Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Strategic Planning Analogy #517: Dirty Rice

Today I made myself a batch of Dirty Rice for lunch. As I was eating it, I pondered the irony of it all. Dirty Rice was originally developed in New Orleans as a way for impoverished people and struggling restaurants to stretch their food. The idea was to take the scrapings of leftover bits from the pots and pans of the prior meals and stir it into rice. Suddenly you had a meal made out of food scraps that would have normally been thrown away.

Yet I made my Dirty Rice out of fresh ingredients. Rather than being made out of leftovers, my fresh dirty rice created leftovers.

This seems to happen a lot in cooking. Foods originally created to help struggling people survive somehow eventually become gourmet food for the rich.

For example, the French are known for their gourmet cooking using great sauces. The origin, however, came out of poverty. At one time, there were large shortages of food in France. To make the meager portions stretch to feed an entire family, they were covered in sauces. The sauces made a little food look like a lot of food. Now, people who can afford as much food as they want pay premium prices at French restaurants to get food based on sauces designed to stretch food for the poor.

In many warm climates, the gourmet food tends to be rather spicy. This was because poor people in hot climates had a difficult time preserving their foods. The heat would make the food start to smell rancid. So to cover up the bad smell, they would cover the food with hot spices. Today, one of the top gourmet choices in the UK is spicy food from India. The climate and food preservation in the UK certainly does not require the spicy cover-up, but they love it nevertheless.

I suppose that someday in the future the microwave will be made obsolete by newer technology. Yet, I’ll bet there will be gourmet restaurants in the future specializing in the obsolete art of microwave cooking. Upscale microwave restaurants will be seen as reviving a lost art in gourmet cooking.

There is usually a reason why certain products, traditions and processes exist. Dirty Rice comes out of a tradition of stretching kitchen scraps. French sauces come out a tradition of making meager portions large enough to feed a family. Spicy foods come out of a tradition of covering up rancid smells and tastes.

Over time, many of those reasons for existence go away. Improved economies, food production, food preservation and other factors have made the original need for dirty rice, French sauces and spicy foods no longer as necessary. Yet the traditions live on. Ironically, the original need for these products (poverty) is not the driving force anymore. They became gourmet products for the rich of the world.
Similarly, businesses are filled with lots of products, processes and traditions which are no longer essential. Sure, there were good reasons for these products, processes and traditions when they were first initiated. But times change. The reasons for continuing down these traditional paths may no longer exist.

Just as silly as it was for me to use expensive fresh ingredients to make a recipe designed to use up cheap table scraps, it is silly for companies to continue old so-called “cost-cutting” practices which over time have become inefficient and expensive. It’s time to re-think those traditions.

The principle here is that change impacts relevancy. Products and processes which were highly relevant and useful at one point in time usually become obsolete as times change. We may continue the practices of the past with no understanding of what caused those practices. They become part of the fabric of “how things get done” without being questioned.

Yet, if we questioned these practices, we might discover that change has rendered them to be counterproductive to success. New and superior approaches may now exist. Just because something was the right thing to do in the past does not mean it should be done today. One of the keys to strategic success is knowing when to abandon the past to embrace the future. This includes a look at internal processes and structures.

Different Economy
Consider the fact that the world has largely moved from a production-based economy to a knowledge-based economy. Yet many knowledge-based companies are still using internal processes and structures designed during the production era.

Are those processes still relevant? Are there new processes and structures more suitable to a knowledge-based business? To use the analogy, are we trying to serve the rich with food originally designed for the poor? When is the last time you challenged the way things get done to see if they are best suited for a knowledge-based era?

For example, production-based businesses tend to centralize more power at the top, whereas knowledge-based businesses have often found value in pushing power far lower in the organization. This is just one of many assumptions to look at in how things get done.

Different Technology
Back when data was scarce and communication difficult, companies developed large infrastructures of middle-management. Their primary role was to gather information and communicate it to the proper people. At the time, middle-management was the most efficient way to do this.

Now, we have amazing new technologies to gather data and communicate it. Smartphones and tablets are more efficient ways to do what middle management used to do. Is middle management even relevant anymore? Are traditional in-person meetings still relevant? Are traditional offices still relevant? When is the last time you challenged tradition to see if new technology has rendered that process obsolete?

New Visionaries
Fortunately, there are people out their helping us answer these questions. One that comes to mind is Gary Hamel. He is part of an organization called The MIX, which stands for Management Innovation eXchange. This organization tries to tap into the business world’s knowledge base to find out what internal processes and structures are best for the changing business environment.

And then there are programs like six-sigma, lean, and a host of innovation tools to help companies get rid of obsolete processes and become more relevant for the times.

There are also plenty of leading-edge companies out there trying unconventional approaches. They are worthy of examination for ideas.

One of the major roles of strategic planning is to help companies become relevant in an ever-changing world. Often, that focus is primarily external—deciding who are the relevant consumers to target and what innovative, new product/service should be offered. Yet, the external adaption to change is only part of the battle. There are also internal considerations. We need to make should that our internal processes and structures are also relevant in the changing world. Do we have the right organizational structure? Do we have the right internal work rules? Is power located in the right places? Is modern technology being optimized? How should people be compensated?

Getting the internals right may give you more of a competitive edge than getting the externals right. They are worthy of serious concern as part of your strategic planning process.

Next time you eat in a fancy gourmet restaurant, remember the irony that the food eaten by the rich often was designed by those in poverty. Use it as a reminder to look at your internal processes, to see if they are equally out of touch with their original intent. Then change your processes to get them relevant to the future.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Strategic Planning Analogy #516: Avoiding Driveways

My wife and I disagree on which types of roads are safer. I think expressways are safer. She thinks city roads are safer.

My logic goes like this: Accidents happen when the unexpected happens (like someone turning off or entering the street) or when change occurs (like a change in speed). By that reasoning, on a city road every driveway, every parking lot entrance/exit, every intersection, every stop sign, every traffic light is a place where an accident can happen, because they are potential sources for the unexpected or change. So, in a few miles of city driving, you may drive past literally thousands of these potentially dangerous locations.

By contrast, on an expressway, I only have to worry about the few cars immediately surrounding me and the rare entrance/exit ramp. That’s a lot fewer potential accident triggers.

My wife’s logic is simpler. The higher the speed, the more dangerous the accident, so drive on slower roads to be safer.

Business strategies can take you on many journeys, including acquisitions, joint ventures, start-ups, brand extensions, new geographies, new customers, and so on. And statistics show that most of these actions end up as failures. There is no safe alternative—acquisitions, joint ventures, start-ups and other business changes all are statistically more likely to fail than succeed.  

