Tag: Strategy

Lee Kuan Yew’s Rule

Lee Kuan Yew, the “Father of Modern Singapore”, who took a nation from “Third World to First” in his own lifetime, has a simple idea about using theory and philosophy. Here it is: Does it work?

He isn’t throwing away big ideas or theories, or even discounting them per se. They just have to meet the simple, pragmatic standard.

Does it work?

Try it out the next time you study a philosophy, a value, an approach, a theory, an ideology…it doesn’t matter if the source is a great thinker of antiquity or your grandmother. Has it worked? We’ll call this Lee Kuan Yew’s Rule, to make it easy to remember.

Here’s his discussion of it in The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World:

My life is not guided by philosophy or theories. I get things done and leave others to extract the principles from my successful solutions. I do not work on a theory. Instead, I ask: what will make this work? If, after a series of solutions, I find that a certain approach worked, then I try to find out what was the principle behind the solution. So Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, I am not guided by them…I am interested in what works…Presented with the difficulty or major problem or an assortment of conflicting facts, I review what alternatives I have if my proposed solution does not work. I choose a solution which offers a higher probability of success, but if it fails, I have some other way. Never a dead end.

We were not ideologues. We did not believe in theories as such. A theory is an attractive proposition intellectually. What we faced was a real problem of human beings looking for work, to be paid, to buy their food, their clothes, their homes, and to bring their children up…I had read the theories and maybe half believed in them.

But we were sufficiently practical and pragmatic enough not to be cluttered up and inhibited by theories. If a thing works, let us work it, and that eventually evolved into the kind of economy that we have today. Our test was: does it work? Does it bring benefits to the people?…The prevailing theory then was that multinationals were exploiters of cheap labor and cheap raw materials and would suck a country dry…Nobody else wanted to exploit the labor. So why not, if they want to exploit our labor? They are welcome to it…. We were learning how to do a job from them, which we would never have learnt… We were part of the process that disproved the theory of the development economics school, that this was exploitation. We were in no position to be fussy about high-minded principles.

***

Want More? Check out our prior posts on Lee Kuan Yew, or check out the short book of his insights from where this clip came. If you really want to dive deep, check out his wonderful autobiography, the amazing story of Singapore’s climb.

Luck Meets Perseverance: The Creation of IBM’s Competitive Advantage

On Monday October 28, 1929, the stock market took one of the worst single-day tumbles anyone alive might have seen, with the Dow Jones averages falling about 13%. The next day, October 29th, the market dropped yet again, a decline of 12%. By the end of the year, the Dow Jones average was down more than 45% from its high of 381. Market historians are familiar with the rest of the story: The sickening slide would not stop at 45%, but continue until 1932 to reach a low of 41 on the Dow, a decline of about 90% from peak to trough.

American business was in a major Depression. But at least one businessman would decide that, like General Erwin Rommel would say years later, the path was not out, but through.

***

International Business Machines, better known as IBM, was created from the ashes of the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (C-T-R) in 1917 by Thomas J. Watson, who’d learned his business skills at the National Cash Register Company (NCR). Before Watson’s reorganization of C-T-R, the company was basically in three businesses: computing scales (to weigh and compute the cost of a product being weighed), time clocks (to calculate and record wages), and tabulating machines (which used punch cards to add up figures and sort them). Watson’s first act of genius was to recognize that the future of IBM was not going to be time cards or scales, but in helping businesses do their work more effectively and with a lot less labor. He set out to do just that with his tabulating machines.

The problem was, IBM’s products weren’t yet all that different from its competitors’, and the company was small. IBM’s main tabulating product was the Hollerith machine, created by Herman Hollerith in Washington D.C. in 1890 to improve the Census tabulating process, of all things. (It sounds mundane, but he saved the government $5 million and did the work in about 1/8th of the time.) By the late 1910s, the Hollerith machine had a major competitor in the Powers Accounting Company, which had a similar product that was easier to use and more advanced than the Hollerith.

