Achieving Sustainable Competitive Advantage

Today, businesses are operating in an intensely competitive environment. New products and markets are continuously being created disrupting the traditional offerings. To succeed in this environment, your business needs to shake up the status quo and avoid competing in exactly the same way as your rivals.

When it comes to competitive advantage in business, it is critical to understand that advantage over rivals is rooted in differences. Of course, no one has advantage at everything, but what is important is for the business leaders to be able to identify key asymmetries that are capable of being converted into superior advantages.

Is competitive advantage sustainable?

Your business has a competitive advantage if you’re able to produce products at a lower cost than can competitors, or deliver more perceived value than can competitors, or a mix of the two.

However, you need to understand that your product costs differ with the product and application. Your customers are geographically dispersed, have different knowledge, varying tastes and other characteristics. As a result of these subtleties, you will realize that most advantages will extend only so far.

Thus, many at times, the advantage is only on certain products and/or services and among only a specific group of customers. The group’s earning potential and desire for a unique shopping experience determines the level of value placed on your company’s products and/or services.

With customer behaviors constantly shifting, competing on price alone is no longer sufficient. Today’s customers are looking far beyond lower prices, they want value for money and an unforgettable user experience. In many industries, technology has reduced or removed market entry costs and other barriers.

Your business might be able to achieve cost leadership but how is this reflecting on your margins? Take IKEA for example, one might argue that they are doing well with a cost leadership strategy. Fair enough. But if you look closer, the company has managed to combine all three of Michael Porter’s generic strategies to deliver its value proposition and unique customer shopping experiences.

These capabilities have been honed and improved on by IKEA over the years and are very difficult for a small start-up to copy as is. A small start-up lacks the investments needed to develop the market and capabilities to achieve efficient processing and economies of scale, thus preventing him from achieving equivalent costs.

Just as in IKEA’s example above, for your competitive advantage to be sustainable, your competitors must not be in a position to easily duplicate it, or they must not be able to duplicate the resources underlying it. This kind of unique offer demands your high level creativity and the ability to imagine differences that are possible and even those that are not currently possible.

These differences must not only be unique to your own eyes, but must also be valued by the customer enough to pay for that difference.

Some differences are not attractive enough to justify the additional cost of delivering them. Instead of being appreciated by the marketplace, they are viewed a negative attribute of the offering. In long run, the company ends up losing stupendous amounts of money because it is now trying to change the minds of customers, with no certainty of success.

Isolating Mechanisms

The concept of “Isolating Mechanisms” is borrowed from biology and describes the reproductive characteristics which prevents species from fusing. Applied to business strategy, this describes unique characteristics that prevent competitors from entering your marketplace and dethroning you.

Possessing these characteristics is key to sustaining your competitive advantage. Examples of isolating mechanisms include reputations, brand names, commercial and social relationships, tacit knowledge, network effects, skills gained through knowledge, significant economies of scale and complementary services.

Isolating mechanisms enable us to shift our focus from competing on price alone and find unique ways of increasing value. Today’s competition is very intense, and by providing more value to our customers we avoid being commodities.

How do we create value?

Having an edge over customers is not the same as achieving higher profitability. Think of Uber, the ride-sharing company. The company disrupted the taxi industry with its advanced technology and applications, making a name for itself. However, although the company has been taking in more revenues, it has also been losing money like crazy.

The relationship between wealth and competitive advantage is dynamic. In other words, wealth increases when competitive advantage increases or when the demand for the resources underlying it increases. That’s why it is critical to understand all the sources of your competitive advantage.

How many times have you come across statements that read, “We are the best in the world, We are the leaders, We are number one.” If you’re one of the organizations using these rhetoric, can you easily back your statements with facts? It is one thing to say you will be the best in the world in a certain industry, it’s quite another to explain how this is reflected in costs, differentiation and focus.

It is therefore important that your strategy clearly articulates how your overall intentions are translated into competitive advantage. Advantage over rivals only becomes more valuable if the number of customers grows and/or the quantity demanded by each customer also grows.

Increased demand will lead to an improvement in long-term profits only if the business is in possession of scarce resources that enable it to create a sustainable advantage.

1. Continuously Improve

What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. We are living in an ever-changing world where change is no longer a nice-to-have but a must. There is no guarantee that your current value proposition will continue to deliver stellar performance.

You therefore need to deepen your advantage and widen the gap between your customer’s value and cost. Many businesses are comfortable with the status quo and the way things are currently being done. The assumption is that everyone knows what they are doing. This is a very dangerous way of running the business.

