Michael Porter's Big Ideas
By Keith H. Hammonds, Fast Company
The world's most famous business-school professor is fed up with
CEOs who claim that the world changes too fast for their
companies to have a long-term strategy. If you want to make a
difference as a leader, you've got to make time for strategy.
Here is how Michael E. Porter regards the business landscape:
Beginning in the mid-1980s, he more or less left the strategy world
to its own devices, focusing his attention instead on the question of
international competitiveness. He advised foreign governments on
their economic policies and headed a U.S. presidential
commission. He wrote books and papers on industry dynamics --
from ceramics manufacturing in Italy to the robotics sector in
Japan. He spoke everywhere. He was consumed by understanding
the competitive advantage of nations.
Then, in the mid-1990s, he resurfaced. "I was reading articles
about corporate strategy, too many of which began with 'Porter
said . . . and that's wrong.' " Strategy had lost its intellectual
currency. It was losing adherents. "People were being tricked and
misled by other ideas," he says.
Like a domineering parent, Porter seems both miffed by the
betrayal and pleased by his apparent indispensability. I can't turn
my back for five minutes. Well, kids, the man is back. Porter seeks
to return strategy to its place atop the executive pyramid.
Business strategy probably predates Michael Porter. Probably. But
today, it is hard to imagine confronting the discipline without
reckoning with the Harvard Business School professor, perhaps the
world's best-known business academic. His first book, Competitive
Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors
(Free Press, 1980), is in its 53rd printing and has been translated
into 17 languages. For years, excerpts from that and other Porter
works have been required reading in "Competition and Strategy,"
the first-year course that every Harvard MBA student must take.
Porter's strategy frameworks have suffered some ambivalence over
the years in academic circles -- yet they have proved wildly
compelling among business leaders around the world.
This is the paradox that Porter faces. His notions on strategy are
more widely disseminated than ever and are preached at business
schools and in seminars around the globe. Yet the idea of strategy
itself has, in fact, taken a backseat to newfangled notions about
competition hatched during the Internet frenzy: Who needs a long-
term strategy when everyone's goal is simply to "get big fast"?
With his research group, Porter operates from a suite of offices
tucked into a corner of Harvard Business School's main classroom
building. At 53, his blond hair graying, he is no longer the
wunderkind who, in his early thirties, changed the way CEOs
thought about their companies and industries. Yet he's no less
passionate about his pursuit -- and no less certain of his ability. In a
series of interviews, Porter told Fast Company why strategy still
Business keeps moving faster -- but you better make time for
It's been a bad decade for strategy. Companies have bought into an
extraordinary number of flawed or simplistic ideas about
competition -- what I call "intellectual potholes." As a result, many
have abandoned strategy almost completely. Executives won't say
that, of course. They say, "We have a strategy." But typically, their
"strategy" is to produce the highest-quality products at the lowest
cost or to consolidate their industry. They're just trying to improve
on best practices. That's not a strategy.
Strategy has suffered for three reasons. First, in the 1970s and
1980s, people tried strategy, and they had problems with it. It was
difficult. It seemed an artificial exercise. Second, and at the same
time, the ascendance of Japan really riveted attention on
implementation. People argued that strategy wasn't what was really
important -- you just had to produce a higher-quality product than
your rival, at a lower cost, and then improve that product
The third reason was the emergence of the notion that in a world of
change, you really shouldn't have a strategy. There was a real
drumbeat that business was about change and speed and being
dynamic and reinventing yourself, that things were moving so fast,
you couldn't afford to pause. If you had a strategy, it was rigid and
inflexible. And it was outdated by the time you produced it.
That view set up a straw man, and it was a ridiculous straw man. It
reflects a deeply flawed view of competition. But that view has
become very well entrenched.
The irony, of course, is that when we look at the companies that
we agree are successful, we also agree that they all clearly do have
strategies. Look at Dell, or Intel, or Wal-Mart. We all agree that
change is faster now than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Does that
mean you shouldn't have a direction? Well, probably not. For a
variety of reasons, though, lots of companies got very confused
about strategy and how to think about it.
Of course strategy is hard -- it's about making tough choices.
There's a fundamental distinction between strategy and operational
effectiveness. Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs; it's
about deliberately choosing to be different. Operational
effectiveness is about things that you really shouldn't have to make
choices on; it's about what's good for everybody and about what
every business should be doing.
Lately, leaders have tended to dwell on operational effectiveness.
Again, this has been fed by the business literature: the ideas that
emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as total quality,
just-in-time, and reengineering. All were focused on the nitty-gritty
of getting a company to be more effective. And for a while, some
Japanese companies turned the nitty-gritty into an art form. They
were incredibly competitive.
Japan's obsession with operational effectiveness became a huge
problem, though, because only strategy can create sustainable
advantage. And strategy must start with a different value
proposition. A strategy delineates a territory in which a company
seeks to be unique. Strategy 101 is about choices: You can't be all
things to all people.
