Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Strategic Vision at Apple: Will it change under Tim Cook?

As Steve Jobs' health becomes a greater concern at Apple, attention has been focused on Apple's number two exec, Tim Cook. This transition raises some questions that are interesting strategic planning issues, and will be a fascinating case study in business strategy over the next three or four years.

First, many credit Jobs' vision for the success of Apple. In some ways, this is not far off the mark - Jobs, especially after his return to Apple in 1998, pushed Apple in some weird directions that clearly distinguished the tech company from its competitors. Probably the best part of this strategy was an emphasis on design and a willingness to take a shot at unusual new products before it was clear consumers wanted to buy them.

The first item - emphasis on design - could arguably be Apple's strategic competency. Every successful Apple product has had a design that notably distinguishes it from competitors, and in most cases, the Apple product has re-defined its market.

The second item - a willingness to take risks on new products - lies at the heart of entrepreneurial success in any industry, and is only notable at Apple because size tends to extinguish this vital recklessness. The Fortune 500 is littered with companies that used to have this gambling mentality - but no longer do. Apple still has it, and one could argue this is because of Jobs.

Enter Tim Cook - a perennial number two, according to some, Cook has been seen as an operations guy - and a brilliant one with a keen mind. Operations, unlike design and marketing, does not often reward entrepreneurial recklessness, though - so will Cook bring a vision that can sustain Apple's weird status in the future? On the one hand, people who know Cook say he is a great strategic thinker. On the other hand, operational responsibilities can infect your mind with a gray practicality that deadens the innovative spirit of an organization. It's truly too soon to tell, but don't bet on Apple going dead in the water immediately. Cook knows he has a lot of very keen people around him who have been part of Apple's success over the past ten years - and he is smart enough to know how to work with them. Let's hope he doesn't try to "re-make" Apple in his image just to satisfy his ego - any sign of that would be the kiss of death, as it has been for countless other successful companies in transition.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Why Wal-Mart is not invincible

After a couple of years of news stories trumpeting the success of Wal-Mart (again), sales at Wal-Mart stores showed a decline last year. Why? There are two very different reasons. The first is economic, the second is competitive. The economic reason is that all shoppers shift spending downward when they see themselves affected by an economic downturn. This means people who shop at higher-end stores when times are good may stay pinching pennies by making the same purchases at a commodity store like Wal-Mart when things get tight. The competitive reason is that some of Wal-Mart's closest competitors - notably the dollar stores like Family Dollar and Dollar Tree - have started to close the gap on some of the weaknesses that caused customers to shift away from them and towards Wal-Mart. The first shift isn't really big news - commodity players always fare better when the economy is doing badly, and worse when things brighten up. But the second shift should be worrying to the folks at Wal-Mart. The commodity game, unlike a specialty strategy, allows only one winner. Any change that reduces volume for the lead player makes it that much more likely that an upstart will be able to remove the commodity crown from the top dog. Wal-Mart has undertaken some big expenses in the past few years that their smaller competitors have not - notably advertising and opening/closing stores. These are both strategic moves, and properly done may lead to higher profit at Wal-Mart - BUT improperly done, these moves may just be another chink in Wal-Mart's armor.
While I'm not a big fan of commodity strategies in general, so much has been made of Wal-Mart's management approach that I will find future developments in this market space very interesting to watch.
Here is a question for you in your strategic planning: Are YOU staying on top of your game? Are you considering pursuit of strategic moves that may create chinks in your armor? And how are you preparing yourself for a better 2011 and beyond?