Hollerith_Punched_Card
Hollerith Punch Card

 

HollerithMachine.CHM
Hollerith Machine

 

Watson knew he had to push the research and development of his best product, and he did, hiring bright engineers like Fred Carroll from NCR, who would go on to be known for his Carroll Press, which allowed IBM to mass-produce the punch cards which did the “tabulating” in the pre-electronic days. By the mid-1920s, IBM had the lead. The plan was set in late 1927.

Watson then pointed to where he wanted IBM to go. ”There isn’t any limit for the tabulating business for many years to come,” he said. “We have just scratched the surface in this division. I expect the bulk of increased business to come from the tabulating end, because the potentialities are greater, and we have done so little in the way of developing our machines in this field.”

Underneath that statement lay a number of reasons—other than the thrill of new technology—why Watson zeroed in on the punch card business. When seen together, the reasons clicked like a formula for total domination. IBM would never be able to make sure it was the world leader in scales or time clocks, but it could be certain that it was the absolute lord of data processing.

[…]

Watson had no epiphanies. No voice spoke to him about the future of data processing. He didn’t have a grand vision for turning IBM into a punch card company. He got there little by little, one observation after another, over a period of 10 to 12 years.

(Source: The Maverick and his Machine)

Watson’s logical, one-foot-at-a-time approach was reminiscent of Sir William Osler’s dictum: Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand. And with a strategy of patenting its proprietary punch-cards, making them exclusively usable with IBM tabulators and sorters, IBM was one of the market darlings in the lead-up to 1929. Between 1927 and 1929 alone, IBM rose about four-fold on the back of 20-30% annual growth in its profits.

But it was still a small company with a lot of competition, and the punch card system was notoriously unreliable at times. He had a great system to hook in his customers, but the data processing market was still young — many businesses wouldn’t adopt it. And then came the fall.

***

As the stock market dropped by the day and the Depression got on, the economy itself began to shrink in 1930. GDP went down 8% that year, and then another 7% the following year. Thousands of banks failed and unemployment would eventually test 30%, a figure that itself was misleading; the modern concept of “underemployment” hadn’t been codified, but if it had, it probably would have dwarfed 30%. An architect working as a lowly draftsman had a job, but he’d still fallen on hard times. Everyone had.

Tom Watson’s people wondered what was to become of IBM. If businesses didn’t have money, how could they purchase tabulators and punch cards? Even if it would save them money in the long run, too many businesses had cut their capital spending to the bone. The market for office spending was down 50% in 1930.

Watson’s response was to push. Hard. So hard that he’d take IBM right up to the brink.

IBM could beat the Depression, Watson believed. He reasoned that only 5 percent of business accounting functions were mechanized, leaving a huge market untapped. Surely there was room to keep selling machines, even in difficult times. Watson also reasoned that the need for IBM machines was so great, if businesses put off buying them now, certainly they’d buy them later, when the economy picked up. His logic told him that the pent-up demand would explode when companies decided to buy again. He wanted IBM to be ready to take advantage of that demand.

He’d keep the factories building machines and parts, stockpiling the products in warehouses. In fact, between 1929 and 1932, he increased IBM’s production capacity by one-third.

Watson’s greatest risk was running out of time. If IBM’s revenue dropped off or flattened because of the Depression, the company would still have enough money to keep operating for two years, maybe three. If IBM’s revenue continued to falter past 1933, the burden of running the factories and inventory would threaten IBM’s financial stability.

[…]

Watson’s logic led him to make what looked to outsiders like another insane wager. On January 12, 1932, Watson announced that IBM would spend $1 million—nearly 6 percent of its total annual revenue— to build one of the first corporate research labs. The colonial-style brick structure in Endicott would house all of IBM’s inventors and engineers. Watson played up the symbolism for all it was worth. He would create instead of destroy, despite the economic plague.

(Source: The Maverick and his Machine)

Most companies pulled back, and for good reason. Demand was rapidly shrinking, and IBM’s decision to spend money expanding productive capacity, research, and employment would be suicide if demand didn’t return soon. All of that unused capacity was costly and would go to waste. Watson took an enormous risk, but he also had faith that the American economy would recover its dynamism. If it did, IBM would come out on the other side untouchable.

