Monday, December 1, 2014

Strategic Planning Analogy #542: Printing Money

When I was a child, I visited a site where a famous US Civil War battle took place way back in the 1860s. As a souvenir, I got some imitation samples of “Confederate Money”. This was the paper money created by the confederate states who tried to defect from the USA during the war.

The souvenir money was worthless, because it was not actual confederate money. But even if it had been real confederate money, it still would have been worthless to anyone who was not a collector of old stuff.

When the Civil War ended—and the confederate states lost—there was no government to back that confederate money. It became worthless. It had value during the war, but not afterwards. But even so, I liked my souvenir money because it came in large denominations, which made me feel rich, even if it was only in my dreams.

Paper money is a funny thing. As long as both sides agree that the paper has value, they can use to transact business. But if they no longer agree that the paper has value, it becomes worthless, like confederate money.

Implementing a strategy can be very expensive. It may require developing competencies, acquiring firms, buying market share and other such costly activities. Without a means for paying for all of this, the strategy cannot happen.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just declare yourself a nation (like the confederate states) and print up your own money? Then you could buy up all the stuff you need to succeed at very little cost.

Well, in a sense you can do this.

Broadly speaking, currency is anything that people on both sides of a transaction agree upon as having value. Over the centuries, all sorts of things have been used as currency, including stones, livestock, seashells, and tulip bulbs. As long as you can get people to believe that what you have is valuable, you have invented your own currency.

Like in the case of confederate money, the time period in which it has value may be fleeting. But as long as you conduct your business during the period when the item has value, you can use it to purchase the costly necessities of your strategy.

You may have hidden value somewhere in your company that you can use to create a tradable currency. And that may be the most cost-effective way to bring your strategy to life.

The principle here is that the winners in business are often the ones who can best afford the costs to acquire what it takes to win. If you can develop a currency which is less costly to you than the currency used by competition, then you can outspend your competition and win.

There are lots of currencies you can use other than money to accomplish your strategic goals. Many of these currencies can buy you a lot more than you could buy with mere money. Let’s look at a few.

1. Stock
Stock has a tradable value. You can purchase things with stock. If you can convince people that your stock has an abnormally high value, you may be able to purchase a lot more of your strategy a lot cheaper with stock than with money.

Remember when AOL stock commanded an extremely high price? AOL used that stock to purchase Time Warner. Eventually, people no longer put a high value on AOL stock, and its stock became almost as worthless as confederate money is today. But, by that time, AOL had already converted a lot of that now nearly worthless stock currency into valuable Time Warner assets.

A variation on that theme is what Amazon has done. For over a decade and a half, Amazon cultivated an interest in its stock among people who were not all that interested in whether Amazon made a profit (at least not for a long, long time). Since Amazon did not have to bother with earning a profit in order to keep its stock up, it created two cheap currencies. First, it had a relatively high value stock compared to profitability. This allowed them to buy stuff with stock that was more valuable than using money.

Second, because Amazon was less pressured to make a profit, it could afford to plow more of its money into strategy than competitors who were under profit constraints. How would you like to be a retailer who is competing against Amazon and has shareholders demanding an immediate profit when Amazon shareholders do not? Amazon can afford to offer the lower price and win the low price strategy.

So if you can develop a strategy which gives you a higher than normal value for your stock, you have created a valuable currency to convert into strategic accomplishments at a lower cost than your competitors, who are stuck using regular cash.

2. Access
Perhaps you have access to something that others want access to but cannot get on their own. For example, you could be a retailer with access to a customer type that is difficult to reach through any other distribution channel. Or perhaps you have access to data that nobody else has. Or maybe you have access to the rich and famous and can make introductions that could not otherwise be gotten. Or perhaps you have access to one of the few mines that can extract a valuable commodity.

Whatever it is, that access could be more valuable than money. You could trade that access for something very valuable at relatively low cost to yourself. For a long time, the nations of OPEC had the best access to oil, something others wanted but had no access to. The OPEC nations became very wealthy by letting others have access to that oil. (Of course, now that the US have found another access to oil via fracking technology, the value of the OPEC currency has dropped, but there are ways to manage access for optimal value)

Do you have access to something valuable? Are you properly charging what others would be willing to pay for that access?

3. Time
People say that time is money. You may be able to trade time for money. Perhaps you can do things faster than others. How much is that worth?

Perhaps the most valuable thing you have is access to a future point in time. For example, let’s say that you are a promising start-up that will eventually go public. The time in which you do your IPO may be a huge wealth transfer moment. Many people will want to be a part of that. By selling them portions of your company now at an outrageous premium, you are “guaranteeing” them a seat at the table when your company goes public in the future.

You can use that outsized amount of money today to enrich your strategy for the future.

Lowering Your Cost of Capital
Even if you are stuck using the same money as your competition, you may still have an edge over competition if your cost of capital is lower. For example, studies have shown that private, family-run businesses tend to have a lower cost of capital, because they look at money and their businesses differently than public companies. As a result, private family companies can often do things strategically that public companies cannot, often giving them an edge in businesses—particularly those with a longer payback.

Or let’s say you are a company with a “near-monopoly” business that is throwing off far more cash than that business could ever use. All that excess cash could have a lower cost of capital to invest in new ventures than what it would cost someone else to try to round up that much cash in the open market.

Companies like Google and Microsoft have had “near-monopoly” divisions throwing off tons of cash, which has opened up strategic opportunities others would find harder to do. Google’s offering of Android to smartphone companies for free was an extremely clever strategy against Apple, but how many other companies would have had the financial ability (or permission from its cash sources) to pull it off?

Sometimes you can get your cost of capital down to nearly nothing by having people give you money for free. For example, Elton Musk was able to get a fortune in government subsidies for building a battery manufacturing plant for his Tesla electric cars. That's like printing your own currency in your basement.  

In another example, children’s hospitals seem to do a better job of getting charitable donations than competing regular hospitals do, giving them a cost of capital advantage.

Look for Your Currency
So when developing your strategy, don’t just look at the options for what you want to accomplish. Look at the options for how you can pay for it. You don’t only have the option of cash. You may have better currencies than your competition hidden somewhere in your company. If you plan it properly, you can develop a funding mechanism which gives you just the edge you need in the race to winning a position in the marketplace.