It’s like driving when you know that you are more likely to have an accident than not. It’s enough to make one hesitant to get in the car.

But if you don’t get in the car, you will never reach your strategic destination. And because of all the changes in the environment, the status quo will eventually become obsolete. Therefore standing still is not an option, either. It too will eventually be a failure—a horrible accident.

So the business strategy dilemma is similar to the one in the story: What is the safest route to take to avoid terrible accidents?

The principle here is that tactics like acquisitions, start-ups, joint ventures, and diversifications are not by themselves the salvation of your company. In fact, they statistically increase your risk for failure. Instead of being your salvation, they are merely tools—and dangerous ones at that. To be successful, one needs a strategy for how to use these tools—a path which optimally avoids most of the accidents which often accompany these tools.

So which path should one take:

  1. My wife’s approach (go slow in the city to avoid the biggest accidents);
  2. My approach (go fast on the expressways which avoid the uncertainties which increase accidents by avoiding driveways and intersections);
  3. Or a combination of paths?
Going Slow
Applying my wife’s advice, the answer would be to go slow. In some cases, that is good advice. Remember, the strategic goal is not to be the first to arrive, but the first to succeed. A strong and savvy follower is often more successful than the reckless trailblazer. As the old saying goes in US westerns, it is the advance scout who gets hit with the most arrows.

For example, Coke did not invent diet cola or cola in cans or caffeine-free cola or sports beverages or pretty much any other beverage innovation in the last 50 years. Yet, Coca Cola is a leader or strong player in just about any non-alcoholic beverage segment currently in existence. Why? Coke is a great fast-follower. By building superiority in distribution, points of customer contact and marketing, Coke can overcome the small innovators over the long haul. Coke lets everyone else take all the risks and then—once a successful innovation becomes apparent—they swoop in and eventually take over. They let other, faster people have all the accidents.

There are several effective tools in the “go slow” approach, like stage-gating and real options. The basic idea is to chop up a grand goal into smaller sub-goals. You aim for the nearest sub-goal. Depending on the success of that early effort, you will make changes in subsequent sub-goals or perhaps halt the project completely. This keeps all your accidents small.

A similar approach is doing a lot of beta-testing. Rather than speeding as fast as possible down a path, you pause to consumer-test the concept and make adjustments based upon the tests. Amazon is famous for doing a lot of testing.

However, the “go slow” approach often has its limits. Sometimes, the dynamics of the market do not provide the luxury of going slow. Faster competitors can get too much of a first-mover advantage (not all of us have as much power to overcome as Coke).

And even the “go slow” approach can eventually require big moves into big acquisitions, big joint ventures, big divestitures and the like. So even though you have eliminated some of the potential accidents, there can be many more that the go slow approach cannot avoid. So going slow it may be part of the solution, but it is not the whole answer.

Avoiding Driveways
So that leads to my go fast approach on the expressways. Accidents are minimized on the expressway because many of the causes for accidents are taken away—driveways, intersections, stop signs and traffic lights.

The business equivalent to avoiding driveways is to look at where the inherent risks are in each business tactic and then try to eliminate them. For example, key sources of accidents in joint ventures come from items like divergent objectives, conflicts between core businesses and the joint venture, governance issues, power issues and so on. The more you can eliminate these sources of accidents up front, the fewer the accidents. These are joint venture equivalents to driveways, intersections and stop signs. The more you can specifically eliminate risks in these areas, the less likely your joint venture will have an accident.

Similarly, in acquisitions many of the risks have to do with things like over-evaluating synergies, paying too much, poorly integrating the two companies, dealing with divergent corporate cultures, underestimating negative customer reactions, and so on. If you can eliminate these sources of accidents, your acquisition is more likely to be successful.

The folks at McKinsey did research and discovered that the companies which are most likely to avoid accidents in acquisitions are the ones who do a lot of acquisition and have built core competencies in how to do acquisitions well. In other words, the successful acquirers have enough experience to know where all the driveways and intersections are and have competencies in finding paths to avoid them (their expressways).

So the idea here is to first understand the key sources of risk in whatever tactical tool your choose. Then, take a path of implementation which avoids these sources of risk (Better yet, make understanding and avoiding core competencies of the firm).

For example, don’t even try to do a joint venture with someone who has a radically conflicting strategic agenda. That’s like driving the wrong way on a one-way road. You are just begging for an accident. Instead, take the expressway where that intersection doesn’t even exist.

A Combination
In reality, a combination of the two approaches can often work best. Don’t be so hasty that you take needless risks. Taking time out for stage-gating or beta testing can be very prudent. On the other hand, large, gutsy moves may eventually be required to reach a better tomorrow. Rather than delay them too long, move forward quickly, but smartly by proactively avoiding specific areas which are most likely to increase the risk of a failure/accident.

Tactics like acquisitions, start-ups, joint ventures, and diversifications are not by themselves the salvation of your company. Instead, they are necessary, but dangerous tools which increase one’s risk of failure if used improperly. To improve one’s likelihood of success with these tools, consider the following:

  1. Before rushing full speed ahead, take time to de-risk the overall strategy. Consider additional tools like stage-gating, real options, and beta-testing to make sure your ultimate goal is correct.
  2. Consider building competencies which can make you a great fast-follower towards good strategic goals “proven” by riskier firms.
  3. When implementing tools like acquisitions to reach the goal, understand the risks inherent to the particular tool. Then specifically address those risks prior to acting, so that those risks can be avoided.
  4. Consider building core competencies in handling these tools before using them.

So, in a way, I guess my wife and I are both a bit right in our approaches to safe driving.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Strategic Planning Analogy #515: Follow the Recipe

The nice thing about a “To-Do” list is that you can pretty much do anything on the list in any order you want. The individual items on the To-Do list are independent of each other. If I choose to clean the garage first and mow the lawn second, that’s okay. Or if I choose to mow the yard first and clean the garage second, that’s okay, too. Or if I can get a friend to help me and do both at the same time, that’s also okay. All that matters is getting the stuff on the list done.

A recipe doesn’t work that way. Things need to be done in a particular order. You have to measure the ingredients BEFORE you mix them together. You have to mix the ingredients BEFORE you bake them. If you bake before mixing or mix before measuring, you will have a mess on your hands. The recipe will not turn out as desired. Unlike a To-Do list, a recipe needs to be done in the proper order.

This is especially true if you expect me to eat what you make.

