Posts Tagged ‘economic trend’

Blockbuster’s bankruptcy shows that its business was built around a narrow definition of its value. Blockbuster defined itself as a chain of video rental stores. Blockbuster experimented with larger locations that offered a variety of in-store entertainment experiences, but this just showed that customers didn’t care to hang out in a glorified arcade, when all they wanted was to rent a video for an evening. Netflix, on the other hand, provides the possibility of watching a video without leaving the couch to order it. Now that Internet downloading and streaming are feasible and cost effective, customers can use their existing computer and Internet connection to watch a video. Smart phones also provide another means for downloading or video streaming.

I predict that as long as Netflix remains flexible about its methods of distribution, it will continue to be successful. If, however, it becomes enamoured with one method in particular, it will probably experience challenges similar to Blockbuster’s.

Richard Martin is founder and president of Alcera Consulting Inc. He brings his military and business leadership experience to bear for executives and organizations seeking to exploit change, maximize opportunity, and minimize risk.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes are permitted with proper attribution.

“Only the paranoid survive.” I have no idea when I first said this, but the fact remains that, when it comes to business, I believe in the value of paranoia. I believe that the prime responsibility of a manager is to guard constantly against other people’s attacks and to inculcate this guardian attitude in the people under his or her management.
Andy Grove

Risks come in many shapes and sizes, but they have one thing in common. You have to identify or imagine them before you can do anything about them. That’s why Andy Grove, one of the founders of Intel Corporation, declared that “only the paranoid survive.”

This is a mindset that many people find unsettling. They find it too pessimistic. Isn’t it better to go through life as an optimist? It is… if you believe all the self-help literature and the late-night infomercials.

The reality though is that success in business (and in life) implies an ability to see things for what they are. In his best seller Good to Great, Jim Collins determined that all turnarounds or significant improvements in fortune start by an ability to “confront the brutal facts (while keeping the faith).” The danger or risk doesn’t go away just because you do like an ostrich and hide your head in the sand. Even more important, there may be risks beyond your knowledge, because they are initially unimaginable or appear so far fetched as to warrant little consideration.

Think of newspapers. They used to be the primary means of information. While all media have struggled against Internet ads, newspapers have had the greatest difficulty and are a disappearing feature in many cities, especially where search engines provide the equivalent to local and classified ads. Although many traditional media saw advertising as the key to Internet business, they certainly didn’t see it coming from such an unexpected direction as online search and companies like Google.

That’s an example of a competitive risk, but there are also others. Moreover, the newspapers provide an example of long-term stasis in the face of change, but movement and the pursuit of opportunities also generate risk and threats. The Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico occurred because of a cascade of technical and human risks resulting from BP’s aggressive exploration strategy.

Research in Motion, the makers of the Blackberry, is facing a threat from governments that have security concerns, some of which may be legitimate, but others that are driven more by fear of opposition and dissension. Did the company foresee even a few months ago that its expansion plans for the fastest growing markets in the world could be threatened by the Blackberry’s key selling feature and customer advantage, it’s inherent security? The company appears to have been taken by surprise by this political risk. I think it could have been foreseen and, with suitable prevention and mitigation in place beforehand, the crisis may have been averted.

It’s only by taking a comprehensive approach to risk that companies (and other organizations) can be in a position to exploit change and opportunity. This requires an ability to understand the risks and threats that result as much from action as inaction. It also requires an ability to imagine and qualify unusual or “far out” changes, with their respective probabilities and potential consequences. Finally, companies need to understand their own risk profile as a whole, with the balance of opportunities and risks, as well as their appetite for risk.

If only the paranoid survive, it’s better to be paranoid before the fact than after.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

Last week Canada’s biggest life insurer Manulife announced a major quarterly loss due to the poor stock market and low bond yields. Most of the analysis and management commentary centred on the hope that the markets could rebound favourably to Manulife. Some claimed that this wouldn’t have happened in the U.S., because they don’t have to follow the same accounting rules, as if that changes the underlying reason for the loss.

My take is that those Canadian rules are in fact uncovering the company’s potentially high-risk position. This seems to be affecting other top Canadian life insurers, though apparently not to the same extent. The real question, though, is this. Why is a major life insurer in the position of showing a loss due to poor stock and bond portfolio decisions? Manulife is a life insurance company; isn’t its capital supposed to be safe?

Of course, these are just accounting rules, but when the financial crisis started in 2007, it started with adjustments due to accounting rules showing that there was something fundamentally wrong. Would hedging and other “risk management” techniques truly enhance the company’s risk position, or just offset one accounting effect with another? If you go skydiving, you can reduce the risk of injury through proper training, safety measures, and wearing a helmet, but you’re still skydiving. I contend that these techniques might mitigate some of the risks, but they can’t counter all the effects of being improperly exposed to inherently volatile markets.