Although we just scratched the surface of all the strategic options for creating superior currencies, it can be seen that money is not the only way to acquire the keys to strategic success. You may have internal currencies which are more valuable than money and can allow you to afford to buy your strategic success faster and less expensively than others in the race for that same position. Either that, or maybe you have some creative ways to lower your cost of capital, so you can get your hands on more cash more cheaply than competition. Either way, that’s a strong competitive edge and should be part of your strategic consideration.

Clayton Christensen has written a lot on the disadvantages incumbents have over new startups. One of the areas he doesn’t focus on, but I think is important, is the fact that startups are often more creative in finding ways to fund themselves.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Strategic Planning Analogy #541: Necessary for Whom?

I was in a business meeting recently where we somehow got on the topic of Southwest Airlines. I was explaining how Southwest had been so much more profitable than most other airlines for decades because of its unique business model, which in part included the avoidance of the hub and spoke model used by most of its competition.

Someone in the meeting objected to the praise of Southwest. He countered that the traveling world needs a hub and spoke business model. Since the hub and spoke model is necessary, it is not proper to praise a company which avoids this necessity.

In my mind, my reaction was “Necessary for whom?” Is it necessary for some business travelers? Yes. Is it necessary for Southwest? Absolutely not.

Two of the key aspects of strategy are determining WHERE to compete and HOW to compete. Answer these concerns properly and success is more likely. Answer them wrong and success is nearly impossible.

One method businesses use to determine where and how to compete is by looking for necessity of demand. After all, if something is viewed as a necessity and demanded by a large sector of society, it must be a good place to be, right?

Just look at the illegal drug business. The junkies feel that getting their next fix of the drug is the most necessary thing they must do. And the suppliers of those illegal drugs make a lot of money off that perceived necessity.

The problem is that there is not a strong correlation between necessity of demand and profitability. It worked in the illegal drug business. It didn’t work so well for those satisfying the necessity of hub and spoke in the airline business.

Southwest chose its “where to compete” principally in the lower price, non-business portion of the airlines industry. Southwest chose its “how to compete” by doing a number of things differently, including the elimination of the hub and spoke model. These were very profitable choices for Southwest.

In fact, it was a more profitable choice than going after the demands of the business traveler, even though the demand for business travel is higher (and presumably more necessary) than for non-business travel.

Just because something out there in the marketplace is a necessity does not mean that you have an obligation to provide it. Like Southwest, it may be better to avoid it.

The Southwest example illustrates a common situation in business. This is the principle that the highest profits are often found by avoiding the highest demand. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but there is logic behind this point of view.

Why High Demand Items Are Often Not Very Profitable to Supply
There are many factors which tend to lower the profitability of serving many high-demand segments. The first is that high demand segments tend to attract a lot of competition. Businesses like to flock to where the big sales potential lies. But when too many companies are fighting for those sales, the profitability of those sales plummet. Price wars suck the desirability out of those sales. You may be able to get a much higher return going after smaller, less competitive markets.

A second problem is that high demand necessities tend to attract a lot of government regulation. Food and health care are high demand necessities. Many governments get involved in significant regulation how those necessities are supplied. This often takes a lot of the profitability out of the system.

Just look at the results when communism gets involved in the necessity of supplying food. They impose all sorts of regulations and price controls. They often insert themselves into owing a lot of the food businesses. The net result is that businesses pull away and consumers are stuck with shortages and long lines.

A third problem is that high demand needs pull in the masses. And the masses do not always have a lot of discretionary income. They cannot afford to pay as much for their demands as other, smaller segments. You cannot charge more than they are able or willing to pay, no matter how much it costs you to serve them. Just look at the automobile industry. Those selling cars to the masses tend not to do as well as those selling cars in luxury or high performance segments. Customers in the luxury and high performance segments are willing and able to pay a lot more for their cars, making them more profitable, even if the segments are smaller than the mass segment. That's the reason why Tesla decided to start by targeting the high performance end of the electric car business.

When you try to appeal to the masses, you often end up with “average” offerings. Unfortunately, there will always be competitors who specialize in targeting the smaller niches. The specialists will offer items that are cheaper, or of higher quality, or of higher prestige, or of higher functionality. These more profitable niches will eat away at your mass market, leaving you with some of the less profitable middle ground. This is what Southwest did when it specialized in the profitable low price, non-business segment (and firms like Virgin Airlines and Net Jets at the high end), leaving the other airlines fighting over the unprofitable middle.

Fourth, high demand areas are often in fairly mature businesses. Mature and aging businesses, by their very nature, tend not to be as profitable as businesses in their younger, faster growing stage. Look at Procter & Gamble. They completely divested out of the food business (an extremely high demand business). Why? Because it did not have high prospects for future growth and profitability. It was too mature.

Instead, P&G has been pouring money into beauty care. You can say that food is a necessity and beauty care is a more discretionary luxury (less necessary). Yet, beauty care is where P&G have better prospects for growth and profitability. P&G is doing a great job of choosing where and how to compete, even if it means walking away from a lot of high demand products. 

Choose Wisely
As a business, you have choices. Strategy is about helping you make better choices. Those choices need to consider more than just the size or necessity of demand. They also need to look at the profitability within that demand. Smaller segments can often be better strategic choices.

In most businesses, there is no law that says that you have to target unprofitable segments. Even if you think that a particular function is necessary to make the world work, that doesn’t mean you have to serve it. It’s okay to walk away from some businesses and leave it to someone else.

Others may have business models better suited to those situations. Keep in mind that when P&G has been divesting all of its non-desired businesses, it has been finding buyers for those businesses. Many of those buyers are companies who do things differently from P&G and are better suited for wringing value out of mature, slow growth businesses.

Is There a Moral Obligation?
There may indeed be some moral issues here. Is it right to only serve the profitable rich and ignore the masses? Can we ignore the poor because they are unprofitable? Businesses work within a society and they have some obligations to that society. But they also have obligations to shareholders, debt holders and employees.