There is a long list of activities associated with strategic planning, like coming up with Visions or Mission statements, analyzing the environment, formulating a budget, creating a position, designing KPIs, assigning implementation tasks, and so on. To get it all done in a timely fashion, there is the temptation to treat it all like a To-Do list. Just get every activity assigned to somebody and let them work at—all at the same time.

That may sound efficient at first. But strategic planning is more like a recipe than a To-Do list. Connections and dependencies exist between the tasks. There tends to be a need to do things in a general order. Otherwise, you end up with a mess.

Unfortunately, I see companies skipping steps or doing them in the wrong order. That’s like mixing before measuring and skipping the baking. I wouldn’t accept that in the kitchen, and I won’t accept it in the world of planning.

The principle here is that before embarking on strategic planning, get a good recipe and do the tasks in the proper order. In this blog, I will offer such a recipe. Since most recipe books come with pictures of the recipe, I have one, too—as you can see in Figure 1. Click on it to see a larger version.

I have summarized everything into three major tasks—learning, deciding and doing. These are the planning equivalents of measuring, mixing and baking. The first task is learning—getting smart about understanding the current state and expected future state. This applies to the state of your internal company/brand and the state of the external marketplace where you will compete.

To learn about the external environment, you need to study the consumers, the competition, regulations and other external factors which can impact your success. To learn about your internal environment, you need to look at your strengths and weaknesses and how you get things done.

This learning is a lot like the measuring in a recipe. You are measuring four things—current state, direction, magnitude and speed. This applies to measuring customer segments, competitive positions, technological advancements and internal issues. The four measurements work like this:

  1. Current State: What do things look like today (market share, number of people, size of industry, attitudes, threat of Porter’s Five Forces, internal competitive advantages, etc.)? This is a sort of good or bad measurement.
  2. Direction: In the future, how will the current state measurement change in size? Will it go up or down?
  3. Magnitude: In the future, how massive will those changes in direction be? Will the changes (up or down) be huge or small?
  4. Speed: How fast will the future changes occur? Will it happen almost immediately or will it take some time (fast or slow)?

This is not about making precise measurements. Measuring the future is not that easy and precision takes too long (you have to wait until the future gets here before you can precisely measure it and then it is too late to be useful in planning). For planning purposes, it is usually enough to know good or bad, up or down, huge or small, and fast or slow. I talk about this in more detail here.

Once you become smart via learning, you are ready for step two in the recipe—to make some key decisions about how you want to play the strategic game. This is where you put together your unique mix of attributes and processes that you will stand for and win with.

Without gathering the knowledge first, your decisions for this mix will be little more than guesses, hopes, or wishes. Yet, I often see organizations start with some decision activities as their first act. They want to dive in and create visions and missions from the start. They want to decisions about what they want to be begin the planning process. It’s like mixing before measuring.

The problem is that is somewhat irrelevant what we initially want our mix to be. That’s because we do not operate in a vacuum. We operate in the context of the environment and time. The idea is not to pick a place that is pretty and desirable. The idea is to pick a place where we can succeed. And the best place to succeed depends on everything else going on in the marketplace relative to our strengths. And we won’t know that unless we do the learning first.

I remember going to a franchising seminar and hearing a lecture from a successful franchisee. He said that some of the most successful franchisees ignore the glamorous businesses and enter businesses which are dirty, ugly and risky. Why? Big corporations tend to avoid the dirty, ugly and risky. This makes them more profitable for the little franchisee. The idea here is that analysis and learning may point you to away from your first choice (the glamorous option) and put you somewhere else which will make you far more successful. Remember, nearly everyone in the smartphone business is losing money. It may be glamorous, but not a place where everyone can succeed.

In making decisions for your strategy, keep in mind the context of yourself within the environment. Make sure the position you choose is seen by the marketplace as desirable, sizable, ownable, preferable, achievable, believable, understandable, and profitable. I talk more about these concepts here. And then, once you have made your choice about what you want to be, translate it into an external message (position statement) and an internal business model (how I must operate to make the position a deliverable reality).

The third step is doing—the hard work of making your decisions come to life. This is where you “bake” the strategy. This, by necessity, has to come last. Until you make your decisions, how will you know which actions are the right ones to take? Until you know your way to win, you cannot know which are the winnable actions for your business. 

For example, Aldi and Whole Foods are both grocery retailers. Yet they have decided on radically different positions. Aldi aims for the lowest possible price while Whole Foods aims at health, nutrition, and natural/organic. The right actions for success at Aldi are almost the opposite of the right actions for Whole Foods, and vice versa.

It’s not that some actions are always good and others are always bad. Good and bad is determined by the position. A good action for Aldi can be bad for Whole Foods, and vice versa. So how do you know what the right actions are prior to deciding the position?

Yet, I often see businesses rushing to do the actions first. They claim there is no time to learn (or the future is unlearnable) and that consumers make all the decisions. Therefore all we can do is act quickly and learn from our mistakes. I don’t think it’s quite that simple. I don’t want to stick random ingredients in the oven and then taste them afterwards to learn if it is good. Random actions are not as efficient as making the right action tradeoffs based on a chosen position.

The “doing” actions you choose to prioritize need to address both internal and external challenges. Externally, one needs to convince the customers and the supply chain that you own our position and that it is in their best interests to prefer us. Internally, we need to be sure we have a model capable of delivering the position.

Those who want the “doing” to come first aren’t entirely wrong. There are some things which are best
learned via doing and experimenting. But that doesn’t mean that you skip the traditional learning and deciding steps. It means you use the “doing” actions of your current planning cycle to begin the learning of the next cycle.

You can see this in Figure 2. Planning is a continuous series of cycles. Just as you don’t just eat once and quit eating ever again, you don’t just plan once and quit. The planning process never really stops. When you get to the end of one cycle, you use what you learned to influence the next cycle.

Strategic planning is more like a recipe than a To-Do list. Good planning tends to do things in a particular order, without skipping steps. First you learn by measuring what’s going on (and expected to happen) in the internal and external environments. Then you decide how you want to mix together attributes and processes in order to create a position and business model which optimizes your chances for success in that environment. Third, you “bake” your strategy by doing the implementation actions which make your mix decisions a reality. Finally, you use what you learn from those three steps to do an even better job in your next planning cycle.

This recipe for planning isn’t 100% etched in stone. There is room to experiment with this recipe. But don’t throw it away.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Strategic Planning Analogy #514: Working the Wrong Mine

Let’s assume there are two miners, named Bob and Jason. Bob is a big believer in analytics and measurement. Bob has KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) for every part of his mining operation and measures them often. Bob receives spreadsheets every day, showing in precise detail exactly how everything is going in the mines. Using that data, Bob can make minor adjustments to improve productivity on an ongoing basis. Everyone in Bob’s mining business is trained in how to improve their KPIs.

