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What is strategy?

Excerpts from What is Strategy?
Michael E Porter in Harvard Business Review

Strategy_viewsA company can outperform rivals only if it can establish a difference that it can preserve. It must deliver greater value to customers or create comparable value at a lower cost, or do both. The arithmetic of superior profitability then follows: delivering greater value allows a company to charge higher average unit prices; greater efficiency results in lower average unit costs.

  • Ultimately, all differences between companies in cost or price derive from the hundreds of activities required to create, produce, sell, and deliver their products or services, such as calling on customers, assembling final products, and training employees.
  • Cost is generated by performing activities, and cost advantage arises from performing particular activities more efficiently than competitors.
  • Similarly, differentiation arises from both the choice of activities and how they are performed. Activities, then, are the basic units of competitive advantage. Overall advantage or disadvantage results from all a company's activities, not only a few.
  • Competitive strategy is about being different. It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value.
  • Strategy is making trade-offs in competing. The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do. Without trade-offs, there would be no need for choice and thus no need for strategy.
  • Strategy is creating fit among a company's activities. The success of a strategy depends on doing many things well - not just a few - and integrating among them. If there is no fit among activities, there is no distinctive strategy and little sustainability. Management reverts to the simpler task of overseeing independent functions, and operational effectiveness determines an organization's relative performance.

Fit and Sustainability

Southwest_asCompetitive advantage grows out of the entire system of activities. The fit among activities substantially reduces cost or increases differentiation. Thus in competitive companies it can be misleading to explain success by specifying individual strengths, core competencies, or critical resources. It is more useful to think in terms of themes that pervade many activities, such as low cost, a particular notion of customer service, or a particular conception of the value delivered. These themes are embodied in nests of tightly linked activities.

  • Strategic fit among many activities is fundamental not only to competitive advantage but also to the sustainability of that advantage. It is harder for a rival to match an array of interlocked activities than it is merely to imitate a particular sales-force approach, match a process technology, or replicate a set of product features. Positions built on systems of activities are far more sustainable than those built on individual activities.
  • Consider this simple exercise. The probability that competitors can match any activity is often less than one. The probabilities then quickly compound to make matching the entire system highly unlikely (.9x.9= .81; .9x.9x.9x.9= .66, and so on).

The Role of Leadership

  • The challenge of developing or reestablishing a clear strategy is often primarily an organizational one and depends on leadership. With so many forces at work against making choices and tradeoffs in organizations, a clear intellectual framework to guide strategy is a necessary counterweight.
  • In many companies, leadership has degenerated into orchestrating operational improvements and making deals. But the leader's role is broader and far more important: General management is more than the stewardship of individual functions. Its core is strategy: defining and communicating the company's unique position, making trade-offs, and forging fit among activities. The leader must provide the discipline to decide which industry changes and customer needs the company will respond to, while avoiding organizational distractions and maintaining the company's distinctiveness.


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