If businesses choose to or are forced to take on bad business models, this is bad for everyone. If they cannot make an adequate return, employees lose their jobs, and equity/debt holders don’t get a return. More importantly, the companies don’t make any profits which can be used for charity or for taxes to governments to help solve these issues.

Strong, healthy businesses are in a better position to provide jobs and provide funding for social issues. Then the question turns from business models to social accountability.

Strategy is ultimately about making choices, such as where and how to compete. These few strategic choices can have a bigger impact on business success than almost any other thing you do. Choosing what not to do is usually more important than choosing what you do. And some of the things you should not be doing are perhaps serving large “high necessity” demands. It’s okay to walk away from them and go in a direction better suited to who you are.

When you look at large, mass oriented businesses, there are usually only a small handful of winners (often only one or two). The rest struggle to stay alive. If you are not the winner in that mass space, it is usually better to walk away and switch to leading in a smaller segment. And that’s okay.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Strategic Planning Analogy #540: Three Novelists

Consider three types of novelists.

The first author wrote a great novel once. He liked the book so much that he would rewrite the same book every year. A few parts might be added and subtracted each year and maybe a couple of sections would be updated. But essentially it was the same story. He is currently working on the tenth edition of this book, ten years after the first edition. He is so busy with these updates that he hasn’t had time to ever write a second novel.

The second novelist was all over the map. Each new novel went in an entirely new direction with entirely new characters and subject matters. The writing styles and topics would vary so much between novels that there was no guarantee that if you liked one book that you would like another. And it was difficult to get used to all the new characters all the time.

The third novelist wrote a mystery series. The lead character detective was the same in all the books, surrounded by a familiar cast of characters. Although the style was familiar in each book, the plots in each book in the series had enough novelty to keep them unique and interesting. Over time, the lead detective came to be thought of like a familiar old friend to the readers, who anxiously waited to hear about his next adventure.

So which author do you think sold the most books?

Strategists are a lot like novelists, except instead of writing novels, we write strategic plans. And I have seen all three of the types of authors mentioned above in strategic plan writing.

The first type of author is often found in companies with a rigid, but unimaginative annual planning process. Every year, they go through the same boring process. Each business unit submits what they want to do, which is essentially the status quo. Then all the “same as ususal” business unit plans are rolled up together, creating a broad affirmation of the status quo.  Although it may appear as if the annual process is creating a new plan every year, it is really just slightly re-editing the same plan, year after year after year. We’ll call this the “One Book” approach to strategy.

The second type of author is like companies who switch their strategic planning personnel a lot or use a lot of different strategy consultants. As each new author of the strategy walks into the role, they try to put their unique stamp on the process to prove their worth. As a result, each new strategic plan is a radically different approach, totally unconnected to the plans of the past. The company’s role in each plan is so different, that it is hard to imagine that it is the same character. We’ll call this the “Annual Reinvention” approach.

The third type of strategy author (who is like the one who wrote the mystery series) falls somewhere in between the first two. Unlike the Annual Reinvention approach, there is the continuity between each successive plan. It builds on the character’s past and works with its habitual strengths and weaknesses. Yet, unlike the One Book approach, each plan is a new story for the new reality being confronted. We’ll call this the “Series” approach.

And just as novelists who write series tend to sell the most books, strategists who take a “Series” approach tend to have the most successful strategies.

The principle here is that an individual annual plan is not an isolated event, but one book within a series. Or, to use another metaphor, it is like a single screen shot from the middle of a movie. If you keep repeating the same screen shot for the entire movie, you have a lousy movie (like the “One Book” approach). Similarly, if you radically change the plot of the movie for each successive screen shot, you have a lousy movie (like the “Annual Reinvention” approach). Great movie scenes build from what came before and point to the changes ahead (like the “Series” approach). So when writing your individual plans, think like a series writer.

The Problems with the One Book Approach
The biggest problem with the one book approach is that it assumes a static environment—no changes. If you assume the future will be just like the past, then what worked in the past will also work in the future. Therefore, continuation of the status quo makes sense; reissuing the same basic plan every year makes sense.

However, we all know that the future will not be identical to the past. There are too many elements of change to allow history to continue as before. Change can come from a multitude of sources, from inside the business to inside the industry to outside the industry. Changing government administrations, changing technologies, changing competitive landscapes, changing economic conditions, changing customer moods, and a host of other areas all serve to alter the marketplace in which you compete.

Therefore, the same strategy book from 10 years ago will not work today, even if you update it a bit each year. A continuation of the status quo will lead to ruin.

The role of the strategist has to be more than just a scribe who takes the status quo words from each business unit and just writes them down verbatim into the annual plan. No, the strategist needs to add value to the process by:

  1. Helping the business units see how the future is going to be different from the past.
  2. Helping the business units discover the best ways to adapt to the new future.
  3. Helping the corporation see big picture of how all the individual business units line up against the changing future, creating a need to alter the business unit portfolio. In a changing future, the best role for a particular business unit may be to shut it down (no longer relevant), and that type of advice will rarely come from the business unit itself when submitting its plan.
The Problems with the Annual Reinvention Approach
The opposite approach from one book—the total strategic reinvention—isn’t much better. It creates a whole lot of action, but it never leads to very much benefit, because the direction of the action changes every year.

A key part of strategy is positioning. To win in the marketplace, you have to stand for something—your position. Winning such a position takes time and consistency. If you keep changing your position each year to something radically different, then you really end up standing for nothing.

When you change who you want to be all the time, your employees get confused about what you stand for, so they don’t know what to do. Worse yet, your employees may take the attitude that “this too shall pass” so they will ignore the latest strategic initiative. After all, why work hard on implementing something if you know that next year the company will want to implement something else? Neither confusion nor apathy in the employee ranks creates an effective strategy implementation program.

And then there are the customers. If your customers get confused about what you stand for, they will never know if you are the right solution for their problem. It is like the author who radically changes her style from book to book. You never know if the next book will fit your preferences.

It takes time to build the competencies and capabilities necessary to pull off a strategy. If you keep changing the strategy, your competencies and capabilities will never be at optimal levels for the strategy of the moment. By contrast, if you keep a relatively consistent direction over many years, you can develop competencies and capabilities which will make you best at delivering your position and blow away the competition.

