Reading notes to Competition Demystified, by Bruce Greenwald and Judd Kahn.
What is strategy?
Strategy is the art of making business decisions with respect to the actions and responses of competitors. Strategy revolves around creating, protecting and exploiting competitive advantages.
Strategy and competitive advantage go hand in hand; where there is no possibility to develop a competitive advantage, there can be no strategic decisions. Markets where competitors have similar access to customers, technology and other cost advantages are not strategic but tactical markets where the only strategy possible is to outrun the competition through operational efficiency– most competitors will be about the same size and none will manage to make or maintain an outsize profit margin as the lack of competitive advantages will drive economic profits toward average cost.
What are the differences between strategy and tactics?
The easiest way to think about the difference between strategy and tactics is to understand that strategic decisions are focused on competitors, while tactical decisions are focused on operations. In other words, strategy is external, tactics are internal in nature.
This helpful table from Competition Demystified may also convey the differences:
- Strategic Decisions
- Management level –> top management, board of directors
- Resources –> corporate
- Time frame –> long-term
- Risk –> success or survival
- Questions: “What business do we want to be in?”, “What critical competencies must we develop?”, “How are we going to deal with competitors?”
- Tactical Decisions
- Management level –> midlevel, functional, local
- Resources –> divisional, departmental
- Time frame –> yearly, quarterly, monthly
- Risk –> limited
- Questions: “How do we improve delivery times?”, “How big a promotional discount do we offer?”, “What is the best career path for our sales representatives?”
Additionally, there are two major strategic issues every business faces:
- the arena of competition – which external characters will affect the firm’s economic future?
- the management of competition – how do you anticipate and, if possible, control, the actions of these external agents?
Porter’s “Five Forces” and the Greenwald/Kahn “One Ring” that binds them
Michael Porter, author of Competitive Strategy (1980), identified “Five Forces” critical to the competitive environment:
- Potential Entrants
- Competitors Within the Industry
Greenwald and Kahn focus on one as being the dominant force, potential entrants, specifically from the viewpoint of barriers to entry.
Either the existing firms within the market are protected by barriers to entry (or to expansion), or they are not.
Barriers to entry are critical for maintaining stable businesses and above average profit margins as without them the market will be flooded with competitors whose existence serves to drive down average industry profitability.
As more firms enter, demand is fragmented among them. Costs per unit rise as fixed costs are spread over fewer units sold, prices fall, and the high profits that attracted the new entrants disappear.
The end result is all firms are placed on the operational efficiency treadmill where no firm ever reaches the goal of above average profitability and everyone must run as fast as they can simply to stay in place.
Operational effectiveness might be thought of as a strategy, indeed, as the only strategy appropriate in markets without barriers to entry.
How to conduct a strategic analysis
Ask yourself, in the market in which the firm currently competes or is considering an entrance:
- do any competitive advantages exist? And, if so,
- what kind of advantages are they?
Exploring competitive advantage
There are only three types of genuine competitive advantage:
- supply – a company can produce or deliver its products or services more cheaply than competitors
- demand – a company has access to market demand that competitors can not match, usually based upon…
- switching costs
- search costs
- economies of scale – an incumbent firm operating at large scale will enjoy lower costs than its competitors
Companies which manage to grow yet maintain profitability usually achieve this one of three ways:
- replicate their local advantage in multiple markets
- continue to focus on their product space as that space becomes larger
- gradually expand their activities outward from the edges of their dominant market position
Elephants versus ants
Markets which offer competitive advantages are typically characterized by one or two large firms which possess the competitive advantage, elephants, and several smaller, less profitable “competitors”, the ants.
A firm which finds itself in a market where it is the ant should consider getting out of the market as painlessly as possible. A firm which is considering entering a market where an elephant already resides should reconsider the decision as the only real hope for competing in that market is if the elephant creates an opportunity by making a mistake.
With a competitive advantage in place, an elephant can enjoy the outsized profits of his competitive position. Still, developing strategic awareness about its competitive advantages will allow it to:
- reinforce and protect existing advantages
- identify areas of growth (geographic and product line-related) that are likely to yield high returns
- develop policies that extract maximum profitability from the firm’s competitive circumstances
- identify threats that are likely to develop
In other words, strategic planning concerns itself with the different areas of business decision-making that competitors can respond to, such as:
- pricing policies
- new product lines
- geographic expansions
- capacity additions
Questions from the reading
- With regards to the elephant vs. ant paradigm, why do ants exist at all, that is, why don’t more firms exit markets where they are ants?
- What are common ways in which elephants misstep and allow competition from the ants?