Somehow, Watson had to stimulate demand. He had to come up with products that companies couldn’t resist, whatever the economic conditions. Again, thanks to Charles Kettering’s influence, Watson believed that R&D would drive sales. (ed: Kettering was chief engineer at General Motors.) So Watson decided to build a lab, pull engineers together, and get them charged up to push the technology forward.

Throughout the 1930s, IBM cranked out new products and innovation, finally getting its technology ahead of Remington Rand or any other potential competitors.

[…]

Within a few years, Watson’s gamble of manufacturing looked disastrous. As IBM pumped increasing amounts of money into operations and growth, revenue from 1929 to 1934 stalled, wavering between $17 million and $19 million a year. IBM edged toward insolvency. In 1932, IBM’s stock price fell to 1921 levels and stayed there—11 years of gains wiped out.

(Source: The Maverick and his Machine)

By 1935, IBM was still stagnating. Watson made the smart move to get out of the money-losing scale business and use the money to keep the remaining businesses afloat, but he was drowning in excess capacity, inventions be damned.

Then IBM got a stroke of luck that it would ride for almost 50 years.

After all of his pushing and all of his investment, after the impossible decision to push IBM to the brink, Tom Watson was rewarded with The Social Security Act of 1935, part of FDR’s New Deal. It was perfect.

No single flourish of a pen had ever created such a gigantic information processing problem. The act established Social Security in America—a national insurance system that required workers to pay into a fund while employed so they could draw payments out of it once they retired, or if a wage-earning spouse died. To make the system work, every business had to track every employee’s hours, wages, and the amount that must be paid to Social Security. The business then had to put those figures in a form that could be reported to the federal government. Then the government had to process all those millions of reports, track the money, and send checks to those who should get them.

Overnight, demand for accounting machines soared. Every business that had them needed them more. An officer for the store chain Woolworth told IBM that keeping records for Social Security was going to cost the company $250,000 a year. Businesses that didn’t have the machines wanted them. The government needed them by the boatload.

Only one company could meet the demand: IBM. It had warehouses full of machines and parts and accessories, and it could immediately make more because its factories were running, finely tuned, and fully staffed. Moreover, IBM had been funding research and introducing new products, so it had better, faster, more reliable machines than Remington Rand or any other company. IBM won the contract to do all of the New Deal’s accounting—the biggest project to date to automate the government…

This period of time became IBM’s slingshot. Revenue jumped from $19 million in 1934 to $21 million in 1935. From there it kept going up: $25 million in 1936, $31 million in 1937. It would climb unabated for the next 45 years. From that moment until the 1980s, IBM would utterly dominate the data processing industry—a record of leadership that was unmatched by any industrial company in history.

(Source: The Maverick and his Machine)

By combining aggressive opportunism and a great deal of luck, IBM was forged in the depths of the Great Depression. Like John D. Rockefeller before him, who bought up refineries during periods of depression in the oil industry, and Warren Buffett after him, who scooped up loads of cheap stocks when the stock market was crumbling in the 1970s, Watson decided that pushing ahead was the only way out.

History certainly didn’t have to go his way — FDR might not have been elected or might not have been able to enact Social Security. Even if he’d done it two years later, IBM still might never have made it.

But Watson’s courage and leadership did open the possibility of serendipitous fortune for IBM if the world didn’t end. Like oxygen combining with fuel to create internal combustion, those elements forged a monstrous competitive advantage when the match was finally lit.

Still Interested? Check out the excellent The Maverick and his Machine by Kevin Maney, where the excerpts above come from.

Culture Eats Strategy: Nucor’s Ken Iverson on Building a Different Kind of Company

Much can be learned about the world by studying business.

***

The problem with most management, leadership, and business books is that many of them harp on the same self-evident points, overconfident in the usefulness of their prescriptions for would-be imitators. They tend to vastly underestimate the role of circumstance, luck, the nature of completion, and the effects of scale, among other things; falling prey to the many delusions described by Phil Rosenzweig in his incredibly important book, The Halo Effect.