The Benefits of the Series Approach
The series approach takes the best from each extreme while eliminating the worst. First, it understands that a company has a heritage, a past, a preconceived reputation in the marketplace. You are not working from a blank slate each year. You are building on what came before. This has an impact on what the best future path should be. Like the mystery series of novels, you have the same lead detective in each book, and the prior novels in the series impact what you can effectively do with the character in future novels. Yes, the character can change and grow up, but too many radical changes from book to book ruin the series.

So continuity is important. Build from past strengths. Ignoring your strategic heritage while looking forward is a dangerous path.

On the other hand, the series approach doesn’t re-write the same plot each year. It understands that the marketplace is continually changing, so you need a new story line to adapt to the change. It is the idea of being able to adapt what already makes you great to the new realities of the future.

Just as each murder in the mystery series requires a different solution, each year has its own strategic problems to solve. The variety in plots keeps the individual story in each book in the series fresh and relevant. Yet each solution relies on the historic strengths of the recurring detective. The same should be true of your strategic plans.

Strategic plans are like novels. And the best strategic plans tend to be like individual novels within a series. First, they provide continuity between the stories in order to take advantage of the past and build competencies and capabilities for the future. Second, each novel’s story is different, because times change.

I’m currently helping a company with its new five-year strategic plan, and the starting off point is its prior five-year plan. You have to look backwards before you can look forwards.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Strategic Planning Analogy #539: Great Players Make Lousy Coaches

Have you ever noticed that top athletes usually make for lousy coaches?

The reasoning behind this is simple. The great athletes have natural skill and abilities far above the norm for the sport. They are naturally good because they are naturally gifted. It all comes too naturally for them. They don’t even really have to think about it. They just naturally perform well.

As a result, top athletic performers have no real connection with the struggles of the average athlete. The top athletes never had those kind of struggles. They never had to think about how to overcome them.

As a result, the top athletes are relatively clueless as to how to coach the average player through all of this. Their coaching can sound a little silly to the average player when they say things like:

“Just hit the ball to where you want it to go, like I used to do.”
“Just run a little faster, like the speeds I used to go.”
“React faster to the action around you, like I did.”
“I don’t know how I did it. I just did. So you do it, too.”

That’s why average players usually make better coaches. They’ve had to struggle. They’ve had to think of ways to overcome the struggles. They’ve had to find ways to motivate themselves when times were tough. They’ve had to listen more closely to the teaching of their coaches. They’ve had to try a lot of different approaches to the game in order to find their edge.

The journey of the average player is usually a better learning ground for gaining the skills needed to be a coach. So don’t hire the superstar player to coach your team. Hire average.

The CEO is sort of like the coach of a team. Sometimes when looking for the next CEO, we look for the replacement among the best performers in the company. Since they are such great performers, then they will be a great CEO, right?

But that’s like saying the best athlete will be the best coach. It is not necessarily true and is most likely a false assumption.

Therefore, we need to be very careful when choosing our business leaders. The pool of our best performers may not be the best place to look.

The principle here is that different roles require different core competencies. Therefore, excelling in one role may make you unsuitable for another role if the needed competencies are radically different between the two roles.

For simplicity’s sake, we will illustrate this principle by dividing a company’s work force into three layers: The Frontline, Mid-Management, and Leaders. As we will see, excelling at one lever does not ensure success at another level.

The Frontline
The frontline is where the basic work of the business occurs—the manufacturing of the manufacturers or the service of the service industries. Success at the frontline is all about doing your task and hitting your numbers. If you have a specialty, success is about being the best at doing that specialized work.

Therefore, the core competencies to excel at the frontline are twofold: a) understanding your task, and b) doing it at the speed and quality required (if not better). Do that well, and you will be a frontline superstar.

Mid-management is the connection between the leaders and the frontline. Mid-management tries to appease the leaders by making sure the expectations of the leaders are met by the frontline.

Therefore, the core competencies to excel at mid-management are to: a) understand what the leaders want, b) motivate the front line to get it done, and c) report the results back to top management. Do that well, and you will be a mid-management superstar.

Leaders run the company. Their job is to decide what the company should be doing and make sure the business has the competencies, capabilities and resources to pull it off.

The core competencies of leaders are: a) Vision, b) Communication, and c) Appeasing all the conflicting demands of the various stakeholders (shareholders, bankers, employees, the community, etc.). Do this, and you are a superstar leader.

The Difficulty of Moving Between Layers
Although these are very simplified descriptions, they do show how each layer in an organization is different. The core competencies are different as well.

The top frontline performers are great doers of a task. But that doesn’t mean they will continue to be top performers if promoted to mid-management. Mid-managers are not expected to be great doers of a task. They are expected to be able to motivate large numbers of other people to do a task. That’s a different skill entirely.

It is like automatically expecting an athlete who was naturally great at throwing to be naturally great at teaching others to throw. As we saw above, that tends not to be the case. And so is the case in the business world.

Since the top frontline person succeeded by doing, they tend to revert to that when a mid-manager. The result is unhealthy micro-managing—an attempt to continue doing rather than motivating.

Similarly, if you find a top mid-manager, that does not necessarily mean that they will excel at leadership. Mid-managers excel at getting someone else’s goal accomplished. Leaders, by contrast, are the ones that have to dream up what is to be accomplished.

The skills needed to get a task accomplished are far different from the skills needed to determine what should be accomplished. Therefore, promoting a top mid-management performer to leadership does not guarantee success.

Therefore, when a top mid-management performer is promoted to leadership, they resort back to their old skills of getting someone else’s vision accomplished. So they take the vision already in place and keep pushing that agenda, even if that agenda is no longer relevant. They don’t change the vision with the times, because they weren’t skilled at that vision thing. So the company becomes obsolete and dies.

Relevancy for Strategy
Great strategies rely on great insights, great vision, and an ability to think outside the box. These are not qualities needed to be a superstar at the frontline or mid-management. Therefore, if you promote from the top of the frontline and mid-management ranks to get your top leadership and strategic leadership, there’s a very good chance you will not get those necessary qualities. Therefore, you run the risk of having lousy strategies.