Sure, all that time, money and effort into analytics leaves little left for anything else, but Bob is happy. After all, he attributes his devotion to analytics with allowing him to eke out a small profit from a poor mine. Bob believes that without that devotion, he would lose money at that low-yield mine.

Jason, on the other hand, takes a different approach to mining. Rather than fretting about having the latest mining equipment filled with gadgets to measure productivity, Jason just carries a simple pick axe to his mine.

And every day, Jason extracts trainloads of valuable ore from his mine. Jason is making a large fortune on his mining business.

And why is Jason doing so much better than Bob? Well, while Bob was focused on incremental improvements via analytics, Jason was devoting his time, money and effort on locating the best place to do mining. And, as it turns out, great productivity at a poor mine is less profitable than average productivity at a high-yield mine which is bursting with pure ore.

It’s common sense that—all other things being equal—a mine full of high quality ore will be more profitable to operate than a mine with very little (and low quality) ore. Yet Bob was so fixated on improving operations at his current low-yield mine site that he never stopped to consider that maybe he’d be better off looking for a better place to mine. His head was down looking at spreadsheets rather than up and scanning the geography for better sites.

Jason, on the other hand, realized that the highest determination of mining profits was in the quality of the mining location. Therefore Jason spent his effort on what was the high determination factor. Jason first searched for a superior place to mine and was rewarded handsomely.

As obvious as this common sense may appear, it seems that there are a lot more people like Bob in the business world today than Jason. Look at all the current buzz in strategic planning. It’s about big data, analytics, and KPIs. Job descriptions for strategic planners today talk more about statistical analytic prowess than big picture positioning. I recently saw where a company was placing strategy in its M&E department (Measure & Evaluate).

Now I’m not against measurement or productivity efforts. But that’s not the major source of growth and profitability. As we will see later in this blog, positioning yourself in the right place is a greater determinant of success. Therefore, positioning should be of higher importance, since decisions there will have greater impact. We need to be more like Jason and less like Bob.  

The principle here is that leaders need to focus their time and energy on activities which produce the highest impact. Positioning is one of those high impact areas. Therefore, positioning should be a high priority of leaders and their strategy group…higher than low impact issues such as analytics.

The facts back this up. The latest came this week in an interview on McKinsey.com.  McKinsey’s Chris Bradley and Angus Dawson were talking about the Art of Strategy and what we’ve learned over the last 15-20 years about the topic. In the interview, Chris Bradley said research shows that “80 percent of growth is explained by decisions about where to compete or by market selection.”

Based on this research, if 80% of growth is determined by position—where to compete, who to target, winning position—then that leaves only 20% for everything else, including analysis, productivity initiatives, market share wars, and KPI monitoring. Shouldn’t we be focusing on the 80% rather than the 20%? In other words, wouldn’t we be better off spending time finding the right place to mine rather than getting more productive in the wrong place to mine?

Chris Bradley went on to say that:

“Companies should be just as focused about positional improvement as they are on performance improvement. [The research] reveals the importance of strategy in that light, not as a method of how we gain market share or decide what our edge is going be in the next quarter, but as a way to fundamentally position the company against the right trends, catch the right waves, and put our bets on the right markets.”

As Chris implies, positioning is where strategy adds the most value, so all those other strategic tasks (like productivity, market share, or near-term KPI targets) should not be sucking up all of one’s focus.

I can illustrate this principle using a company I worked with. This company had a portfolio of retail brands. One of the brands was doing poorly, so I helped investigate the cause of the problems and potential solutions.

One of the things we learned was that there were a lot of areas where productivity could be improved. This included areas such as labor, inventory, distribution, marketing and merchandising. We investigated what it would take to improve these areas of inefficiency (time, effort, money) and what the impact might be if efficiency was improved.
But we did not stop there. We also spent significant time looking at the big picture position of this retail brand. What we learned was that the position of this retail brand was a lot like Bob’s mine—a poor, low yield position. In particular:

  1. The sites of the stores were inferior to competition.
  2. Nearly every store was in an economically depressed market with declining population.
  3. Past actions had so confused the customer that one would essentially have to start over in building a compelling reason for customers to prefer the brand.
Because of the enormity of these positioning negatives, the productivity initiatives would have only a limited ability to improve the business. Even a highly efficient store will struggle if it is in a bad location in a declining market with a confused customer. It would have been like Bob’s effort to improve his poor mine—much work with little benefit—because productivity focuses on the 20% factor rather than the 80% factor.

The only way to create the big leap in improvement would have been to fix the position (the 80% factor) by relocating the chain to better sites in growing markets with a dedicated effort to rebuild loyalty. The cost and risk on that was very high.

Therefore, rather than put in all the time, effort and money needed to incrementally improve the productivity of that retail brand, the company sold the brand and put all that time, effort and money into a different brand which had a much better position (more like Jason’s high-yield mine).

That was the right move, because it focused first on positioning (the 80% factor) before determining decisions on where to create incremental improvements (the 20% factor). By putting the effort behind the brand with a better position, it improved the return on that effort.

Incremental improvements via analytics, statistics, KPIs, Six Sigma, Lean and other such productivity tools has its place. But it is not the place of prominence. The big rewards come from getting the overall position right. Positioning needs the place of prominence in the strategic planning process. This is because if the position is wrong, then all those other efforts are constrained by the lack of potential within the poor position. You can only get so much ore out of a bad mine, no matter how productive you are. Better to focus on getting the position right, so that subsequent efforts are focused on place where the potential rewards are high.

Now some of you may be thinking that you can afford to focus almost exclusively on productivity issues now, because you already have a great, winning position. The problem is that environments change. The great positions of today may become lousy positions tomorrow. Decades ago, that poor retail chain I talked about had a great position (before the cities went into decline and the consumer position was compromised). So one can never ignore the positioning issue. It needs to be consistently monitored to ensure that it remains in tune with the marketplace and relevant with the customer.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Strategic Planning Analogy #513: The Business Lottery

Imagine a world in which business is run like a lottery. Under such a scenario, each morning every business would submit to the Business Lottery Commission (BLC) their guess of the day’s winning numbers. Then the BLC would use numbered ping pong balls to determine the day’s winning numbers.

Each company’s sales for the day would them be determined by how close their guess was to the numbers chosen by the BLC. The more numbers a company got right, the higher their sales for the day would be. If a company got none of the numbers right, their sales for the day would be zero.

That would be a strange world, because success would be random and essentially out of the control of management. Skill would be replaced by luck. Nobody would stand for a world like that, would they?

