Monday, January 27, 2014

Strategic Planning Analogy #520: Whiteout!

I’ve been suffering through this winter like most everyone else here in the United States. A couple of days ago, it was snowing and blowing so bad that we had “whiteout” conditions.

A whiteout occurs when there is so much snow blowing in so many directions that you cannot see anything but a wall of “white.” It’s like being locked in a totally dark room where you can see absolutely nothing—except instead of total blackness, you have total whiteness.

I’ve been caught in whiteouts when driving on expressways. It is extremely dangerous because not only can’t you see the road, you cannot see what the other drivers on the road are doing. You may as well be driving blind.

Businesses can also experience a form of whiteout. Except instead of being blinded by snow, they are blinded by an excessive flurry of data. With unending streams of data flying from all directions with no end in sight, it is easy to get lost.

There are those who say “the more data, the better.” But like snow, too much data can be a dangerous thing. It can overcome businesses and make it impossible to find the way forward. One can become so bogged down in looking down at data that looking up to make forward progress comes to a halt.

The principle here is that obtaining data should not be the goal. The real goal is to discover and reach your vision. Data is only useful in this endeavor if two things occur:

1.     It is converted into knowledge:
a.      Insight to help discover the vision;
b.     Insight to deliver the promises of the vision; and
c.      Monitoring knowledge to make sure you are on track.
2.     It does not bog down forward progress towards your strategic destination (paralysis of analysis).

In other words, if all you have is a big pile of data, you have nothing. In fact, it is worse than nothing because of all the wasted time and effort to gather it and stare at it. Instead, what you want is a smaller pile of knowledge.

Knowledge is like a small map you can take in your car telling you where to go. The knowledge map is useful because it distills the vast outdoors into just what you need to motor along. By contrast, data is like all that snow that is still blowing around outside. Instead of giving knowledge of where to go, it prevents you from knowing where to go.

We can learn three things about how people deal with snow to help us understand how to deal with data for strategic purposes.

1. Look at Radar, Not Individual Flakes
If you really want to understand how to deal with snow, you need knowledge. And what knowledge is that? As I’ve stated in previous blogs, strategic knowledge of the environment usually boils down to three things: Magnitude, Direction & Speed. If you know this about a trend, then you typically know what strategic action to take.

For example, household car ownership in the US peaked in 2007. The current direction in the percentage of households owning cars is moving down. If we add to this the best knowledge on the anticipated magnitude of this trend (how low will car ownership go) and the speed (how fast will ownership drop), then we can build an intelligent strategy to deal with this trend.

The same is true of snow. If you know Magnitude (size of the storm), Direction (where it is coming from and where it is going) and Speed (how fast the storm is moving), then you will know how to deal with that snow storm. This is what the TV weathercasters talk about—magnitude, direction and speed—because they know this is the knowledge you need to make the right decisions.

They don’t get this knowledge by looking at individual snowflakes. In fact, they don’t have to really look at any snow at all. Instead, the weathercasters get this knowledge from understanding the big picture. And the big picture comes from looking at radar images rather than snowflakes. Radar captures the entire storm at once and lets you measure magnitude, direction and speed.

Strategists need to do the same. They need to stop obsessing with individual data factoids and look at strategic radar which lets one see the big picture—big enough to show direction, magnitude and speed.

You won’t get the big picture on car ownership by staring at everyone’s driveway one at a time. You need to get broader—and look at something other than cars and driveways. For example, what are the key “driving” forces behind choosing not to own cars. Is it:

1.     Population migration to dense urban centers?
2.     A different attitude towards car ownership among younger adults?
3.     A growing concern for the environment?
4.     A poor economy?
5.     Advances in car sharing options (like Zipcar)?
6.     Less need to travel due to being able to get tasks done at home via the internet?
7.     A combination of the above?

Get the big picture on this (via strategic radar), and you can start to make educated projections on the direction, speed and magnitude of car ownership. Now you have knowledge instead of data.

2. Plow Away the Unneccessary
Snow on the roads is considered a bad thing. Therefore the plows are brought out to clear away the snow on the road. The drivers of the snowplows do not stop to examine every snowflake on the road to determine which ones are good and which are bad. No, the drivers previously determined that if it is on the road, it is bad and needs to be plowed away. No further examination needed.