It drives me crazy when I see companies promote people into key strategy positions who do not have the core competencies for strategy. They may be great at budgeting, financial models, implementation, or operations, but that doesn’t mean they have a clue about insights and visioning.

There are three ways to mitigate this problem, First, hire for the part. If you want a great leader at the top or in strategy, hire people with the skills needed for that part. Instead of looking backward to see how well a candidate was at doing or implementing, look forward to see how they are at visioning and insights. So what if they were only mediocre at doing or implementing, so long as they are great at what the new role requires.

Second, train your leaders to be better at the skills of leadership. There are ways to make people better at the skills of visioning and insight. Invest in your leaders to shore up these key competencies.

Third, don’t be afraid to bring in the experts. There are all sorts of strategy experts out there who would be happy to consult with you. They have the proper skills. Take advantage of them.

Just because one is a top performer at one level of an organization does not mean that person will excel when promoted to the next level. Since the core competencies needed at the new level are different than the former, there is probably a greater likelihood that the person will no longer be a top performer after the promotion. To minimize this problem:

  1. Promote people based on the new skills rather than the old.
  2. Train people to become better at the new skills.
  3. Hire experts/consultants to help.

Don’t hire a superstar athlete when what you need is a superstar coach.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Strategic Planning Analogy #538: Three Questions (Part 3)

We have a persistent cat. When it wants to go outside, it is determined to go outside. However, we do not let the cat out when the weather is really bad, such as a thunderstorm or a blizzard.

When the cat wants to go out, it meows by the door. If the weather is bad, we show it the bad weather through the window and tell the cat it cannot go out.

This will satisfy the cat for about five minutes. Then it will go back to the door and meow again. We show it the bad weather and say no. This again satisfies the cat for about five minutes. And then the cycle repeats itself, over and over again.

It reminds me of the old definition of insanity: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result.

The cat kept going to the door, expecting a different result (to be let out). However, because the situation had not changed (the weather outside was still bad) the results did not change (cat still not let out). The only way the outcome would change is if the situation changed (the weather improved).

It sounds simple, but the cat didn’t get it. Sometimes I think business leaders are a lot like that cat. They want an improvement in their financial outcomes, similar to a cat wanting to go outside. They go to their financial dashboard, just like the cat went to the door, to see if their desire will come true.

The dashboard says that the outcomes haven’t come true. That satisfies the executives for a short while, but then they keep going back to check the numbers—over and over again—and the numbers do not change.

The problem is that the company has not done anything significantly different in the way it approaches the marketplace. And as long as nothing significantly different has been done, one should not expect significantly different results. So we’re back to the definition of insanity.

To get out of this loop, we need to emphasize doing things differently to create a more positive outcome.

This is the third of three blogs looking at the three questions businesses need to ask themselves if they want to prosper into the future. Those question are:

  1. What problem are you trying to solve?
  2. Why should the customer naturally prefer your solution over the alternatives?
  3. What are you doing differently to prove your superiority?

In the first two blogs (here and here) we looked at the first two questions. We saw that success comes from focusing on solutions and developing preference as the best solution. In this blog we will be looking at the third question and further understanding how to create that preference.

The Formula for Success
The key idea comes from the following truism:

a)     As long as you are seen as similar to the alternatives, you will never be seen as better than the alternatives.
b)     As long as you are not seen as a better than the alternative, you will not be chosen as preferred.
c)     Therefore, the formula for preference is as follows:
a.      First, create an obvious, meaningful difference between yourself and the competition.
b.     Second, use this difference to prove superiority over the competition.
c.      Third, use this superiority to create a purchasing preference over the competition.

Everything breaks down if you skip the first step. You have to start with differences. Otherwise you have no foundation for proving superiority. After all, how can you believe something is superior if you perceive it to be the same as the alternative? And without the perception of superiority, there is no reason to expect a natural preference.

So if you want better results in the future, you have to start by focusing on doing things differently. After all, as we saw in the analogy, if you don’t do something different, you shouldn’t expect different results.

But we’re not talking here about just any difference. We a looking for differences which will help the marketplace perceive us as superior.

One of my favorite stories is that of Oxydol detergent. Oxydol was the first laundry detergent to add bleach to its formula. That was supposed to be the change which created a perception of superiority. But it wasn’t working.

The problem was that consumers were having a hard time perceiving the difference. Oxydol looked exactly like the competition. You used it in your laundry exactly like the competition. Nothing felt different. Therefore, consumers concluded it wasn’t really meaningfully different. The net result was that consumers had no natural reason to see Oxydol as superior or preferable.

So Procter & Gamble put useless green crystals into the detergent. Now Oxydol looked different than the competition. Proctor and Gamble attached this difference to the fact that they had bleach in their formula and the competition did not.

Since the consumers now believed Oxydol was different, and that the difference made Oxydol superior, they began to prefer Oxydol. From that point on, Oxydol became the #1 laundry detergent in the US. It stayed #1 until Proctor & Gamble decided to shift its emphasis to making Tide #1.

So creating the perception of a difference made all the difference in creating superiority and then preference.

Followers, By Definition, Are Not Leaders
If all you do is follow and imitate the leader, you will never be seen as different in a superior way. If any difference is seen at all from your imitation, it would be that you are similar, except for being smaller and weaker and not the leading brand. That is not the formula to success.

If you want to be seen as better than the leader, you must do the opposite: stop imitating and do something differently.

Think about Dodge Ram trucks. They used to be a minor player in the world of trucks, way behind the Ford F-150 and Chevrolet Silverado. They were seen as just like the other guys only smaller, weaker and not the leading brand—the formula of death.

So Dodge abandoned imitation and went for differentiation. Instead of making their trucks look like Ford and Chevy trucks, they made them look more like the cabs of a big, industrial semi truck. To add to the differentiation, they put engines in these trucks that were manufactured by the same people who built engines for semis. Then the marking experts at Dodge used these differences to create the impression of superiority with a particular truck-buying segment.