The main problem Rosenzweig describes in the book is that attributes we tend to think cause great performance (culture, leadership, etc.) are often just things that are attributed to companies we already know are high-performing. There’s a Halo around everything they do. (Reminding one of the fundamental attribution error.)

How many current high-fliers would ever be described as having a bad culture, or bad leadership? It would be nonsense to say it. Thus, we run into a recursiveness problem. High performing companies have great culture, and great culture is defined as the attributes that cause high performance.

In other words, when you ask someone if Apple has a great corporate culture, they will tell you it does. (And it’s an extremely successful company, so of course it does.)

But when we try to pinpoint which aspects of Apple’s culture make it more successful than its peers, and which would be predictive of success at other companies, we run into a difficult problem.

The Halo Effect tells us that we will find a lot of false positives. The attributes we think are causal of success are the same ones we often deem causal of failure when company performance deteriorates. This is the strategy paradox.

***

Plain Talk, by Ken Iverson, is a memoir of his time running the steel company Nucor. Despite the warning, above this book deserves your attention for a few reasons:

  • Nucor was extremely successful, for a long period, in an industry that provided huge headwinds. There are no magic pills to being successful in steel. It’s generally an awful business.
  • The company did some very unusual things that we see in few other companies, even successful ones.
  • The book was recommended by a very smart friend who runs a very successful business of his own, using similar principles.
  • The author/CEO, Iverson, seems honest about the fact that many of his prescriptions are not new or different. The book is not presented as a panacea.
  • It’s generally good to study outlier success or failure.

A Peculiar Kind of Success

Ken Iverson

Under Iverson, Nucor was an unusual sort of steel company compared to the Carnegie-esque behemoths of the past.

Some of its attributes remind us of companies like Berkshire Hathaway, but Nucor did it very differently. There were few acquisitions. The company was totally focused on steel. Iverson describes some of the peculiarities in the opening of the book (this was written in 1998):

  • Our 7,000 employees are the best paid workers in the industry, yet Nucor has the lowest labor cost per ton of steel produced
  • Nucor is a Fortune 500 company with sales in excess of 3.6 billion, yet we have a total of just 22 people working at our corporate headquarters, and just four layers of management from the CEO to the front-line workers.
  • Nucor operates in a “rust belt” industry that lost one out of two jobs over a 25-year time span, yet Nucor has never laid off an employee or shut down a facility for lack of work, nor have we lost money in any business quarter for more than thirty consecutive years.

That is, of course, a very interesting outcome. Most steel companies were struggling mightily when Nucor came up. Bethlehem Steel almost went bankrupt in the late 70s. (They eventually did.) Foreign competition, rising input costs, rising labor costs, commoditization…steel is about as bad a business as you could invent. Yet in Iverson’s 30+ year reign, Nucor compounded its per-share earnings at a rate of about 17% per annum. There must have been something going on here — he sounds like an outsider.

Let’s focus on a few things that were particularly unusual.

Extreme Decentralization

Nucor believed (and to my knowledge, still believes) strongly in decentralization. The only parallel for 22 people at headquarters in a $4 billion business is probably Berkshire itself. Capital Cities, now part of ABC, might have been another parallel.

In order to achieve that leanness at the top, power must have been pushed down pretty far into the organization. And of course, it was:

Each division operates its one or two plants as an independent enterprise. They procure their own raw materials; craft their own marketing strategies, find their own customers; set their own production quotas; hire, train, and manage their own work force; create and administer their own safety programs…In short, all the important decisions are made right there at the division. And the general manager of the division is accountable for those divisions.

This is scary for most companies. They are not willing to allow local general mangers that kind of control and responsibility. The allure of synergy and the allure of top-down controls are too strong. And once it’s in place, headquarters culture has a way of taking on a life of its own. Take a look at PepsiCo, or General Electric, or any number of corporate beasts in the United States. There is huge, expensive bureaucracy at the top. It is always thus. (Of course, that keeps firms like 3G Capital in business.)

