McKinsey Quarterly Top 10 of 2012

The McKinsey Top Ten Articles of 2012 (registration required) contains a few items of interest for strategy folks.

First, it looks like the “s-word” is coming back into style in the endless wheel of business language faddism. Four of the articles have strategy in the title, and some of the others make heavy use of the term in the text. Birshan and Carr in “Becoming More Strategic” say

We are entering the age of the strategist. As our colleagues Chris Bradley, Lowell Bryan, and Sven Smit have explained in “Managing the strategy journey,” a powerful means of coping with today’s more volatile environment is increasing the time a company’s top team spends on strategy. Involving more senior leaders in strategic dialogue makes it easier to stay ahead of emerging opportunities, respond quickly to unexpected threats, and make timely decisions.

Second, we have Cynthia Montgomery’s rumination on “How Strategists Lead,” which makes a decent complement to Dick Rumelt’s Good Strategy, Bad Strategy and is based on a forthcoming book. It’s mostly wisdom-talk, but of a refreshingly skeptical and thoughtful type that fits many of my prejudices, so I’m endorsing it. One part that will be of interest to many of our readers is her insight that since going into executive teaching she’s found that her students are largely incapable of allowing their analyses to temper their optimism or to link their business plans to their analysis of competitive forces. We want executives with a can-do spirit, but we also want executives who are good at the Serenity Prayer and have the wisdom to know the difference between the things they can change and the things they cannot.

Third, we have “How Leaders Kill Meaning at Work,” worked up from a 2011 book, which is based on a large diary study (“…nearly 12,000 daily electronic diaries from dozens of professionals working on important innovation projects at seven North American companies.”). The article is based on “entries in which diarists mentioned upper- or top-level managers—868 narratives in all.” It turns out that “killing meaning” is equivalent to “interfering with success on projects and thereby demoralizing team members,” so the worker-motivation angle isn’t really necessary to their catalogue of upper-management dysfunction. The main quibble I have with the article is that they make no allowance for the possibility that experimentation and/or creating options might be the right way to go, although in the examples they give, if that was what was going on, communication with the front-line troops was inadequate.

All in all, might be worth registering for.

When Industry Analysis Goes Flat

Barry Lynn, apparently some sort of John Kenneth Galbraith wannabe, has an amusingly cockeyed post over at the Harvard Business Review blog. He seems to think that state regulations protecting local beer distributors from vertically integrated competitors are the font of virtue, preserving needed diversity in the beer market by allowing craft and micro-brewers to get their product delivered. But if the big brewers were legally able (and motivated) to foreclose distribution of the small brands, they would be legally able to do it without vertically integrating into distribution (by requiring exclusivity).

A simpler analysis: When there were many  competing major brewers, independent multi-brewer distributors made economic sense, since they eliminated needless duplication of sales and delivery of all those brands to retail establishments. With the consolidation of the beer industry into two giant companies that own all the big brands (and a shift from on-premises to at-home consumption), a single-brewer distribution firm can now internalize almost all those economies. Then the beer industry starts to look a bit more like the soft-drink industry, where two major firms own and develop all the major brands and we don’t blink an eye at their bottler/distributors having exclusive relationships with the upstream brand owners or even being vertically integrated with them. If your local Costco or supermarket won’t carry a micro-brew or an off-brand soda, it’s unlikely to be due to market power on the part of the distributors.

UPDATE: It seems that AB InBev, owner of Budweiser and many other beer brands, is indeed shifting to more of a product innovation strategy and running into distribution problems with these new products:

“That’s not to say that AB InBev has perfected the process. Profit this year was hurt by higher distribution and administration costs in the U.S. as the brewer struggled to keep up with demand for Platinum and Lime-A-Rita, which required extensive — and expensive — countrywide distribution.”

So maybe there are strategic reasons why AB InBev would want more control over its distribution pipeline.

