3 Strategies for Overcoming the Threat of Disruption

The fact that the average lifespan of companies is shortening, having gone from roughly 61 years in 1958 to 25 years in 1980 to just 18 years in 2011, is evidence that the global business sphere is indeed changing faster than ever. Not only is competition getting more intense, but disruption can now come in the most unexpected of ways and from the most unexpected of places.

In this environment, operational excellence has become an imperative for business rather than a competitive advantage. The ability to rapidly adapt to a change in circumstances is what really sets companies apart today.

“Companies should not fight disruptive ideas, but try them out on a small scale to see if they work.”

Consequently, chief executives need to deliver more than quality control, cost control and continuous improvement. They need not only to manage the continuous threat of disruption and ride the waves of change, but to overcome them, rather than be overwhelmed by them.

Here are 3 ways chief executives can out-fight the disruption beast.

1. Reinvent your company, don’t just optimize it. As Theodore Levitt explained in his classic “Marketing Myopia”, one of the reasons for the decline of the railroad companies in the U.S. was that they saw themselves as railroad companies rather than as transportation companies. This led them to a focus on optimizing their companies, while the entire railroad business model was being outflanked by newer means of transportation: car, trucks and airplanes. So define your business on the basis of the customer need you are trying to meet, not the product or service you are currently offering.

2. Disrupt your own business. As Arie de Geus documented in his “The Living Company”, one of the keys to corporate longevity is a willingness to trying out new things. Using what essentially is a lean approach, companies should not fight disruptive ideas, new ways of meeting the customer need, but try them out on a small scale, see if they work, and take things from there. (I would recommend undertaking such activities in isolation from the core business. Let it be done by different people and house them in a different building. As Kodak experienced when it came to the digital camera business too late, new ideas have a habit of not developing well or soon enough when surrounded by those they could potentially disrupt.)

3. Manage your company as a “portfolio of opportunities”. This includes moving away from the traditional, linear strategy process. Strategic planning should not be about identifying the most likely future, but the range of possible futures, including extremes. (Often it is the extremes where your competition makes advancements, so it’s critical to keep informed about these.) Strategy formulation discussions should then be about how your company could best position itself, and which business to give prominence in each of these futures. Final commitment of resources should be delayed as long as possible and, thus, made part of strategy execution, when you know how the market is really changing. This enables you to optimize utilization of the resources of your company whatever the future turns out to be.

GE is an excellent example of how this is done in practice. It recently launched “Current”, bringing together its various businesses of relevance to Renewable Energy – LED, Solar, Energy Storage, Electric Vehicle and Predix, its predictive analytics technology. It had been developing and trying these technologies for years, and now feels the time is right to push them forward and make them a focus for the company.


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