Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Strategic Planning Analogy #374: Black Bananas

Large grocery chains in the US purchase their bananas from the fruit companies in the unripened “green” stage. They do this because hard, green bananas are easier to transport to the US.

Then, after the green bananas get to the US, the grocers put them into their produce warehouses. These warehouses have gigantic, pressurized gas chambers in them. These gas chambers chemically “ripen” the bananas. Depending on the length of time the bananas stay in the gas chamber, you can “manufacture” whatever level of ripeness you want. After they reach the desired ripeness, the bananas are shipped by truck to the grocery stores.

One company I know wanted to increase efficiency by shipping both bananas and flowers to the stores on the same truck. Unfortunately, something unexpected happened. The flowers arrived at the stores already starting to wilt and die—something which hadn’t happened when the flowers were shipped by themselves.

Upon further investigation, it was determined that some of the ripening gas which was infused into the banana via pressure (while in the gas chamber) started to leak out of the bananas when they were in the truck. This ripening gas was absorbed by the flowers while they shared the ride in the truck. As a result, the ripening process of the flowers was accelerated, causing them to die prematurely.

As soon as the company figured this out, they stopped carrying the flowers and bananas on the same trucks.

Bananas and flowers are called “perishables,” because they have a short life. They soon “perish,” or die. You cannot stop a banana from turning black. You cannot stop a flower from wilting. It is inevitable, and it happens rather quickly.

Although we may not want to admit it, strategies are also perishable. Every strategic initiative eventually dies, just like bananas or flowers. And like those flowers in the truck, our strategic initiatives often die faster than we had hoped.

The reason strategic initiatives die is because the environment in which the strategy operates changes. Consumer desires change, technology changes, competition changes, innovation changes, the economy changes, and so on. These forces of change act on the strategy like the gas in those gas chambers. They cause the strategy to move through a lifecycle until it is no longer relevant and dies.

Think of the travel agents, whose strategy of being an intermediary between travelers and the travel industry died when the internet allowed travelers to interact directly with the travel industry and buy their own tickets. At that point, the old travel agent strategy lost most of its relevance.

Think also of Kodak, which is struggling to find a new strategy now that its old strategy, based on analog photographic film, is no longer very relevant.

Strategies based on growth in established economies are currently being replaced by strategies focusing on emerging markets. And retailer JCPenney this week announced it was shutting down its catalog operation, a strategy made irrelevant due to the internet.

In a similar fashion, some day your strategy will also become irrelevant, if you do not adapt. It will turn black like a banana, perhaps before you are ready to move on.

The principle here is that since all strategies eventually die, a good strategist should try to proactively manage this process. Just as the grocers can manage the life a banana via the gas chamber, strategists can manage the life of their strategy via various tactics.

In particular, we will look at three areas to consider.

1) Managing the Gas Pressure
There are many things businesses can do to hasten the growth of a new business. You can increase advertising, lower prices, do a public relations push, expand distribution, get celebrity endorsements, win awards, go viral on You Tube, etc. These act like those gas chambers act on bananas, because they push your business from early entry to maturity.

In many ways, this is good, because it quickly increases your market potential. However, just as all that extra gas caused the flowers to prematurely die, too much early pressure to grow can cause your strategy to die more rapidly.

Consider the high fashion industry. A lot of the appeal of high-end fashion brands has to do with their exclusivity. The more you push to expand the market into the middle class, the more you destroy that exclusivity appeal. Soon, the high end customers will abandon the brand because of that tarnished image. And once the high end abandons the brand, the middle class will soon follow. The brand dies an early death. Had less pressure been put up front, the fashion brand might have had a longer, more prosperous life.

Hence, too much pressure up front can push what could have been a lucrative long-term trend into a less profitable short-term fad. However, too little pressure may cause your strategy to never get beyond the introductory stage. Therefore, strategic planning needs to consider what is the proper amount of pressure to apply.

2) Keeping the Pipeline Full
Supermarkets do not make just one large purchase of bananas per year. If they did, they would have two major problems: a) a lot of the bananas going black before getting sold; and b) there would be no bananas to sell in the later half of the year once all the black bananas are thrown away. To avoid these problems, supermarkets buy small batches of bananas all year long. By having a continual supply of fresh bananas coming in all year, they can optimize sales and reduce waste.

The same is true for strategies. Companies need a continual pipeline of strategic innovation, experimentation and development That way, a company is ready when its current strategy begins to die and can seamlessly move on to the replacement strategy. One of the keys to the long-term success of GE has been its ability to continually modify its portfolio in order to remain relevant. It has moved through heavy industry to financial services to entertainment and is now moving to green energy. It does it seamlessly because GE built an infrastructure specifically designed for seamless transitions by focusing on:

a) Great general management (regardless of the business);
b) Mastering portfolio management techniques; and
c) Merger & Acquisition expertise (to help shift the portfolio more effectively).

It’s hard to quickly shift a strategy from a focus on mature markets to a focus on emerging markets if you have never experimented in emerging markets before. That’s why a strategy 100% focused only on the “strategy of the moment” can be so risky. It leaves you vulnerable when the strategy of the moment begins to die. Precious time is lost in transition, because you are unprepared and inexperienced in what comes next. You may not even survive the transition.

It is safer to be like the grocer who keeps the pipeline full of fresh product all the time. Otherwise, you can be like Kodak, who was so focused on photographic film that it did not build up an adequate pipeline of post-film strategies while it still had the time and the cash flow. Now, Kodak is struggling to catch up and it may not make it.

3) Exit Early
I’ve seen supermarkets try to sell black bananas. It’s not a pretty sight. They try to hide the ugliness of the bananas by putting them inside brown paper bags. They put a sign next to them saying something like, “Black Bananas; Perfect for Making Banana Bread.” Then they give it a very low price. And it still won’t sell.

You’d find it difficult to even give away black bananas for free. They just aren’t very desirable.

The same can be true for your strategy. Once a strategic initiative turns black and is dead, almost nobody wants it. You cannot sell it at any price. You may even have to pay somebody to take it off your hands.

As I’ve mentioned in prior blogs (here and here), holding onto a strategy after it turns black is a bad idea. Just as it is better for a supermarket to get rid of a banana when it’s only starting to turn brown, it’s better for a company to dispose of a dying strategy when others can still see a little life in it.

Many companies make the mistake of hanging on to a dying strategy too long. Emotional ties or historical heritage make it hard to let go. However, waiting until the strategy turns black hurts everyone. It is almost always better to error on the side of exiting a strategy a little too early than sticking with it a little too long. The value plummets too quickly at the very end.

All strategic initiatives eventually die. If you don’t want your company to die along with its strategic initiative, then you need to occasionally adjust your strategy. To optimize the return over the life of a strategy, a) manage the speed at which you pursue growth, b) maintain a pipeline of strategic alternatives, and c) exit dying strategies before it is too late.

Just as it was wrong to put bananas and flowers together on the same truck, it is usually wrong to manage mature and emerging strategies in the same way. They have different needs, so you have to approach them in a different way, with different benchmarks and expectations.


  1. Gerald Nanninga,

    This is a fantastic post. It is extensible to many other fields such as team composition. Putting a poisonous employee next to a "ripe" employee might push the latter to the edge of failure.

    Gerald Nanninga,

    If you were to add this example to your book entitled ,"Strategy Is Like Pizza" where would you place it?

  2. Ali Anani,

    One of these days (when I have some spare time), I plan to make a third book of compilations from this blog. I think this one would make it into the book.