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

 
 

The Right to Win

The position school became a major driver of the resurgence of corporate competitiveness in the West during the 1980s and ’90s. W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne took the position argument to its extreme with Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant (Harvard Business School Press, 2005). Big companies, they advised, should look for new upstart positions themselves, in places where there were no competitors already, breaking out of conventional ways of looking at their industry. The popularity of that approach demonstrated the pressure that business leaders felt to break free of established practices and find a niche that they could dominate with first-mover advantage.

The limits of the position school became evident in the 1990s and 2000s. Although Michael Porter took pains to explain that industry structures can change and can be shaped by the actions of leading companies, he was interpreted as saying that some industries are innately good and others are irredeemably bad. To many corporate leaders in tough businesses, or in highly regulated industries like electric power generation, there was no real advantage to developing distinctive capabilities or facility with execution. Some companies tried to escape by entering new businesses where they had no distinctive capabilities, “blue oceans” where they didn’t know how to swim. These efforts generally failed. And as the 2000s unfolded, companies with enviable market positions, such as Microsoft, also saw their advantage fade when new competitors, such as Google, emerged. This didn’t disprove Porter’s hypothesis, but it gave others an opening to criticize his thinking.

Adaptation and Experimentation

Starting in the 1990s, another group of strategy thinkers provided an alternative to the position and execution schools. This was the idea of strategy as perpetual adaptation, best represented by Henry Mintzberg, professor of management studies at McGill University. In his history The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning: Reconceiving Roles for Planning, Plans, Planners (Free Press, 1994), Mintzberg dismissed the position school (which he called the design school) as formulaic. He acknowledged that execution was important, and much of his work was dedicated to analyzing what managers did in practice, but, like Porter, he felt execution was insufficient for success. His strategic approach centered on finding a more creative, experimental approach to executive decision making.

Thus, instead of analysis and planning, executives in the adaptation school (or, as Mintzberg called it, the learning school) sought to gain the right to win by experimenting with new directions. In Mintzberg’s words, they “let a thousand strategic flowers bloom...[using] an insightful style, to detect the patterns of success in these gardens of strategic flowers, rather than a cerebral style that favors analytical techniques to develop strategies in a hothouse.”

Adaptation has helped many companies; it’s been the source, for example, of the vitality of the Chinese manufacturing industry. It’s also been the most central guiding theme of Tom Peters’s work. The companies applauded by Peters — starting with his seminal business bestseller, In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies (with Robert Waterman; Harper & Row, 1982) — have varied enormously in their industries, approaches, and philosophies, but they all share a willingness to experiment with new ideas and directions, discard those that won’t work, and adjust their efforts to meet new challenges.

But the adaptation school is also seriously limited, because its freewheeling nature tends to lead to incoherence. A multitude of products and services that all have different capability needs and different market positions cannot possibly be brought into sync. The more diverse a company’s efforts become, the more it costs to develop and apply the advantaged capabilities they need. Letting a thousand flowers bloom can lead to a field full of weeds — and to businesses that can’t match the expertise and resources of more focused, coherent competitors.

 
 
 
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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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