Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Strategic Planning Analogy #546: It Depends on Company Fit

To earn money during college, I worked on a landscaping crew. We had two types of mowers: large riding mowers and small trimmer mowers that you had to push. The riding mowers were great on large, open, flat lawns. The push mowers were great around trees, fences and other such objects, where the large mowers wouldn’t fit or cut delicately enough.

The old timers on the landscaping crew always took the easy job of sitting on the large mowers. The college students got the tougher job of trimming around the trees with the small mowers. At least I got a tan and built up some muscles.

Are the big riding mowers better for cutting grass or are the small push mowers better? Well, it depends. If you have a large flat lawn, the large riding mowers are better. If you are trying to trim grass around trees, the small push mowers are better. Each mower is appropriate for one type of job and inappropriate for the other type of job. The trick is to choose the appropriate tool for the job you have.

The same can be said of strategy. Some strategies are more likely to be successful in the hands of large companies. Other strategies are more likely to succeed in the hands of small companies. If you put a strategy into the hands of the wrong company, it won’t work.

That’s why you cannot evaluate strategies in isolation. Most of the time one cannot say “This strategy is universally good” or “This strategy is universally bad.” The better answer is “It depends on what company is executing the strategy.” The same strategy may be great or terrible, depending on who is trying to execute it.

So, just as choosing the right tool matters when cutting grass, choosing the right company matters when executing strategy.

This is the second of two blogs looking at what makes a strategy good or bad. The first blog looked at how timing impacts success. This blog looks at how the type of company impacts success.

The principle here is that there needs to be a fit between strategy and those being called to execute it. If the fit is good, then the likelihood of success goes way up. If the fit is poor, the likelihood of success goes way down. Therefore, one needs to choose strategies which align best with who they are.

This would seem to be an obvious principle, but I see it violated all the time. A typical case is when a company in an industry does something successful. Others in the industry see that success and try to imitate it. These imitators think “That company has found a good strategy. I should have a good strategy, so I will imitate their strategy.”

However, just because the strategy worked for that first company does not mean it will work for all of the other companies equally as well. It just may not be appropriate for who your business is. It would be as if your company was like the little trimmer mower who was trying to imitate the strategy which worked for the large riding mower. You won’t succeed, because your company isn’t built for success in that area.

There are many elements which influence whether your business is a good fit for a particular strategy. These elements include:

  • Culture
  • Values
  • Competencies & Expertise
  • Centralized or Decentralize Management
  • Tight or Flexible Controls
  • Access to Resources (Money, Talent)
  • Connections in the Supply Chain
  • Level of Patience on Financial Returns

This list can go on and on. However, to illustrate the principle, I will focus on two elements: Clout and Agility.

An agile company is a lot like that small trimmer mower. The trimmer mower has the flexibility to cut around all types of obstacles.  It can adjust quickly and make sharp turns when necessary. The same is true of an agile company. It can quickly adjust to lots of obstacles in its path.

Agile companies are well suited to strategies in new spaces where there are a lot of unknowns and where flexibility, speed, and unconventional approaches are keys to success. That is why most of the dramatic disruptions in an industry come from small upstart companies rather than the large status quo firms. The small upstart companies are better suited to having success with the disruption—they are more agile and have less to lose from disruption.

IBM understood this when it tried to invent the PC industry. Management knew that the core of IBM at that time was more like the large riding mower. It was great for mowing down the competition when going after large accounts with large processing needs in established industries. But it was the wrong tool to implement a PC invention strategy. They needed something more agile.

Therefore, in order to make the PC strategy succeed, IBM had to first create a business that was properly fit for the task—something more agile. IBM set up a separate business in a separate location with a culture dis-similar to the rest of IBM. Had they not first set up this separate, more agile culture for the strategy, most experts feel the PC strategy would have been a failure.

Other large companies often try to follow IBM’s example and set up separate, more agile divisions for their start-up strategies. But I’ve seen many of them screw it up by forcing the small division to still use the corporate shared services. The idea is that the shared services will make the start-up more efficient. Instead, I’ve seen the opposite. The start-up is strangulated by all the red tape and bureaucracy from the shared services. They end up becoming less efficient, and worse, less agile. It’s like taking a small trimmer mower and putting a huge engine and seat on it. It can no longer act like a small trimmer mower.

But small, agile companies are not the best for all strategies. Sometimes clout is more important than agility. As an expert in retail, I’ve been approached by others asking me if a particular retail strategy is good. Sometimes, I respond by saying, “That depends. Is Walmart going to implement the strategy or is it a small upstart?” The reason I say that is because some strategies can only work in the hands of someone with tremendous clout. In the consumer space, Walmart has clout that other can only dream about. So it can implement strategies others cannot.

Since Walmart is typically the largest customer of most consumer products companies, Walmart can ask its vendors to do all sorts of things—and the vendors will do it due to the clout Walmart has with them. Smaller firms would not be able to pull this off.

Walmart’s huge size gives them the scale to do things outside the scope of others. Because they handle so many transactions, Walmart has been able to transform portions of the financial industry. Because they have so many employees, they are now experimenting with reinventing how health care is managed. Size and clout can be your best asset when it comes to some types of strategies, where power is more important than agility.

In an earlier blog, I discussed the story of Clean Shower. Robert Black invented a product that helped clean the soap scum off shower walls. At first, the big consumer product companies wanted to buy him out, but Black initially refused and decided to run his small business on his own.

Unfortunately, his invention was easily copied by big consumer products companies. The consumer product companies used their superior clout in distribution and marketing to get advantageous product placement in the stores and brand preference with the consumers. Black did not have enough clout or resources to keep up with them. Eventually, Clean Shower ceased to exist. For Black, the better strategy would have been to sell out early to the ones who had the clout needed to succeed.

At one time I was trying to pitch a strategy to revitalize Sears. But that was when Sears still had reasonable clout in the marketplace. That clout has since dissipated quite a bit. Sears’ clout has so weakened that I doubt my strategy would work anymore. So was my strategy good or bad? It depends.

Therefore, you have two options when trying to successfully execute a strategy. Either you:

a)      Start by only considering strategies which have a strong fit with what your company is already good at executing, OR
b)      Look for ways to modify your company so that it can become a better fit with the strategy (like what IBM did for the PC).

Although the first option is probably the safest, it may limit you to only small, incremental improvements. If you want to make larger leaps, you may need the second option.

You cannot just look at a strategy in a vacuum to determine if it is good or bad. You have to look at in within a context. One element of that context is who is executing the strategy. If the fit between what the company is good at and what is needed to win is right, the strategy can be very good. If the fit is wrong, that same strategy can be very bad. Although many factors affect fit, two important ones are agility and clout. Sometimes smaller, more agile companies are better suited to a strategy. Other times, large companies with a lot of clout have a better chance of success. To ensure fit, you can either: 1) Only look at strategies which fit who you are today; or 2) Modify your company to improve the fit.

Strategies are only good if they work out in the marketplace. Therefore, before embarking on a new strategy, make sure you know what your company is capable of. Do you have what it takes to make it work out in the marketplace?

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