HP/Autonomy and Public Company Governance Perplexities

I’ve been listening to my good friend Todd Zenger for the last few years explaining that the strategic management field is predicated on the idea that corporate managers know more than the uninformed stock market and its lazy analysts. Dick Rumelt’s Good Strategy/Bad Strategy makes a similar point. The idea is that finding unique resource synergies is a good way to get competitive advantage but a bad way to please narrow-minded investors who hate unique strategies that are hard for them to evaluate. Raghurum Rajan’s recent presidential address to the American Finance Association makes a similar point, although with a much more positive spin on the role of equity markets in supporting the creation of entrepreneurial enterprises. With such an eminent set of eloquent and insightful advocates, it’s hard not to tentatively consider the perplexing idea that stock markets systematically undervalue powerful synergistic corporate strategies.

Then I wake up.

You probably followed the news about HP’s massive writeoff on its perplexing Autonomy acquisition of a year ago. The headline to that story was HP CEO Meg Whitman’s claim that Autonomy had cooked its books and fooled its auditors prior to HP’s purchase of the firm under previous, perplexingly hired, CEO Leo Apotheker. It isn’t clear that the extent of the alleged fraud can explain the gigantic size of the writedown by HP, but in any case outsiders like short-seller Jim Chanos, much of the British tech analyst community, and the very useful John Hempton, proprietor of the Bronte Capital blog, had long smelled a rat. They thought, even prior to the acquisition, and using only the company’s official accounting statements, that there was something fishy about Autonomy’s books. How could HP’s finance team and the outside auditors have failed to notice this at the due diligence stage? It’s perplexing.

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Am I missing something?

I just came across this item from WSJ online: Best Buy Founder Gets Green Light to Pursue Buyout. I’ve long been a Best Buy customer — it is typically my go-to store for need-it-right-now purchases of not-too-exotic electronics items. Lately, the firm has been having financial trouble, consistent with the now-familiar story of bricks-and-mortar succumbing to online competition.

What’s interesting is that Richard Schulze (the original founder of 46 years ago) is considering buying back the company as part of a turnaround effort. This is interesting because, as a strategy scholar, I cannot help but wonder what, exactly, he thinks he can do to return the firm to health that couldn’t be done without him. According to this article, his plan is: cut prices to be competitive with online retailers like, improve the customer experience, and avoid cost reductions. Am I missing something or does this sound akin to making up for negative margins with increased volume?

Stay tuned.

Twittering Strategy Profs

For those of you who also follow twitter, LDRLB, an “online think tank that shares insights from research on leadership, innovation, and strategy” has just posted a list of Top Professors on Twitter. The categories are Leadership, Innovation, and Strategy (15 profs in each category). Good lists — all good folks with thoughtful views on the world of strategy. Nice to see a number of StrategyProfs bloggers listed.

New Resource: Carpenter’s Strategy Toolbox

Some of you may remember Mason Carpenter’s old teaching web page with experiential exercises, videos, and other tips for teaching strategy. I’ve repackaged his content, added some of my own materials, and it can now be found at:

A quick tip is that you can now sort the resources by topic (click the category list on the right). I included the most common broad topics in a core strategy course so this should get you to something useful quickly. Probably most importantly, there is a mechanism so people can submit new tools and comment on exiting tools to keep the site fresh.

To give you a feel for it, here are links to a few exercises and resources that you might find particularly useful:

Uber innovation: say goodbye to bricks and mortar taxi service

My colleague Josh Gans recently turned me on to UBER, a smartphone-based taxi service. I used it for the first time yesterday to get to the Toronto Airport. I’ll be surprised if this technology doesn’t eventually kill the taxi business as we know it. 

From the user’s perspective, you simply download an app and sign up for the service online. When you want a cab, you open the app. It shows you all the Uber vehicles around you on a google map. It tells you how many minutes it will take for one to get to you (in my case 8). You hit a button and, if you are so inclined, you can watch your car approaching on the map. A few minutes later, viola!, you receive a message telling you your cab has arrived. Our car was a spotless black limo-style sedan. The transaction is handled through your account with them via your credit card. No money changes hands with the driver (tip is included) and a detailed receipt is immediately emailed to you (great for expense reports). The cost in our case was identical to the standard fare + tip.

