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Pivot in Company Strategy – The Nvidia Example

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After making chips and graphics chips for personal computers for most of the almost-20 years it has been in business, Nvidia has plunged headlong into a new market; that of the mobile chip, the chip that powers tablets and mobile phones.

Why has Nvidia changed its product strategy, and therefore its market strategy, and therefore its company strategy?

Well, because it feels it has to, that’s why. It’s current market is not only slowing dramatically because computer sales are down, it is beset by competitors like AMD and Intel who now include very adequate graphic processors in their standard setup, thereby effectively cutting Nvidia out of the picture in terms of selling an add-on graphic processor to the target PC manufacturer. Nvidia, and more specifically, Nvidia’s CEO, Jen-Hsun Huang, has made a tough decision that staying in their current market will lead to slow, but certain death, and is now striking out for the frontier of mobile chips.

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Saab Turnaround 2011 – The Struggle and the Pain

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In February, I wrote a piece titled “Can Saab Be Turned Around?” in which I pondered the chances of Saab being able to do a herculean amount of work with what little they had to work with, and, in the process, turn themselves around. 

Since that time, Saab has plunged into a financial abyss, been forced to shut down production, and taken on one Chinese investment partner (Hawtie), and then been forced to abandon that deal within two weeks because the Chinese company could not get the required permissions from the Chinese government to do the deal, and then, take on another Chinese business partner (Pangda). 

What bought on the aforementioned sudden fall, you might ask? 

To put it succinctly, the CEO’s rash actions. Saab had been paying all of their suppliers late for months, trying to conserve their cash flow, more or less “stealing from Peter to pay Paul”, which in this instance meant they were trying to put more money into sales, marketing, research and development; the first two things they desperately need to do to get more cash now (by selling some cars), and from the development perspective, they need to get the next generation of the 9-3 moving along, which is their volume model, and which needs an update. 

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Can Saab Be Turned Around?

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There are turnarounds of an average degree of difficulty, and then there are turnarounds that might take a couple of years off of your life.

Bringing Saab, the Swedish automaker, back from near-death, is probably in the latter category.

Just a quick recap, for those unfamiliar with the Saab story:

Saab originally made airplanes (and a subsidiary spun off long ago still does), developed a prototype car in 1949, started selling cars in earnest in the Fifties, entered the U.S. market, and developed what could probably be accurately called a small but fanatical following in America. Saabs were quirky, front-wheel drive when almost nothing else was, extremely safe, very economical, and, last, but hardly least, had design that was truly innovative and different-looking.

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Will Your Business Need A Turnaround Soon?

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Four times in my business career I have answered a telephone and someone else on the other end asked if I could help them turn their business around.

I accepted the challenge each time, and have a success rate of 75%. Three of those businesses were turned around successfully; one was not. Each business was at death’s door by the time the call was made to me. Each person in charge of those businesses waited until the last minute of the last hour before deciding that it was time to “do or die”, that it was finally the right time to accept the wrenching changes that would be necessary to give their respective business a fighting chance at survival.

I don’t wish to belabor the obvious here, but it sure would have been easier to bring back the commercial concerns in question if there had been earlier recognition of problems at those businesses, as well as an earlier willingness to act to fix the problems. Believe me, I would have been happy to come on the scene earlier, be given a set of more manageable problems concerning the health of the business, and, spared the client the experience of living inside the pressure cooker of uncertainty regarding the survival of the company, even if it meant far less billable hours.

But, that’s not how it usually works. Business owners are human beings, and human beings tend to develop inertia and be resistant to change. Business tails off, but it’s not off by a lot, and then it gets a little worse, but, you know, things are still okay, and then things are just okay for quite awhile, until they’re not.

I’m reminded of the passage in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, in which one character asks another, “How did you go bankrupt”?

“Two ways”, the other man says. “Gradually, and then suddenly”.

Yes, that’s how it usually happens. Businesses almost never explode and fail, a la the CFO running off to Bolivia with the company’s working capital, or an ugly public relations fiasco, or the CEO and founder perishing in a plane crash. Nope, most companies that die simply wither away slowly.