Lately, it seems like the business world is becoming more and more like the lottery, particularly in the social media space. I was reminded of this when reading the November issue of Fast Company. In the editorial, editor Robert Safian said,

“There are so many emerging technologies and newly found companies, it is near-impossible to predict which ones will have staying power. This makes both business planning and investing not just complicated, but treacherous.”

There are two main implications in such a statement. First, it implies that success appears to be unpredictable because it is based almost entirely on luck, like playing the lottery. Second, if success is based on luck, then the importance of planning is severely diminished. Why work hard on planning for success if success is primarily a result of luck?

This idea is further reinforced when one looks at the behavior of a lot of the young entrepreneurs in the social media space. They tend to spend very little time on a particular venture. If it doesn’t get “lucky” quickly, they move on—either by pivoting the current venture into an entirely new direction (like Fab.com) or by abandoning it and starting completely over. They are like the lottery player who picks new numbers to play every day because yesterday’s number wasn’t lucky.

And when these entrepreneurs do “get lucky” they often abandon participation in the business soon thereafter in order to play the game again with another new venture. In other words, they cash in their winning lottery ticket and use the proceeds to buy more lottery tickets. They call it
serial entrepreneurship. I call it lottery fever.

And here’s the even stranger fact. The entrepreneurs are paying for most of their “lottery tickets” (i.e., latest business ventures) with someone else’s money (from Venture Capitalists).

When the venture gets “lucky” and wins, it usually wins big (like Facebook, Google, Linkedin, etc.). But most of these ventures end up with nothing. That also sounds a lot like the lottery.

So maybe the people would stand for a world like that after all.

The principle here is that actions are a result of assumptions. If you assume that business success is essentially random, then you will treat business like a lottery (and planning will be minimal, at best). However, you assume that business success still has a significant element of skill to it, then you will treat it more like professional poker. Yes, poker has a high element of luck, but the good players use strategy to consistently outperform the odds of mere luck.

I believe that it is in one’s best interest to use strategy to increase the chances of success (like poker) rather than relying on betting often and hoping for the best (like the lottery).

The Problem With The Lottery Assumption
If you assume success is primarily luck, you then your actions will work against you in two ways.  First, this assumption will cause your actions to move towards quantity rather than quality. As in the lottery, the more tickets you have, the better your odds are of winning (quantity, not quality). So there is a tendency with this mindset to dabble in a lot of things somewhat superficially and for only a short period of time. If there is no instant win, then you move on, perhaps even dabbling in multiple ventures at once.

It’s sort of like the old saying that “if you want to be in the right place at the right time, you have to be everywhere all the time.” So these people try to get attached to as many ventures as possible.

Unfortunately, this is rarely the path to winning. Remember, most of the people who play the lottery lose, even when they buy a lot of tickets. Real winners are not superficially involved for a short time. They are fully devoted to the business for the long haul.

Consider Amazon. Today it looks like an obvious winner. But that was not from getting lucky early. In the early years, Amazon looked like a real loser and was written off by the “experts.” Amazon won because it was dedicated to a long-term strategy for winning in the marketplace and did what it took to make that long-term strategy a reality, even if it made the near term appear “unlucky.” Rather than cashing out, they made huge investments into the marketplace to create a winning position over a long period of time. Amazon didn’t buy into the lottery assumption.

The second problem with the lottery assumption is that it places its focus on funding the purchase of tickets (getting venture capital money) rather than winning the marketplace (getting sales from customers/advertisers). You can see this in companies with fantastic valuations among the venture capitalists which have never turned a profit. Heck, many have had sales of ZERO. “Monetization” of the business model becomes a dirty word, and those promoting monetization are seen as “not getting it.”

Call me old fashioned, but I want to see a path to profits in the marketplace. Otherwise, all we have is a pyramid scheme, where early investors expect to be bought out at a huge gain by greater fools at a later date. That’s what happens when all the focus is on who buys the equity rather than who pays for the product/service. Eventually, you may find a greater fool who pays too much (to you for your equity), gets too little (the weak business model) and suffers a huge loss to pay for your gain. But if you can’t find another buyer, then you’re the last fool and you suffer the loss.

Improving You Odds Like A Poker Pro
By contrast, poker professionals don’t rely on luck. They use skill and strategy to increase their chances of winning. Poker professionals do three things in particular to increase their odds.

First, the poker professionals study their environment. They get to know the other players at the table. They learn how the other players act and react under various scenarios. The poker pros also watch the cards to learn what has been played and what has not been played. In a similar way, the best business winners don’t merely rely on luck, but study the marketplace and their competition.

Second, poker pros use that knowledge to play an intelligent game of strategy. They understand the odds and work that to their advantage. They consider various scenarios. Then the pros make moves designed to cause the other players to act in a manner that shifts the odds even more to their advantage. The pros don’t leave winning to chance and the luck of the cards. They use strategy to improve the odds of success. Good businesses do the same.

Third, the poker pros stick around. They don’t just play one hand and walk away. The pros know that in any individual game, bad luck might be too high to overcome with their skill. They know that it is over the long run that luck evens out and their skill eventually prevails.

In addition, the poker pros know that the longer they play with a particular group, the more they will learn about them. This additional knowledge makes the pro’s strategy improve over time, thereby making the later rounds potentially more productive than the early rounds.

Similarly, good business people stick around and put in the effort to build a viable position and infrastructure. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are great companies.

I am reminded of a story I heard from the founders of Netflix back when their company was barely more than a notion in their head. They told me that their goal was to win in the digital download of movies. They knew that there would only be a small window of time in which to grab that position. They also knew that the timing of that window would be five to ten years in the future. So, to optimize their odds of winning that future digital window of time, they were going to start a physical mail-order business today.

The idea was that the mail-order DVD business would do two things. First, it would help Netflix build strong ties with a large number of consumers. Second, it would help Netflix build ties with the content producers (movie makers/distributors). Those connections with customers and content from the mail-order business would increase their odds of winning when it was time to switch to digital.

This was a long, well thought-out strategy with multiple steps. And it did improve the odds of success for Netflix in the digital movie space. When that small window of time opened, there were tons of entrepreneurs trying to “buy a lottery ticket” by dabbling in the space at the moment the window opened. It was like that Fast Company editorial quote of “so many...newly found companies.”

Most of them quickly “lost the lottery” and went away. But because Netflix was playing poker instead of the lottery, they are still a major player in the space.