The same is true in business. A lot of data is strategically worthless. Its speed, direction and magnitude have no relevancy to advancing my strategy. Therefore, rather than spend time examining it, I should just plow it away so that I can move forward.

For example, Walmart’s strategy centers around owning the low cost, low price position. Therefore, Walmart can focus their attention on only dealing with finding knowledge of issues impacting Walmart’s ability to own the low price position.

When Walmart determined that:
a)     Warehouse clubs and supercenters had the potential to offer lower prices than Walmart discount stores; and
b)     Consumers were starting to prefer these formats (direction, speed and magnitude moving their way),
Walmart changed its strategy and diversified into warehouse clubs and supercenters.

Recently, they made the same determination about internet shopping and are quickly and aggressively moving in that direction.

Everything else was plowed away so that they could focus on what really mattered—owning low price. By knowing where to focus, they could ignore and just get rid of all the debris that does not impact that focus. This allows Walmart to efficiently and effectively own its position over many decades.

That is why focus is so important to strategy. Focus lets you know what to look at and what you can ignore. As I mentioned in a prior blog, it is often more important to know what your strategy isn’t than what it is, because there is a lot more data which is worthless than is worthwhile. Defining what is outside your strategy lets you know what is worthless and can just be plowed away.

3. Fly Above the Clouds
No matter how bad the snowstorm, airplanes can usually avoid the turmoil by flying above the clouds. It’s always sunny and snow-free above the clouds. And that leads to quick and easy travel to the destination.

A similar situation exists in the business world. Current business fads and daily crises can cause all sorts of turmoil. Bouncing from fad to fad or crisis to crises is like bouncing around in a jet going through a storm. It slows you down and keeps you from your intended destination.

Strategists need to get companies to rise above these current temptations which suck up a company’s time, just like jets rise above the clouds to escape turmoil. Once you get above the clouds, you can see clearly. The same is true in business. If you stop getting bogged down in the petty distractions of the moment, you can see more clearly what is truly important.

Rather than follow the current fad, follow the larger game plan. After all, one rarely wins a strategic position when following others to get to the same location as they are. Winning comes from differentiation, not imitation. Rise above the fray to clear the path to your intended destination—the place where you can win.

Although some data can be useful for strategy, most is just a wasteful distraction. And even the useful data only becomes useful if it is converted into knowledge. Therefore, instead of wasting time trying to absorb as much data as you can, follow the tricks used to deal with snow:

  1. Focus on the Big Picture by looking at “Strategic Radar” (showing direction, magnitude and speed) rather than looking at every snowflake (piece of data).
  2. Just plow away all the data not relevant to your task of moving forward towards your winning point of differentiation.
  3. Fly above the clouds of current fads and distractions so that you can easily see the final destination.

Remember, the winner is not the one who captures the most data, but who gets to the right destination first with the right offering. Don’t let competitors in snow plows pass you by while you stop to look at every snowflake.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Strategic Planning Analogy #519: A Whole Foods Bag at Aldi

Last week, I was shopping at an Aldi supermarket. While there, I saw a shopper in the Aldi store using a reusable shopping bag from Whole Foods.

In case you are not aware, Aldi is a low end, no frills cheap store selling a limited assortment of private label products. By contrast, Whole Foods is a huge, high end store full of high quality organic and Vegan products. Whole Foods is such an expensive place to shop that it is often referred to by customers as “Whole Paycheck.” You could not find two grocery chains at more opposite ends of the spectrum.

But there it was before my eyes—a customer in Aldi who also apparently also shops at Whole Foods. She was well dressed and looked rather sophisticated—a cut above the appearance of many in the store. And she was purchasing low-end private label goods at Aldi using a Whole Foods bag.

I was thinking how strange that was until I realized that I was also shopping at Aldi. Maybe it isn’t so odd after all.

A big part of strategy can be segmentation. Questions debated include “who should be my segment” and “how to appeal to that people segment.”

The problem is the “who.” Did that woman I saw at Aldi belong in the Aldi segment or the Whole Foods segment? It’s obvious that Aldi and Whole Foods are targeting two totally different segments of the grocery business. Yet this woman appeared to fit into both segments. Where should we put her? Which marketing message should she receive?

