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Five Strategy Traps for 2018

If December is the season “to be jolly”, then January is the month where most CEOs finally “Strategize”. We look at the top five strategy traps CEOs and management teams might stumble into during their upcoming strategy processes.

By: Christian Rangen, Co-Founder Engage // Innovate, Strategy Tools, and X2 Inc

strategy traps 2018

1. THE BOARD – THEY ASK FOR NEW IDEAS, BUT REALLY ALL THEY WANT IS STATUS QUO

 

Most Board of Directors are actively looking for growth opportunities, new growth platforms and disruptive business models. At least, that’s what they tell their CEOs. They follow industry trends of increasingly shorter life-spans, understand that standing still is not an option and witness the rise of unlikely business models across multiple industries. So, the CEO is expected to come up with the appropriate response.

He (or in a few cases, she), assembles a strategy & growth team. Together, they explore emerging industry trends, go visit a number of potential partners, find new market needs, identify emerging technology solutions, map out potential startups for investments and acquisitions and finally they do rapid-market testing of a portfolio of new business models. The early results are very positive, and it is time to take these new growth ventures, with the potential to radically expand the service offering of the firm, back to the Board.

And that’s when the trouble starts.

The Board, despite its overall support, suddenly find the CEO’s new growth strategy “too ambitious”, “too radical”, “too risky” and, frequently, “perhaps a little bit more than we were looking for….”. The words, “Why don’t we just do something we are more familiar with, something we are more comfortable with or something that doesn’t require this much investments so soon”, are heard, yet unspoken. The cold hand of “let’s cling on to our legacy core business model a little longer…”, can be felt as the CEO’s growth program is positively rejected in the Board room.

 

The Trap?

Don’t drop a bomb of radical ideas onto the Board in one board session. Think of the various board members as core partners to any new growth venture. Take them through parts of the same learning experience as any new growth team. Make sure they get a taste of the same industry shifts, the same customer demands and emerging business models as your growth team does. Don’t spring the future on the Board members in one sitting. Let them listen, learn and evolve their strategic thinking as a part of your team, not as distant members.

If not, your new growth strategy is running into the biggest strategy trap there is, a status quo-seeking Board of Directors.

 

 

 2. RESOURCE ALLOCATION – WE WANT THIS NEW STUFF, BUT THERE IS NO WAY WE ARE GOING TO PAY FOR IT, AND YOU CAN JUST FORGET ABOUT SHIFTING ASSETS TO ANYTHING NEW

 

OK, so you made it past the Board of Directors. A new, ambitious strategy for 2018 is shaping up. But you also have an existing operating model running at full steam. The existing model currently eats up some 98% of all resources, and it has its own momentum, so we should not tinker too much with it. Perhaps the new growth areas will be fine with just 2% of total resources, right?

Most likely not.

Countless times we have witnessed new, high-growth strategy programs stall and stop due to lack of internal resources (people, time, funding, management attention). From high-margin software business models, smart city programs, solar energy ventures and high-end consulting services; they all got choked to a slow death due to lack of resources.

Our dear friend, Professor Rita McGrath has long argued that resource allocation is one of the top management challenges when it comes to growing and scaling new ventures. We have witnessed firsthand, again and again, how challenging it is for a very operational management team to find, allocate and – importantly – protect resources for any new growth venture.

 

The trap?

Don’t believe the excitement of new ideas and high hopes of untold potential is sufficient to develop any new corporate venture. The pull of the past and the suck of the present core business are two forces acutely stacked against any resources flowing into new, unproven ventures. If you are developing a new growth strategy, put your best people on it, allocate a smart stepping stone resource allocation model and give it both the time, people and funding required to prove the market potential and – potentially – scale.

 

3. INNOVATION – WE WANT IT, BUT HAVE NO TIME OR INTEREST TO BUILD A COHERENT INNOVATION STRATEGY

 

John, a high-ranking Strategy Director at global offshore technology company recently told us they wanted more innovation; they wanted more innovative ideas from their staff; they wanted more creativity. When we pressed him politely on the overall ambitions and targets, his response was that he hoped it could be solved in a one-day workshop.

John, like many of the executives we meet want instant innovation. When pressed, few of them are able to explain any overarching Innovation Strategy, a larger plan in place for all these “innovations”.

It is easy to get excited by the many prospects of innovation. Corporates should partner with startups (yes, frequently they should). Corporates should run in-house accelerator programs (yes, probably they should) and of course, any corporate should have a venture fund in place (yes, possibly they should).

 

The trap?

Jumping into all these (potentially) great activities should be avoided until you have a MIS (Minimum Innovation Strategy) in place. A MIS can be mapped out on a one-page tool and easily shared and discussed with management and team members. The MIS will quickly give you a shared, visual understanding of your overall Innovation Strategy.

As you jump into exciting innovative ideas for 2018, just make sure you have an overarching, Minimum Innovation Strategy in place for it. If you don’t there is a strong chance your innovation efforts fizzle out in lots of activities and little in impact.

Click here to download the Minimum Innovation Strategy Canvas and how-to guide for free. 