Will this happen to your business?

It’s possible; many businesses fold, and disappear under the waves of commerce every year. But, if you’re paying attention to the basics, your chances of sticking around get much, much better.

The basics include, but are not limited to:

•Paying attention to what your competitors are doing – not only does this give you a way to match/exceed their offerings, there might be something they have that you want to emulate.

•Paying attention to market trends – even if you’re not first with the product your customers desire most, a fast second will usually save the day (and sometimes rule the day).

•Being cognizant of overall economic trends – if all you sell is trucks that get 10 mpg and gasoline climbs up to $5 a gallon, there is trouble on the horizon.

•Making it as easy as possible for customers to buy what you’re selling – Example 1: Client had the national distribution rights to a product (machinery) that the target market definitely wants and needs, but the acquisition cost was high and many customers could not afford the one-time expense. The solution was to find a small-ticket lessor that would offer lease financing to prospective buyers on a private-label basis (leasing branded with the client’s name). The client not only moved more product at higher margins, they also made fee income from the leases generated through the arrangement. Example 2: Client that does custom web development wanted to sell website templates of their own design to customers that want a different look than most sites, but do not have the budget for custom work. Unfortunately, many of these prospective customers have little or no technological expertise. The solution was to offer different packages with different degrees of required customer involvement at different price points. There was no “take it or leave it” attitude in terms of the product being offered; in fact, our client offered enough different levels of “do it yourself” packages so that it the average prospect found it highly likely that they would find a package that suited their skill/desire level.

•Conducting regular business strategy sessions – If you’re a very small company, this may seem almost laughable to you, but replacing those conversations you have after hours with your three employees over take-out food with a scheduled strategy session led by someone with experience in business strategy can usually produce better results. And, if you’re a large company, and you’re doing okay in the market, and nothing (product, competitors, size of market, etc.) has changed in five years, there probably doesn’t seem to be a pressing need for business strategy at corporate headquarters, but again, it can prove to be quite valuable to put a day aside and sit in a room with your peers and talk about just where you want the business to go in the next couple of years.

•Always thinking about a strategic alliance – it’s a cold, brutal business environment out there, and having another ally when facing off against your competitors always helps.

•Reviewing your marketing assets on a regular basis – there may be value in data or relationships you already have. I had a client that acquired a much larger, poorly-run competitor in order to get their retail locations and their commercial contracts, and ignored the list of 45,000+ consumer customers that came with the acquisition for over two years, despite the fact that it was a higher margin business that that the client was then trying to build up in a separate business unit. I was told, “They’re not our customers. There are some very unhappy campers in that portfolio”. Meanwhile, good money was being spent to send out direct mail pieces to new prospects.

•Constantly improving your business processes – reducing costs, reducing cycle times, increasing profits and increasing customer satisfaction are all very good things that should be done on an ongoing basis, not just when a crisis is looming.

•Having business financing always available – don’t wait until the moment it starts raining to get an umbrella, have one ready. Establish lines of credit before an emergency situation, not as a result of – the terms will be better, and access to the funding is immediate.

Now, all of this may seem pretty basic to all of you. It is. And, as I noted above, this isn’t even a complete list, there are more basic things businesses should do in order to not need a turnaround specialist in the future. But I think you would be surprised at how many businesses, large and small, ignore the basic blocking and tackling that they should be doing on a daily basis. Lethargy creeps in; the living organism that is the business is fat and happy, and habit takes over in terms of day-to-day activities.

Let this serve as your alarm clock if your business is one of the sleepy ones, and your senior managers are conducting their duties in a soporific trance. I’m happy to come over to your place and help you with a turnaround, but really, I think you would be happier if you didn’t need a turnaround in the first place.

Brendan Moore is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he advises businesses in marketing, sales, front-end operations, and strategy. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com/.

The Four-Funnel Approach — Strategic Planning for Small Businesses

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According to Confucius, “An unpointed arrow never reaches its target.” Yet, how many small business owners don’t do any strategic planning, hoping that floating in the wind will bring them a bulls-eye and success?

