Harvard Business Review

Common Strategy Mistakes to Avoid


Posted on Harvard Business Review: December 8, 2011 1:15 PM

I just finished a two-year project looking at Michael Porter’s most important insights for managers. Connecting the dots between his classic frameworks (the five forces, for example) and his latest thinking (the five tests of strategy) gave me a new understanding of the most common mistakes that can derail a company’s strategy. In a previous post, I focused on the fallacy of competing to be the best. Here are five more traps I’ve seen managers fall into over and over again. Understanding Porter’s strategy fundamentals will help you to avoid them.

Mistake #1. Confusing marketing with strategy.

Correction: A value proposition isn’t the same thing as a strategy. If you’re trying to describe a strategy, the value proposition is a natural place to begin—it’s intuitive to think of strategy in terms of the mix of benefits aimed at meeting customers’ needs. But as important as it is to have insight into customers’ needs, don’t confuse marketing with strategy. What the marketing-only approach misses is that a robust strategy also requires a tailored value chain, a unique configuration of activities that best delivers that kind of value. This element of strategy is not at all intuitive, but it’s absolutely essential. If you perform the same activities as everyone else, in the same ways, how can you expect to achieve better performance? To establish a competitive advantage, a company must deliver its distinctive value through a distinctive value chain. It must perform different activities than rivals or perform similar activities in different ways.

Mistake #2. Confusing competitive advantage with “what you’re good at.”

Correction: Building on strength is a good thing, but when it comes to strategy, companies are too often inward looking and therefore likely to overestimate their strengths. You might perceive customer service as a strong area. So that becomes the “strength” on which you attempt to build a strategy. But a real strength for strategy purposes has to be something the company can do better than any of its rivals. And “better” because you are choosing to meet different needs and performing different activities than they perform, because you’ve chosen a different configuration for your value chain than they have.

Mistake #3: Pursuing size above all else, because if you’re the biggest, you’ll be more profitable.

Correction: There is at least a grain of truth in this thinking, which is precisely what makes it so dangerous. But before you assume that bigger is always better, it is critical to run the numbers for your business. Too often the goal is chosen because it sounds good, whether or not the economics of the business support the logic. In industry after industry, Porter notes that economies of scale are exhausted at a relatively small share of industry sales. There is no systematic evidence that indicates that industry leaders are the most profitable or successful firms. To cite one notorious example, General Motors was the world’s largest car company for a period of decades, a fact that didn’t prevent its descent into bankruptcy. To the extent that size mattered at all, it might be more accurate to say that GM was too big to succeed. Meanwhile, BMW, small by industry standards, has a history of superior returns. Over the past decade (2000-2009), its average return on invested capital was 50 percent higher than the industry average. Companies only have to be “big enough,” which rarely means they have to dominate. Often “big enough” is just 10 percent of the market.

Mistake #4. Thinking that “growth” or “reaching $1 billion in revenue” is a strategy.

Correction: Don’t confuse strategy with actions (grow, acquire, divest, etc.) or with goals (reach X billion in sales, Y share of market). Porter’s definition: the set of integrated choices that define how you will achieve superior performance in the face of competition. It’s not the goal (e.g., be number one or reach $1 billion in top-line revenue), nor is it a specific action (e.g., make acquisitions). It’s the positioning you choose that will result in achieving the goal; the actions are the path you take to realize the positioning. Moreover, when Porter defines strategy, he is really talking about what constitutes a good strategy—one that will result in a higher ROIC than the industry average. The real problem here is that you will think you have a strategy when you don’t.

Mistake #5. Focusing on high-growth markets, because that’s where the money is.

Correction: Managers often mistakenly assume that a high-growth industry will be an attractive one. Wrong. Growth is no guarantee that the industry will be profitable. For example, growth might put suppliers in the driver’s seat, driving up the industry’s costs and limiting profitability. Or, combined with low entry barriers, growth might attract new rivals, thereby increasing competition and driving prices down. Growth alone says nothing about the power of customers or the availability of substitutes, both of which would dampen profitability. The untested assumption that a fast-growing industry is a “good” industry, Porter warns, often leads to bad strategy decisions.

These mistakes are both common and costly. Getting smarter about how competition works and what strategy is will save you from making them.

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Joan Magretta is a senior associate at the Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness at Harvard Business School. She is the author of What Management Is and the forthcoming Understanding Michael Porter: The Essential Guide to Competition and Strategy.

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