But Iverson was willing to take the tradeoffs:

“We are honest-to-god autonomous,” says Hamilton Lott, general manager of our Vulcraft Division in Florence, South Carolina. “That means we duplicate efforts made in other parts of Nucor. The company might develop the same computer program six times. But, the advantages of local autonomy are so great, we think it’s worth it.”

Any of you who have worked in a modern corporation know how unusual this mentality is. Who would allow the same company to develop the same software six times? Why not increase knowledge sharing and synergies?

Part of the problem is that the tremendous benefits of local autonomy are less immediately tangible than the costs. Berkshire has dealt with this for years. Every time one of Buffett’s subordinates acts up, and it happens pretty darn infrequently by our count, people pipe up and ask why he isn’t imposing more rigid oversight on them. It’s very simple: the long-term benefits of trust-giving have far outweighed the occasional cost of non-compliance.

Call this an “unrecognized simplicity.” Nucor’s corporate overhead expense was so small they didn’t even bother allocating corporate expenses to the divisions. That is rare.

The other under-appreciated value of decentralized control is that great ideas tend to rise from the bottom rather than being dictated by the executives. Iverson claims that many or even most of Nucor’s great innovations came from down in the divisions. The company merely had to be smart enough to harness them.

This has happened elsewhere in Corporate America. Look at McDonald’s. Do you think Ray Kroc invented the Chicken McNugget, the Big Mac, and the Filet ‘o Fish? Do you think he figured out how to keep millions of pounds of potatoes fresh and get them to customers tasting exactly the same every time? No. But franchisees and suppliers did. He just had to be smart enough to help the ideas spread. (Hamburger U, anyone?)

Simple and Precise Strategy

In the book Good Strategy, Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt (highly recommended, and we’ve written about it before), the author is clear that what makes a good strategy is that it’s clear and that it’s precise, a real call to a specific action:

The kernel of a strategy contains three elements: a diagnosis, a guiding policy, and coherent action. The guiding policy specifies the approach to dealing with the obstacles called out in the diagnosis. It is like a signpost, marking the direction forward but not defining the details of the trip. Coherent actions are feasible coordinated policies, resource commitments, and actions designed to carry out the guiding policy.

This is precisely what Iverson did at Nucor:

We don’t clutter the picture with lofty vision statements, ask employees to pursue vague, intermediate objectives like “excellence,” or burden them with complex business strategies. Our competitive strategy is to build manufacturing facilities economically, and to operate them efficiently. Period.

Simple but not easy.

Was the technology that went into developing and implementing this strategy simple? I’m not an expert in metallurgy, but I doubt it. The modern steel company is quite efficient and quite advanced. Nucor made major strides like the mini-mill and thin-slab casting of flat-rolled steel. Whether that kind of technology would have been given a chance to succeed in a different culture is hard to say.  We can’t re-run history but Nucor’s purposeful drive seems to have fostered the right environment.

 

Remove Unnecessary Hierarchy

Ultimately, it’s hard to build a great, supportive, seamless web of deserved trust if the executives are consistently treated as “above the fray” – subject to a different level of treatment than the rank and file. This is the way it is in most organizations.

The results tend to be predictable. Envy, plus a violation of basic Kantian fairness tendency, will create a lot of hatred. You can’t put the managers and the executives in first class and stick the associates in coach and expect anything but resentment. It’s basic human nature, driven by biology. Nucor was smart enough to avoid this folly:

Our executives get the same group insurance, same holidays, and same vacations as everybody else. They eat lunch in the same cafeterias. They fly economy class on regular commercial flights (although we do allow the use of frequent flyer upgrades). We have no executive suites and no executive cars. At headquarters, our “corporate dining room” is the deli across the street.

Our executives wouldn’t have it any other way. They see our egalitarian culture serving their interests as much as the interests of our employees. For one thing, our mangers don’t have to waste time fretting over their chances to get the fancy corner office or arguing over who gets to use the company plane. We don’t have those perks, and we imagine they would cause a lot more stress than fulfillment. What a bunch of nonsense! Chasing meaningless status symbols and tokens of power…

Nucor had essentially four promotions available: Supervisor, Department Manager, General Manger, and Chairman (Iverson himself). That’s it. I can imagine that over all those years of growth, more than one consultant tried to get Iverson to create a whole lot of bureaucracy, but he wisely resisted. The costs (such as the mathematically unavoidable large spans of control due to fewer managers in the system) were once again greatly outweighed by the benefits. Another unrecognized simplicity.