Time and again, you must re-examine each aspect of your products, processes and details of how value is delivered, not just from cost controls or incentives (financial) point of view but also from the stakeholder (non-financial) point of view.

Are you carefully studying their attitudes, decisions and feelings?How strong are the isolating mechanisms surrounding key value delivery methods?

Having answers to the above questions will help you anticipate and prepare for problems before they occur.

2. Broaden the extent of advantage 

There is always a part of the market that is currently not being served and needs exploiting. Sometimes, in order to create value you don’t have to compete in exactly the same market as your current competitors.

Extending an existing competitive advantage brings your company into new fields and new competitors. What are the special skills and resources that are underlying your current advantage? Can you build on these existing strengths?

The challenge for many leaders is that when looking at their company’s capabilities, they do so only at face value or generalizations. The real danger in this is that they end up diversifying into products, markets and processes they know nothing about, or have limited knowledge of. After venturing into these new avenues and performing dismally, they wonder why this is the case.

To successfully extend your advantage, you need adequate knowledge and know-how of your new territories. Failure to have this important information at your disposal is a recipe for disastrous consequences.

You should not expect to take existing products to non-traditional customers, or create new products for existing customers, or create new products for new customers and expect overnight success if you have not first done your homework and defined the value proposition all these customers are seeking.

3. Strengthen your isolating mechanisms 

As mentioned earlier on, isolating mechanisms prevent rivals from replicating your products or service offerings, or the resources driving your advantage.

Now that you have identified and defined characteristics that are essential for your business to increase value and succeed, you need not rest on your laurels, but rather, create new ones and/or strengthen existing ones. The aim is to have as much little imitative competition as possible and have increased value flow to your business.

Depending on the nature of your business and industry, you need to locate that set of competitive advantages that allows you first to survive and then to thrive. For instance, in tech-related industries, having stronger patents, brand-name protections and copyrights works best. In other industries where the collective knowledge of groups drives performance, strengthening this isolating mechanism depends on turnover rates.

Another broad approach to strengthening isolating mechanisms is to have a moving target for imitators. This approach ensures you are always steps ahead of your competitors. By the time your rivals figure out how to replicate much of your proprietary know-how and other specialized resources it would be too late for them.

Continuously improving your products, services, processes, systems, proprietary knowledge etc. makes it very difficult for rivals to imitate and catch up with you.

Remember, no one has advantage at everything. Chances are that your rivals are already trying to differentiate and are doing it better. Don’t lose heart. As the old saying reads, “Do not put all your eggs in one basket.” That is, do not be over reliant on any one attempt to gain a single competitive advantage.

Press where you have advantages, side-step situations in which you do not have and exploit your competitors’ weaknesses and avoid leading with your own. Obstacles will always be there but you need to be adaptable so that you can react to setbacks without losing your business. It is all about where to play and how to win.

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Leading in Uncertain Times

One of the biggest challenges facing business leaders today is making the right decisions that will ensure their organizations succeed, survive, and remain competitive in an increasingly uncertain and complex environment.

A recent post, The best way to lead in uncertain times may be to throw out the playbook, by Strategy+Business has several good points.

The article is about the COVID-19 pandemic, how global companies navigated through the crisis, and how best to prepare for future disruptions. Here are some key points and my comments.