One’s actions are based on one’s assumptions. If you assume the business world is driven primarily by luck, then you will act as if business ventures are like lottery tickets. However, if you still think skill prevails, then you will act as if you are skillfully playing poker. And in the long run, your odds for success are better when using the skill and strategy of poker rather than the “buy a lot of tickets and hope for the best” approach of the lottery.

Now you may be saying to yourself, “I don’t think of business as being like a lottery.” Well, you may not say it, or even openly admit to yourself a belief in the lottery assumption. But if you act as if business were a lottery (by doing some of the things mentioned in this blog), then you must believe it deep in your subconscious. You actions shout your true inner beliefs and assumptions, even if you aren’t consciously aware of them.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Strategic Planning Analogy #512: Working on the House

I was recently eating at a Taco Bell restaurant where the inside temperature was only 63 degrees Fahrenheit (about 16 degrees Celsius). It was so cold, I had to eat lunch with my coat on (and it is only October). This got me to thinking…

Imagine that you have a home-based business and that your home is extremely cold. The extreme cold in your house causes your typical day to have problems like these:

  1. Much of your day is spent trying to create warmth, doing things like:
    1. Chopping wood for the fireplace.
    2. Doing exercises to warm up.
    3. Checking the thermostat.
    4. Heating pots of water on the stove. 
  1. Working on your laptop, smartphone and tablet is difficult because you are bundled up in bulky clothes and wearing mittens on your hands. 
  1. Lots of money is wasted on utility costs in a futile attempt to warm the place. 
  1. Because of the pre-occupation with the cold, you find it hard to concentrate on anything else (like your home-based business).

If you had to deal with problems like that day after day after day, I suspect that your home-based business would be a disaster.

Now let’s suppose that instead of focusing on trying to do work IN the house, you tried to do work ON the house. You go around inspecting the house. What you find is that there are several big holes in your wall exposing you to the cold outside environment. In addition, you find that the insulation in the walls is missing.

After spending a little time working ON the house (fixing walls and insulation), you quickly notice that it becomes a lot easier to do your business IN the house, because now it is comfortably warm all day.

  1. You gain back all that time wasted on trying to heat the house.
  2. It is easier to work on your devices when not wearing mittens.
  3. Your utility bills go way down.
  4. It is easier to concentrate on the business now that the distraction of being cold is gone.

And now the home-based business is a lot more successful.

In the world of business, you have two choices on how to spend your time. You can spend your time either:

  1. Working IN the business (doing the daily stuff which keeps the process in operation); or
  2. Working ON the business (doing the big-picture stuff which improves the structure of the business and its ability to win in the marketplace).

Both are important; both need attention. But for leaders, more time needs to be spent working ON the business rather than IN the business.

I believe that leadership in most businesses under-allocates time working ON the business. It’s easy to understand why. Fixing the crisis of the day (IN the business) sucks up time leaving little left for the examining the big structure (ON the business). But, as we can see in the story, that approach is very unproductive.

The crisis of the day in the story was the cold temperature. Extensive time and money were wasted trying to find ways to get the work done in this environment. Dealing with trying to work through the crisis was crippling the business (working IN the business wasn’t working).

However, by taking time to step away from the day to day and look at the big picture, one could easily see that the overall structure of the house was inadequate. After fixing the structure (the holes and the insulation), the crisis went away. Productivity skyrocketed. By spending time ON the business, the work being done IN the business got a whole lot more productive—more productive than what could be achieved by merely working in the business.

The principle here is that structure matters. How you structure the business can have a big impact on how effective the work is inside the business. Even if your employees are hardworking and want to succeed, if the structure is wrong, that effort will be as effective as trying to use devices with your mittens on.

Structural Questions
Structural issues would include questions like these:

1.     Do you have a winning position in the marketplace (a reason for customers to prefer you)? If you have no reason to win, then you will lose, even if you work hard. Working hard at mediocrity or in offering the same as everyone else will not get people to prefer you. The winning position is the foundation of your structure. Without a solid foundation, the structure will fall and crush your operations. Everyone gets all excited about the smartphone business, but keep in mind that only Apple and Samsung are making a profit in this segment. The others are working very hard IN the business of smartphones, but they are losing because they have not developed sustainable positions which create a natural reason to prefer them. Unless they first address this issue (working ON the position), their efforts IN the smartphone business will be wasted. You can read more about this concept here.

2.     Do you have a business model which is designed to give you an edge in achieving your position? Why should you expect to win if you do not have a structure designed to increase your odds of achieving superiority at your point of differentiation/winning? Just working harder in the business is usually not enough. Think about hard discount retailers like Aldi. They create a preference based on a low price position. These low prices are not achieved by merely working harder IN the grocery business. No, they are achieved by working ON a structure which makes low prices easier to obtain:

a.      Very Limited Assortments
b.     Virtually all Private Label Store Brands
c.      No Service
d.     Selling from pallets of open boxes rather than placing individual items on the shelf.

This structure gives an edge in achieving the low price position which businesses under a more conventional structure cannot touch.

3.     Have you supplied the business with adequate levels of capacity and competency? Working hard IN the business will not lead to success if your structure is missing the capacity and competency needed to win. Without an adequate supply chain (access to enough raw materials, manufacturing capacity, distribution capacity, etc.), your work IN the business will not be able to deliver on the promises. Similarly, without the needed knowledge, skills, and tools, harder work will be wasted work. The lack of capacity and competency is like the lack of insulation in that house. It prevents the work inside the house from being productive. In the modern economy of tech firms like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Apple, and other social media firms, there is an understanding that if you cannot get an adequate capacity of engineering competency, you cannot deliver the winning position. Therefore, the winners design structures which create an edge in attracting and keeping this component.   

Role of Leaders
Answering these three questions is the role of leadership. They are the ones who need to step away from the day to day to think about the structure. Thinking back to the story, they need to ask: Where are the holes in the house? Where do I need more insulation? Do I need to build an addition to the house? Do I need to totally remodel the house?

If the leaders do not proactively make the time to step away from being IN the business to work ON the business, it will not get done. The crisis of the day will naturally choke it out. Like the story, you will spend so much time and effort dealing with the cold that there is little left for focusing on winning in the marketplace.

The lower levels are too closely tied to the day-to-day or their little area of specialty. They cannot see the whole structure. Only the leaders can wrap their arms around the bigger picture. And when you do, the improvements can be amazing.

And the fancy word we give to all this attention to structure is STRATEGY.

Hard work is nice, but it can be a lot of wasted effort if the business structure is wrong. When all of your time is focused on finding ways to do more work IN the business rather than first working ON the business to make sure it is set up to win, you are merely creating action, not results. A good business structure has a winning position, a business model which supports the position, and enough capacity and competency to deliver on the promise of the position. If you do not work ON the business to build this kind of structure, your work IN the business is going to go nowhere.