4. COMPETITIVE LANDSCAPE – RINSE AND REPEAT FROM PREVIOUS THREE YEARS


One of the biggest trends we have witnessed in the field of strategy in the past decade is the understanding that your biggest competitors are unlikely to come from within your existing industry. Even more, they are unlikely to even be one of your current competitors, and possibly, your biggest competitor is a company you have never heard of, in an industry you never bothered to look at.

Banks no longer fear other banks. They fear fintech startups and the big software companies, notably Google, Apple and Facebook.

Oil & gas companies no longer look to hard at other O&G companies; they look at clean energy software companies, EV manufacturers and Smart City Programs.

If you run a railway company, your competitors are less likely to be other railway and train companies, but very likely to be the rise of apps, mobility-as-a-service and ridesharing. Most of your company might still think you are a railway company, but don’t be fooled by popular paradigms, you are suddenly very much a mobility service provider yourself, going head-to-head with the likes of Uber, Lyft and GM’s coming Robotaxi.

Rita McGrath calls this the shift from industry analysis to understanding arenas. Most executives are familiar with Porter’s tools for traditional industry analysis. But a lot fewer have grasped the shift into competitive arenas, where traditional industry analysis matters a lot less, and an entirely new competitive landscape arise.

 

The trap?

If you speed through the same industry understanding and competitor analysis as you have been over the past three years, there is a strong chance you are missing the world as it is shifting under your feet.

By applying a different lens and different tools, you can identify new trends and get a better understanding of a rapidly shifting industry. We frequently recommend using the Industry Shifts Map to better understand how your industry is shifting. Assume, if you will, that the competitors you know are largely irrelevant (if only, just for a moment), assume that your profit pockets will be exposed to digital disruption from global innovation superpowers and assume that you have missed several technology trends that put you way behind the curve on new opportunities. What will this industry and competitor analysis look like?

Just make sure you do not fall in the trap of rinsing and repeating the same competitor analysis as you did three years ago.

 

5. ONE STRATEGY – IN THE FACE OF TRANSFORMATION

Most of the client projects we have taken on during the past five years have been various strategy and transformation projects. Yet, virtually all clients have had a singular, core business oriented approach to strategy. They have, for lack of a better word, just One Strategy – when duality and portfolios are required. This One Strategy has sucked in all energy and over time, killed off most new ventures that did not naturally fit into the One Strategy.

Over the past few years several management authors have published excellent work on successfully leading large-scale transformations. Our friends at Innosight in their recent best-seller, Dual Transformation as well as their excellent online ranking T10. The team at Strategyzer, led by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur with their recent Business Portfolio Map, and Columbia Professor Rita McGrath with her The End of Competitive Advantage. Two of the big takeaways from this work is the need for constant reinvention (vs. Big Bang change) and building a portfolio of multiple business models.

 

How to design strategies for the future?

In our strategy work, we work with top management to design strategies – not just one strategy – for many possible futures and many parallel business models. This is complex. It is challenging both from an organizational structure, resource allocation, communications and execution – but we firmly believe top management has no choice but to embrace this approach to strategy. Strategy will be a balancing act between your “legacy core business”, “growth business” and “Explore”. Each of them will have its own strategy, KPIs and – importantly – Board level expectations.

The trap?

If you are facing a changing landscape, new technologies and new competitors armed with new business models, you are probably ripe for transformation. Do not fall in the trap of believing this can be solved by focusing on your current core business and incrementally adapting it. History and management research shows us that to survive and thrive in the face of transformation, a portfolio approach to strategy is required.

How?

Do some things you are completely safe and comfortable with. Do some moves that are safely growing your business. But, make sure you invest enough into developing a radical portfolio of moonshots and disruptive business model experiments. It might feel foreign at first, but One Strategy in the face of Transformation is no longer a viable strategy at all.

 


_______________________________

ABOUT CHRISTIAN RANGEN

Founder, CEO, Engage // Innovate – strategy & innovation consulting company
Founder, Strategy Tools – the modern toolkit for strategy & innovation
Business School Faculty – BI Norwegian Business School.
Global speaker, facilitator and advisor on strategy, innovation and transformation.
He can be reached at Christian@engage-innovate.com

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Click here to download the Minimum Innovation Strategy Canvas and how-to guide for free. 

 

3 replies
  1. Douglas
    Douglas says:

    Great & stimulating read Chris. Absolutely new thoughts I must admit. Understanding competitive arenas… 😀 vs. traditional industry analysis is truly a paradigm shift in planning any investment. Keep it up and regards to your wife.

    Reply
  2. Leif Edvinsson
    Leif Edvinsson says:

    A very god article. How about linking these to the Failure listing by Institute of Brilliant Failures by prof Paul Iske?

    Reply
  3. Vidar Aksland
    Vidar Aksland says:

    A very good article touching on prevailing and existing strategic discussions in many companies in these days. I find your reasoning and described “traps” as very relevant. Even though many companies are working determined to solve them, it can be quite hard to balance and govern the three different perspectives as described in your point no. 5. As mentioned in no. 1 & 2 – changes in resource allocation may cause some friction, in one or several layers.

    Reply

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