This is not just a problem for supermarkets. Problems like this crop up all the time in business, where individual consumers do not neatly fit into a single segment. In fact, large portions of the population usually defy simple classification into a single segment. They appear to exhibit seemingly inconsistent behavior, doing different things at different times in different ways. They seem so illogical—defying the logic of my segmentation scheme.

As we shall soon see, the problem is that we often focus on the “who” of segmentation when instead we should focus on the “when” of segmentation. Making this change will vastly improve the segmentation portion of strategy. The illogical will become logical again.

The principle here is that superior segmentation is typically occasion-based, rather than individual-based. People react differently based on the situation or occasion. For example, the same individual may:

  1. Buy one brand of beer when trying to impress others and a different brand when drinking alone.
  2. Go to one kind of restaurant when eating with his/her kids and a different restaurant when eating with their boss.
  3. Wear one type of clothing when going to work and another type when exercising at the gym.
  4. Shop at a big stock-up grocery store at the beginning of the month just after getting paid, shop at a convenience store to pick up milk when running out in the middle of the week, and shop a cheap store at the end of the month when money is tight. 
Does this inconsistency in behavior mean that these individuals are illogical? Not at all. Every behavior is logical within the context of the particular occasion/situation.

  1. When impressing others with beer, price is less important and image more important. Therefore, it is logical to buy a different beer than when drinking alone (when price is more important and image less).
  2. A restaurant suitable and desired by children (kid-friendly food and environment) is not one suitable for business lunches with the boss (quiet and sophisticated), so one naturally chooses differently depending on who one is eating with.
  3. A business suit makes no sense at the gym and gym clothes make no sense in the office.
  4. The amount of money in one’s pocket, the size of the shopping list, and how much of a hurry one is in determines where one go for groceries. As these variables change, so changes the shopping destination.
Therefore, it is the wrong question to ask as to which segment I am in:

  1. The image beer or cheap beer segment.
  2. The child-friendly or boss-friendly restaurant segment.
  3. The suit or sweats clothing segment.
  4. The stock-up, convenience, or low price grocery segment.
I’m in all of these segments. It’s like the lady who is both in the high-end organic grocery segment (Whole Foods) and the cheap private label grocery segment (Aldi).

So does that mean that segmentation is worthless? Not at all. It just means we have to move from designing segments around “who” to segments around “when.”

If you look at the “when” of segmentation, then you are looking to own a situation or an occasion. You try to become the ideal solution for anyone whenever they find themselves in that chosen situation or occasion. At that point, that person becomes a part of your segment. And when that person moves on to a different situation, they fall out of your segment. You target the moment, not the person. When the moment is appropriate for your brand, you make your move.

Grocery Example
For example, I did not see that woman at Aldi purchasing any meat or fresh produce at Aldi. When she runs out of those products, that occasion probably prompts a trip to Whole Foods, because she values their extra quality, variety and emphasis on organic. And these attributes are important to her on fresh food.

But I suspect that in order to afford those expensive items at Whole Foods, she needed to save money on items where freshness, quality, variety and organic are less important. Thus, when the occasion comes up to buy basic staples, like rice or pasta or paper plates, she went to the store focused on low price—Aldi. This explains why I saw her in the pasta section at Aldi.

So the occasion/situation dictated which attributes were most important. Then the store which owned the attributes associated with that situation got the business—Whole Foods when the occasion required quality, variety and organic and Aldi when the occasion required saving money. As long as Whole Foods and Aldi continue to excel at their differentiated solution sets, they will win when a person’s occasion causes them to desire that particular solution set.

Steps to When-Based Segmentation
To succeed at when-based segmentation, you need to do the following:

  1. Choose a situation or occasion where you can win (your position).
  2. Build a business model that makes your brand the ideal solution for the problems most relevant to that occasion.
  3. Let people know which occasion-based solution you are relevant for and why you are best qualified to solve the problems relevant to that occasion.
  4. Do a good job of getting your brand inserted into the moments when the occasion is relevant.
For example, let’s say that you own a restaurant. The first step is to find an occasion to position yourself around. Let’s assume you choose to own the occasion of business lunches.

The second step is to build a business model that will give you superiority as a place for business lunches. So you start by doing research to learn what is most important when choosing a place for a business lunch. Perhaps the research says that the following qualities are most important: quiet area where you can hold conversations confidentially, close proximity to the office, ability to cater meals, food that has a sophisticated adult taste isn’t messy. Then you build your business to win on these attributes in terms of location, offerings, and skill sets.

