There’s a widespread meme in American culture that guys are not good at making commitments. While that may be true in romance, it seems that the opposite — premature commitment — is a much bigger problem in business.
That’s the opinion I’ve formed from reading Paul Nutt’s book, Why Decisions Fail. Nutt analyzes 15 debacles which he defines as “… costly decisions that went very wrong and became public…” Indeed, some of the debacles — the Ford Pinto, Nestlé infant formula, Shell Oil’s Brent Spar disposal — not only went public but created firestorms of indignation.
While each debacle had its own special set of circumstances, each also had one common feature: premature commitment. Decision makers were looking for ideas, found one that seemed to work, latched on to it, pursued it, and ignored other equally valid alternatives. Nutt doesn’t use the terminology, but in critical thinking circles this is known as satisficing or temporizing.
Here are two examples from Nutt’s book:
Ohio State University and Big Science — OSU wanted to improve its offerings (and its reputation) in Big Science. At the same time, professors in the university’s astronomy department were campaigning for a new observatory. The university’s administrators latched on to the observatory idea and pursued it, to the exclusion of other ideas. It turns out that Ohio is not a great place to build an observatory. On the other hand, Arizona is. As the idea developed, it became an OSU project to build an observatory in Arizona. Not surprisingly, the Ohio legislature asked why Ohio taxes were being spent in Arizona. It went downhill from there.
EuroDisney — Disney had opened very successful theme parks in Anaheim, Orlando, and Tokyo and sought to replicate their success in Europe. Though they considered some 200 sites, they quickly narrowed the list to the Paris area. Disney executives let it be known that it had always been “Walt’s dream” to build near Paris. Disney pursued the dream rather than closely studying the local situation. For instance, they had generated hotel revenues in their other parks. Why wouldn’t they do the same in Paris? Well… because Paris already had lots of hotel rooms and an excellent public transportation system. So, visitors saw EuroDisney as a day trip, not an overnight destination. Disney officials might have taken fair warning from an early press conference in Paris featuring their CEO, Michael Eisner. He was pelted with French cheese.
In both these cases — and all the other cases cited by Nutt — executives rushed to judgment. As Nutt points out, they then compounded their error by misusing their resources. Instead of using resources to identify and evaluate alternatives, they invested their money and energy in studies designed to justify the alternative they had already selected.
So, what to do? When approaching a major decision, don’t satsifice. Don’t take the first idea that comes along, no matter how attractive it is. Rather, take a step back. (I often do this literally — it does affect your thinking). Ask the bigger question — What’s the best way to improve Big Science at OSU? — rather than the narrower question — What’s the best way to build a telescope?
What strategies don’t work? I had been trying to organize bad strategies into a mental map when I came across an article in The Economist that did the heavy lifting for me. In its own pithy way, The Economist names and shames six strategies that just don’t work. To that, I’ll add a seventh.
Here are The Economist’s six along with my own pithy observations.
The Do-It-All strategy — don’t make the hard product choices. When you find market opportunities, pursue all of them. If you build enough products, something is bound to sell. This is sometimes known as the Food-Fight strategy — throw a bunch of food at the wall and see what sticks.
The Don Quixote strategy — launch a frontal attack on your strongest competitor. Take the fight right to them. It sounds bold — and everybody wants to be bold these days — but it’s well nigh suicidal. Its main advantage compared with the Do-It-All strategy: it’s over quickly. As Sergeant York taught us, don’t fire at the lead goose in the flying wedge. Fire at the last one and work your way forward.
The Waterloo strategy — fight on too many fronts at once. Rather than carving up the battlefield to your advantage, attack multiple enemies at once. That’ll teach ’em. Just like at Waterloo.
The Something-for-Everyone strategy — what’s our target market? Anyone who has money. This is often found in combination with the Do-It-All strategy. We’ve got lots of products, so let’s find lots of customers. One of the strengths of Lawson Software’s strategy is that we were very clear about who we served and who we didn’t. We turned down prospective customers who didn’t fit our profile. We couldn’t serve them successfully without distracting attention from our priority customers.
The Programme-of-the-Month strategy — first it was Pursuit of Excellence, then it was Built to Last, then it was … well, whatever the latest hot business book is. We’re dedicated to pursuing the fashionable strategy of the moment. Better to pick a simple strategy and stick with it.
The Dreams-That-Never-Come-True strategy — ambitious mission statements are never translated into clear choices. At some point, you have to come down out of the clouds and pursue this market (as opposed to that one) with this plan (as opposed to that one). It’s about making choices.
To The Economist Six, I’ll add a seventh:
The Military/Territorial strategy — the market is like a piece of territory that multiple armies are fighting over. There’s only so much territory; it can’t be expanded. If a competing army wins more of it, we will win less of it. It’s a zero sum. We have to stay focused on the competition and counter every maneuver. It’s a popular analogy but a bad one. War is about defeating the enemy. Business is about winning the customer. Focusing on the competition won’t get you there.
As I’ve written before, strategy is about what you don’t do. It’s about making hard choices that allow you to focus on markets or products or customers where you have the greatest chance of success. Forget everything else.