Although I’m not a professional futurist, it’s hard not to notice commonalities found within hundreds of conversations with diverse teams and individuals who are busy defining new businesses. Five interrelated trends seem to be rapidly changing the face of business by disrupting existing models:
Deepening Technology Dependence – Such an obvious observation certainly won’t garner me any futurist credentials. This reliance first began decades ago with large enterprises, but now even the smallest incorporate multiple forms of technology to increase their efficiency and effectiveness. As technology consumption increases among small companies, their influence on the evolution of new technologies will continue to increase.
Ubiquity and Mobility Enabling Distributed Operations – This second trend may be having the most profound impact. If you’re seeking an opportunity to form a new business, simply examine businesses that remain highly centralized and ask, “What if we broke this into parts that communicated with each other and were accessible by mobile devices?” You’ll find that opportunities abound in industries as diverse as utilities, healthcare, and manufacturing.
Loosely Coupled Systems – The decades-long conflict over the efficiency of deeply integrated systems versus the flexibility of modular systems is over, and the winner is… both. Distribution of function across reusable modules delivers economies of reuse. Loosely coupled systems employ web-based connection mechanisms that allow rapid communication while avoiding dependencies that often slow development.
Discovering Trusted Vendors – Large enterprises have maintained their dominance for decades because of their reach across diverse geographies and economic domains. Better solutions from smaller companies have eventually been acquired by companies could successfully sell into the huge bases of customers who’d grown to trust them. Finding a trusted vendor now has evolved into searching the world for products and services that match our requirements, and trust can be built based on massive and readily available customer ratings.
Increasing Irrelevance of Centralized IT – While a highly respected friend’s belief that IT groups will disappear may be overstated, The centralized IT group’s impact on business priorities will continue to diminish. Technology has become so central to distributed business units that they risk falling behind competitors if they wait for or look for direction from IT. The issue is too central to their success to delegate it.
These trends and their effects are intertwined, reinforcing, and multiplicative. Awareness of them provides a context for both evaluating new business initiatives and estimating the life expectancy of existing enterprises.
CEOs rarely (never?) google to find a consultant with ideas to accelerate their business. To help a CEO with strategy, you first have to get on his/her radar, then bring credibility to the initial conversation. The relationship always begins when a CEO tells a mutual friend about a particular business challenge, then that friend introduces 20/20 Outlook as a reliable and trusted source of breakout strategies.
Earlier this month, 20/20 Outlook LLC celebrated its fourth anniversary. While it’s hard to believe it’s been four years, it’s easy to understand enables success. In a business that relies 100% on referrals to gain new business, having wonderful friends and associates means everything. Thank you!
NOTE: In December I started sending the Accelerated Vision CEO Digest once a month to about 400 CEOs and a few other friends. It shares valuable articles of interest to CEOs in a rapidly consumable format, along with an inspirational saying or two. If you’re a CEO (or a wannabe) who’d like to be included, send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joel Trammell requested a guest post for his American CEO blog, and it’s called 2014 Issues for a 2016 Exit. You’ll find many other great thoughts for CEOs there, and since it’s a two-part article, subscribe there and/or here to make sure you get the second half next week.
Think your non-tech company won’t be impacted by this trend? Has your market been around awhile? Are things likely to continue pretty much as they have? Think again. A recent article in TechCrunch suggests that the market has reached a tipping point that could affect you. Many non-tech companies acknowledge that success increasingly depends upon how well they leverage technology, and they’re making bold moves to acquire software and other technology companies to strengthen their competitiveness. If you’re in high tech, you should check it out; if you’re in another industry, it’s imperative to learn more.
CEOs are increasingly aware that the technology-based operations of their company are critical to gaining market share and growing revenue. Large companies shop for technology that will make them more competitive. Business combinations that would have seemed baffling in the past are becoming commonplace, for example:
- a chemical and agricultural company bought a weather technology company;
- an auto company bought a music app company;
- an insurance company bought a health data analytics company.
As technology becomes increasingly accessible, astute organizations are leveraging this trend with several key business objectives:
- Erase the hard line between online and brick-and-mortar commerce;
- Deepen interactions with customers;
- Gather and incorporate more data intelligence on their business;
- Add critical technical talent.
If you lead a non-Fortune company, following their lead in making startup acquisitions may be imprudent or impossible. However, frequent conversations with astute CEOs suggests taking three straightforward steps:
- Get an outside audit of current software systems to learn how dependent upon technology your company is and whether it’s time to modernize in order to compete more effectively.
- Talk to thought leaders in your network about how the intersection of business objectives and spending on technology work in your market.
- Recognize that, as each operating division begins to understand how critical technology is to their business, information technology (IT) departments are decentralizing (believe it or not, there was a time when mature companies had a mail and logistics department with an actual mailroom.)
Computing has changed the way every type of business happens. Savvy CEOs understand the value of technology to their businesses and are exploiting it in every functional area.