Richard Martin is founder and president of Alcera Consulting Inc. He brings his military and business leadership experience to bear for executives and organizations seeking to exploit change, maximize opportunity, and minimize risk.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

As reported in the Globe and Mail (January 17th, 2007), “Instead of leaving in 2008, (British Petroleum CEO) Lord Browne found himself embroiled in what is tantamount to a boardroom putsch and is leaving the company – which he helped turn around – six months from now instead of the intended farewell in 18 months.” The reason? “A sweeping independent report into chronic safety lapses at BP’s five U.S. refineries has concluded that lives might have been saved if Lord Browne had spent as much time on safety as he did trying to be green.”

A recent poll in Canada now places global warming as the most worrisome political priority for Canadians, ahead of perennial favorite health care and even the war in Afghanistan. At the same time last year, during a federal election, the concern barely even registered on the radar screens of electors. Even President Bush has given his imprimatur to the environment during his recent State of the Union address. What is happening?

We can’t say there were any significant scientific discoveries during the last year to make everyone change their minds so suddenly. So why have populations in Canada and the U.S. become suddenly so concerned?
My contention is that opinions on the matter reached a tipping point – to use Malcolm Gladwell’s apt term – sometime during the latter part of 2006. The exceptionally late onset of winter in eastern North America no doubt had a major impact on people’s thinking, but opinions and discourse had already changed noticeably during late summer and early fall.

What does this have to do with leadership and management? Simply put, political and business leaders now have to be perceived to be on the global warming “bandwagon” for fear of being branded a skeptic or, even worse, a “global warming denier”. Corporations and governments are now spending millions on establishing their environmental bone fides while spending billions more on becoming environmentally friendly. Investors are being told they can expect to make a killing by investing in ethanol production companies (while omitting to point out that the industry is heavily subsidized by governments) and other businesses profiting from global warming (everything from light bulb makers to wind farm operators). How much of this capital allocation has to do with actual risks and realities, as opposed to alarmist scenarios?

Back in 1975 Warren Bennis wrote a book called The Unconscious Conspiracy. Bennis argued that leaders were increasingly beset in the late 60s and 70s by an unconscious conspiracy of do-gooders and other assorted intervenors who were crippling the abilities of leaders to lead. Leaders were being forced to conform to ever changing standards of leadership and management while simultaneously being flooded by masses of irrelevant information and data. In addition, routine work was crowding out the non-routine, leaving leaders with limited power to lead their organizations as they saw fit.

The global warming issue is showing us that the “unconscious conspiracy” lives on, except that now, leaders are dealing with environmental issues rather than ones of rights and workplace democracy. Moreover, it appears that environmental concerns are crowding out others which are potentially just as important to the organization as well as society as a whole, such as growth and workplace safety.

Just as it was in 1975, there are still no easy solutions to the unconscious conspiracy, especially when it comes to the question of global warming. No amount of knowledge of the scientific trend could have forewarned of the sudden turn in public and political opinion. How should leaders deal with these situations? Here are some questions to think about when dealing with social trends.

  1. Are we just dealing with a fad or taste (e.g. fashion) or with a belief based on fear and emotion (e.g. global warming)? If it’s the former, then the organization can gear itself to constantly changing tastes and the consequences of failure to do so can be contained. If it’s the latter, then chances are that the leadership will have to give serious consideration to how this widespread social trend will impact on the organization.
  2. Is the social trend likely to crowd out reasoned debate and action? If yes, then the leadership and the organization must gear itself for this. Anyone who resisted equal rights and emancipation of various groups during the 60s and 70s quickly became viewed as a dinosaur, for good reason I might add. Moreover, their stonewalling led to government intervention in the form of affirmative action legislation. The same can be said of global warming today. Organizations and leaders who are openly skeptical are automatically tarred as global warming deniers and in cahoots with the oil industry. Informed debate is almost impossible in this situation, but doing nothing or stonewalling won’t make the problem go away either. On the other hand, focusing on environmental concerns while downplaying others, as seen in the BP case, are not a solution either.
  3. What can we do now and in the future to absorb the effects of this social trend? This obviously takes lot of thought and debate. It also means coming up with a long term strategy to deal with the issue while maintaining the focus of the organization.

What is clear is that these types of rapid changes of social mood and mass beliefs demand transformational and visionary leadership. Sitting around hoping that things will go back to the good old days won’t do. On the other hand, overreacting and becoming an “environmental” CEO are just as likely to be harmful to the organization as inaction. As with most things, the key is to maintain balance and perspective, and to not become a willing participant in the “unconscious conspiracy” weighing down one’s own leadership.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.