And when it came time for pay cuts, everyone shared in the pain. What a simple, yet generally unused concept:

Why, then, would workers who had endured deep cuts in pay and who had every reason to fear for their futures reach out to share a laugh with a manager passing through a mill? Simple. No employee was being asked to carry more than his or her part of the burden.

You see, their department heads had taken pay cuts of up to 40 percent, and the general managers and other officers of the company were earning 50-60 percent less than we had made in preceding years. My own pay dropped that year to about $110,000, from about $450,000 the year before. We not only shared the pain, but doled out the lion’s share to the people at the top.

Think about what an inversion that is of most organizations, where the CEO takes a minor cut in pay (or worse, no cut) and hundreds of low-level employees simply lose their jobs. Wouldn’t most places work better with Nucor’s ethos? The fact that they did this in the highly cyclical steel business gives some tailwind to the idea. It wasn’t a story like Google, where constant success has allowed them to pamper employees financially and otherwise. Nucor managed to avoid layoffs and share in the pain in a business that, by necessity, is constantly offering pain to share.

A Postscript on the Post-Iverson Era; Implications for Investors 

In the final analysis, Nucor probably didn’t have any core attributes that were unavailable to its competitors. It simply made better choices and was more fanatical about sticking to them. The resulting success was deserved. This is why culture eats strategy.

But the postscript to the Iverson era has been interesting, at least from the perspective of the passive investor. Nucor was a brilliant investment in Iverson’s time as manager, but if you’d bought the stock in the early 90s when Iverson left the CEO post, your results would have been pretty mediocre since. Can we see why? Let’s deduce a few reasons.

  • Partially, the stock was fairly rich at that time – trading for something like 40x price/earnings. That’s high even for a good industrial company. It’s not so high now. But their fundamental performance has not been nearly as impressive either, in the time since Iverson left, especially in the last five or six years.
  • Partially, the effects of compound interest have served to slow down an increasingly large corporation. Nucor is now a giant in the steel business. They started off as a tadpole. If the company’s net earnings had continued to grow at 17% per annum, they would currently be earning $4 billion a year, versus a little over $120 million in 1993. There’s only so much profit available in steel.
  • Is there a tinge of Halo Effect here, as described at the beginning of the piece? Perhaps. Iverson would be the first to say his prescriptions were not that ground-breaking. I tend to think some of the attributes above did contribute greatly to its unusual success, but more of the success may have been situational and strategy driven than Iverson recognized.
  • Even more important might be to recognize that the steel business always was a fundamentally hard one, and even the best ships might struggle on a stormy enough ocean. Iverson and his team rowed very hard and successfully for many years, and that has continued to this day. Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt in 2001 and Nucor made money that year. U.S. Steel has been bleeding red ink for years and Nucor, although less profitable than it once was, has still made money. But the ocean current is what it is.

So even if Nucor has been better than most of its competitors in the last ten or twenty years, and I suspect it has, an investor would have had to ask him or herself: Do I want to be in the steel business at all? As Buffett used to say, something not worth doing well is often not worth doing at all.

Regardless, the lessons from Plain Talk show that the roads less traveled can be worth exploring. They’re not that complicated. But they work.

The Books That Influenced C. Roland Christensen

C. Roland Christensen
I thought C Roland Christensen’s response in The Harvard Guide to Influential Books: 113 Distinguished Harvard Professors Discuss the Books That Have Helped to Shape Their Thinking was one of the more interesting. Christensen was a pioneer in the field of business strategy. We can also thank him for reviving the case method from the ancient Greeks.

