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.