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Published: November 23, 2010
 / Winter 2010 / Issue 61

 
 

The Right to Win

Although the execution school would be frequently challenged, it continued to gain influence through the early 1990s — especially after it was adapted by Michael Hammer, an MIT computer science professor, into an approach called “reengineering.” According to Hammer, the right to win went to companies that looked freshly at all their processes, as if redesigning them from scratch. Unfortunately, many companies used reengineering as a launching pad for across-the-board layoffs that left them weaker, and operational excellence couldn’t compete with the exuberance of the high-tech bubble. By the end of the 1990s, execution-based strategy had been largely relegated to the production side of the business.

The idea of building value through managerial methods returned to strategic relevance after the dot-com bubble burst. Its return was symbolized by the business bestseller Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, by strategy expert Ram Charan and then Honeywell CEO Larry Bossidy, a well-known GE alumnus (with Charles Burck; Crown Business, 2002). Many leaders now understood, through experience, both the value of improving execution and its challenges. It generally required major changes in managerial and employee behavior. As BCG strategist George Stalk complained to Walter Kiechel, “That was a lot more difficult than just ‘buying a concept off a shelf.’”

Michael Porter’s Advantage

The other major limit of the execution school was best articulated by HBS professor Michael Porter — probably the most influential thinker on corporate strategy in the institution’s history, and a source of new vitality for the position school. In his early publications, from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, Porter brought positioning to a level of unprecedented sophistication. He recast the turbulence of a company’s business environment into a “value chain” and “five forces” (competitors, customers, suppliers, aspiring entrants, and substitute offerings): two frameworks that could be used to analyze the value potential and competitive intensity of any business.

Then, in his flagship HBR article called “What Is Strategy?” (November/December 1996) Porter pointed out that operational excellence could guarantee competitive advantage for only a limited time. After that, it too would lead to diminishing returns as other companies caught up. (Indeed, most observers believe that Ford, GM, and other Western automobile manufacturers have done exactly that between 1980 and 2010; it may have taken them 30 years, but the quality and resale value of their motor vehicles is, as a whole, rising to meet that of Toyota and Honda.)

To Porter, execution-oriented ideas like reengineering, benchmarking, outsourcing, and change management all had the same strategic limit. They all led to better operations, but ignored the question of which businesses to operate in the first place. Porter argued for picking industries or markets where either overall conditions were favorable — where most companies were relatively weak, suppliers had relatively little clout, and aspiring entrants were few — or where a company could differentiate itself. In “What Is Strategy?” Porter used Southwest Airlines Company as an example of differentiation in a relatively unattractive industry. Southwest’s market power came from the choice not to follow the spoke-and-hub routing model of other airlines, but to offer “a unique and valuable strategic position” — flying only direct routes, with one type of aircraft, using automated ticketing and limited services (for example, no assigned seats). These and other strategic choices allowed the airline to operate a different type of flying business, one that could offer attractive prices and convenience even when compared with travel by bus, train, or car. Sure, operational excellence was involved: Southwest had perfected fast turnarounds and friendly customer service. But the core strategic decision was the pursuit of simplicity through a clear market strategy.

 
 
 
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Resources

Introduction

  1. Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi, The Essential Advantage: How to Win with a Capabilities-Driven Strategy (Harvard Business Press, 2010).
  2. Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi, “The Coherence Premium,” Harvard Business Review, June 2010.

A Landscape of Strategy Concepts

  1. Walter Kiechel, The Lords of Strategy: The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World (Harvard Business Press, 2010).
  2. Walter Kiechel, “Seven Chapters of Strategic Wisdom,” s+b, Spring 2010.
  3. Henry Mintzberg, Bruce Ahlstrand, and Joseph Lampel, Strategy Safari: The Complete Guide through the Wilds of Strategic Management (2nd ed., FT Prentice Hall, 2009).

The Basic Tension in Strategy

  1. Alfred D. Chandler Jr., Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the Industrial Enterprise (MIT Press, 1962).
  2. William P. Barnett, The Red Queen among Organizations: How Competitiveness Evolves (Princeton University Press, 2008).
  3. Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail (HarperBusiness, 2000).
  4. Donald Sull, The Upside of Turbulence: Seizing Opportunity in an Uncertain World (HarperCollins, 2009).
  5. Jim Collins, How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In (HarperCollins, 2009).

The Value of Position

  1. H. Thomas Johnson and Robert S. Kaplan, Relevance Lost: The Rise and Fall of Management Accounting (Harvard Business School Press, 1987).
  2. Art Kleiner, “What Are the Measures That Matter?” s+b, First Quarter 2002 (re: Johnson and Kaplan).
  3. Walter Kiechel, “Seven Chapters of Strategic Wisdom” and The Lords of Strategy (re: Andrews, Ansoff, and Henderson).
  4. Kenneth Andrews, The Concept of Corporate Strategy, (3rd ed., Richard D. Irwin, 1987).
  5. Art Kleiner, The Age of Heretics: A History of the Radical Thinkers Who Reinvented Corporate Management (2nd ed., Jossey-Bass, 2008) (re: Henderson and the aftermath).
  6. Bruce Henderson, “The Development of Business Strategy,” in Carl W. Stern and Michael S. Deimler, eds., The Boston Consulting Group on Strategy: Classic Concepts and New Perspectives (Wiley, 2006).

Execution Strikes Back

  1. Art Kleiner, The Age of Heretics (re: Hayes, Abernathy, and Deming).
  2. Robert H. Hayes and William J. Abernathy, “Managing Our Way to Economic Decline,” Harvard Business Review, July/August 1980.
  3. Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad, Competing for the Future (Harvard Business School Press, 1994).
  4. Art Kleiner, “The Life’s Work of a Thought Leader” (interview with C.K. Prahalad), s+b, August 9, 2010.
  5. Michael Hammer and James Champy, Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution (HarperBusiness, 2003).
  6. Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan, Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done (with Charles Burck; 2002; rev. ed., Crown Business, 2009).
  7. Walter Kiechel, The Lords of Strategy (re: Stalk).

Michael Porter’s Advantage

  1. Walter Kiechel, The Lords of Strategy and “Seven Chapters of Strategic Wisdom” (re: Porter).
  2. Michael E. Porter, Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors (1980; rev. ed., Free Press, 1998).
  3. Michael E. Porter, “What Is Strategy?” Harvard Business Review, November/December 1996.
  4. Michael E. Porter, “The Five Competitive Forces That Shape Strategy,” Harvard Business Review, March/April 1979.
  5. W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant (Harvard Business School Press, 2005).
  6. Henry Mintzberg, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning: Reconceiving Roles for Planning, Plans, Planners (Free Press, 1994).
  7. Art Kleiner, The Age of Heretics, and Walter Kiechel, “Seven Chapters of Strategic Wisdom” (re: Peters).
  8. Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr., In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies (Harper & Row, 1982).
  9. Chris Zook with James Allen, Profit from the Core: Growth Strategy in an Era of Turbulence (Harvard Business School Press, 2001); Profit from the Core: A Return to Growth in Turbulent Times (rev. ed., Harvard Business Press, 2010).
  10. Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi, The Essential Advantage (re: Zook).
 
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