Thursday, December 29, 2011
Strategic Planning Analogy #429: Musical Chairs
When I went to parties as a child, we played a game called Musical Chairs. The game used a circle of chairs. There would be one less chair than the number of children playing.
As music played in the background, the children would walk around the circle of chairs. When the music stopped, everyone would try to sit in a chair. Since there was one less chair than children, one child would not get a chair. That person was called “out” and was no longer allowed to play the game.
Then, one of the chairs would be removed and the music would start again. The process would be repeated until only one child was left sitting in the one chair that was left. That child was declared the winner.
Sometimes the game would get very active when two children would fight over a single chair. Although both would try to claim rights to that chair, one of them would lose out. After all, the rules stated that only one person could sit in a given chair. Since there were fewer chairs than children, by definition someone would lose out in each round.
The chairs in Musical Chairs can be thought of as being like business opportunities. And the children can be thought of as being like companies who want to take advantage of those business opportunities.
Like in the game, there are more companies trying to take advantage of the opportunity than there are opportunities. As a result, companies lose out and can no longer play the game in that arena.
You can see this happening all the time in business. Whenever there is a “hot” business space, there will be tons of businesses trying to exploit it. Unfortunately, there are too many companies chasing these “hot” spaces. As a result, most companies do not successfully exploit the opportunity. “When the music stops,” and the companies rush for a seat at the business, not all will find one.
Look at the recent “hot” spaces like Solar Panels, Social Media Couponing, iPad imitations, etc. Companies are quickly exiting the businesses or going bankrupt. Yes, the business space may be “hot” but most of the businesses trying to exploit the opportunity fail. There are not enough chairs to satisfy all who want to play.
The principle here is that merely finding a good place for your company to play is not sufficient. So-called “good places” attract too much interest relative to the opportunity. As a result, these “good places” quickly become “bad places” for those who cannot quickly secure a solid ownership of share in that space. Like in the game of Musical Chairs, most players are asked to leave the game because they could not find a chair for their business to occupy.
Therefore, strategies require two elements—a viable space, and a way to aggressively fight to win a place within that space.
Best Buy Example
I was reminded of this principle while reading the book “Becoming the Best” by Dick Schulze, the founder of Best Buy. The book talks about the history of the development of the massive Best Buy retail chain. There were several times in the early years when Best Buy was on the verge of bankruptcy. Best Buy could have very easily become one of those companies who could not secure a chair and been told by the marketplace to leave the game.
Yet, Best Buy endured to become the last national consumer electronics retail chain left in America. It won the game of musical chairs in the consumer electronics space. Why? Part of the answer can be seen in the sub-title of the book: “A Journey of Passion, Purpose, and Perseverance.”
Dick Schulze did not just “show up” at the game. He was quick, aggressive, and persevering. He understood that business is a race and that you have to run aggressively, with purpose and endurance, in order to win that race.
A great example was back in the late 1980s when a large competitor, called Highland Appliance, decided to enter Best Buy’s territory in order to drive the smaller Best Buy into bankruptcy. Realizing what was going on, Best Buy reacted quickly and aggressively. First, Best Buy acted quickly to grab market share in markets where Highland was committed to grow, but moving slower.
Second, Best Buy was the first to realize that the old commissioned sales model (which Highland, Best Buy and everyone else was using) was becoming obsolete. Therefore, Best Buy quickly changed its approach and became the first in the industry to own the superior business model which was an approach more like a supermarket (no commissioned salespeople). They called the new business model “Concept II.” Because of these quick and aggressive tactics, Best Buy survived and it was Highland Appliance who soon went bankrupt.
In other words, with Concept II Best Buy developed a superior position where they could win (a great space) and then quickly and aggressively did whatever it took to own that space before anyone else could get there (a great race). By doing both tasks, Best Buy won the game of musical chairs in its industry and reaped the rewards of being the leader of consumer electronics when all the money was being spent to convert from the analog to the digital era.
Sure, everyone knew that there were great rewards to be had if you were in the digital space when that conversion from analog to digital took place. But not everyone who wanted to take advantage of this opportunity succeeded. Best Buy succeeded when others failed because it worked faster, harder and smarter at securing the right position in the space (Concept II) and then did whatever it took to make sure nobody took it away from them. They found a chair to sit in and never let anyone push them out of the chair.
General Motors Example
An example in the opposite direction would be General Motors. In recent years, it was becoming apparent that the old automotive business model of owning a huge portfolio with lots of different brands was no longer the best place to be. The wise business move would be to sell off some the weaker brands and concentrate more effort on the stronger brands.
General Motors understood this, but they were slow in the race to execute the strategy. Compare their speed and aggressiveness in execution versus Ford. Ford acted quickly to sell off its Land Rover brand, which was going out of favor due to its focus on large, gas guzzling vehicles. As a result of acting quickly, Ford was able to exit the business while also getting some cash from the sale of the division.
By contrast, General Motors was slower in reacting with its large gas guzzling Hummer brand. By waiting longer, that gas guzzling segment became even less desirable. And Ford had already sold its Land Rover division to the best potential buyer for such a brand. As a result, General Motors could not find a buyer for Hummer and had to shut it down at a huge loss.
A similar situation happened with their northern European brands. Ford acted quickly and found a buyer for Volvo. General Motors was much slower and more timid in reacting and could not secure a buyer for its Saab division. GM had to shut it down for a loss.
Both Ford and General Motors saw the same good strategy of shrinking their portfolio. Both tried to execute that same “good” strategy. But because Ford was quicker and more aggressive, it was able to execute the strategy far more successfully than General Motors. Same strategy, but different results due to differences in speed and aggressiveness. Just as it takes speed and aggressiveness to secure a chair in Musical Chairs, it takes those same qualities to win in business.
Strategic planning needs to be more than just identifying places where money can be made. It needs to also develop a path whereby its company can out-hustle the competition and survive the race to become one of the survivors. Great opportunities cause a large rush of firms who try to exploit it. Most of these firms will not benefit from the opportunity because they lose the race to become one of the few firms which can secure a “chair” in the industry. Slow imitators rarely achieve benefits as large as the quick and aggressive innovators. So it you want to win, not only find the right space, but find a way to win the race.
Musical Chairs requires many rounds before a winner can be declared. Just because you survive any early round does not mean that you will survive later rounds. The same is true in business. Don’t get complacent because of early success. This is an endurance race. You have to keep running.