Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Strategic Planning Analogy #462: American War-Idol

Imagine what would happen if military warfare shifted from the field of battle to a TV reality talent contest, like “American Idol.”  Victory would no longer depend on direct combat with the enemy.  No, the victor would be determined by how many in the TV audience vote for a particular army.

Instead of direct combat against each other, each army would perform a military exercise separately.  They would show off their talents at warfare skills. Then the TV audience would vote on which army appeared more skillful. Like on those singing talent TV shows, the singers rarely go head to head in combat.  They just sing their songs and hope the audience prefers their performance over the others.

If this were the case, then the whole idea of warfare would have to change.  Instead of focusing on the best way to physically defeat the enemy, the goal would shift to focusing on the TV audience.  Gaining votes from the viewers becomes the name of the game rather than the old measurements of territory won or lives lost.

I suppose this would cut down on the bloodshed, but it would require a radical rethinking on how to do the act of war.

A lot of the terminology in strategic planning is borrowed from the military.  There are strategic campaigns, strategic attacks, competitive enemy assessments, and so on.  In fact, a lot of the beginnings of business strategy borrowed heavily from military thought.  Military books like “The Art of War” are often placed on the recommended lists for business leaders.

But I think we need to ask ourselves an important question.  Is the modern game of business more like the traditional military, or more like those singing talent shows on TV?  This is an important question, because the way you approach winning under these two scenarios is quite different. 

As we saw in the story, traditional warfare is about direct confrontation with a foe.  The focus is on overpowering the enemy with superior force.  On the TV talent contests, the confrontation is much more indirect.  Yes you still have to overcome a foe, but the decision is made by the audience.  In this case the focus is on wooing the audience.  The enemy is overcome by superior popularity with a third party.

In the modern world of business, the losers go bankrupt while the winners create cash flow.  And where does that cash come from?  It is not like the old traditional warfare or pirate warfare where you would conquer the enemy on the field of battle and then take their wealth as “the spoils of battle.” 

No, it is far more indirect in the business world.  You get the cash flow primarily from people buying your goods and services—your CUSTOMERS, not your enemy.  Yes, you have to convince customers to spend their money with you rather than your competition.  But that is an indirect assault on the competition.  This means that the real battlefield is not where the competition is, but where the customer’s mind is at.

Hence, victory in business today appears more like the American Idol TV show than old war battles.  You focus on trying to get the “votes” of the audience (customers vote mostly with their money in business) rather than directly vanquishing the foe. 

In fact, this trend appears to be getting even greater.  First, thanks to the social media, the customer is becoming even more powerful in determining the winners and the losers.  Second, governments are still legislating and prosecuting to protect companies from direct “anti-competitive” moves on other companies. 

So, direct confrontation is getting legislated away while the voice of the third party consumer is becoming more influential.

Therefore, if you want to get ahead in business, it may make more sense to put away those books on war and start watching more talent contests on TV.

The principle here is that your strategic thinking may need to deemphasize the competitive warfare principles and embrace more of a talent show mindset.  In other words, you may need to fixate less on the competition and more on the consumer.

Too much of a fixation on beating the competition can have two major drawbacks.

1.  Too Much Focus on Improving the Status Quo Rather than Seeking Superior Consumer Solutions.
Consider the epic battle in the last century between Kodak and Fuji in the analog film business.  Each was focused on trying to beat the other.  First, a lot of effort was put into trying to have a superior film product over the other.  For a short period of time Fuji would be ahead of Kodak in quality and then Kodak would make a leap to superiority and so on.

Second, serious effort was spent trying to get superior product distribution over the other.  Finally, there was the battle over value/price.

And we all know what happened.  Customers abandoned the category and moved to digital imaging, making Fuji and Kodak both losers in imaging.  All that effort to have superiority over the rival in quality, distribution and value ended up being meaningless.  It didn’t matter who won the direct battle between Fuji and Kodak for superiority in analog film.  If the consumers stop voting for the category, the victory is very hollow.

