Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Strategic Planning Analogy #386: Embracing Maturity

I enjoy talking to new first-time parents about their small children. The new parents truly love their little baby and think parenting them is such a wonderful thing.

Then they will mention some little parenting problem they are having. I warn them that this little problem is nothing compared to all the problems they will face when that child becomes a teenager.

Many of those who have had experience or knowledge about parenting teenagers have half-jokingly mentioned to me a desire to hand off their children when they become teenagers and pick them back up when they reach their twenties. Of course, the problem would be finding someone to hand them off to during that period.

Being the parent of a cute little baby can seem like such a wonderful, fulfilling experience. Being the parent of a teenager, however, can often seem like torture—something to be avoided if possible. Unfortunately, those cute little babies eventually grow up into those frustrating teenagers. You can’t just stop being a parent when the child is no longer a cute little baby.

A similar situation appears to happen with many strategic planners. In general, strategic planning for brand new baby businesses can be seen as wonderful and fulfilling. You get to set the direction and positioning from scratch. With all that potential growth in front of it, there are lots of fun strategic options to consider.

However, when a business reaches maturity, strategic planning can seem more frustrating. Positions are already set and difficult to change. The fun of growth has been replaced by the pain of intense competition. Rather than talking about great strategic options, the discussion moves to cutting costs. In business maturity, it appears as if strategy is less influential on outcomes (sort of like parenting a teenager).

Like those parents, many strategists would be happy to just deal with the baby businesses and hand off those mature businesses to someone else. But guess what? Most industries and most businesses in the world are relatively mature. That’s where most of the action is. If strategists want to be relevant, then they had better get excited about building strategies for mature businesses.

It bothers me that the discipline of strategic planning is out of favor in so many areas of business. Its influence has diminished significantly. There are many reasons for this phenomenon. I believe that one of the many reasons why strategic planning is seen as irrelevant is because the discipline tends to be pre-occupied with early stage businesses. Little focus from strategic planning thought leaders is given to strategic planning in the mature stage of a business. Therefore, it is no wonder that mature businesses see little value to intense strategic planning. And since most businesses are mature, that makes strategic planning appear irrelevant in most places.

One way for strategic planning is to regain its stature is by making it appear more indispensible in the way mature businesses are run. In this blog, we will look at four ways to do this.

1. Reclaim Productivity as a Strategic Agenda
As I have mentioned many times before, I believe that there are three components to effective strategic planning;

a) Positioning – A reason for consumers to prefer you.

b) Pursuit – Aggressively achieving as many ways to exploit that position as possible (top line orientation)

c) Productivity – Making the most money off the areas where you pursue (bottom line orientation).

Although all three are important at all phases of a business lifecycle, productivity tends to be the area requiring the most attention during the mature phase. Therefore, for strategic planning to be relevant and essential during maturity, it needs to take ownership of the productivity agenda.

In many places, productivity is not even seen as a strategic activity (even among some strategic planners). Strategists aren’t even invited to the table when productivity is discussed. It is just seen as a cost cutting exercise, or at best, a budgeting exercise. Just tell people to cut 15% of costs from their budget and you are done.

In reality, productivity is very much a strategic issue. Not all cuts are created equal. Some cuts hurt your strategic position more than others. If strategic implications are not addressed during cost cutting, the wrong cuts can be made—cuts which can totally undermine a business.

For example, a few years back the consumer electronics retailer Circuit City wanted to increase productivity. They noticed that labor was one of their largest costs at store level. They also noticed that their most experienced sales people tended to be the most expensive sales people. Therefore, to increase productivity, Circuit City got rid of its most experienced sales people. It wasn’t too long thereafter that Circuit City declared bankruptcy. As it turns out, those experienced sales people were a critical component of the strategic success of Circuit City. Eliminating those people also eliminated the chance of strategic success.

Strategists need to be at the table to point out the strategic implications associated with various cost-cutting options (and perhaps provide cost-cutting options of their own). This isn’t an option. The destiny of the business is at stake.

2. Move the Discussion Away from Merely Cost-Cutting
Some of the best ways to increase productivity have nothing to do with cutting costs. Often the productivity problem is not how much you spend, but rather what you do. It is a more a question of effectiveness of process rather than efficiency of spending.

For example, I could be the most efficient Morse Code operator on the planet. However, that does not make me the most effective communicator on the planet. Almost nobody understands Morse Code anymore, so nobody will hear my Morse Code message, no matter how efficiently I use it. Rather than trying to make my Morse Code process more efficient, I need to switch to a more effective communication process, like Twitter, Facebook or Email.

If you only focus on cost-cutting, you may miss far more effective options for improving the bottom line via changes in process. Strategists can be an important source for discovering and championing alternative processes.

Strategists can also play a vital role in helping companies avoid new processes which negatively impact a strategy. Take outsourcing, as an example. It makes a lot more sense to change a process from in-house to outsource when the process is less critical to the overall strategy. By contrast, if you outsource a core competency, you may destroy your ability to control your destiny and destroy your competitive advantage.

3. Help People See Productivity as an Investment Opportunity
Productivity is ultimately about increasing profits. Sometimes, you can increase profits faster by investing rather than cutting. If the return on investment is high, investments make sense, even in the mature phase of a lifecycle. Strategists can play a key roll during maturity by discovering and championing those types of investment opportunities.

Strategists are already often a key part of investment decisions during the early phases of a lifecycle. Why not continue that roll into the mature phase?

4. Change M&A to M&A&D
M&A stands for Mergers & Acquisitions. These are activities which tend to do with building and growing a business. However, as a business reaches maturity, it makes sense to give more consideration to the strategies of shrinking and eliminating businesses. This would be the strategies of Divestiture.

Most companies do not take a proactive approach to divestitures as a strategy. Instead, it is seen as the option of last resort—to be used only when backed into a corner with no other option. The thought of divesting while a company is still doing well is often never considered. Yet, the most profitable time to divest may be when the company is still doing well.

Look at the chart below. Outsiders often tend to overestimate the value when a company is just reaching maturity. They may mistakenly see it as still in the growth phase or see a longer mature horizon than you do. Conversely, once there is no longer any doubt that a company is in decline, the potential pool of people to sell to shrinks dramatically. The “bottom-feeders” who go after distressed companies tend to be very cheap and pay very little. As a result, in decline, others tend to underestimate your value. As a result, divesting early can be a great strategic option. We talked about this more in earlier blogs (here & here).

Therefore, divestitures can be just as strategic as acquisitions (read more here). And just as strategists are often a part of the acquisition discussion, they should be a part of the divestiture discussion. And this is more likely to happen if you change M&A to M&A&D—Mergers & Acquisitions & Divestitures.

One way to improve the stature of strategic planning in companies is by making strategic planning appear more vital in the mature phase of the life cycle. This can be done by:

1. Reclaiming Productivity as a Strategic Agenda
2. Moving the Maturity Discussion Away from Merely Cost-Cutting
3. Helping People See Productivity as an Investment Opportunity
4. Changing M&A to M&A&D

There’s an old poem which goes something like this:

“The problem with kittens is that,
They eventually grow up to be cats.”

We need to move beyond a focus on cute kittens and embrace the reality of mature cats.

1 comment:

  1. Gerald Nanning,

    I am reading this post at the same time I am writing a presentation on the challenges of post growth stages. Not only that, I have just assumed a job as manager of a new company leaving behind a mature company. I feel the challenges and I find your two graphs extremely illuminating.

    I thank you Gerald for this post is timely on a personal level