As far as I’m concerned, the experience dominated that of the status quo by a significant margin. It got me to thinking about the business model. As an investor, I would always be wary of any business 3 computer science grads from MIT could replicate in a basement. I can’t imagine there is anything in the Uber technology that creates a meaningful entry barrier. Moreover, unlike a Facebook type business, there don’t seem to be any network externalities working to the advantage of the first-mover. 

On the other hand, there are non-technology features of the business that are central to its success and, perhaps, not so easy to replicate. The most obvious is setting up a base of independent drivers. I was chatting with our driver and learned that substantial resources are devoted to vetting drivers and, once they are on board, regularly checking up on them to make sure the standard of service (car cleanliness and so on) remain high. That requires some infrastructure and know-how. 

Then, there are the reputation effects. Strong reputation is going to be a substantial benefit on the supply side – i.e., recruiting and maintaining good drivers. Plus, for the first time, a supplier of taxi services can build up not just a national but international retail brand. That’s a big deal. Apparently, Uber does not have to contend with local medallion laws — the cars are not marked and cannot be hailed from the street. This will help them a lot in expanding their business.

Still, the service only works for people with smartphones — a big limit to growth, at least for now. Also, it is hard to imagine that one or two competitors won’t take a run at them, especially if (as I suspect) this business really takes off. When that happens, who is going to appropriate the value? What is scarce in this situation? There appears to be no shortage of taxi drivers, though being able to find and maintain top-quality ones should confer some advantage. Also, my intuition is that the market will support two or three such businesses, not tens or hundreds. So, oligopoly prices under constrained capacity, at least for the high-end, high-quality version of the service, are likely to obtain.

Yet, the arrival of competition will surely send some additional value the consumer’s way in the form of lower prices. And this is not exactly a high-margin business to begin with. Therefore, at some point in the future, expect to see an established Uber lobbying local governments to regulate its segment of the business — waxing poetic on why it is in the public’s interest for cities to issue them some form of competition-inhibiting, medallion-like licenses of their own.

“Big Data” Business Strategy for Scammers

A terrific paper by Cormac Herley, Microsoft Research, came out entitled, “Why do Nigerian Scammers Say There are from Nigeria.” It turns out that 51% of scam emails mention Nigeria as the source of funds. Given that “Nigerian scammer” now make it regularly into joke punch-lines, why in the world would scammer continue to identify themselves in this way? The paper was mentioned in a news item here, if you want the executive summary version but, really, I can’t imagine readers of this blog not finding the actual paper worthwhile and fun (it contains a terrific little model of scamming). 

In a nutshell, the number of people who are gullible enough to fall for an online scam is tiny compared to the population that has to be sampled. This creates a huge false positive problem, that is, people who respond in some way and, hence, require an expenditure of scammer resources but who ultimately do not follow follow through on being duped.

As the author explains, in these situations, false positives (people identified as viable marks but who do not ultimately fall for the scam) must be balanced against false negatives (people who would fall for the scam but who are not targeted by the scammer). Since targeting is essentailly costless, the main concern of scammers is the false positive: someone who responds to an initial email with replies, phone calls, etc. – that require scammer resources to field – but who eventually fails to take the bait. Apparently, it does not take too many false positives before the scam becomes unprofitable. What makes this problem a serious issue is that the size of the vulnerable population relative to the population that is sampled (i.e., with an initial email) is minuscule.

Scammer solution? Give every possible hint – including self-identifying yourself as being from Nigeria – that you are a stereotypical scammer without actually saying so. Anyone replying to such an offer must be incredibly naive and uninformed (to say the least). False positives under this strategy drop considerably!