Arguably, strategic planning is even more important to many small businesses, including start-ups, technology companies and those in highly-competitive markets, so it’s critical that small business owners create and follow strategic plans. Plus, it’s New Years Day. What better time to start strategic planning for your small business?

Sure, finding a simple way to quickly build a strategic plan is much of the problem. While the Balanced Scorecard is, in many ways, a better strategic planning system, it takes quite a while to develop a strategic plan using Balanced Scorecard and requires training in the methodology to carry out effectively. As a result, the Balanced Scorecard is rarely available to small businesses, who can not afford to hire an expert facilitator for a multi-week endeavor.

Should small business owners simply give up, assuming good strategic planning is out of reach? Of course not. There is an effective way for small businesses to create and executed strategic plans – the Four-Funnel model. While not as good as the Balanced Scorecard, in my opinion, the Four-Funnel approach is simpler, faster and can be done by a business as small as one or two individuals.

In this article, I outline the Four-Funnel model, describe how it can help small businesses to create solid strategic plans.

A Little Four-Funnel Background

I originally encountered the makings of the four-funnel strategic planning approach in business school at RH Smith at the University of Maryland, where Dr. Brad Wheeler (now at Indiana) described a four-funnel approach to problem-solving. In his approach, he drew four funnels on a white board and labeled them, “Identify Problems”, “Prioritize Problems”, “Identify Solutions” and “Select Solutions”. The diagram looked something like this:

Four-Funnel Problem Solving

As you can see, the four funnels represent the increase and decrease of information as you complete each step in the problem-solving process. First, identifying problems gives you a list possible problems; prioritizing those problems reduces the list to only those problems that are most important; identifying solutions gives you a range of solutions for each problem; while selecting solutions again reduces your list to only the best solutions for the most critical problems. In short, there’s really nothing radical about four-funnel problem-solving, but it’s simple and it works.

Fast-forward to our strategic management course (also at RH Smith), where we were expected to use business cases to develop strategic plans in a matter of hours. Certainly, we learned the strategic planning process in depth during the class, but our challenge was to deliver a good plan in a very short period of time, particularly for case competitions. In response, my team and I applied the four-funnel approach, this time to strategic planning:

Four-Funnel Strategic Planning

Since then, I’ve used four-funnel with my own small business more than a half-dozen times, while coaching other small businesses through the process. It only takes a half-day or so to do, so it’s not too much time and effort, considering the big payoff.

Four-Funnel Strategic Planning Steps

Ready to start? Here’s each step:

  1. Identify strategic needs. Using SWOT analysis or a similar technique, write down the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats relevant to your company and your industry. Many of these are easy to identify — a competitor just moved in down the street (Threat), only one staff member knows how to operate a particular machine (Weakness), you just received recognition as the best in your region at what you do (Strength); or, one of your vendors just created a new product and offered you exclusive distribution rights in your area (Opportunity).
  2. Prioritize Strategic Needs. Along with your co-workers you’re bound to come up with some very solid strategic needs, especially if you do a little homework about industry trends before you meet. But, if you stop there and try to achieve all of them, you’ll almost certainly fail. Before you move forward, you need to prioritize your strategic needs, eliminating the ones that are least likely to be successful and produce the least value. I suggest narrowing down your list to four or five strategic needs for your entire business if you have fewer than ten people, and no more than three needs per department (e.g, marketing) if you’re larger.
  3. Identify Strategic Actions. For each high-priority strategic need, brainstorm ways to meet that need or take advantage of that opportunity. Your possible actions don’t need to be long or detailed — a one sentence explanation is enough. And, be sure to give everyone an opportunity to suggest actions — you’ll be surprised when you find that the most innovative marketing ideas don’t necessarily come from your marketing manager or the best technology initiatives don’t come from IT.
  4. Select Strategic Actions. Just as you prioritized strategic needs, you need to do the same for your actions. For each high-priority strategic need, pick one or two of the best actions for you and your business to take during the coming year. Make sure their achievable and affordable – no point in risking your current business on a long shot.
  5. Assign and Act. As a team, assign someone in your business to complete each strategic action. As you do, make certain the person assigned has the authority, knowledge and resources — including funding — to complete the action. If they don’t, you’re merely setting them — and you — up for failure. In addition, be sure to stagger out the deadlines for each strategic action throughout the course of the year. Otherwise, you and your team will spend December rushing around to complete them, learning to hate the strategic planning process rather than appreciate its value.