It took some time to change the perception, but eventually it worked. Now Dodge Ram trucks have skyrocketed in sales and have captured a meaningful share of the market. And because they captured that share with natural preference build on differentiation rather than on bribery, the business is more profitable.

So, if you want different (better) results like Dodge Ram, you first have to do something different.

To succeed in the marketplace, one needs answers to three questions:

  1. What problem are you trying to solve?
  2. Why should the customer naturally prefer your solution over the alternatives?
  3. What are you doing differently to prove your superiority?

Regarding the third question, everything hinges on building positive differentiation. It is the differentiation which allows customers the ability to no longer classify you as the same as everyone else. You can use this to say that your difference is what makes you superior. Then you can turn this superiority into preference. And that’s how you win.

What are you doing differently from everyone else?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Strategic Planning Analogy #537: Three Questions (Part 2)

For as long as anyone can remember, there had been the ice brigade at the US Congress building. The 29 employees with this job had the responsibility of making sure every congressional office had a bucket of ice by its door before 9AM every morning.

Nobody remembers when it started, but the tradition pre-dates air conditioning and mini-refrigerators. The idea was that Washington, DC can get very hot. Ice could be used in a number of ways to help counter the heat, either externally or internally.

Of course, now that congress has air conditioning, mini-fridges and other ways to conquer the heat, those ice cubes were less necessary. Yet they still came, every day, like clockwork. Many of the ice buckets were just thrown away each day by congress people who did not want it.

Finally, in 1994, Republicans took over control of Congress and started a program to eliminate waste. They saw the ice delivery program as an unnecessary waste and the practice stopped May 1, 1995.

Another waste looked at during this time was the fact that even though every elevator in the building had self-service buttons which anyone was capable of pushing, each elevator had a paid employee to operate those buttons.

Time changes things. Something which may have made perfect sense in the past may be foolish today. Yes, there was a time long, long ago when ice deliveries to congressional offices made sense. But times changed, making that no longer necessary or even particularly desired. Yet the practice continued for decades.

Similarly, when elevators were first invented, it made sense to have elevator operators. But the elevator technology advanced over time to the point where elevator operators had become unnecessary and obsolete. Yet they were still there, working away in congressional elevators.

We may see these as silly and obvious examples of being out of touch with the changing times. Surely, our business would not get that out of touch with the changes in the world around us, would it?

Well, there are business bankruptcies every day, and many of those bankruptcies are due to the fact that a company did not adequately adapt to the changing times. The digital revolution made a lot of analog businesses look rather silly and out of touch—leading to many bankruptcies. For example, Kodak was an expert at analog film. But in a world of digital imaging, they seemed as necessary as elevator operators or ice deliverers in congress. The social revolution is having a similar impact.

Therefore, we must always be on guard to ensure that the times are not passing us by and making us silly relics of the past. Even congress eventually figured this out and did something about the relics around them. I assure you that the marketplace will act quicker than congress. 

This is the second of three blogs looking at the three questions businesses need to ask themselves if they want to prosper into the future. Those question are:

  1. What problem are you trying to solve?
  2. Why should the customer naturally prefer your solution over the alternatives?
  3. What are you doing differently to prove your superiority?

In the first blog, we looked at the first question. We saw that successful companies focus on solutions rather than products. Multiple products can be focused on the same solution, and multiple solutions can be had for the same product. Therefore, if you want to win in the marketplace, you need a strategy concerning which problem you want your product to solve.

Now we will turn our attention to the second question. Once one comes to understand that consumers choose based on which product is best at solving their problem, one realizes that the goal of their company must be to supply the best solution to their customer segment. In other words, you need to get a consumer segment to prefer your solution over all of the alternatives.

Understanding the Alternatives
If you want to be the preferred alternative, then you had better understand who the alternatives are. As we saw in the last blog, alternatives can come from products quite unlike your own. For example, many luxury brands can solve the problem of providing prestige or status. This could be anything from fashion clothing to automobiles to the latest technology to trophy wives to the liquor you drink to exotic vacations to yachts to whatever.

The point is that being the best at your particular product may not make you preferred if other products are better at solving the underlying problem.

For example, there is a big difference between the way high school students act today versus when I was in high school. The underlying problem for most high schoolers has not changed over the years. They are still looking for ways to achieve status and fit in with the cool group. The preferred solution, however, has changed.

In my day, clothing was a key way of solving this problem. If you wore the right status clothes, you got an edge in achieving status and fitting in with the cool group. Today, however, clothing is not the preferred solution. Just look at firms like Abercrombie & Fitch who built their entire strategy around being the best status clothing for high schoolers. These firms are doing poorly in the marketplace because students are looking for status somewhere other than in clothing.

Instead, students have found that having the coolest technology is the preferred solution over coolest clothes. In order to afford the coolest technology, students have shifted their clothing purchases to value brands like H&M or Forever 21. In fact, I just read where thrift stores are a hot place for teens and young adults. So now, clothing is looked at as a place to solve the problem of saving money in order to afford cool technology rather than as a solution for cool.

This leaves Abercrombie & Fitch out in the cold. Even if they are the coolest clothing retailer, it is irrelevant if the preferred cool solution is from technology, not clothes.

So understand the full spectrum of options for your customer. If your offering is not preferred over these alternatives, either change your offering or change your solution. Even Abercrombie & Fitch is starting to figure this out and is repositioning its Hollister brand to be less of a cool solution to more of a stretching your money solution.

Staying Relevant
Since times change, technology changes, competition changes and consumers change, one has to continually monitor the marketplace to ensure that your solution remains the preferred alternative.

For example, think of all the ways the smartphone and all its apps have changed people’s expectations and behaviors. Much of this new behavior is because the smartphone and its apps are being seen as preferred solutions over the older ways of doing things. If mobile is not a part of your solution, you may becoming as relevant as ice men at congress or Kodak in imaging.

Alternative If You Are Not Naturally Preferred
Let’s say you have not created a clear preference for your solution. Perhaps you have parity with the leaders or near-parity. You may think that’s pretty good.

