Commit to an identity
These enterprises may offer a wide variety of products and services in multiple sectors, but their identity is always clear. Everyone who interacts with them — including customers, employees, suppliers, shareholders, and regulators — knows who they are and what they stand for. The identity of a successful company aligns three basic elements: a value proposition (how this company distinguishes itself from others in delivering value to customers); a system of distinctive capabilities that enable the company to deliver on this value proposition; and a chosen portfolio of products and services that all make use of those capabilities.
Thus, for example, the Apple value proposition combines the roles of innovator, aggregator, and experience provider. (These and similar terms are defined in our online “way-to-play” tool: strategyand. pwc.com/way-to-play-tool.) Apple’s computers, tablets, and smartphones form the hub of a single digital system that allows people to easily manage media production, media consumption, and communication. The company accomplishes this through extraordinary capabilities in consumer insight, intuitively accessible design, technological integration, and breakthrough innovation of products, services, and software. It has applied these capabilities to its computers, mobile devices, retail stores, online services, wearables (the Apple watch), and media players (Apple TV).
Haier, the Chinese appliance company that has held the world’s largest market share in “white goods” since 2011, competes with Apple in a few categories, including televisions and computers. But it has a very different value proposition: that of an innovator and solutions provider, offering products and services that meet the needs of particular customers and help them deal with problems. For example, Haier makes a small washing machine designed for undergarments (which are washed separately in China) and a large one designed for the robes of Pakistani men. It makes no-frost freezers for countries where power outages are common. It makes air conditioners that clean polluted air (and indicate the level of air quality with colored lights), and water conditioners that can be tailored to filter out the particular chemicals in the water supply of thousands of different Chinese neighborhoods. To provide products like these (and many others), it has developed its own capabilities system, very different from Apple’s. Haier’s system combines consumer-responsive innovation, operational excellence, the management of local distribution in a variety of regions, and on-demand production and delivery. Like Apple, Haier applies its capabilities to a broad portfolio of products and services. These include water-quality monitoring for cities in China, interior design for new homeowners there, and microcredit lending for Chinese purchasers who need it. Despite the variance within the portfolio, all the offerings are fitting for a global innovator and solutions provider from a large emerging economy. Haier’s capabilities will also fit its expanding global portfolio after its planned purchase of GE’s appliance business.
Staying true to your identity doesn’t mean becoming complacent or losing your ability to change. It means using your strengths as a guide as you move through a rapidly changing world. When the entire company focuses on a specific way of creating value, employees are not easily distracted. They can concentrate on differentiating the enterprise in ways that naturally outpace their competitors’ efforts.
Translate the strategic into the everyday
The companies we studied focus on a few capabilities that are worth their full attention, and devote themselves to making them excellent — rather than supporting dozens of capabilities that merely have to be pretty good. To develop these capabilities, the companies often blueprint them (designing in detail how they will work). They continuously build them out with small management changes (we call these “point interventions”) and with regular breakthrough innovations in their own technologies and practices. They bring these capabilities to scale by combining tacit (ingrained) and explicit (codified) knowledge. Though these capabilities tend to pay off even in their early stages of development, it usually takes quite some time for them to reach full fruition. After all, if they could be created overnight, they wouldn’t be worth very much, because anyone could copy them.
We found many remarkable capabilities among the companies we studied, and few, if any, of them reside within a single function. Instead of aiming for functional excellence or external benchmarks, these capability builders make their processes and practices their own. If you ask people at Starbucks what they know about the customer experience, ask people at Danaher how they manage postmerger integration, or ask people at Natura how they organize their supply chain, they respond with precision and artistry about what they do and why it matters. Each company is a broad ensemble of virtuoso performers, continually learning from one another. Their individual skills and talents become more significant when the company weaves them together to produce something unique to that enterprise.
Put your culture to work
Business leaders know that the culture of a company — the way people collectively think and behave — can either reinforce or undermine its strategy. Because culture is difficult to manipulate or control, many executives tend to regard it as an enemy of change. Indeed, at companies stuck in the strategy-to-execution gap, executives tend to complain about cultural resistance and disharmony. This complaint is a symptom of lack of strategic focus. Since the company isn’t clear about where it is going, employees don’t know where they stand.
The companies we studied, however, view their culture as their greatest asset. The details of their culture may be unique, but all of these companies have a culture that reinforces their distinctive strengths. Within them, people are committed to the work; they feel mutually accountable for results and develop a kind of collective mastery that is hard to duplicate.
You immediately sense the high level of trust and enthusiasm in these cultures in the very specific pride people have about their companies. Natura’s people refer continually to the importance of relationships in everything they do, and employees speak of their genuine love of coffee, along with the ambience of a barista-style establishment. At Qualcomm, you hear about the company’s persistence in solving complex technological problems and promoting its solutions throughout the industry, “even when others doubt us.” At Danaher, people refer to their willingness to learn from one another at a moment’s notice, taking every opportunity to raise their management game.
Cut costs to grow stronger
Companies that close the strategy-to-execution gap spend more than their competitors do on what matters most to them and as little as possible on everything else. Rather than managing to a preconceived bottom line, they treat every cost as an investment. They know that the same sum of cash could be used to fund either powerful, distinctive capabilities or incoherent activities that hold them back. They base their decisions about where to cut and where to invest on the need to differentiate themselves.
These companies don’t treat costs as something separate from strategy. Cost management itself is a way to make critical choices about identity and direction. It moves these companies to a high level of financial discipline, redirecting resources to the core capabilities that are strategically important. Even when times are tough, these companies don’t cut costs across the board. They find ways to double down on their strategic priorities and cut everything else.
CEMEX, a global building materials company, cut most expenses to the bone when, along with the rest of its industry, it suffered during the 2008 housing crisis and the recession that followed. But even in the midst of a threatening debt crisis, CEMEX continued to develop its internal knowledge-sharing platform, an investment in technology and training that other companies might have considered superfluous. Doing so allowed the company not just to sell cement, which is a commodity, but to offer guidance to its customers (such as home builders and small municipal governments, often in emerging economies) about materials, construction financing, and urban design and development. CEMEX’s leaders knew that its return to growth depended on maintaining a distinctive edge with this capability.
Shape your future
Over time, most of the companies we studied have developed capabilities that take them far beyond their original ventures. They seek out higher aspirations — applying their capabilities to a broader range of challenges and loftier goals, serving the most fundamental needs and wants of their customers, and ultimately leading their own industries. These companies are relatively unthreatened by disruption, because their capabilities give them opportunities for expansion into new markets. They build on their early success to shape their future.
They tend to work hard to avoid complacency. They explicitly try to anticipate how their capabilities will need to evolve. They build privileged relationships with their key customers, creating demand instead of just following it. In the same way that beavers and earthworms (known as ecosystem engineers) transform their environment to better meet their needs, these companies stake out a dominant role in the sectors where they are clear leaders — using M&A in many cases to influence the structure of their industries.
Frito-Lay was already successful when it faced the prospect of disruptive competition in the early 1990s. It responded by investing more in its most important capabilities, dramatically cutting other costs, taking charge of the snack food retail shelf, and (for at least the second time in its history) using its prowess in distribution to gain leverage over its category that continues today. Danaher did something similar in the early 2000s, when it expanded its innovation capabilities to meet the needs of more scientific and technical businesses. In 2015, it announced a still greater effort to shape its future by splitting into two companies — one a focused science and technology company, the other a diversified industrial enterprise — each of which will benefit from capabilities systems more tailored to its business.