In the preface to his response, he writes:

Here are the books—all old, dog-eared, reread and reread, little (no big fat volumes), most committed to memory—of my five-inch bookshelf. But they miss the greatest influence on this educator—Miss Adams, a seventh-grade teacher in Iowa City, Iowa. She introduced me to poetry, where the ultimate wisdom —the philosophy of life—is found. The first step in the development of an anthology was our study of “Miniver Cheevey” by Edwin Arlington Robinson. It is still exciting fifty-four years after that original encounter.

What Is History? by Edward H. Carr

Carr’s little book has a magnificent message—to live we must understand our historical roots. Carr gives us a way of
understanding the past so as to predict the future.

Can Man Be Modified? Jean Rostand

Rostand, a biologist, views man in a very human way, examines how science is impacting that basic humanness and then teases us with what he/she will be in future centuries.

How to Run a Bassoon Factory, or Business Explained by Mark Spade

Spade tickles the mind; with tongue in cheek, he describes business so that one laughs—even roars—at his chosen vocation.

The Insect World by J. Henri Fabre

Fabre looks at the smallest and lowest—insects—and shows us their great abilities—even wisdom. A constant reminder to look at the ordinary to see the extraordinary.

The Art of Scientific Investigation by William I. Beveridge

For the investigator, this little book is a gold mine of reflection and practical suggestion. He brings the power of scientific discipline to bear on everyday life.

Power Without Property by Adolph A. Berle, Jr.

The book raises fundamental questions about modern business organization and ownership. It outlines the quiet revolution which has changed the power bases of our industrial society.

Follow your curiosity, for more in this series check out the books that influenced E. O. Wilson, B. F. Skinner, Thomas C. Shelling, Michael J. Sandel, Jerome Kagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and John Kenneth Galbraith.

Six Strategy Traps

Strategy could be the most over-used word since leadership. How many strategies can one organization have? A lot of people say “strategy” when they really mean goal or objective. This is a strategy trap.

Strategy Traps

One of the best books on Strategy is Roger Martin and A. G. Lafley’s Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works.

In this excerpt they comment on the signals that a company has a worrisome strategy.

There is no perfect strategy—no algorithm that can guarantee sustainable competitive advantage in a given industry or business. But there are signals that a company has a particularly worrisome strategy. Here are six of the most common strategy traps:

  1. The do-it-all strategy: failing to make choices, and making everything a priority. Remember, strategy is choice.
  2. The Don Quixote strategy: attacking competitive “walled cities” or taking on the strongest competitor first, head-to-head. Remember, where to play is your choice. Pick somewhere you can have a chance to win.
  3. The Waterloo strategy: starting wars on multiple fronts with multiple competitors at the same time. No company can do everything well. If you try to do so, you will do everything weakly.
  4. The something-for-everyone strategy: attempting to capture all consumer or channel or geographic or category segments at once. Remember, to create real value, you have to choose to serve some constituents really well and not worry about the others.
  5. The dreams-that-never-come-true strategy: developing high-level aspirations and mission statements that never get translated into concrete where-to-play and how-to-win choices, core capabilities, and management systems. Remember that aspirations are not strategy. Strategy is the answer to all five questions in the choice cascade.
  6. The program-of-the-month strategy: settling for generic industry strategies, in which all competitors are chasing the same customers, geographies, and segments in the same way. The choice cascade and activity system that supports these choices should be distinctive. The more your choices look like those of your competitors, the less likely you will ever win.

These are strategic traps to be aware of as you craft a strategy.

Playing to Win is right up there with Good Strategy Bad Strategy on my list of must reads for anyone seeking an understanding of strategy as it relates to business.

Avoiding Stupidity is Easier than Seeking Brilliance

Avoiding Stupidity is Easier than Seeking Brilliance

Simon Ramo, a scientist and statistician, wrote a fascinating little book that few people have bothered to read: Extraordinary Tennis Ordinary Players.

The book isn’t fascinating because I love tennis. I don’t. However, in the book Ramo identifies the crucial difference between the Winner’s Game and a Loser’s Game.

Ramo believed that tennis could be subdivided into two games: the professionals and the rest of us.

The game looks the same from the outside. Players play by the same rules and scoring. They play on the same court. Sometimes they share the same equipment. In short, the basic elements of the game are the same.

