Thursday, January 26, 2012

Strategic Planning Analogy #434: Want More, Get Zero

I was talking to an executive recruiter (also known as a “headhunter”) today. He says that he runs into a peculiar phenomenon when talking to many unemployed senior executives who are looking for a job.

The recruiter will ask these executives about what kind of financial compensation they want in their next position. Often, the answer goes something like this:

“At my last job, I made $250,000. I refuse to take anything less at my next job.”

Unfortunately, this unemployed executive is confronting some harsh realities. First, the great recession has changed how companies value certain skill-sets. His skill set isn’t valued as highly as it was prior to the great recession.

Second, the longer this executive remains unemployed, the larger is the perception that his skill-set is becoming outdated. By not being currently employed in this rapidly changing world, his skills may become obsolete.

Therefore, although he might see an offer of $200,000 for his skills, he will probably never see another offer of at least $250,000. So by refusing to take anything less than $250,000, he ends up with nothing. I don’t know about you, but even though $200,000 is less than $250,000, it is sure a lot more than nothing. In that situation, I’d take a $200,000 job if it were offered to me.

It’s human nature to not want a reduction in our wages. We like to believe that our income should continue to rise each year until we retire. Unfortunately, harsh reality does not always make that possible. In fact, I read recently that it is normal in the US for a worker’s wages to peak when they are in their late 40s and plateau or decline thereafter (in real terms). If the worker refuses to take a pay cut, their only alternative may be no pay at all.

A similar situation can occur in business. The harsh reality of a new, disruptive technology can have the potential to render a company’s current business model obsolete. However, a company may stubbornly refuse to migrate to the new technology, because it provides less income than the prior technology. By refusing to accept the lower returns of the new technology, the company eventually ends up with no returns at all.

Take Kodak, for example. Back in 1975, Kodak claims to have invented the first digital camera. However, Kodak did not bring the product to market. Why? As it turns out, there is a lot less profitability in digital imaging than there is in film-based imaging. The profit loss from no longer selling film or developing equipment/services is far larger than the replacement profits from digital imaging. By refusing to accept a new business model because it was less profitable than the old one, Kodak ended up with neither and had to file for bankruptcy.

Or how about Ford? They invented the minivan, but did not bring it to market because they thought it would merely cannibalize their highly profitable station wagon business. Splitting the market between two vehicle types would be less profitable. Of course, Chrysler brought out the minivan because they did not have a large station wagon business. In the end, the station wagon business virtually disappeared, and Ford was never a major player in minivans. By refusing to accept less up front, Ford ended up with almost nothing (no station wagons and no meaningful share of minivans).

I personally experienced this problem at Best Buy. During the early days of the transformation of music from CDs to digital files, one of my jobs at Best Buy was to look for a way to exploit this transformation. I looked at the music and entertainment industry from all possible angles. I created countless scenarios and strategies. The problem was that every strategy I examined in the new music space was less profitable than what Best Buy was making in the old music CD world. This made Best Buy somewhat reluctant to make fast, bold moves into the new space.

Apple, however, was earning nothing in the old CD world. Therefore, everything in the new transformation would be additional profits for them. As a result, they were fast and bold with the iPod and iTunes. And Best Buy is becoming increasingly irrelevant in music.

The newspaper industry was hesitant to move fast and bold into digital news because it was so much less profitable than the analog newspapers. By not wanting to cannibalize the more profitable printed paper, the newspaper industry let others take the lead in the digital space. Now, most newspaper firms are struggling to stay afloat.

So businesses can fall into the same trap as that unemployed executive. By refusing to accept less, they can end up with practically nothing.

So this is the strategic dilemma. What do you do if you realize that the next transformation in your industry will make your industry less profitable? How do you convince your stakeholders to make bold moves into the new space, when those bold moves appear to destroy more profits than they create? What is the right way to handle the transformation? How do you keep from being like the unemployed executive who refused to take less, which resulted in getting nothing?

Here are some principles to consider when confronted with this type of situation.

1) Make the Right Comparison
The unemployed executive in the story was making the wrong comparison. He was comparing new job offers to his prior job. Instead, he should have been comparing new job offers to his current unemployment. By comparing job offers to the old job, he was rejecting opportunities which were far better than the current unemployment.