An astute CEO can often augment organic growth with acquisitions, but a majority of acquisitions fail to deliver expected returns. CEO Carol Koffinke of Beacon Associates says that “60 to 80 percent of all mergers and acquisitions fail to meet their merger goals.” Why do they fail?
Much has been written about acquiring companies’ failure to realize the value they envisioned for their acquisitions and the why’s: a lack of proper due diligence, cultural mismatch, lack of integration planning, unforeseen market factors, etc. However, of all the possible reasons for failure, M&A experts put the lack of a clear vision at the top of the list.
Source: “Creating and Executing a Winning M&A Strategy,” Merrill Data Site and The M&A Advisor, October 2013
While a clear vision can accelerate execution of any growth strategy, successful M&A demands a level of clarity most companies fail to achieve. Why do companies launch into an acquisition without sufficient vision and planning? Here are the most common reasons we’ve encountered in working with top executives:
- Some CEOs don’t naturally think strategically. A CEO who’s risen through the operational ranks can end up with a “make stuff, sell stuff” philosophy and a view that strategy is merely a set of slides for board and investors, while in fact, a clear strategy drives revenue and profitability.
- A CEO can be overwhelmed by the daily pressure of running the business. Periodically answering the question “are you working on or in your business?” can prevent the urgency of daily concerns that distract from the CEO’s paramount responsibility – increasing shareholder value.
- Pressure to make quarterly goals can diffuse and erode the shared view of a company’s purpose. A process called business entropy (e.g., repeatedly accepting non-core business) can eventually dilute the strength of a company’s brand and slow its ability to generate new business.
How can a CEO be more intentional about growing the company through acquisition?
- Find a way to set aside time to think and discuss new directions. In this new social media world, it’s easy to develop a chronic short attention span. Focused thought is required to create breakout strategies.
- Take an honest look to make sure you’re not hanging onto more than you should. How to cross the second chasm, i.e. growing a company from small to big, is described in Doug Tatum’s insightful book, No Man’s Land. Pick up a copy and read it this weekend. (If you think you don’t have time, you need to read it.)
- Discuss growth challenges with objective trusted advisors. Use CEO peers at Vistage and experienced consultants as soundingboards to call out any “elephants in the room.” They will help you establish the clear vision needed to drive your acquisition initiatives.
The word “coopetition” has been around much longer than most people think. I first encountered it when my boss Ray Noorda, Novell CEO, brought it back into use in the early 1990s to describe his insight about the then-emerging market for local area networks (LANs).
Novell was one of a number of companies competing to become the LAN market leader. Ray decided to encourage his competitors to focus on “growing the pie”, i.e. the networking market, rather than continuing to fight for a bigger slice of a small market. We created the Networld trade show (later renamed Networld/Interop) and invited every company related to the networking industry to participate, including our closest competitors. The show rapidly grew to become the largest tech gathering of its time, engulfing Las Vegas for a week every year.
Working in and leading a group of a dozen highly talented people who built partnerships with the largest companies in the industry was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my career. During that time, Novell’s partnership efforts helped it hit a billion dollars in revenue faster than any company to that point. In addition to a network of over 20,000 resellers who depended upon us for a significant share of their revenue, we grew partnerships that aligned leading companies (e.g. CA, Compaq, HP, IBM, Lotus, Oracle) behind our network operating system and encouraged them to develop new solutions for our customers.
Observations made during that time led me a few years ago to coin the term “self-fueling” to describe partnerships carefully constructed to last. Like most useful concepts, the definition of a self-fueling partnership is simple:
“a relationship structured so that positive results for the first party drives it to act in ways that increase positive results for the second party, and vice versa.”
The partnership between ATT and Apple is an excellent example. It lasted several years enabled each to them to capture significant market share. We all owe a debt to the late, great Ray Noorda for pointing the way to self-fueling partnerships by selling the idea of coopetition to the industry.
It’s been three years since the launch of 20/20 Outlook as an advisory service for CEOs, and I’ve been blessed with wonderfully rewarding and interesting experiences along the way. By acting as a sounding board for creative business leaders and helping them get clarity about their purpose, value, and relationships, each one has accelerated the quest to achieve his/her business vision.
Recently, Brad Young came into the 20/20 fold as another trusted CEO advisor, bringing with him a whole new set of gifts and talents. His major focus is on initiatives that complete strategies with flawless execution.
Our client discussions cover every aspect of each business, and we often discuss areas of personal challenge and growth. Similar to traditional executive coaching, building trusted CEO relationships has enabled discussions of their strengths and weaknesses, passions, and even the personal search for meaning and purpose. A side benefit that clients have cited is more effective communication with board members, leading to more productive relationships.
