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.

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