Does it Work?

It’s not a miracle cure-all, but the four-funnel approach does work. In my experience, businesses who adopted four-funnel strategic planning grew around 20-30% per year, while those same businesses grew at 0-10% before hand.  (My own business grew triple-digits every year but one, so of course I’m a big believer in four-funnel).  As a lawyer would say, that’s not a guarantee of future success, but past results have been good.

When you try the process yourself, you’ll find it takes between four and eight hours for a group of three or four to complete the four-funnel approach, depending upon the size of your business. That’s not much of a time commitment, considering it’s going to benefit your organization for the next year, and beyond.

Give it a try. And, if you like some assistance, contact Cedar Point Consulting and we can help.

Donald Patti is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he advises businesses in project management, process improvement, and small business strategy.  Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

For Successful Business Leaders, Sometimes it’s Right to be Wrong

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One dreary October day in the late 90’s, I sat in my local Fidelity office waiting to shift funds from one account to another, a common practice in an era before online banking and financial services. That fifteen minutes sitting would have remained forever unmemorable, were it not for the fact that I picked up a business magazine sitting on the coffee table next to me and read a brief article on CEO’s and decision-making.

According to the article, researchers studied the decision-making of CEO’s at both successful and unsuccessful businesses, categorizing their strategic decisions along two dimensions — correct/incorrect and fast/slow, as shown in the table below:

CEO Decision-Making Success Fast Slow
Correct    
Incorrect    

As you might surmise from the labels on the table, “correct” was defined as making decisions that accurately gauged the market, adapted to changes in the business environment, and made new expenditures or trimmed costs in ways that helped their businesses to out-perform competitors; “incorrect” decisions were the opposite.  Along the other dimension, “fast” decision-makers were among the first to make a decision–right or wrong–and then act on the decision, while slow decision-makers took their time, often deciding and acting well after the counterparts in their industry.

Not surprisingly, the CEO’s who made fast, correct decisions led the most successful businesses, while the CEO’s who made slow, incorrect decisions were the least successful. However, the second most successful group of CEO’s came as quite a surprise to me, ultimately affecting how I lead and make decisions to this day. It turns out that the second-most successful CEO’s made fast-but-wrong decisions — not the CEO’s who made slow-but-correct ones. The completed table below summarizes this:

CEO Decision-Making Success Fast Slow
Correct 1stMost successful CEO’s 3rdThird-most successful CEO’s
Incorrect 2ndNext most successful CEO’s 4thLeast successful CEO’s

Why were fast-but-incorrect CEO’s the second most successful group? It turns out the slow-moving-yet-correct CEO’s were simply too slow to take advantage of changing business landscape. They waited too long, letting good opportunities slip by and causing their businesses to under-perform. However, the fast-yet-incorrect CEO’s did something that was really not very difficult–they monitored the results of their decisions and, when they determined they were wrong, they corrected their mistakes.

All of this makes thorough, complete analysis and extreme caution – even in the worst of business climates — look like a pretty bad decision-making model.  Sure, we should base our decisions on facts, research and data, weighing the options along with our trusted advisers. But, we shouldn’t wait until the last piece of information finally makes its way to our desk, assuming that having a complete picture is the only way to certain success.  Because if we do, we’ll probably be too late.

(If you’ve read my previous articles, you’ll notice that I’m pretty thorough about citing material appropriately. The article to which I refer needs an appropriate reference, but while I’ve looked and looked, I simply can’t find the original article, published in either Fast Company or Inc Magazine between 1996 and 1998.  Certainly, the publisher and the researchers deserve the credit, so if you know of this article, send me an e-mail and I’ll give credit where it’s due).

Donald Patti is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he advises businesses in project management, process improvement, and small business strategy. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

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