But here’s the problem: if you cannot win them over with natural superiority, then you have to win them over with artificial superiority, which I call bribery. I don’t mean the illegal type of bribery. I just mean you have to sweeten the value by offering large discounts or added goodies. In other words, you are essentially paying them to pick you, because the natural offering alone is not enough to create preference.

And we all know what those discounts and added goodies do to our profitability formula. They transfer the benefit from us to the customer. There had better be an awful lot of price elasticity in order to cover the loss of profits per item. Unfortunately, in a highly competitive marketplace, the competition will tend to match your bribery, so no advantage is had anyway. You just lowered the profitability for the entire industry.

The goal here is not to be preferred by EVERYBODY. That is unrealistic since people are seeking value in different ways. You cannot be the best at pleasing everyone with the same offering. Trying to please everyone usually means you are preferred by no one.

Therefore, the goal is to choose a consumer segment for whom you can create the preferred solution. The chosen segment should be large enough to satisfy your requirements.

Of the three important questions, the second one is “Why should the customer naturally prefer your solution over the alternatives?” Preference is important because without natural preference, you have to lower profits through bribery in order to lure business. Worse yet, your solution may be so irrelevant that even bribery will not be enough to create preference.

Since times change, you have to be constantly on the lookout to ensure that your solution remains preferable through time. Otherwise, you may need to change your offering or change your solution.

Superiority is determined in the mind of the customer, not in your laboratory. When determining whether you are the preferred alternative, ask your customer segment, not your employees.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Strategic Planning Analogy #536: Three Questions (Part 1)

In the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the group has to cross over the Bridge of Death. To cross the bridge, they first needed to get permission from the old man guarding the bridge. The old man only gives permission to those who correctly answered his three questions.

His first two questions were always the same:
            What is your name?
            What is your quest?

The third question varied, and included:
            What is your favorite color?
            What is the capital of Assyria?
            What is the airspeed velocity of the unladen swallow?

The third question was always silly and had no logical connection to why someone would be worthy to cross the bridge. But this was, after all, Monty Python, so what do you expect?

Crossing the bridge to seek the Holy Grail is a bit like a company trying to cross the bridge to the glorious prosperity of the future. As in the movie, one could not simply walk the bridge. No, one first had to get permission.

In the movie, permission came from the old man guarding the bridge. For businesses, the bridge to future prosperity is guarded by the consumers of the marketplace. If the consumers don’t like or want what you are offering, they won’t let you cross into prosperity.

In the movie, the old man makes his determination based on three questions. For businesses, they also have three questions they must answer to get permission to cross. We will be answering these three questions over the next three blogs.

To make sure you are pleasing the consumers of the marketplace, you need to ask yourself three questions. They are:

  1. What problem are you trying to solve?
  2. Why should the customer prefer your solution over the alternatives?
  3. What are you doing differently to prove your superiority?

In today’s blog, we will cover the first question. We will tackle the other two in the next two blogs.

1. What Problem are you trying to Solve?
In general, people do not spend money randomly for no reason. No, they spend money in order to solve a problem in their life. There are all sorts of problems in life to be solved, including:

a)     Basic Needs (hunger, transportation, electricity, shelter, etc.)
b)     Higher Level Needs (love, self-esteem, feeling needed, security, etc.)

This principle applies both to the B2C world as well as to the B2B world. Money is not spent unless the purchaser perceives they will receive a benefit that will solve a problem for them.

There are lots of problems out there to solve and you must choose which problem you are solving. After all, if you don’t know what solution you are offering, why should a perspective customer know? And if they don’t know, why should they consider you?

Solutions Vs. Products
Your solution is not what your product is. It is what your product does for the consumer. This distinction is very important, because many different products can be going after the same solution.

Take, for example the problem of weight loss. There are many products which claim to be a solution for weight loss:

a)     Exercise Clubs
b)     Food Supplements
c)     Food Replacements
d)     Surgical Procedures
e)     Hypnosis
f)      Home Exercise Equipment or Videos
g)     Personal Trainers
h)     Reducing the stress or self-esteem issues which cause binge eating

In reality, the customer really doesn’t care that much about the particular product. They care about the results. So they will pick whichever solution is seen as being the best value for solving that problem, regardless of what that product is.

So, if you are a personal trainer, you need to realize that your solution is not personal training, but weight loss and that you are not just competing against other personal trainers, but against anyone else claiming to create weight loss.

Not only can different products attempt to meet the same solution, but the same products can be going after different solutions.

For example, a high-end luxury auto dealer and an auto dealer who provides auto loans to people with bad credit are both selling cars. However they are offering totally different solutions. The high-end luxury auto dealer may be solving problems of self-esteem and pride. The bad-credit dealer is solving a problem of basic transportation for those with limited options.

These two dealers, although both selling cars, are not really competing against each other. The luxury auto dealer is competing against others selling self-esteem and pride, like luxury clothing dealers, luxury vacation sellers, the latest expensive high-tech gizmo, and so on. The poor-credit dealer is competing against bus lines, mechanics who may be able to keep the old car running, and others who offer credit to bad credit risks.

So don’t define yourself by the product you sell, but the solution you offer. Otherwise, you may get confused as to who you are really competing against in your attempt to cross that bridge to future prosperity.

Solutions Offer Direction
In addition to better understanding your competitive landscape, understanding your solution can simplify your strategic decision making. Pretty much every decision can be restated as a single question: Which option best improves my ability to solve my chosen solution? 

For example, if your auto dealership is trying to improve self-esteem, the design of the dealership, the type of salespeople you hire, and the sales pitch you use will all support this solution. They will reinforce the self-esteem agenda.

But this is starting to move into the next question, which is covered in the next blog.

Companies only win in the long run if the consumers in the marketplace support them. And consumers will only support companies if they see them as solving a particular consumer problem. Therefore, successful companies choose to position themselves around solving a particular problem.

Choosing the problem you are solving is not the same as choosing the product you are selling. After all, there may be a diverse set of products all going after the same solution (like weight loss). And there may be a single product that can be positioned towards more than one solutions (like cars). So, the decision is separate. You need to make the choice.

The key benefits of choosing your solution are:

a)     It helps you understand who you are competing against (those with the same solution, not those with the same product);
b)     It helps you know how to run your business (in the direction of better solving the problem).

