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Tracking the enemies of agility

The failure of big companies to adapt to their changing circumstances is one of the fundamental puzzles in the world of business.

By Julian Birkinshaw . 14 May 2013

Last week, as part of a course on “strategic agility”, I taught a case study on the decline of Nokia to my MBA students. I asked them: Why did Nokia fall from industry leadership to also-ran status in the space of less than five years?  Their answers were fairly predictable:


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“They lost touch with their customers.” True, but almost tautological - and interesting to note that this is the same Nokia that in the early 2000s was lauded for its customer-centric marketing and design capabilities.


“They failed to develop the necessary technologies.” Not really true – Nokia had a prototype touchscreen before the iPhone was launched, and its Smartphones were technologically superior to anything Apple, Samsung or Google had to offer during the late 1990s.

“They didn’t recognise that the basis of competition was shifting from the hardware to the ecosystem.” Again, not really true – the “ecosystem” battle began in the early 2000s, with Nokia joining forces with Ericsson, Motorola to create Symbian as a platform technology that would keep Microsoft at bay.

Through this whole period, people in Nokia were highly aware of the changes going on around them, and they were never short of leading-edge technology or clever marketers.  Where they struggled was in converting awareness into action. The necessary knowledge about what to do existed, but the company lacked the capacity to move on it in a decisive and committed way.

The failure of big companies to adapt to their changing circumstances is one of the fundamental puzzles in the world of business. Occasionally, a genuinely “disruptive” technology, such as digital imaging, comes along and wipes out an entire industry. But usually the sources of failure are more prosaic and more avoidable – a failure to implement technologies that have already been developed, an arrogant disregard for changing customer demands,  a complacent attitude towards new upstart competitors.

In such cases, the ultimate responsibility for failure lies with the COE. But if such failures are to be avoided, it is clear that the CEO cannot do it on his or her own. Strategic “agility” is a firm-wide capability: it relies on people across the firm to keep their eyes open to changes in their business environment, and to take responsibility to push their new ideas and challenge existing ways of working.  Obviously this isn’t easy to do, but if there is a better understanding of the problem then there is scope for dramatic improvement.

So what are the enemies of agility you should particularly be looking out for in your organisation?  Here are my “big five”:

1. Ossified management processes.  We get things done in big firms through management processes –budgeting and planning, performance management, succession planning. These processes create simplicity and order, but they also become entrenched and self-reinforcing. One example: I was asked to put on a webinar for a big publishing company a couple of years ago, and they asked me sign a twenty-page contract for the right to talk about my research for an hour.  The reason wasn’t hard to fathom - their antediluvian book-publishing process was running on autopilot, and doing its best to suck the life out of any new Web-based initiatives being proposed.  What’s the solution here? First, identify and kill off the processes that no longer add any value. Second, pilot all new initiatives outside the existing processes.

2. Old and narrow metrics.  What gets measured gets done, but we don’t refresh our choices of measures frequently enough, and we end up with massive blind spots. Nokia didn’t think of Apple and Google as competitors until it was too late. A friend of mine took over the running of a major national newspaper in the UK in the early 2000s, and it took him more than a year to persuade his colleagues that Google should be added to the list of competitors that they benchmarked their performance against.  The solution here? Define your relevant market as widely as possible, so that your market share is as low as possible.  And measure customer behaviour very carefully – are they defecting? To whom?  And Why?

3. A disenfranchised front line.  The first insights into changes in your business environment come from the people on the “front line” – salespeople, developers working with third parties, purchasing managers. But their voice –if it is raised at all—typically gets drowned out among all the others clamouring for top executive attention.  The solutions here are far from easy, but they include technology-based systems for sharing front-line information quickly with those at the top, as well as informal networks and cross-cutting taskforces designed to address specific threats and opportunities.

4. Lack of diversity.  It has often been noted that Nokia’s top executives were all Fins of similar age and background, and this surely hampered their ability to make sense of their changing business environment. Of course, we are all more comfortable working with people with similar worldviews to ourselves, and as a result we end up with inevitable blind spots.  The solution?  Hire people with different frames of reference to our own, or at least find a way to bring their point of view to the table. In the late 1990s Infosys had a programme called “Voice of Youth” designed to bring the insights of the under-30 crowd to the attention of the 50-something executive team.

5. Intolerance of Failure. The bigger and more successful a firm becomes, the more risk-averse it becomes. Executives say they want innovative new products and services, but they expect them all to succeed. And, needless to say, this attitude breeds caution and rigidity. The solution here is clear: you need to find ways to institutionalise a culture that encourages trial and error. Google, Amazon and Netflix are all great examples – they have all had their share of dud products, but everyone accepts them as part of the package.

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