  • Rather than follow a rigid blueprint, executives must help organizations focus on sensing and responding to unpredictable market conditions.
    • Comment: Senior leaders play a vital role in providing clarity about the organization’s strategic direction, creating alignment on key priorities to ensure the achievement of enterprise objectives, and ensuring the business model is continuously evolving to create and capture value in the face of uncertainty. They must not rest on their laurels and stick to the beliefs and paradigms that got them to where they are today and hope they will carry them through tomorrow. Regulatory changes, new products, competition, markets, technologies, and shifts in customer behavior are upending many outdated assumptions about business success. Thus, the businesses you have today are different from the ones you will need in the future hence the importance of continuously sensing changes in the global economy. Employees and teams often feed off the energy of their leaders and tend to focus their attention where the leader focuses attention. If the leader is comfortable with current business practices and rarely embraces the future or challenges the status quo, then the team is highly likely to follow suit.
  • When it became clear that supply chains and other operations would fracture, organizations began scenario planning to shift production sources, relocate employees, and secure key supplies.
    • Comment: Instead of using scenario planning to anticipate the future and prepare for different outcomes, it seems most of the surveyed organizations used scenario planning as a reactionary tool. Don’t wait for a crisis or a shift in the market to start thinking about the future. The world is always changing. As I wrote in The Resilient Organization, acknowledge that the future is a range of possible outcomes, learn and develop capabilities to map out multiple future scenarios, develop an optimal strategy for each of those scenarios, then continually test the effectiveness of these strategies. This does not necessarily mean that every change in the market will impact your business. Identify early warnings of what might be important and pay closer attention to those signals. In other words, learn to separate the signals from the noise.
  • The pandemic forced the organization’s senior management team to re-examine how all decisions were made.
    • Comment: Bureaucracy has for a very long time stood in the way of innovation and agility. To remain innovative and adapt quickly in a fast-changing world, the organization must have nimble leadership and an empowered workforce where employees at all levels can dream up new ideas and bring them to life. Identifying and acting on emerging threats and potential opportunities is not the job of the leader alone but every team member. To quote Rita McGrath, in her book Seeing Around Corners, she writes, “Being able to detect weak signals that things are changing requires more eyes and ears throughout the organization. The critical information that informs decision-making is often locked in individual brains.” In addition to the internal environment, the leader must also connect with the external environment (customers, competitors, regulators, and other stakeholders), looking for what is changing and how.
  • It’s worthwhile for leaders of any team to absorb the lessons of sense-respond-adapt, even if there is no emergency at hand.
  • Sensing: Treat the far-flung parts of your enterprise as listening stations. The question leaders must ask is, “What are we learning from our interactions beyond the usual information about costs and sales?” Train your people to listen for potentially significant anomalies and ensure that important information is not trapped in organizational silos.
    • Comment: Cost and sales data are lagging indicators that reveal the consequences or outcomes of past activities and decisions. Although this information can help leaders spot trends by looking at patterns over time, it doesn’t help understand the future and inform what needs to be done for the numbers to tell a different story. In addition to lagging indicators, pay attention to current and leading indicators and understand the relationship between these indicators and outcomes.
  • Responding: Improve communication across intra- and inter-organizational boundaries. Leaders should view business continuity as an essential function that acts as connective tissue for the enterprise.
    • Comment: In addition to creating mechanisms that allow the free flow of information both inside and outside the organization, decision-makers should also be comfortable receiving information that challenges their personal view of the world, even if it’s not what they want to hear. Create a culture of psychological safety where people are not afraid to share bad news for fear of getting punished, but rather are acknowledged and rewarded for speaking up. Leveraging the diversity of thought enables leaders to anticipate the future as an organization, decide what to do about it collectively, and then mobilize the organization to do what’s necessary.
  • Adapting: Challenge assumptions, and question orthodoxies. There’s always the temptation to mitigate threats simply by applying existing practices harder and faster. One way to get at those deeper issues and encourage double-loop learning is to ask, “What needs to be true for this to be the right approach?”
    • Comment: In an increasingly uncertain environment, it’s difficult to survive and thrive with an old business model or outdated technologies. Many businesses fail because they continue doing the same thing for too long, and they don’t respond quickly enough and effectively when conditions change. As a leader, stay curious and connected to the external environment, look for market shifts, understand what needs to be regularly refreshed and reimagined, adopt new technologies and capabilities, and adapt in ordinary times but also during times of transition. Unfortunately for many leaders, it’s just more convenient for them to continually downplay the fact that conditions are changing than take the appropriate course of action that drives business success.

How are you preparing your organization for potential future disruptions?

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The Collaborative Organization

These days the term collaboration has become synonymous with organizational culture, creativity, innovation, increased productivity, and success.

Let’s look at the COVID-19 pandemic as an example. At the peak of the crisis, several companies instructed their workers to adopt remote working as a health and safety precautionary measure.

Two years into the pandemic, they are now asking their employees back to the office full time or are planning to adopt a hybrid model.

The need to preserve our collaborative culture and accelerate innovation are two of the top benefits being cited by organizational and team leaders for bringing workers back.

Collaboration is indeed essential for the achievement of team goals, functional objectives, and the overall success of the organization.

Today’s breakthrough innovations are emerging from many interacting teams and collaborative relationships.

When teams, functions, and organizations collaborate, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; group genius emerges, and creativity unfolds.

But, what makes a successful collaboration? What are the key enabling conditions?