UPDATE: Josh Gans was blogging about this last week over at Digitopoly. He’s not convinced of the explanation though. To the extent there are “vigilante” types who are willing to expend resources to mess with scammers, the Easy-ID strategy could incur additional costs. As an interesting side note, in discussing this with Josh, he at one point suggested the idea that when legit firms come across scammers, they should counterattack by flooding them with, e.g., millions of fake/worthless credit card numbers (setting of something like a false positive atom bomb). Just one snag: US laws protect scammers from these kinds of malicious attacks.


Strategy in the bad times

Yahoo Job Cuts: Dan Loeb Remains Unsatisfied – Deal Journal – WSJ: “Yahoo Job Cuts: Dan Loeb Remains Unsatisfied”

When times get tough, coherent, long-term strategy often goes right out the window. Instead of thinking through a comprehensive plan and using it to guide tactical decisions, panicky managers start slashing staff, capital projects and resource outlays helter-skelter. Morale fails, the best employees jump ship, core assets and capabilities languish or are sold outright. And thus begins the death spiral. A comprehensive, coherent plan not only guides reallocation of resources and cost reduction activities, but it also provides reassurance to the employees, suppliers, customers and investors you want to keep.

Sleeping With the Enemy Part II

In an earlier post, I noted Target’s costly decision to end its on-line outsourcing arrangement with Amazon’s cloud service and take all its work in-house. The short-term costs were considerable, both in direct outlays and in performance degradation, and the long-term benefits were hard to pin down. Vague paranoia rather than careful analysis seemed to have driven the decision. I pointed out that firms often seemed unwilling to “sleep with the enemy,” i.e. purchase critical inputs from a direct rival, but the case for such reluctance was weak.

A few months ago, an apparent counterexample popped up. Swatch, the Swiss wristwatch giant, decided unilaterally to cease supplying mechanical watch assemblies to a host of competing domestic brands that are completely dependent on Swatch for these key components. These competitors (including Constant, LVMH, and Chanel) sued, fruitlessly, to force Swatch to continue to sell to them. The Swiss Federal Administrative Court  backed up a deal Swatch cut with the  Swiss competition authorities that allows Swatch to begin reducing its shipments to rivals. The competition authority will report later this year on how much grace time Swatch’s customers must be given to find new sources of supply, and these customers may appeal to the highest Swiss court. For now, Swatch’s customers are scrambling for alternative sources of supply in order to stay in business. The stakes are especially high because overall business is booming, with lots of demand in Asia.

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In the mail: Guitar Zero: A Neuroscientist Debunks the Myth of “Music Instinct”

When you read this, you realize just how little we really know about learning. Major implications for the study of strategy, of course. But, also, a glimmer of hope that I may one day pursue that long-abandoned rock career. Article here: Guitar Zero: A Neuroscientist Debunks the Myth of “Music Instinct” | Brain Pickings. Book here.

Kodak managers learn gobbledygook theory of strategy, firm folds

Many of you will have heard by now that Kodak is likely to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy sometime soon. Their present strategy appears to be to wind down the business by selling off many of their patents. I guess my main surprise upon seeing them back in the news was that they were still in business. Apparently, it takes an extended period for these behemoths to fold for good.

The source of my surprise was the fact that I used to teach Kodak managers in both the executive and part-time MBA programs at the Simon School in Rochester, the home of Kodak’s headquarters. Just to be clear, these men and women were great students … bright, curious, open-minded, and typically well-trained. My purpose here is not to jump on the current bandwagon and blame Kodak’s present troubles on the stupid, selfish, rapacious tendencies of  its 1%-er senior managers. Quite the opposite. Rather, I’d like to question what role, if any, the things they learned in b-school strategy classes played in the formation of, ultimately, misguided business plans.

Harking back to the late 90s, when I was teaching EMBA classes that were populated with about 1/3 senior managers from Kodak, I vividly remember initiating class discussions about the disruption digital technology was going to have on Kodak’s legacy business. Unlike the automobile manufacturers of the 70s, who really missed the significance of Japanese competition, Kodak managers fully understood that the new digital technologies were going to change their industry forever. Sure, there was a lot of uncertainty about the speed and path by which transformation would occur. But, it wasn’t the case that these smart people didn’t see it coming. They got it. And they were optimistic and dedicated, in my experience to a person, to implementing strategies that would permit Kodak to successfully ride the new technological wave.

