When I was a student in the MBA program at Harvard Business School, Michael Porter was an assistant professor, and not yet famous. In the intervening years, of course, he has become one of the best known business professors in the country, reknowned for his work in the field of strategy.
Porter was the subject of a recent article in HBS Working Knowledge, which highlights a new book from Joan Magretta, titled Understanding Michael Porter: The Essential Guide to Competition and Strategy. Magretta begins her new book by noting that, from the start of his career, Porter has been asking a big question when it comes to understanding everything from the free enterprise system to the individual motivations of managers: Why are some companies more profitable than others?
Magretta’s book distills Porter’s core concepts and frameworks into a concise guide for business practitioners. In this excerpt, Porter discusses common strategy mistakes. Key concepts include:
• One of the biggest mistakes a manager can make is to assume the best results come from competing to be the best. Competing to be unique is a much more effective strategy.
• Other common mistakes include confusing marketing with strategy, overestimating strengths, and misunderstanding the definition of business.
• The worst mistake—but the most common one—is not to have a strategy at all.
Below is an excerpt from the book, an interview between Porter and Magretta.
Joan Magretta: What are the most common strategy mistakes you see?
Michael Porter: The granddaddy of all mistakes is competing to be the best, going down the same path as everybody else and thinking that somehow you can achieve better results. This is a hard race to win. So many managers confuse operational effectiveness with strategy. Another common mistake is confusing marketing with strategy. It’s natural for strategy to arise from a focus on customers and their needs. So in many companies, strategy is built around the value proposition, which is the demand side of the equation. But a robust strategy requires a tailored value chain—it’s about the supply side as well, the unique configuration of activities that delivers value. Strategy links choices on the demand side with the unique choices about the value chain (the supply side). You can’t have competitive advantage without both.
Another mistake is to overestimate strengths. There’s an inward-looking bias in many organizations. You might perceive customer service as a strong area. So that becomes the “strength” on which you attempt to build a strategy. But a real strength for strategy purposes has to be something the company can do better than any of its rivals. And “better” because you are performing different activities than they perform, because you’ve chosen a different configuration than they have.
Another common mistake is getting the definition of the business wrong, or getting the geographic scope wrong. There has been a tendency to define industries broadly, following the influential work of Theodore Levitt some decades ago. His famous example was railroads that failed to see that they were in the transportation business, and so they missed the threat posed by trucks and airfreight. The problem with defining the business as transportation, however, is that railroads are clearly a distinct industry with distinct economics and a separate value chain. Any sound strategy in railroads must take these differences into account. Defining the industry as transportation can be dangerous if it leads managers to conclude that they need to acquire an airfreight company so they can compete in multiple forms of transportation.
Similarly, there has been a tendency to define industries as global when they are national or encompass only groups of neighboring countries. Companies, mindful of the drumbeat about globalization, internationalize without understanding the true economics of their business. The value chain is the principal tool to delineate the geographic boundaries of competition, to determine how local or how global that business is. In a local business, every local area will require a complete and largely separate value chain. At the other extreme, a global industry is one where important activities in the value chain can be shared across all countries.
Reflecting on my experience, however, I’d have to say that the worst mistake—and the most common one—is not having a strategy at all. Most executives think they have a strategy when they really don’t, at least not a strategy that meets any kind of rigorous, economically grounded definition.
Magretta: Why is that? Why do so few companies have really great strategies? What are the biggest obstacles to good strategy?
Porter: I used to think that most strategy problems arose from limited or faulty data, or poor analysis of the industry and competitors. To say it differently, I thought the problem was a failure to understand competition. This surely does happen. But the more I have worked in this field, the more I have come to appreciate the more subtle and more pervasive obstacles to clear strategic thinking and how challenging it is for companies to maintain their strategies over time.
There are so many barriers that distract, deter, and divert managers from making clear strategic choices. Some of the most significant barriers come from the many hidden biases embedded in internal systems, organizational structures, and decision-making processes. It’s often hard, for example, to get the kind of cost information you need to think strategically. Or the company’s incentive system rewards the wrong things. Or human nature makes it really hard to make tradeoffs, or to stick with them. The need for trade-offs is a huge barrier. Most managers hate to make trade-offs; they hate to accept limits. They’d almost always rather try to serve more customers, offer more features. They can’t resist believing that this will lead to more growth and more profit.
I believe that many companies undermine their own strategies. Nobody does it to them. They do it themselves. Their strategies fail from within.
Then there is the host of strategy killers in the external environment. These range from so-called industry experts to regulators and financial analysts. These all tend to push companies toward what I call “competition to be the best”—the analyst who wants every company to look like the current market favorite, the consultant who helps you benchmark yourself against everyone else in the industry, or who pushes the next big thing, such as the notion that you’re supposed to delight and retain every single customer.
Let’s take this last idea as an example. If you listen to every customer and do what they ask you to do, you can’t have a strategy. Like so many ideas that get sold to managers, there is some truth to it, but the nuances get lost. Strategy is not about making every customer happy. When you’ve got your strategist’s hat on, you want to decide which customers and which needs you want to meet. As to the other customers and the other needs, well, you just have to get over the fact that you will disappoint them, because that’s actually a good thing.
I also believe that as capital markets have evolved they have become more and more toxic for strategy. The single-minded pursuit of shareholder value, measured over the short term, has been enormously destructive for strategy and value creation. Managers are chasing the wrong goal.
These are just some of the obstacles. Cumulatively, they add up. Having a strategy in the first place is hard. Maintaining a strategy is even harder.