  • It extends beyond the boundaries of the organization. Business success is a function of internal and external relationships. Instead of viewing your business in vacuo, understand that you are part of an ecosystem. External to your organization, who do you need to partner with to enhance your value creation processes, achieve/exceed your objectives, or successfully execute your strategy?
  • Ensure the objectives are clear and there is shared understanding by everyone. Unclear objectives are one of the topmost barriers to team and organizational performance.
  • Foster a culture that encourages opinions and ideas that challenge the consensus. People should feel free to share their ideas and not hold back for fear of others penalizing them or thinking less of them. Collaboration is hindered when one or two people dominate the discussion, are arrogant, or don’t think they can learn anything from others.
  • Groups perform more effective under certain circumstances, and less effective under others. There is a tendency to fixate on certain topics of discussion amongst groups which often leaves members distracted from their ideas. To reduce the negative effects of topic fixation, members of the group should be given periods to work alone and switch constantly between individual activity and group interaction.
  • Effective collaboration can happen if the people involved come from diverse backgrounds and possess complementary skills to prevent conformity. The best collective decisions or creative ideas are often a product of different bodies of knowledge, multiple opinions, disagreement, and divergent thought processes, not consensus or compromise.
  • New technologies are making collaboration easier than ever, enabling us to increase our reach and broaden our network. Although new technology helps, it will not make your organization collaborative without the right culture and values in place. First, define what you want to achieve through collaboration then use these tools to promote creative collaboration.

How else are you championing collaboration within your organization to create value and succeed?

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Preparing for Geopolitical Shocks

Geopolitical instability has steadily increased over the past years, and uncertainty in the global economy is at an all-time high. Thanks to globalization and advances in technologies, we now live and work in a tightly interconnected world, one in which the boundaries that previously separated domestic from global issues have disappeared.

Threats are no longer confined to traditional political borders, social structures, and geographic boundaries. Geopolitical shifts have dramatically altered the global economic landscape and brought politics and business together.

The rise of China as an economic and politically influential power has threatened the dominance of the United States as the world’s largest economy. Although the opening of China and a market of 1.4 billion people have benefited both countries, it has also intensified competition and sparked U.S. economic and technological espionage accusations against China, leading to strained relations between the two giants.

U.S. companies operating from China have felt the impact of this tense relationship. The opposite is true for Chinese companies in the U.S.

Across Europe, national populism is on the rise and now a serious force. In 2016, the United Kingdom shocked the world when it voted to leave the European Union, generating reverberating effects across markets.

Banks and financial services companies that once benefited from the EU passporting system have had their cross-border banking and investment services to customers and counterparties in the many EU Member States impacted, causing them to reimagine their value proposition models.

The recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia is another example of a geopolitical event that has had devastating effects on human livelihood and businesses. Although the conflict between the two countries has risen over the years, I think it’s fair to say that few political analysts, governments, and businesses predicted a war to happen.

The war has created a humanitarian crisis, rattled global commodity and energy markets, caused prices to soar, and forced many international companies to temporarily suspend their Russian activities or completely cut ties with the country.

Global supply chains which are already fragile and sensitive due to the COVID-19 pandemic are now facing new challenges in the aftermath of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Multilateral economic sanctions have been imposed on Russia. A state of affairs that was unthinkable months ago and is now threatening to derail the nascent global economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given the global domino effect of geopolitical events and the shrinking of the distance between markets and politics, the need to better understand and more effectively mitigate geopolitical risk has become more urgent. The business impacts, whether direct or indirect, vary by company type and industry sector.

Your company may not be able to prevent wars between nations, but you can anticipate and better prepare for geopolitical shocks:

  • Integrate strategy, risk, and performance decision-making. Consideration of risks to business success is an important part of the strategy selection and execution process, not an afterthought.
  • Develop a better understanding of geopolitical trends and how they are changing. For example, what are the megatrends in business, politics, and technology that are making geopolitical risks more diverse, prevalent, and consequential?
  • Assess the links between these geopolitical events and business performance. What are the events that matter most to your business? For example, how might current global political trends pose physical, business, and reputational risks to your parent organization?
  • Anticipate how these trends are likely to play out in the short, medium, and long terms, and develop mitigation strategies for each geopolitical scenario. Proactively anticipate and plan for radically different worlds, instead of reacting to problems as they arise
  • Review your mitigation strategies as the world changes. Are they effective enough in case of a major shock?
  • Develop capabilities for continuous learning to anticipate, address, and recover from geopolitical crises.

What do you think?

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