December 10, 2001—Bathtub
View of Strategy
Bathtub With A View. Just this week in Dallas I met a
chap who's going to put a hot tub on his roof. That seems about right.
Relaxing, apart from the madding crowd, with a lucid, clear view of a very
Back in the 1960's, before Esalen Institute and pyschobabble took over the
place, Big Sur Hot Springs (a.k.a. Slate's Hot Springs) offered you a wash
in hot springs overlooking the Pacific Rim. In those days, you'd haul in a
six pack of beer, pick up a fresh-baked loaf of bread from an extremely
pretty blonde at the restaurant, and then capture an unparalleled view of
the Pacific blanketed by strands of fog and sunlight. With this global,
decidedly un-California view and such pervasive relaxation, you could solve
any problem mankind could offer. It was simply the best way to come up with
Blind Alleys. At the moment, lots of strategic notions are being
bruited about, none of which originate in clear heads with a clear view.
Somebody has been drinking bathtub gin. "Skate to Where the Money Will Be,"
by Clayton Christensen and company (Harvard Business Review, November
2001) simply tells you that you've got to get there first -- but that
organizations may not know where there is. In other words, it is a
complicated restatement of the obvious that should not have been printed. It
won't get your anywhere, but it won't hurt you.
Probably the next mania in the outsourcing arena will. You will remember
that companies aplenty in the 1990s, at a terrific risk, let the consultants
re-make their information technology departments. This was equivalent to the
airlines and the airports outsourcing their security arrangements.
Now we learn that companies are giving away more vitals, particularly their
personnel functions. See "Out of the Back Room," Economist, December
1, 2001, p. -56. Watch out. The truth is that the moment companies outsource
a function is the exact time when that very thing is strategically crucial
and should be held close to the breast. Just as IT should not have been
outsourced ten years ago when it was the heart of every company,
people-management should not be palmed off today. It should be the essence
of every corporate conversation, done inside.
The Power of a Deep Bench. The fact is the world is strategically
confused right now, so the way to get through the mess is to put together a
team with depth and breadth.
Last week we attended the annual meeting of InterSouth Partners, a regional
venture capital firm in the Research Triangle. The central difference
between InterSouth 2001 and InterSouth 1996, when we first began to look at
this firm, is the length of its bench. There's more horsepower there by a
long shot, and it is this, as much as the excellent returns that it has
generated or its technology focus, that should generate comfort for its
investors. People-power is the defining characteristic of top professional
firms and, increasingly, of all types of companies in a service-intensive
world. Of course, nobody spends the time or money on people that this truth
implies. The more's the pity, since people-building is the ultimate winning
Horses in the Stable. Right now, we would conclude, strategy is about
a hot tub on the roof and lots of horses in the stable. We are not looking
for "first-mover advantage" or "core processes." We want to know you can
move on a dime -- that you can perceive sudden, catastrophic moves in
markets and environments and regroup as fast as the moves happen. Because
you have a view and lots of racehorses.
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