Business success ultimately is not about me. It’s about the customer. It’s about solving their problems. The irony is that unless you focus on solving THEIR problems, you will never really solve YOUR problem (attaining business success). So make a priority of knowing which customer problem you are trying to solve. Otherwise, the customer will not let you across the bridge.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Strategic Planning Analogy #535: Only the Experienced Need Apply?

Of all the Help Wanted ads out there, I think the most inconsistent ones come from the advertising industry. They wax on about how they want a diverse workforce. They say that creative minds can come from any background and that they want to find all that diversity of creativity in order to serve their clients. Therefore, they claim to be open to looking at people from all walks of life to fill their job openings.

However, at the bottom of the advertising agency help wanted ads they always say that only people with 6 years or longer experience in an ad agency should apply for the job. Some say you need at least 10 years of ad agency experience.

How can you hire a diverse group of creative people from all walks of life if you only look in one place (inside other ad agencies)?

I pointed this inconsistency out to an ad agent executive who was hiring people, and her response was, “Yeah, we tend to do that.”

She didn’t say it was wrong, or a mistake, or apologize for it. She only admitted the hypocrisy was true.

It makes you wonder how an industry so full of professional advertising copywriters could write such bad Help Wanted ads.

I understand that there are some benefits to hiring people who already have experience within that industry. But there are also some drawbacks. This is especially true if the key criterion for success is diversity in creative thought.

If you keep drawing your talent out the same pool of candidates, who are trained in doing things the same way, you are never going to get diversity. It’s like inbreeding. That leads to nothing but disease.

And if everyone is creative in exactly the same way, is that truly creativity or is it just repetition of the way things have always been done in the past?

I think a similar dilemma can occur in strategic planning. Great strategic planners are skilled in strategic thinking. This is a skill somewhat akin to creativity. It is a particular way of approaching problems that really isn’t related to a particular industry. Strategic thinkers can come from all sorts of diverse backgrounds.

Yet, when you look at Help Wanted ads for strategic planners, they almost always put a high premium on finding people who spent a large part of their career within the industry of the hiring company. Just because I spent a long period of time in an industry does not mean that I can think strategically about that industry.

Strategic thinking is either a skill that you have or a skill you do not have. If you have it, then you can help a business with its strategy, pretty much no matter what industry it is in or where your background is. Conversely, if you don’t have the skill, then you cannot help the business do strategy, even if you have decades of experience in that industry.

So why do so many firms look for strategists within the industry pool rather than the strategic thinking pool?

The principle here is that if the critical success factor in strategic planners is strategic thinking, then hiring companies should put a higher priority on finding strategic thinkers then on finding people who know their industry.

Yes, I know…everyone will tell you that their industry is different. It has all sorts of quirks and idiosyncrasies, so you need to hire someone familiar with all of that.

Well, I’m here to tell you that it is a lot easier for a person gifted in strategic thinking to figure out your industry than it is for an industry veteran to learn strategic thinking if they are not naturally gifted in it. So go with best thinkers, regardless of their industry, because they can usually pick up the industry part pretty quickly once they are hired.

It reminds me of an old saying in the retail industry: “It’s better to hire someone naturally gifted in customer service and teach them retailing than to hire a retail veteran who doesn’t get customer service.” The idea is similar. If you get people with the right natural skills for success, you can teach them the industry. But if the natural skills are missing, then industry knowledge isn’t very useful.

Change Agents
I think this principal is especially true for strategic planners because of their common role as change agents. It often falls to the strategic planner the responsibility of figuring out how to change a business, so that it no longer continues the status quo.

This change can take many forms:

  1. Diversification or transformation from a declining industry to a growth industry.
  2. Reinventing the business model to be more in tune with a changing environment.
  3. Looking for ways to positively differentiate one’s business from the competition by doing something different than what everyone else is doing.
  4. Looking for competitive “white spaces” or “blue oceans”, i.e., new places where industries have not previously operated.
In all these cases, intimacy with the status quo is not of much use, because success is created by leaving the status quo to move in a new direction. If fact, too much experience in the status quo might blind you to all the new possibilities. Spending too much time perfecting one way of doing things may make it harder to think of other ways to do it.

By contrast, hiring a strategic thinker with a more diverse background may be better able to envision new ways to break away from the status quo. Because they are not bound by conventional industry wisdom, they are freer to envision better possibilities for change.

The Innovator’s Dilemma
In The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen talks about how most industries are revolutionized by those outside the industry rather than those on the inside. Those currently in the industry tend to focus on how to do the status quo better. Those from outside the industry look for radical new ways to better serve the customer. The outsiders then become the agents of change.

In the transformation from analog businesses to digital, it is the rare exception of a company that successfully maintained its leadership both before and after the transformation. Instead, the typical path was that the incumbent was replaced by an outsider.

The leaders in travel agencies were replaced by outsiders like Orbitz and Expedia. Kodak was replaced in imaging by outside firms like Apple and Instagram. Status quo brick and mortar retailers are losing out to outsiders like Amazon. One of the rare exceptions would be Staples, who is transferring its leadership from one space to the other. The rarity of exceptions tends to prove the case.

Given the preponderance of evidence that change tends to originate on the outside, why would you want to hire a change agent (strategist) whose majority of experience is from the inside? Looking outside seems to make sense.

When hiring a strategic planner, there is often a bias to hire someone with industry experience. This can be a mistake for three reasons. First, strategic thinking for a strategist is a more critical skill than industry knowledge. Therefore, hire for strategic thinking and then teach them the industry.

Second, strategic planners are often the agents of change. Experience in the past is not very relevant when looking for ways to reinvent for the future. In fact, it may be a hindrance.

Third, history shows us that most revolutionary change comes from industry outsiders rather than insiders. Therefore, it can make sense to bring some of those outsiders into your company, so that you can better adapt to revolutionary change.

You probably don’t want an entire company to be filled with outsiders, but if there is any place where outsider thinking is beneficial, I would think it would be in strategic planning. Therefore, be careful of what you ask for in your Help Wanted ad. You may get what you ask for rather than what you really need.