Why were they so optimistic? When challenged to discuss it in class, they proudly explained that Kodak’s “core competency” was “color”. The reasoning went something like, “We understand color and its application to photography better than any other firm. This knowledge will be as important for success in digital applications as it was in analog film. Therefore, we are wonderfully positioned for whatever challenges the market presents.” The problem, from my perspective was two-fold: a) the thinking did not seem to go much deeper than this; and, b) the strategy literature did not have much to offer to help them think deeper than this.

Many have complained that the RBV, which is the source of this core-competency thinking, is a tautology: core competencies are unique resources that cause a firm to persistently outperform its peers; all firms that persistently outperform their peers have core competencies. I don’t agree with this complaint. Indeed, my sense that the pioneers of the RBV were on to something substantially influenced my desire to study strategy. That said, the “theory” underlying the RBV doesn’t go much more than one step beyond the tautology. And, much of where it goes is wrong (e.g., having resources that are inimitable is neither necessary nor sufficient for persistent performance advantage).

So, my energetic, smart, dedicated EMBA students, when presented with a strategy theory that was frustratingly close to a tautology, developed a strategic conceptualization of their firm that was – not surprisingly – frustratingly close to one as well. At the end of the day, it seemed to be an article of faith among my students that “knowledge resources about color” were going to save the day. (As we are all only too aware, smart people are masters at locking onto a favored idea and finding all kinds of arguments to support it.) As a teacher, it was incredibly difficult to push them deeper into a critical analysis of how, specifically, this “color know-how” was going to be their lifeline. New competitors, new product distribution channels,  radical changes to how photographs are shared and consumed? No problem — we know color!

Part of my teaching frustration, which became part of my research motivation, was that the extant literature did not offer much in the way of tools to help these folks think about such issues in a complete, consistent, and efficacious way. Worse, in my judgement, teaching those folks a shallow set of ideas actually facilitated their transition into a dangerous state of groupthink. Holding up a piece of tautological thinking as the pinnacle of scholarly theory doesn’t exactly encourage students to think beyond tautology.

Our field has more than its share of interesting conjectures (i.e., informally generated speculations). What we need now are more scholars who are willing to roll up their sleeves and dig into the details. And patience. Lots of patience.




Duly Noted: Solving the Principal-Agent Problem in Firms:The dumbest idea in the world?

This article in Forbes argues that a new book by the Dean of Rotman School provides an antidote to the rampant excesses of modern day capitalism.  The principle swipe is against the landmark paper (over 29000 Google Scholar citations)  by Jensen and Meckling on both the prevalence of the principal agent problem in the governance of firms and the various solutions to overcome it – including creating incentives that maximize shareholder value.  Quoting Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, the article says that maximizing shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world.  I my self am not sure if this is THE dumbest idea in the world – in fact there are many more that would easily surpass P-A problem resolution – but I am sure this will ignite a debate about why firm’s exist – what is the best governance mechanism for them and the role of economic theory and action in our lives.  I for one need to go back and read the article and then read the book.

Thinking fast and slow about terrorism insurance

This morning, my colleague Josh Gans and I sat in on a general audience talk by Daniel Kahneman about his new book Thinking Fast and Slow. It was interesting to see how the research agenda has progressed and evolved over the past couple of decades. This idea explored in this book, and in the talk, is that cognition can be broken into two “systems” — one that responds instantly and without effort and another that responds with will and effort. The example given to distinguish between the two was being asked to answer the following questions: (a) what is  2 + 2? and, (b) what is 17 x 24? The first comes unbidden and effortlessly to mind. The second requires conscious effort (which has several physiological traits associated with it, such as significant pupil dilation).

