Thursday, August 25, 2016

Strategic Planning Analogy #567: Water Between the Marbles

When I was in Junior High School, we did an interesting science experiment. The teacher took a beaker and filled it full of marbles. He asked the class if we thought the beaker was full. We all said "Yes."

Then the teacher poured water into the beaker over top the marbles. He poured quite a bit of water into the beaker before the water reached the top. Then he poured the water surrounding the marbles out into another beaker. The second beaker was about half full of water.

So the teacher then pointed to that original beaker with marbles up to the top and re-asked his first question: “Is this beaker full?”

This time we answered “No.”

Things can appear full even when they are not. It doesn’t matter what the container is or what you put into it. You can fill the container to the top and it still will not be full.

The problem is that little spaces form between the objects you put in the container. Each individual space may appear tiny, but when you add them up, all those spaces take up a lot of room. That’s why so much water could be put into a beaker that was supposedly “full” of marbles.

The same is true in business. A market may appear to be full, with large competitors appearing to take up all the available space. It looks like there is no room for anyone else.

However, if you stop looking at all the marbles (the big competitors) and start looking at the spaces, you will see that there is still a lot of room in that market. If you think strategically, you may still find a successful way to fill those open spaces.

The principle here is that even in highly mature markets there always seems to be room for niche products or niche companies. The reason is because large companies tend to be best at doing the large things (serving large customer segments, large product runs, large marketing programs, etc.). They are not well designed to go after those small spaces.

These large, mass companies are like those marbles. They take up all the space that marbles are capable of taking, but they leave gaps they cannot fill.

Because water can go into smaller spaces, they can fill in the places the marbles cannot get to. Smaller niche markets and niche companies are like that water, able to penetrate spaces difficult for the large companies to effectively reach.

McKinsey Article
I saw an example of this principle in an article put out this month by McKinsey and Co. The article was looking at the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry. This is a very mature business. Consolidation has occurred and there are only a few large companies left trying to fill the CPG space.

To get an idea of how full the CPG space is, the article states that growth for these large CPG companies over the past four years averaged only about 0.3% per year. It looks like there is no more room for these large CPG companies to stuff any more marbles into the CPG market. They’ve already tapped pretty much all they can get, right?

So does that mean every other company should walk away? Not necessarily. In the story, we saw that even when the marbles “filled” the beaker to the top, there was still room for about a half a beaker full of water in that beaker. Similarly, the McKinsey article says that even though the big CPG companies have “filled” the CPG market, about half the CPG space is filled by niches not held by the big companies.

And here’s the more exciting news. While the big companies were averaging only 0.3% growth, the article says that midsize companies were growing at 3.8% and small CPG companies were growing at an astonishing 10.2%!  So even in so-called slow growing mature markets, you can grow and prosper if you know how to get into those small spaces.

So how do you take advantage of those small spaces? Well, simply put, you have to become less like a marble and more like water. Marbles are large and rigid. Water is fluid and flexible, able to seep into small places.

There are three ways to become more like water. They are discussed below:

1) Make your Company Successful At Being Small
Large companies tend to find it hard to do small things because their very bigness tends to get in the way. They have large overhead, lots of bureaucracy, rigid rules, and an infrastructure built to exploit big opportunities.

Smaller, more nimble companies, however, are less burdened with all this rigid structure and high cost. They can be built in such a way that they can make money on small opportunities outside the reach of the big ones.

Don’t try to gain success by imitating the big guys. Gain success by structuring your business model to do things they cannot do. Stop trying to be a rigid marble. Stay fluid and flexible.

2) Target Small Opportunities
Don’t look for the big opportunities. Big opportunities attract big competitors. The big competitors will crush you there. Instead, look for the small niches which fall below the big company’s radar.

Small niches can still be pretty profitable if you know what you’re doing and are designed to optimize in a niche environment. So don’t look at where the big marbles already exist. Look at the spaces between them. Find a small space rightly sized for you, but too small for the big guys.

3) Make Big Companies Better at Doing Small Things
If you are already a big company, the challenge is in finding a way to become better at doing small things. Technology can be helpful here. You can use technology to:
  • ·       Make small production runs more feasible;
  • ·       Make it easier to find and target smaller consumer segments;

You may also need to segregate your approaches to business depending on whether it is large or a niche. For example, large opportunities may get one level of service and support while niche opportunities get a different level of service and support. In other words, you may have both “marble” divisions and “water” divisions, which are run differently.

Fullness is a relative term. When you try to fill a space with large objects, there will still be lots of spaces where the large objects cannot penetrate. In the business world, you can have a successful strategy by targeting those niche spaces between the large firms. The trick is to design your business to succeed at niches (small, fluid, nimble) and to choose the niches which fall below the radar of the large companies. Large companies can also do a better job of going after some of these niches if they segregate these niche opportunities within their company and treat them differently.

There is no such thing a single right strategy which makes all the other strategies wrong. The right strategy for a marble is different than the right strategy for water. Both can work. The secret is finding the strategy where you have an advantage. The question for you should not be “What is the right strategy?” but rather “What is the right strategy for me?”

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