The same is true in business. You cannot stop these business transformations. If nobody inside the industry wants to do it for fear of earning less, then someone from the outside will cause the transformation, because they have nothing from the old status quo to lose. Sony had no stake in film photography, so it rushed into digital photography. Apple had no stake in the CD business, so they rushed into iTunes. And so it goes.

Therefore, the real comparison is not today’s business model versus tomorrow’s. No, the real comparison is tomorrow’s business model versus nothing. That makes the need to adapt look more appealing.

2) Manage the Timing
Although the transformation may be unstoppable, you may be able to slow it down a bit. Kodak did not need to immediately abandon the film business back in 1975 and immediately plow every effort behind digital. They had room to wait a bit.

Delays can be good, because they help you build up a war chest of cash to use during the transformation. However, don’t wait too long. Eventually the race will get underway and if you wait too long, you will never catch up.

3) Keep Your Powder Dry
A delay is not an excuse to ignore the transformation. It is time to prepare for the transformation. Back when rifles were loaded with gunpowder, there was a saying to “keep your powder dry.” The idea was that you never knew when you would need to fire a shot, so you’d better prepare your gunpowder so that it could be used immediately (as a dry powder).

The same is true in business transformations. Eventually, you can delay no longer. Then you need to act quickly, strongly and boldly in order to remain relevant in the new world. You need your rifle to shoot immediately. Therefore, use the time of delay to “keep your powder dry” by working behind the scenes to prepare to win in the new space. Keep up the R&D. Develop prototypes. Invest in start-ups. Hire the proper talent. Do what it takes to get ready to win in the new space. That way, when it is time to move, you can move immediately, with great force.

4) Consider Creative Reorganization
To pull this off, you may find it beneficial to rethink your organizational structure. For example, you may want to place the old business model and the new business model into separate business entities. This can ease the resistance to self-cannibalism since you are different businesses with different leadership, different goals, and different compensation.

A separation also makes it easier to spin off either business. The old business can be sold while it still has some value (before it goes to zero). The new business can be spun out separately, so that all its growth is plus business rather than a decline from the past (since the past was not a part of its separate structure).

Separation also allows the new business to achieve a better (i.e., higher) valuation in the marketplace. These reasons help explain why so many businesses these days are splitting the growth part of the portfolio from the rest of the portfolio.

5) Switch
Another option is to consider switching industries. Fuji could see that the photographic film business was going away. It discovered that the chemical reactions with film are similar to the chemical reactions with skin. Therefore, Fuji redeployed its film knowledge to the cosmetic industry to create a significant new profit center to help replace some of what was being lost in film. So check to see if your core competencies provide opportunities to shift to better industries.

Firms like GE and Nokia have been successful for generations because they are willing to abandon core industries in decline and add on new initiatives in growing areas. In essence, GE made its core competency to be running business portfolios, which allows it to adapt to negative transformations by shifting the portfolio in a new direction.

6) Get Out Early
If the transformation looks bad and you can see no viable way forward, then sell out early, when others still see value in your business. The longer you wait, the worse it gets. Don’t wait so long (like Kodak) that nobody wants you anymore and the only option is bankruptcy. Those who sell out first usually get the highest price.

Often times, business transformations can result in new business models which provide less profitability than the old model. If you are a leader in the old model, this reduction in profitability may create resistance to migrate to the new model. However, by resisting the lower profits, you can end up with nothing, because the old business model will cease to exist. Fight the resistance and come up with a plan for dealing with the transformation.

A lifeboat is a lot smaller and less glamorous than a large ship. However, if that large ship is sinking, the lifeboat is a better place to be. Stop clinging to the sinking ship and swim to the lifeboat.

1 comment:

  1. Gerald Nanninga,

    It is true that nature abhors void. Whenever an opportunity appears, some smart entity will fill it. Being blind to the expanding opportunity is not going to block the filling of the rising opportunity hole

    We talk about lost opportunity cost. Your wonderful post triggers me to coin a new term: Rising Opportunity Cost

    Thanks Gerald for making us think a lot