Thursday, May 07, 2009

Case Competition 2 – Business Intel

This Saturday, my team will be competing in the UH-Victoria MBA Case Competition. It’s the culmination of the Strategic Management course, which is itself the capstone course of the program. Fourteen teams will be competing, presenting the results of fifteen weeks of research, analysis, and developed recommendations for company strategy. Along the way, our team has learned and reinforced some interesting lessons about the business world and people in general.

This semester’s target company is PetSmart, Inc., the leader for the pet product and services industry in the United States. I will be posting the results of the competition, and details of our analysis and recommendations on Stolen Thunder after the competition is over, but for now I want to note that the company was remarkable for its combination of smart moves and missed opportunities, of keen insights and odd missteps. This is generally because like all companies, PetSmart is made up of its people and is the combination of their talents, efforts, and inspiration. In their specific case, most of PetSmart’s strategic decisions reflect the fact that all of the senior management were hand-picked by CEO Philip Francis. When you do that, you get a group which is loyal, almost always in agreement, and committed to the CEO’s strategy, but you also lose the perspective of differing opinions and the chance to test assumptions, or in PetSmart’s case especially, the follow-through to make sure your strategy is fully effective. PetSmart is generally in good shape and is being run pretty well, but even so my team found several areas where the company could maximize its advantage or avoid potentially critical problems – and in most cases these opportunities seemed obvious to us from the company and industry environment and resources available.

Sometimes it comes from a proprietary way of thinking, a desire to make sure that a company keeps control of its plans and operations, so that open discussion is lost in the interest of protecting company strategy. Other times, though, it’s an unfortunate exercise of human pique, of refusing to consider alternatives or suggestions in the misguided belief that no additional perspective is needed or useful. And that attitude is mighty common. What amazes me after studying business at the macro level for a couple years, is not that some businesses get into trouble, but that every business will sooner or later face a crisis that was largely avoidable, or miss an opportunity that could have significantly improved its financial health. This does not happen through lack of ability, but is the result of strategic choices made but not revisited.

People outside business often imagine that they understand the theory and practice of high-level corporate strategy, or at least they believe the talking heads in government and the media who tell them that they understand business better than people with decades of industry experience and top-level education in the field. This is just one reason why Op-Eds and government plans are generally not able to effectively resolve business strategy problems; they are making assumptions and jumping to conclusions. This of course would give the reader pause when considering my own column, as this would reasonably challenge my own statements and judgments, which brings me to my general recommendation for businessmen and anyone interested in financial health, whether for an individual, a company, or for the nation. Use your own mind and experience in making decisions, but it’s generally important to consider as many relevant contributions as you can find. The common factor in the situations at GM, Chrysler, AIG, Merrill Lynch, and so many other companies which have run into serious trouble of late, is an insular culture that self-promotes, increasing confidence in its own strategies but ignoring potentially vital warning signs and alternatives that a simple Deming loop process could have provided. Come to that, such behavior is all too common, and the results from such assumptions all but unavoidable.

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