Third, you make sure people are aware that you are “the best place for a business lunch.”

Fourth, you try to make sure you are inserted in the moments when that occasion comes up. For example, you may buy ads on search engines for terms like “business lunch.” After all, when people are looking up the term, they are probably entering that occasion. Perhaps you get in good with all the top administrative assistants in the offices nearby. After all, they may be the ones called upon to find their boss a place for a business lunch. If the admins control the choice, then you want to control them when the occasion rises.  

Finally, don’t get upset when all those business people drive home to their families in the suburbs and are not coming to you for dinner. Their situation has changed and they are no longer trying to solve the “lunch with boss” problem. They are no longer in your segment. Their meal needs have changed. And if you try to change your business model to meet these new situation needs, you can ruin your ability to win at the business lunch occasion.

Be patient. They will come back to work tomorrow. And many will need to solve the “lunch with boss” problem tomorrow. Just be ready when they drift back into your situation-based position.

Segmentation is a key element of strategic planning. Usually, the best segments are those that are defined around situations rather than around individuals. The problem with individual-oriented segments is that individuals act differently based on the situation. Therefore, it is virtually impossible to create a solution that is best for all the situations a particular individual experiences. The better alternative is to choose a position revolving around a particular situation. If you own the best solution for that situation, then you will get the business whenever someone drifts into that situation. And don’t be upset when the customer drifts into a different solution and chooses someone else. Just be ready when they drift back into the situation where you can win.

Follow the solution to the situation, not the individual. If you follow the individual, you will become unfocused in what you offer as you try to be all things to all of their situations. By contrast, if you follow the solution to a situation, you will continue to get better at owning a point of focus.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Strategic Planning Analogy #518: Deadly Serious

I recently saw the movie “Inside Llewyn Davis.” It’s the fictional story of a folk singer back in the early 1960s. I also recently pulled out and listened to some old vinyl records of folk singer Bob Dylan from the early 1960s.

A common element about much of the folk music scene in the early 1960s was a sense of utter seriousness about the music. I could feel it in both the movie and the Bob Dylan records.

Many of the songs spoke about big, serious issues, like Peace & War, Love & Hate, Life & Death, and Social Injustice. The audiences at performances were quiet and serious. They focused on the words as if they were oracles from God. The mood was a bit like going to a (godless) church. And the backs of the albums were full of long liner notes from reputable reporters and serious music critics. They wrote about the music as if they were critiquing the works of the greatest masters of art and literature. Many of the folk artists were willing to almost starve to get the message out.

That’s quite a bit different from the music scene of today. Today’s popular music has been downgraded to little more than a background beat—a soundtrack to a video where someone wearing little clothing prances about. The suggestive video gets the emphasis and the background music feels like an afterthought. The audience is loud and rowdy—more like a party than a church. Nobody takes the “artists” like Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber seriously. And you can tell they are in it for the money, not the message.

Things have certainly changed.

I think a similar change has taken place in strategic planning. If you go back in time—to perhaps roughly around the 1980s—strategic planning was taken very seriously. Like the folk music of the early 1960s, the strategy topics covered in the past were large and deep—of life and death importance to the company or brand. Positioning, competencies, structure, differentiation—a search for a sort of “eternal purpose”, a reason for a brand to exist, a reason to keep the company from dying.

People with the word “strategy” in their title back then were treated with respect. The most respected consulting firms, who hired the best and the brightest, specialized in strategy. People listened attentively when they spoke on the subject, like hearing a sermon in church.

And like the long liner notes on the back of the folk records, there were lots of people writing serious books on the topic of strategy.

Now, it seems that strategic planning has, like today’s music, fallen out of seriousness. Strategic planners today are often relegated to merely creating the background beat—the monthly rhythm of KPI (Key Performance Indicator) reports, plan vs. actuals reports, and other such monthly scorecard updates. The real focus has moved elsewhere. Strategy work is seen as merely a temporary stopping point for high potential employees or those seeking to become something else, like a CFO—it is not a serious career destination. Even the big consulting firms rarely do strategy work anymore.

There aren’t many forums left where the big “life and death” issues of the corporation get serious discussion. Some of the newer social media firms take strategy work about as seriously as one would a Miley Cyrus video.

Things have certainly changed.