The key here is delegation. Leaders need to delegate more of the day-to-day so that they can spend increased time on the bigger picture.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Transcendent Strategy

There seems to be a consensus building in the business world claiming that concepts like positioning and competitive advantage are becoming obsolete. This premise is based on the assumption that the business world is moving too fast. In such a fast-paced changing world, nothing lasts—including positions and competitive advantages.

This leads to the conclusion that if competitive advantages and positions have no lasting value, then it is a waste of time to focus much effort on them.

I tend to disagree. Here is my rebuttal to this point of view.

Yes, technologies come and go; products come and go. But the truly important issues endure.

Has the desire for value gone out of style? Has the desire for quality gone out of style? Have the desires for prestige and self-esteem gone out of style? No.

These eternal desires have been around or hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds of years to come. Eternal values such as these do not become obsolete.

The problem is not that positioning and competitive advantages have to—by their very nature—become obsolete. No, there is nothing inherent in positioning or competitive advantages which creates obsolescence. Instead, the problem is that people are focusing on the wrong things to build a position or competitive advantage around. If you focus your position or competitive advantage on a particular “product”, “technology”, or “feature set”, then of course your position or competitive advantage will not last—because the best alternative in these areas is constantly changing.

By contrast, if you focus your position or competitive advantage around mastering and owning the enduring attributes of prestige, self-esteem, quality, value, etc., then your position and competitive advantage will endure. Advantageous strengths in areas like this transcend all of those ever-shorter life cycles in products, technology or feature-sets.

Your company lasts, survives, and thrives even if particular products come and go, because your position and competitive advantages in understanding and providing solutions to enduring desires allow you to better migrate to the next iteration of how that need is satisfied. You continue to win, because you have built your strengths around owning the solution itself (e.g., prestige) rather than merely owning the current manifestation of that solution (e.g., a smartphone).

Think of Virgin. The company is not linked to a particular product, industry, technology or feature set. Virgin is into hundreds of diverse businesses from media to transportation—even transportation into space. Instead of focusing on a particular product or technology, Virgin has built competencies and advantages in winning a position in the enduring values. Here’s how Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, describes it:

“We've become a sort of way-of-life brand. ... People think of Virgin — if they hear that Virgin's going into a new area, they know that the quality will be good, that we'll do it in a fun way, that we'll give good value for money. And so it gives us a leg up when we go into a new venture. People already [trust] us, and they'll give us a try and, generally speaking, people seem to like what they find.”

Virgin the corporation wins and endures, even when particular ventures come and go, because it is always on the prowl looking for the next evolution for its “way of life” solution. It takes its skills (competitive advantage) in imbuing these way of life values into an industry and wins.  

And think about Apple. Its popularity has transcended a wide range of obsolescence in products, technology and feature sets. People love Apple because it wins on enduring values. Status, elegance, simplicity, easy-integration, and being “cool” are all integral to everything it does. Apple built competitive advantages in pursuing these enduring traits. This allows the company to endure, because positions and competitive advantages in these areas endure.

The fact that Apple is hiring Angela Ahrendts, the CEO of the Burberry fashion house, to run its retail division shows that Apple is structuring its competency around status, elegance and “coolness” rather than particular products or technology.

So if you build your position and your competencies around the enduring values (like Virgin or Apple), you can have a competitive advantage which can last a relatively long time.

Winning positions and competitive advantages win because they best fit into the context of the environment in which they operate. The battle is decided in the marketplace. To win in the marketplace, you have to be designed to win within the context of that marketplace.

If we buy into the original premise that the business world is undergoing accelerated change, then that is the context where we must design a winning strategy. Therefore, a good way to win in this marketplace is by building competitive advantages in adapting to change.

Competitive advantages in adapting to change could include superior competencies in areas like:

  1. Monitoring the environment to get early detections in the direction of change.
  2. Building a flexible supply chain.
  3. Having an organization that can quickly reallocate resources (human, monetary, etc).
  4. Building skills around enduring values rather than temporal products and technologies.
  5. Speed in execution.
  6. Developing a tolerance for risk.
  7. Quickly building strategic partnerships in areas needed to adapt to the change.

Companies which can do things such as these better than anyone else will have an enduring competitive advantage within the context of a rapidly changing marketplace.

It is a false notion to claim that positions and competitive advantages can no longer be enduring. Yes, many positions and advantages will not be enduring, because they are linked to particular products, technologies or feature sets. But that is the fault of the people who picked the wrong things to focus their positions and advantages on. If, instead, one focuses on enduring values or adapting to change, then you can build enduring positions and competitive advantages.

Don’t blame the concepts of positioning and competitive advantage when your business becomes obsolete. These tools still work well if applied properly. Think of the axe. In the hands of a skilled lumberjack, the axe is a wonderful tool. In the hands of an axe murderer, it is a horrible tool. Are you more like the lumberjack (building enduring skills) or the axe murderer (focusing on products, technology and feature sets)?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Fixing Symphony Orchestras

A friend was recently bemoaning the problems with his community's symphony orchestra. It got me thinking about approaching this problem strategically. I quickly put together my thoughts (see below). I think this is a good example of how to:

     1) Structure A Problem
     2) Establish Key Assumptions
     3) Develop Hypotheses
     4) Look for Analogies and Context
     5) Use Storytelling

After all, if you do not structure the analysis properly, you may not get the right answer for the right problem.

Core Assumptions
First, let’s start with a couple of core assumptions:

Core Assumption #1: Performance Art is Not Dead
There are lots of performers out there making tons of money, like the Dave Matthews Band and Circ de Soleil. Brittany Spears just sold out an extended engagement in Las Vegas.  So the problem is not being in the performance industry. Many have found a way to mine it for large profit.

Core Assumption #2: This is Not Just a Problem for a Single Orchestra
Location-based symphony orchestras all over the US are in trouble. The problem is not just what’s happening in in your community. The entire location-based symphony orchestra model (as currently operated) is broken.

So the problem to be solved is this: How do you change the symphony business model so that it can be more like that of successful performance artists?

Key Hypotheses for Orchestras
Now, let’s look at some key hypotheses about the problems with the Symphony business model:

Hypothesis about Performance Symphonies #1: The Target Audience is Small
Symphonic music has a fairly narrow appeal. There’s a reason why most classical music radio stations are heavily subsidized (including tax dollars). There’s not enough demand. “Pops” orchestras who perform with guest artists (outside of classical music) with a wider draw exist because the purer symphonic appeal isn’t large enough. It’s difficult to make a lot of money off your target market if the market is too small.

