Just another post on playing to your strengths…
I am 6 foot 7 inches tall and a smidgen under 300 pounds; you might not know it to look at me, but I’m not going to be a gymnast anytime soon. While I may dream of being a dancer or a distance runner, it’s just not going to happen.
And, while businesses can certainly make pivots almost as drastic as those I outline above, far too many executives talk about them as though they are simple moves.
In our work on business strategy, I often get asked the question “How do we take our company in an entirely new direction?”
It’s a good question, and one that disciplined managers should always explore, at least periodically. But it’s also one that is fraught with blind alleys and red herrings.
Well, for one, when people ask about what they can do that’s new and different, they’re often in the throes of being seduced by merely what is popular, whether it’s what’s popular in the press or among the management team itself.
The issue is that what’s popular may never fit your strengths—if you’re a 300-pound offensive lineman, you have to ignore the wide receiver who’s getting all the accolades, or at least appreciate both him and yourself for what you both are.
So when companies need to make a significant strategic pivot, the most important thing to do is inventory company strengths, including specific value propositions, talents, expertise, or operational capabilities.
We do this aggressively in our client strategy work. Why?
Because organizations exist for a reason: They exist to deliver on a mission or set of missions that were devised sometime in the past. The organization itself has grown up around those missions, and expecting an organization that has grown up around a specific set of missions to drastically pivot away from many of those missions at once is foolish. Well, if it’s not foolish, it’s at least naive.
I tend to simplify strategic pivots into three categories:
– Category one is a strategic pivot to a new customer base. This type of pivot requires understanding a new set of customer needs, gathering a new set of insights, and typically adjusting products to meet those needs.
– Category two involves pivoting into new technological fields. This type of pivot typically requires research, product development, and specific new skills in order to deliver on new technologies.
– Category three involves pivots to new delivery models. I typically phrase this as “new routes to market.” This type of pivot may seem easy until you’ve been in a company that has attempted to pivot from a direct sales model to a distributor sales model or vice versa.
Where the trouble starts is when management desires a pivot on multiple categories at once. Pick one category and you have your hands full; pick two and you have the recipe for being overwhelmed; pick three, and unless you’re forming a new company, you’re likely to fail. Why?
Because you have to overcome the inertia of an existing organization.
The innovation literature is rife with potential “solutions” to this multi-category pivot problem, ranging from isolated teams to internal start-ups. I won’t go there with this post, but what I will say is that you must understand whether you’re making a multi-category risk in order to know the risk you’re likely to take in the real world.
Sure, plenty of existing companies have entered new markets with new customers, new technologies, and new distribution models. But in making that observation, we have to be careful not to ignore a significant survivorship bias–far more companies, I would argue, have failed at multi-category pivots like those described. So, you’d better watch out!
The good news is, in the business world, a lineman can sometimes become a ballerina–it’s just important for leadership to know what it takes to be successful before starting.
I would love your thoughts on this topic. Please engage below.