I had a friend who worked in the US beer industry decades ago.  He would talk about the intense fixation in top management at Anheuser Busch and Miller at that time to try to destroy each other.  Each spent a fortune to try to get an edge on the other in the US market.  All the while, imports and micro-breweries were stealing the hearts of the customers.  AB and Miller were so weakened by the shift that they each had to seek shelter by selling out to larger international firms.

The point here is that the intense competitor fixation is usually placed on competitors doing pretty much the same thing in the same way in the same industry.   It is based on the current status quo and the goal is to be the best at doing what the status quo does.

The problem is that consumers shift, causing the status quo to become severely weakened or obsolete.  While you are staring at your status quo enemy, you miss the competitor of the future who is now only a blip on the horizon.  You miss thinking outside the box to find advantages that have nothing to do with superiority within the status quo competitive system.  Worse yet, you miss out on time that could have been focused on understanding the mind of the customer better (where the real voting takes place).   

Rather than building superior solutions for the consumer, you end up building superior obsolete products. Just because you beat up your enemy doesn’t mean the customer wants you.  A better version of a no longer desired solution still loses the war for votes.

2.  Missing Out on Peaceful Coexistence Options
Another important point is that you can win the hearts of the customer without having to completely destroy the competition.  Many of the losers on the American Idol TV show still went on to have successful singing careers.  Winning on the show did not mean everyone who did not win had to fail.   They could peacefully co-exist in the entertainment marketplace by appealing to different audiences.

This is very true in the business world.  If your strategic position is significantly different from another firm, you can both win by appealing to different segments.  For example, one technology firm can win in the consumer space (like Apple) where another find success in the business space (like Microsoft).   Or one brand can focus on the high-end luxury business while another focuses on the masses.

The idea is that rather than focusing on outdoing a competitor at the same thing, one can often be more profitable leaving the competitor alone and going in a different strategic direction.  In a head to head competitive battle, your advantages tend to be very temporary, because the enemy fights back to gain its own advantage.  In addition, price wars against each other wipe out the profits from any temporary advantages.

By contrast, if you ignore the enemy and go a different way, your efforts can be placed behind more dramatic and more lasting points of differentiation—because the whole strategy is based on being different rather than trying to be better at the same thing.  And with a stronger differentiation, there is less need to resort to price wars.

Strategy is about choosing the right tradeoffs—doing less of one thing so that you can do more of another.  If you choose different tradeoffs than the competition, then you sort of cease to really even be in competition any more.  So long as there is a large enough audience voting for your version of the tradeoffs, you can almost ignore that other company and just focus on being better at your point of differentiation.

If Apple had continued to try to beat Microsoft in traditional computing, it would have died a long time ago.  However, by repositioning itself in an entirely new business model, Apple could win while not having to really worry about Microsoft anymore, because they were no longer in direct competition.  Instead it had the luxury of just focusing on getting better at its point of differentiation (and make a lot of money doing so).

Excessive focus on beating the competition can hurt your chances of success because it takes focus away from areas which can create consumers to spend more money with you.  In particular, it focuses one too much on the status quo, rather than on the superior business models of the future (which typically come from someone who is not a current competitor).  Second, money and effort is wasted on trying to outdo the competitor at the same thing rather than creating more lasting and more profitable superiority through differentiation in positioning.  Remember, the money comes from the customer, not the enemy, so focus on where the money is.

Even the military is starting to adopt more a TV talent show approach to warfare.  The turning point for the US in the war in Afghanistan came when less focus was placed on out-muscling the enemy and more focus was placed on pleasing the citizens living there.  By building roads and schools and other initiatives, the citizens started liking the US more.  As a result they gave less shelter to the enemy of the US, allowing the US to gain more victories.  If even the military is moving in this direction, shouldn’t you?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks. This was really eye-opening on many levels.