Hypothesis about Performance Symphonies #2: The Current Performance Approach is Not Very Compelling
The current typical symphony approach only offers the customer two things: music and snob appeal bragging rights (I was there with the elite crowd). The problem with the music is this:
  1. As mentioned earlier, this form of music has a narrow appeal.
  2. Most of the music is old stuff, performed hundreds of times by hundreds of others. There is no compelling reason to be at this particular performance of that music at this particular time.
  3. You can get superior recordings of the same work by better performers to listen to in the comfort of your home for less money. So if you only want to hear the music, you have better alternatives.
  4. Sometimes more obscure works are added to the mix, but usually there is a reason why those works are obscure—they aren’t as good. 
The problem with the snob appeal is that there are superior ways to achieve that snob appeal:
  1. You can go to the traveling Circ de Soleil or Broadway Shows when they come to your town (which have similar bragging rights while offering what many consider a more compelling performance); or
  2. You can travel to the meccas of performance art (Broadway, Carnegie Hall, Las Vegas, etc.) and get double bragging rights for the performance and the trip.
  3.  In today’s social environment (particularly with younger generations) the status bragging rights are moving from consuming high culture to improving social conditions. They get more status capital out of going to Africa to build a school than in being seen plopped in a chair at a symphony (better stories to brag about and seen as less selfish). Getting involved in social causes is taking the place of high performance art as the place to put your efforts to improve your status.

Key Hypotheses for Performance Successes
Now for some hypotheses on why other performance models seem to be working:

Hypothesis About Success Models #1: They provide a reason to be right here, right now.
Some of the most successful touring performing groups that have endured for decades include The Dave Matthews Band, Phish, Ozric Tentacles and The Grateful Dead. They all have one thing in common—they are jam bands. They have a high degree of improvisation in their music. Each performance is unique and different. You never know in advance exactly what you’ll get (even the performers don’t know). This provides a sense of excitement. You never know if this particular performance is going to become the “classic” version of the song that gets talked about for generations.  People follow these bands from location to location for the excitement of hearing the different versions. They need to appear often to make sure they catch the special moments. Each performance has a special reason to be there.

It’s like sports (which is more popular than symphonies). One of the appeals of sports is that each game is different, and you do not know the outcome in advance. Contrast this with symphonies where they practice in order to eliminate the variability and surprise. It becomes a sterile, polished performance which is highly predictable. There is no special reason to be there to witness the surprise, because there isn’t going to be one.

Hypothesis About Success Models #2: They Create Winners and Losers.
Sports would be a lot less popular if they stopped keeping score and did not declare winners. Watching the struggle to win is exciting. Look at TV. The typical variety show format for performing is essentially dead. It has been replaced by contests like American Idol, The Voice and Dancing With the Stars. Performing plus winning is more exciting than just performing. How often do you see a Symphonic Battle of the Bands?

Hypothesis About Success Models #3: They Involve Audience Input.
In today’s social media world, consumers expect to be a part of the process. They want a greater say in what they consume. Successful performers are getting more savvy about this. But even if we strip out all of the technological hoo-ha like twitter, there is the basic idea of taking requests. How many symphonies take requests at a performance? And what would a symphony do if everyone in the audience started singing along with the performers (which is common for other music performances)? Symphonic performances are one of the most passive venues alternatives for their audience. They are expected to just sit there. And that is not good. One of the big appeals at a Springsteen performance was that somewhere in the show he would pick out a beautiful girl from the audience to briefly dance with him on stage. That was a big deal. (I knew a gal who got that honor—she bragged about it decades later—and yes, she was stunningly beautiful). Have you ever seen people rush the stage at a symphony?

Hypothesis About Success Models #4: They Provide a long list of benefits.
As mentioned earlier, symphonies provide only music and status (and perhaps neither one as good as some alternatives). Other performance options provide much more, including:
  1. Hero Worship. The “gods” of our culture are found on celebrity gossip shows and in the magazines next to the supermarket checkout. You go to the performances of these people in order to see your god in the flesh (regardless of how well they perform). The local symphony does not have this godlike status to offer for worship.
  2. The ability to vent and express our emotions. Other alternatives are more open to yelling and screaming and dancing in the aisles.
  3.  A socially acceptable opportunity to overindulge in alcohol (think Jimmy Buffett concerts or a sporting event).
  4. The opportunity to experience something new (be there for the first offering). Symphonies rarely do a lot of brand new compositions.
  5. And then there are the things mentioned earlier, like experiencing winning & losing, being involved in the process, surprise, and so on.
The more benefits you offer, the greater your appeal.

A Story 
I once heard a lecture by a music professor from Berkeley talking about what classical musical performance was like at its peak (like when Mozart was still alive). The professor said the symphonies of that day were like the National Football League (NFL) teams of today. Each major city had one and people rallied around the local symphony team like we do with our NFL team. Each team had its equivalent of the quarterback hero—the composer. The local composer was part of the local symphony team.  The symphonies would travel to each other’s cities to compete against their local symphony. Each symphony team would pull out its latest composition and perform it. The fans would often travel with the symphony teams to see these contests.

And there were strict rules about how a symphony was supposed to be structured (like the rules in football). And the audience was very familiar with these rules. If the new composition did not play by those rules, the crowds would get rowdy and boo at the symphony. (Remember the stories of the great riots caused by Igor Stravinsky when his Rite of Spring broke too many of the rules?) The professor said that Mozart played very well within the rules, while Beethoven went to the very edge of what the rules allowed. He was sort of like the 1930s Green Bay Packers American Football team who looked at the rules and saw nothing which prevented the forward pass (even though no other team at the time was doing it).

So what can we learn from these earlier performances?
a)      They had superior team bonding with the local community.
b)      They had the excitement of winners and losers
c)      They let the crowds get very emotional and expressive at the performance.
d)      They had the hero worship of the local composer (the rock star).
e)      They played mostly brand new material (the excitement of seeing it performed for the first time).
f)       By getting everyone involved in understanding the rules of play in composition, they broadened the appeal of the music.
g)      There was a compelling reason to be right there, right now because you never knew what would happen.
h)      They made the spectacle much more than just the music.

Without getting into a lot of detail, I think symphonies need to do more of what they did hundreds of years ago and more of what successful performance acts of today do. They need to broaden the appeal by making it about a lot more than just the music. They need to get the audience more involved in the performance. They need to create winners & losers, heroes and goats. They need more spontaneity and surprise. They need more new stuff.