Along the way, a wonderful network of people has evolved around us. Each one has generously supported 20/20’s steady growth with introductions and recommendations, suggestions for new offerings, adoption of 20/20 processes, and partnering to help clients. Because of this network, LinkedIn recently recognized my profile as among the top 1% frequently viewed profiles in 2012.
To our friends and colleagues, thank you for your continuing support!
Entering 2013, we have larger challenges than ever. Economic slowdowns in Europe and projected softening demand in Asia and elsewhere are forcing CEOs to pursue more challenging growth opportunities. This is not an option: we grow or we die.
For many firms, growth has historically come from new products or innovative extensions to existing products. The simple growth strategy where R&D generates a new widget, Marketing promotes it, and Sales introduces it to customers isn’t working that well any more. And even if revenue is growing, profits are often generated at the expense of ever deepening cuts in personnel, core capabilities, and reduced investment in capital and equipment. CEOs are worried that soon they will have to pay the proverbial piper.
M&A alone won’t do it either. While firms can and often should acquire or merge to become more competitive, most M&A data shows that the combined enterprise delivers little increased profitability. At best, results are additive, not multiplicative or geometric. So what’s next? Where can we find that elusive growth?
Leading companies are broadening their definition of growth beyond traditional product-based categories to include more novel growth strategies. For CEOs to take advantage of any of them, they must consider the real impacts on their businesses and determine the capabilities they will need to succeed.
First, creative CEOs need to generate a complete portfolio of growth initiatives that include: geographic expansion and M&A; product-based extensions and positioning; integration or bundling of products and services; marketing-driven initiatives like segmentation and value-pricing; localized delivery through outsourced capabilities; value-driven arrangements like performance guarantees; and IT-based strategies like remote services.
Second, CEOs need to determine how best to apply scarce resources to these initiatives, being especially careful to avoid the trap of over-investing in existing businesses – through both capital and key resource allocation – at the expense of novel and potentially much more profitable strategies. Communicating the necessity of and how best to implement novel strategies to their boards is a critical challenge. Key questions include: “Do I have the right leaders in the current businesses? Can my current team succeed in these new lines of business? Is the plan aggressive enough? Have we achieved the right balance of risk and projected return?”
Finally, only careful analysis will determine whether any of these breakout strategies are appropriate for your firm. Can you get buy-in from all stakeholder groups? Will employees get excited about the new opportunities? Will the board support the initiatives? Can you communicate the new direction effectively to analysts and investors?
In these especially demanding times, CEOs must gain a broader perspective and challenge their internal teams’ assumptions. Make sure that you incorporate external research and insights into your thinking before making the hard calls.
While the latest formula or insight sells business books, most business leaders tend to find their own way, then apply and reapply principles that emerge through their experience.
James Weaver is a serial CEO who’s led multiple companies out of deep holes back to relevance and profitability. He’s one of those gifted CEO’s who quickly finds the right course of action for a failing company and leads the organization to a new and better way to operate.
When I invited him to participate in a book of CEO principles I’m assembling called Shoot the Runt, he suggested a topic immediately. In turning around companies like Gold’s Gym, James developed a mindset and process that encourages everyone in the organization to achieve their highest potential, and he was generous in sharing that process to help the book.
James found repeated success by generating a sense of accountability that drives organizations to new heights of success. Check out the latest CEO/mentor dialog called Mutual Accountability Magic that’s based on the process he’s used successfully multiple times.
The best time to evaluate the direction of your business is while it is thriving. I’m currently rethinking 20/20 Outlook’s strategic positioning, and it’s focused on creating breakout strategies.
What are breakout strategies?
The work “breakout” implies constraints. Most companies fail early, a precious few like Amazon, Google, and Facebook rise meteorically, and the remainder become “established” businesses. These established companies often hit a plateau in their growth, resulting in flattened revenue and profit. At that point, it’s common to find a CEO frustrated by a period of constrained growth and experiencing the “CEO dilemma.”
Breaking out of a growth plateau implies change. Most CEOs are visionary, so it’s their business vision that defines targeted outcomes for the company. The CEO’s vision may point the company toward an inspiring destination, yet without clear strategies, employees may be clueless about how to get there, or even worse, may waste resources by taking conflicting routes.
Maybe the CEO’s vision is unrealistic given a changing market environment that he/she fails to recognize. Maybe good strategies are hampered by bad or non-existent external communication. Maybe the company hasn’t learned to properly leverage relationships with other companies in order to expand their offerings, open new markets, or gain access to a broader prospect base.
In every instance, breakout thinking is needed to create breakout strategies that:
- provide a deep understanding of the market situation,
- develop a clear picture of the competitive landscape, and
- provide credible data on which to base plans
- give a clear rationale for action from which detailed department plans will flow,
- lead the company to an optimal return on investment of its finite resources
- last but not least, create energy and enthusiasm.
Truly visionary CEOs sense when an outside catalyst can challenge the status quo and illuminate new possibilities, then they act decisively to introduce change that leads to breakout strategies.