Sanjay Khosla and Mohanbir Sawhney on Growth Through Focus: A Blueprint for Driving Profitable Expansion
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Sanjay Khosla and Mohanbir Sawhney for the May (2010) issue of strategy+business magazine. To read the complete article, please visit http://www.strategy-business.com/article/00034?gko=63292&cid=enews20100518.
Rather than seek increased revenues and profits by expanding products and markets, companies should follow a seven-step strategy for achieving more with less.
Faced with economic headwinds, many global corporations are struggling to grow their businesses profitably. In the consumer packaged goods business, for example, the worldwide recession has hurt premium brands as consumers have traded down to cheaper brands, private labels, or generics. In the retailing business, same-store sales are flat or declining for numerous companies. Meanwhile, many business leaders continue to seek growth by extending their existing product lines and brands, as well as by entering new geographic regions. After all, growth is supposed to be about “more” — more products on the shelf, more categories, more brands, and more markets.
However, this approach is exactly the opposite of what business leaders should do to drive increased revenues and profits. A typical “growth through more” strategy diffuses the organization’s efforts. It increases the complexity of the organization and its operations. We have found that “growth through less,” or more precisely “growth through focus,” is the best prescription for growth, regardless of the economic environment. This conclusion is based on our own experience in three well-known companies — Kraft Foods, Unilever, and Fonterra Brands (a dairy products business based in New Zealand) — on three continents over 10 years. In all three cases, a deliberate strategy of focusing on a few markets, brands, and categories produced impressive revenue and profit expansion. We have learned that seemingly mature businesses can be energized by making fewer but larger bets and by focusing relentlessly on executing a simple but powerful vision.
Growth through focus is not as easy as choosing what strategic bets to make. Rather, it requires the leadership team to follow a systematic approach that spans everything from strategy and vision to execution and measurement. We propose a framework that consists of seven steps that an organization must go through in its quest for growth through focus. Our framework is grounded in three key ideas: focus in strategy, simplicity in communication, and empowerment in execution.
Growth and the Winemaker’s Logic
To understand the logic behind growth through focus, consider what winemakers know about getting the best out of grapevines. Grapevines are very vigorous. With abundant water and nutrients in the soil, they tend to grow into large, leafy plants. However, overly vigorous vines produce lower-quality wine and smaller crops. When growing conditions are too rich, grapevines grow more leaves and become tangled. Leaves take nutrients away from grapes, which contain the seeds for future growth, and create shade, which inhibits ripening. To improve the quality of grapes, winemakers carefully prune grapevines and remove excess bunches of grapes to reduce yields. The remaining bunches ripen more fully and ultimately produce more concentrated wine.
Many companies, in effect, behave like inattentive vintners. Growth initiatives are often overstimulated with money and leadership attention. The result is lots of activity and a large number of growth projects, and this activity often does not correlate with outcomes. Quantity does not mean quality. To improve the quality of growth, business leaders need to cut back on marginal products, brands, and markets so that they have a better chance of winning in their chosen areas of focus.
Following the winemaker’s logic, company leaders must overturn conventional thinking about how to manage the organization, processes, and people for growth. (See Exhibit 1.) For example, a conventional core belief about growth is
that companies need to extend their product lines and brands and to expand their categories and markets. Leaders hope that the more arrows they have in their quiver and the more targets they have to shoot at, the more bull’s-eyes they will score. But in reality, growth often comes from fewer but stronger arrows aimed at fewer targets. The engines of growth are focus (fewer brands, fewer categories, and fewer markets) and simplicity (simple vision, simplified execution, and simpler organization designs). Conventional thinking also assumes that although complexity adds cost and makes the organization less agile, it is inevitable in a large global company. But complexity is an avoidable enemy of growth if you know what you are doing.
The logic of growth through focus also suggests a very different view on planning and leadership. Many companies tend to make long-term strategic plans, but they often have a short attention span in execution. CEOs and business leaders get seduced by doing something new and different well before the strategy has had time to play out. We recommend the reverse: Plan quickly and then stay the course for a long time, as long as five years. Leaders should resist the temptation to change strategies too often.
Seven Steps in Growth through Focus
Our experience suggests that growth through focus requires the organization to progress systematically through a set of seven steps: discovery, strategy, vision, people, execution, organization, and metrics. Taken together, they represent a powerful formula for driving profitable growth.
[Here’s the first step.]
1. Discovery: Figure Out What Works
Science fiction author William Gibson observed, “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.” And so it is with excellence. All large companies have pockets of excellent growth performance. The first step in the growth journey is to discover what is working well and where the company is already winning. These pockets of excellence help identify focus areas for growth. An effective way to uncover what works is to conduct a series of workshops with the top leaders from the company.
At Unilever’s Lipton beverages business, the process began at Colworth House, the company’s R&D center in the United Kingdom. The top 100 leaders of Unilever beverages from around the world were invited to a workshop in 2000, whose agenda was to build upon what was working well in specific markets and to scale the success across other geographies. One year later, this was followed by a “10 in 10” workshop in Brussels to discuss how to achieve sales of US$10 billion within 10 years in these markets and to imagine the future of Lipton as seen through the eyes of Unilever’s major competitors.
In Kraft Foods’ international business, the growth process kicked off in 2007 with seven workshops in six locations around the world, each including about 20 of the company’s regional business leaders. The agenda was open-ended, with the top leaders taking a backseat to prevent their rank from impeding the flow of ideas and insights. An external facilitator ensured that collective experience was gathered objectively. The workshops focused on what worked rather than on what did not work, because it is easier to build on what is working than to fix what isn’t working. To ensure a customer focus, workshops included extensive immersion with consumers and customers to provide insights into behavior, needs, and problems. This immersion generates insights in ways that quantitative market research never can.
A few themes began to emerge from the workshops. Kraft Foods had excellent people, but their insights and ideas had been getting lost due to geographic dispersion, and their potential was not being fully realized. The company’s iconic brands had been built over many years, but several were underperforming. The planning process had tended to focus internally instead of externally, and had looked backward rather than forward. There was a lot of emphasis on analyzing what happened instead of figuring out what needed to be done. The conclusion was clear. The company urgently needed to establish clear priorities and accountability at a global, regional, and local level.
At the outset, the discovery process should be inclusive and democratic. It is important to involve key stakeholders within the company, particularly those who can make a valuable contribution and those who have the influence to get the masses of employees behind them. In addition, great insights often come from engaging with suppliers, creative and media agencies, and consultants who have worked with the company for a long time. On the other end of the spectrum, it is also important to listen to people who push back — and to manage dissent. As the process goes on and the framework and vision are agreed upon, debate on the strategic framework should cease and the emphasis should switch to execution.
To read the complete article, please visit <a href="http://www.strategy-business.com/article/00034?gko=63292&cid=enews20100518.”><a
Sanjay Khosla is president of Developing Markets and Global Categories for Kraft Foods. He has more than three decades of leadership experience in global consumer packaged goods companies and has lived and worked around the world.
Mohanbir Sawhney is Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation Clinical Professor of Technology and director of the Center for Research in Technology and Innovation at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He has coauthored five books and many articles on marketing, technology, and innovation.
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