Sometimes amateurs believe they are professionals but professionals never believe they are amateurs. Professionals know they are not playing the same game as amateurs.

Winning or Losing Points

Professionals win points whereas amateurs lose them.

In a professional game, each player, nearly equal in skill, plays a nearly perfect game rallying back and forth until one player hits the ball just beyond the reach of his opponent. This is about positioning, control, spin. It’s a game of inches and sometimes centimeters. This is not how amateurs play.

In his 1975 essay, The Loser’s Game, Charles Ellis calls professional tennis a “Winner’s Game.” While there is some degree of skill and luck involved, the game is generally determined by the actions of the winner.

Amateur tennis is an entirely different game. Not in how it is played or the rules but, rather, in how it’s won. Long and powerful rallies are generally a thing of the past. Mistakes are frequent. Balls are constantly hit into nets or out of bounds. Double faults are nearly as common as faults.

The amateur duffer seldom beats his opponent, but he beats himself all the time. The victor in this game of tennis gets a higher score than the opponent, but he gets that higher score because his opponent is losing even more points.

Losing Less

Ramo found this out because he gave up trying to keep track of conventional scores — “Love,” “Fifteen All,” etc. Instead, he simply looked at points won versus points lost.

In expert tennis, about 80 per cent of the points are won; in amateur tennis, about 80 per cent of the points are lost. In other words, professional tennis is a Winner’s Game – the final outcome is determined by the activities of the winner – and amateur tennis is a Loser’s Game – the final outcome is determined by the activities of the loser. The two games are, in their fundamental characteristic, not at all the same. They are opposites.

After discovering that there are, in effect, two different games and realizing that a generic strategy will not work for both games he devised a clever strategy by which ordinary players can win by losing less and letting the opponent defeat themselves.

… if you choose to win at tennis – as opposed to having a good time – the strategy for winning is to avoid mistakes. The way to avoid mistakes is to be conservative and keep the ball in play, letting the other fellow have plenty of room in which to blunder his way to defeat, because he, being an amateur will play a losing game and not know it.

If you’re an amateur your focus should be on avoiding stupidity, not seeking brilliance.

Investors Bet on Someone Else’s Game

This brings to memory something about Warren Buffett and Ben Graham.

Buffett used to convene a group of people called the “Buffett Group.” At one such meeting Benjamin Graham, Warren Buffett’s mentor and teacher, gave them all a quiz. I spent hours searching for this reference, which comes from Benjamin Graham on Value Investing: Lessons from the Dean of Wall Street.

“He gave us a quiz,” Buffett said, “A true-false quiz. And there were all these guys who were very smart. He told us ahead of time that half were true and half were false. There were 20 questions. Most of us got less than 10 right. If we’d marked every one true or every one false, we would have gotten 10 right.”

Graham made up the deceptively simple historical puzzler himself, Buffett explained. “It was to illustrate a point, that the smart fellow kind of rigs the game. It was 1968, when all this phoney accounting was going on. You’d think you could profit from it by riding along on the coattails, but (the quiz) was to illustrate that if you tried to play the other guy’s game, it was not easy to do.

“Roy Tolles got the highest score, I remember that,” Buffett chuckled. “We had a great time. We decided to keep doing it.”

Avoiding Stupidity is Easier Than Seeking Brilliance

The point is that most of us are amateurs but we refuse to believe it.

This is a problem because we’re often playing the game of the professionals. What we should do in this case, when we’re the amateur, is to invert the problem. Rather than trying to win, we should avoid losing.

This was a point Charlie Munger, the billionaire business partner of Warren Buffett, made a long time ago.

In a letter to Wesco Shareholders, where he was at the time Chairman (and found in the excellent Damn Right!: Behind the Scenes with Berkshire Hathaway Billionaire Charlie Munger), Munger writes:

Wesco continues to try more to profit from always remembering the obvious than from grasping the esoteric. … It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent. There must be some wisdom in the folk saying, `It’s the strong swimmers who drown.’

And there is so much wisdom embedded in that quote that I’ve printed it out and attached it to my wall.