Jacks of All Business Models…
Straightforward business models are becoming antiquated. Over the years, there has been a trend for companies to diversify and multiply their business models in an attempt to up their profits. After all, it’s only logical that diversifying would allow a company to reach a broader market, and therefore reach more paying customers.
But there’s a problem. Having multiple business models can severely limit each one because a company can’t focus on everything at once. Their brand message suffers from a lack of clarity to the market, and their overall growth suffers because each pillar of the business isn’t getting the leadership, time, and vision it needs. In short, they do an average job at seven different things rather than an excellent job at one or two things.
But Everyone Is Doing It!
I see this happening at large-scale tech companies like Google, and Apple. Google has created so many branches that they had to create the parent company Alphabet to house all their brands. Of course Apple has always been a bit different as a branded house by keeping everything under their main brand. However, if the rumors of the new Apple car are true then their product portfolio is growing far beyond computers, software, and devices.
After so many years, this is no longer limited to the huge tech brands. We are seeing it more often in startups and other small-to-medium businesses as well. One such example is Slack, a successful business communication tool that was originally developed for internal communications in a not-so-successful digital game development company. When Stewart Butterfield saw its value he brilliantly transitioned the tool to the market, transforming his company into a popular business communications developer.
Moving Beyond Mere Innovation
I see this trend as a result of an increasingly-connected world of ecosystems. A phone is no longer just for voice communications, and cars are evolving beyond simple transportation. As the boundaries of technology are pushed, everything and everyone become increasingly more connected. Fueling the IoT, Big Data, and other emergent technologies has allowed companies to discover that they don’t have to play in their own sandbox anymore. Today there are opportunities in the connections just as much as the innovations.
This is producing a new problem for companies: how do you stay focused without limiting your potential? As I said earlier, it’s crucial not to muddy the focus of your brand. Yet at the same time you want to take advantage of any opportunities that arise. I believe companies can do both as long as they have a strategic approach, but it will require an intentional investment.
Connecting the Dots
The more complex a system or business gets, the more a strategic investment is needed. It’s a simple idea, but like most simple ideas it often gets overlooked as we get comfortable with the status quo. People will often get in a rut, throwing the same solutions at a project because it’s what they’ve always done. However, with without investing any time into their strategy they often end up with a lot of wasted hours with very little result.
For example, consider a fast-paced development process such as Agile. A small team can take on a straight-forward, isolated problem with an Agile process and create some very impressive results. However, what if that same team is given a complex problem with an ecosystem of solutions to address? Without increasing the strategic investment to match the problem’s complexity, project managers will usually just add more Agile teams and end up with nothing but a pile of disconnected features and solutions.
As children we were thrilled to be handed a dot-to-dot puzzle. We were given a page with a bunch of dots and challenged to create a line drawing, but could only succeed by connecting them in the right order. Developing strategies for solving problems driven by a complex ecosystem can be very similar — the puzzles may have changed, but the game remains the same.
See Your Page of Dots
This could be your current brand’s product line, a group of brands, or just feature sets within a product. Whatever it is, getting a holistic view is essential to creating a winning strategy. Looking at a problem in individual chunks only allows you to create individual strategies that won’t come together to form a fully-connected solution. It’s important to understand each “dot,” but it’s equally important to get a full view of the problem to create a full solution.
Find the Starting Dot
Unlike those childhood puzzles, you won’t have a defined starting place. There isn’t a single way to find that first dot, but there will always be one to find– some may find what holds the parts of their problem together, while others may look for the least common denominator. However, it’s important to remember to keep a holistic view while searching for that starting point.
For example, how might Apple connect a car to the rest of their product line? Unlike most car manufactures, Apple needs to look beyond designing a car to get the driver to a destination. They need to create a connected experience, turning the car into a place of productivity and entertainment. With that holistic view, their starting dot could be finding ways to innovatively connect their existing productivity and entertainment products to the car, creating a unique experience that no other car can offer.
Envision the Complete Picture
Randomly connecting dots will never solve the puzzle correctly. It’s critical to see the signal through the noise, and the shape in the shapeless. This is where creativity and out-of-the-box thinking will really start to shine.
Even if you can’t see the fully-detailed picture by staring at the individual dots, you need a vision and plan to get there. This is especially true when you’re a part of a team, as a vision will allow everyone to draw lines in the same direction. The best way to create a vision for the team is to set parameters for your expectations. You can do this by…
· Creating sketches, maps, prototypes, and other visualizations
· Giving a breakdown of how you plan to achieve the vision
· Developing milestones
· Setting KPIs
In short, you are defining success for your team.
Take Action and Reevaluate
“The hardest part of a journey is taking the first step.” Theory and planning can take you far, but the puzzle is never truly solved until you put a pencil to the paper. Take that first step and start working towards a milestone, but don’t be surprised when the initial vision of the solution doesn’t match the final product. That’s why it’s important to reevaluate in tandem with taking action.
As you start working on the problem, get in the habit of regularly stepping back to get a holistic picture. Our “dots” don’t always stay still, and the needs and priorities of the project may shift. Without taking time to reevaluate the landscape you may end up spending resources to solve a problem that is no longer relevant.
Wrapping It Up
In most contexts, “strategy” is a very vague term that has lost its value. “We need more strategy!” What does that even mean? We’ve used the term so often that it’s lost its importance. For these closing remarks, let’s define it as “Take a step back to evaluate all the moving parts, form a hypothesis on how to improve the system, take action, and test the results. Then repeat.”
Businesses are complex systems that need strategy, now more than ever. Our world is becoming increasingly connected as industries merge together and lines are blurred. This is the defining moment for many companies as they try to balance capitalizing on unique circumstances without overextending themselves.
Companies who want to rush forward without investing in strategic approaches will quickly find themselves tangled in the complexity of this new market. But those companies that invest in strategic approaches, who “connect the dots,” will find themselves at the forefront of innovation and success. They will be the ones who solve the puzzle and win the game.