Kahneman is a terrific speaker and these issues are inherently fascinating. One of the examples raised a puzzle in Josh’s mind. The example is asking air travelers whether they want to buy insurance. When asked how much they are willing to pay for $100,000 worth of life insurance for an upcoming flight covering death due to any reason, subjects report a number. When asked how much they are willing to pay for $100,000 worth of insurance for death due to a terrorist attack (only), they report a substantially higher number. The reason given for this is that the “fast” system associates terrorism with fear and fear motivates higher willingness to pay for insurance.

The puzzle is: why do insurance companies specifically exclude terrorist acts from life insurance policies? Presumably, a”slow” thinking group of insurance executives could cash in on the “fast” thinking bias of travelers by inducing impulse purchases of terrorist insurance at ticket kiosks at the time of check-in. Yet they don’t. Having recently had some problematic insurance company dealings, Josh’s “fast” thinking answer was that insurance company execs are not very skilled decision makers. I am open to a more rational reason, though I cannot think of what it would be.

Strategy Research Worth Your Attention

Here is an article listing the names of 20 retail firms that have been more profitable than their competitors over the last 5 years (plus, there is an interactive chart showing average analyst recommendations for the stocks of the top six through Oct., 2011). When I tell you that, across a broad spectrum of measures, Target persistently outperforms its direct competitors, what explanations leap to mind?

Whether you are an active strategy scholar or someone whose only exposure to strategy was a first-year course in an MBA program somewhere, my guess is your train-of-thought goes something like: the fact that Target’s performance superiority is repeated year after year makes “sheer  luck” an unlikely explanation; therefore, Target must have superior capabilities; moreover, these capabilities must exhibit certain features (e.g., inimitability), otherwise competition would quickly erase its relative advantage. Then, you would be off and running, digging deeper into such possibilities as: superior information technology, better understanding of customers, economies of scale, excellent brand equity, more flexible something-or-other for “competing on the edge of chaos,” etc.

Sadly, it turns out, you may have jumped the gun when you ruled out the “sheer luck” hypothesis. Denrell, Fang and Zhao have a new paper forthcoming in SMJ entitled, “Inferring Superior Capabilities from Sustained Superior Performance.” In it, they explore the problem of inferring superior skills from data on relative firm performance. The paper is an instance of what I have come to consider classic Denrell: take a central central piece of conventional wisdom in management scholarship (the roots of which are probably the informal, intuitive conjectures in some famous paper from the 1980s), analyze the issue with a stochastic model that is at once simple and general, and demonstrate — yet again — that human intuition with respect to statistical inference is really, really bad. This is a salient trait in even the smartest among us. In this paper, the analysis shows why persistent superior performance may not imply superior capabilities. As a bonus, they go on to apply Bayesian methods to a large data set to infer the luck versus ability components of observed sustained advantages.

I always think of papers like this when I hear someone jumping on the “dude, your ivory tower social science is totally irrelevant to real-world business practitioners like me” bandwagon. (In fairness, this bandwagon is presently a fashionable place for fellow academics to be as well.) The moment we accept that humans are inherently bad at logical and probabilistic processing is the moment we flag the importance of learning rigorously derived general principles. Knowing how to decide whether the sustained ass-kicking your are receiving from your competitor is due to luck or ability is, actually, an important skill in real-world business management.

Does Corporate Strategy Still Matter?

Teppo recently asked us whether the fundamental questions of strategy have changed since Rumelt, Schendel & Teece’s classic work. Relatedly, Mike wondered if strategy has lost sight of foundational questions and is now ceding territory to Economists.

One critical shift has been away from corporate strategy (multi-business firms and M&A). To an extent, this was fueled by debates over whether industry matters (see classic articles by Rumelt and McGahan and Porter) as well as the rise of the resource-based view. Lost in the shuffle were the prospects for corporate strategy research…

This has practical implications. I’m about to begin a module on corporate strategy (can you tell it’s my teaching semester) and this question looms large. I need to justify to my students why, given miniscule corporate effects, I am spending so much time on this topic. I think it points to a fundamental flaw in the way some of this research has been interpreted. Read the rest of this entry »