktops, more laptops). You need a different marketing appeal (based on different attributes) which uses different advertising media. There are different after sales service expectations, since consumers don’t have their own IT departments. You need to be “cool.”

By not having expertise in all of these outputs to the consumer market, Dell was at a competitive disadvantage to HP/Compaq. HP/Compaq had a greater strategic fit in the consumer space, so they won the strategy battle in computers. HP/Compaq could move faster and more efficiently in the consumer space, giving them the edge over Dell.

Remember, even if you have a superior product, your strategy can still fail if the competition has a superior way to get their product sold. Just ask anyone who has tried to win against Frito-Lay in salty snacks in the US. It is almost irrelevant how good your snack is. Frito-Lay has such a lock on the distribution channels that you cannot get adequate access to the customer at the point of sale. Even a giant like Anheuser Busch had to abandon their strategic initiative into salty snacks (Eagle Snacks) in failure because of its disadvantage to Frito-Lay in snack distribution. Anheuser Busch could not transfer its beer distribution expertise, so there ended up being little fit on outputs.

Overcoming A Lack of Strategic Fit
Given the importance of strategic fit, companies try to find ways to quickly overcome a lack of strategic fit. There are two ways to do so. First, one can seek fit via acquisitions. The logic is that if you do not have a strong strategic fit within your company, then buy a company that already has that strategic fit. That way, your firm will have the strategic fit once the acquired company is assimilated.

Although this approach can sometimes work, it has two big drawbacks. First, you typically have to pay a large premium to acquire a company with the desirable knowledge and infrastructure needed for entering a hot new opportunity. You end up paying so much for the business that nearly all of the financial benefit goes to the seller, rather than the buyer. Unless this expertise and infrastructure is very scarce, others will also have this fit. And if the others already had the fit in-house, they will have attained it at a far lower cost than your acquisition, putting you at a competitive disadvantage.

Second, the expertise and infrastructure in the acquired company is only useful if it can be integrated into the new strategy. Transfer of expertise is always difficult, but it is more difficult when done via acquisition.

The alternative to acquisition is outsourcing. The idea is that if you do not have the fit, then outsource that work to someone who already has the fit. The problem here is that you can lose any competitive advantage. If everyone can outsource to the same experts, then you cannot gain an edge on anyone else using the same source.

Sony used to be very strong in conventional tube televisions because of its proprietary expertise in manufacturing. However, with the new TV screen technology, all the manufacturers are basically outsourcing the key manufacturing to the same few third-party manufacturers. Sony is sourcing from the same place as everyone else. Now, Best Buy can go direct to the same third-party manufacturers and build a comparable TV, cutting out Sony and keeping more of the profits.

In global automobile manufacturing, a lot of the parts were outsourced to manufacturers in China. Now, the Chinese want to become world players with their own automobile brands. They can rely on the local outsourcers to provide them the same quality parts as the established brands. And because the manufacturer and outsourced firms are both Chinese, they have some added synergies unavailable to global firms.

Therefore, don’t think of acquisitions and outsourcing as magic bullets that automatically achieve strategic fit and strategic advantage. There are significant risks involved. It is better if your strategy can rely on expertise and infrastructure that you (and only you) already have in place.

To win in a competitive environment, it helps to have a strategic advantage. An excellent source of advantage is strategic fit. The closer the fit between a new strategic initiative and your core expertise and infrastructure, the more likely you will have an advantage. Strategic fit not only applies to what is needed to develop/create a product/service, but also what is needed to monetize that product/service. Therefore, when choosing a strategy, look for options with a strong strategic fit in both areas. If the fit is not there, do not assume that acquisitions and outsourcing can automatically fill the gap and make you a success.

There are a lot of exciting new growth opportunities out there. But if they don’t fit, they won’t be exciting growth opportunities for you. Don’t follow the crowd and chase the latest hot idea. Look for the unique opportunity which fits who you are and is hard for others to copy because it doesn’t fit them. Wear the clothes that fit and you will always look good.


  1. Hello Gerald Nanninga, I fail to find the words to express my appreciation of this post. I wish also my mother tongue was English to find the words. This is a great perspective to study strategic inputs and outputs.
    I have a crazy idea to the extent I plan to make a presentation on the idea. The wisdom says to build on ones’ strength, but I want to reverse this wisdom into build on ones’ weaknesses. I have seen companies tumble because of their weaknesses more than ignoring their strengths. There are many companies who built strategies on their strength to be foiled by their growing weaknesses. I know this is a crazy idea, but I feel I have few supportive arguments. I wonder what you think, Gerald?!!!

  2. ali anani;

    The studies I have read indicate that it is usually easier to exploit a strength you already have than to try to create a strength where there is a weakness. Therefore, building on weaknesses can be very risky.

    That being said, often the future requires us to have strengths in areas where we did not have them before (like social networking). So we cannot just go with our strengths if the market is moving in the direction of our weaknesses.

    Ideally, strategists will identify vulnerable areas early enough that you can create that strength in time for when it is needed. A common practice is to form a joint venture with someone who already has the strength and use the joint venture for a knowledge transfer.

    Finally, there is a common saying that if everyone else is moving in one direction, you can make a lot of money by moving in the opposite direction. Sam Walton referred to this as swimming upstream. In such a scenario, you can build a strength where everyone else is weak and create something like a monopoly for yourself.

    I'd love to hear more about your "crazy" idea.

    -- Gerald