The principal here is that long-term success requires making the right choices on some major, serious topics. Make the right decisions on these major topics and your company lives. If you ignore them, or guess wrongly, your company will die. They are, quite literally, life and death decisions.

When strategic planning is relegated to being just the rhythm section (only producing the monthly reports), companies lose an important focal point for dealing with these larger, serious issues. And that makes survival a lot riskier.

I will bundle these serious issues into two categories—“Reason To Live” questions and “Reason Not to Die” questions.

1. Reason to Live
If you want your company or offering to live, then you need a reason for why customers would want it to live. Otherwise, your company will die.

There is too much competition; too many alternatives. With all of those choices, a consumer is not forced into choosing your offering. They can choose something else, and unless you give them a reason to prefer your offering, they will choose something else. That is why I have said many times that the most important question in strategy is: What is it about your strategy which will cause customers to prefer you over the alternatives?

Preference is caused by offering a differential advantage over the alternatives. There are many ways to create this edge: by being faster, lower cost, higher quality, better service, more features, more specialization, higher convenience, and so on.

The important point here is that differential advantages rarely come about by accident. If all you do is the same thing everyone else is doing in your space, you end up just like everyone else in your space. There is no difference. There is no advantage. There is no real preference. At best, you gain customers randomly.

No, if you want to be preferred you have to be different; you have to choose a different strategic path than your competition. You have to choose where to build an inherent advantage. And then you have to design and build a different business model in order to profitably deliver your different results.

All of that requires serious discussions. The answers won’t turn up in a monthly update report. You need serious time devoted to the issue.

It bothers me that so many people just look to where the hot business space is and then rush in to fill the demand—just like thousands of other companies. Yes, there can be big winners like Apple, Google and Facebook. But the vast majority of the ones jumping into hot spaces fail.

They are lured into the hot space just like people are lured by the hot singer prancing about in the music videos. It looks so inviting. But because there is no substance built behind the scenes, it fades away.

Before jumping into the hot space, ask yourself some serious questions. What would give me an inherent edge over everyone else jumping into this space? What would I need to do differently in order to create that edge? How do I build a business model that excels in delivering that edge? Where do I get the competencies and capacities to pull it off? How do I build a superior advantage over others who may want to create the same advantage?

Without these serious discussions, you are not designing a reason for living. You are merely playing the lottery and hoping to get lucky. And we all know that nearly everyone who plays the lottery loses.

2. Reason to Not Die
Just because a company is successful today does not mean that it will continue to succeed. Many one-time great and successful companies have died or nearly died. Just think of Kodak, Lehman Brothers, Tribune Co., Global Crossing, Woolworth’s (US), and Sears.

The problem is that the environment changes. What succeeds in one environment may fail when that environment changes. Past success is no guarantee that success will continue into that changing world. Instead, one needs to be examining the environment and asking the tough, serious questions about whether your business is falling out of favor with change and on a path to death. And, if the current path is death, what big changes need to be made to avoid death.

The companies above either ignored the changes or made bad choices about how to deal with the change. Kodak bungled the transition from analog film to digital imaging. Tribune Co. bungled the transition from newspapers to digital media. Lehman Brothers misread the future of mortgages. Global Crossing misread the evolution of communications. Woolworth’s and Sears stayed in the middle while retail bifurcated into high-end and discount.

If all you do is measure success over the past month, you will miss the bigger picture. Not only can it make you blind to the larger changes, it can actually make the transition even harder. For example, sometimes the path from the old strategic vision to the new requires taking a temporary dip in earnings, as investments are shifted from the old to the new. The only way to preserve the near-term results may be to delay or ignore investments into the new. As a result, you miss the transition to the new and you die like the examples.

Take time to stand back and seriously assess the bigger, longer term picture. That way, you can get in front of the change and successfully transition into the new environment. If you don’t, you will probably die.

Companies fail all the time. Usually, they fail because they did not properly address the big, serious issues of life and death. Companies live/thrive if they provide a differential advantage by choosing the right way to be different. Companies avoid death if they adapt to the changing environment. Unless you devote significant time to seriously discuss these issues, you will not ultimately survive. That is why I am in favor of strong strategic planning disciplines which tackle these tough issues.

Just because serious strategic planning may appear to be out of fashion does not mean that many of its critical functions are no longer necessary.