The essence of strategy is that you must set limits on what you're
trying to accomplish. The company without a strategy is willing to
try anything. If all you're trying to do is essentially the same thing
as your rivals, then it's unlikely that you'll be very successful. It's
incredibly arrogant for a company to believe that it can deliver the
same sort of product that its rivals do and actually do better for
very long. That's especially true today, when the flow of
information and capital is incredibly fast. It's extremely dangerous
to bet on the incompetence of your competitors -- and that's what
you're doing when you're competing on operational effectiveness.
What's worse, a focus on operational effectiveness alone tends to
create a mutually destructive form of competition. If everyone's
trying to get to the same place, then, almost inevitably, that causes
customers to choose on price. This is a bit of a metaphor for the
past five years, when we've seen widespread cratering of prices.
There have been those who argue that in this new millennium, with
all of this change and new information, such a form of destructive
competition is simply the way competition has to be. I believe very
strongly that that is not the case. There are many opportunities for
strategic differences in nearly every industry; the more dynamism
there is in an economy, in fact, the greater the opportunity. And a
much more positive kind of competition could emerge if managers
thought about strategy in the right way.
Technology changes, strategy doesn't.
The underlying principles of strategy are enduring, regardless of
technology or the pace of change. Consider the Internet. Whether
you're on the Net or not, your profitability is still determined by the
structure of your industry. If there are no barriers to entry, if
customers have all the power, and if rivalry is based on price, then
the Net doesn't matter -- you won't be very profitable.
Sound strategy starts with having the right goal. And I argue that
the only goal that can support a sound strategy is superior
profitability. If you don't start with that goal and seek it pretty
directly, you will quickly be led to actions that will undermine
strategy. If your goal is anything but profitability -- if it's to be big,
or to grow fast, or to become a technology leader -- you'll hit
Finally, strategy must have continuity. It can't be constantly
reinvented. Strategy is about the basic value you're trying to
deliver to customers, and about which customers you're trying to
serve. That positioning, at that level, is where continuity needs to
be strongest. Otherwise, it's hard for your organization to grasp
what the strategy is. And it's hard for customers to know what you
Strategy hasn't changed, but change has.
On the other hand, I agree that the half-life of everything has
shortened. So setting strategy has become a little more
complicated. In the old days, maybe 20 years ago, you could set a
direction for your business, define a value proposition, then lumber
along pursuing that. Today, you still need to define how you're
going to be distinctive. But we know that simply making that set of
choices will not protect you unless you're constantly sucking in all
of the available means to improve on your ability to deliver.
So companies have to be very schizophrenic. On one hand, they
have to maintain continuity of strategy. But they also have to be
good at continuously improving. Southwest Airlines, for example,
has focused on a strategy of serving price-minded customers who
want to go from place to place on relatively short, frequently
offered flights without much service. That has stayed consistent
over the years. But Southwest has been extremely aggressive about
assimilating every new idea possible to deliver on that strategy.
Today, it does many things differently than it did 30 years ago --
but it's still serving essentially the same customers who have
essentially the same needs.
The error that some managers make is that they see all of the
change and all of the new technology out there, and they say,
"God, I've just got to get out there and implement like hell." They
forget that if you don't have a direction, if you don't have
something distinctive at the end of the day, it's going to be very
hard to win. They don't understand that you need to balance the
internal juxtaposition of change and continuity.
The thing is, continuity of strategic direction and continuous
improvement in how you do things are absolutely consistent with
each other. In fact, they're mutually reinforcing. The ability to
change constantly and effectively is made easier by high-level
continuity. If you've spent 10 years being the best at something,
you're better able to assimilate new technologies. The more
explicit you are about setting strategy, about wrestling with trade-
offs, the better you can identify new opportunities that support
your value proposition. Otherwise, sorting out what's important
among a bewildering array of technologies is very difficult. Some
managers think, "The world is changing, things are going faster --
so I've got to move faster. Having a strategy seems to slow me
down." I argue no, no, no -- having a strategy actually speeds you
Beware the myth of inflection points.
The catch is this: Sometimes the environment or the needs of
customers do shift far enough so that continuity doesn't work
anymore, so that your essential positioning is no longer valid. But
those moments occur very infrequently for most companies. Intel's
Andy Grove talks about inflection points that force you to revisit
your core strategy. The thing is, inflection points are very rare.
What managers have done lately is assume that they are
everywhere, that disruptive technologies are everywhere.
Discontinuous change, in other words, is not as pervasive as we
think. It's not that it doesn't exist. Disruptive technologies do exist,
and their threat has to be on everyone's mind. But words like
"transformation" and "revolution" are incredibly overused. We're
always asking the companies we work with, "Where is that new
technology that's going to change everything?" For every time that
a new technology is out there, there are 10 times that one is not.
Let's look again at the Internet. In Fast Company two years ago,
we would have read that the Internet was an incredibly disruptive
technology, that industry after industry was going to be
transformed. Well, guess what? It's not an incredibly disruptive
technology for all parts of the value chain. In many cases, Internet
technology is actually complementary to traditional technologies.
What we're seeing is that the companies winning on the Internet
use the new technology to leverage their existing strategy.
Great strategists get a few (big) things right.
Change brings opportunities. On the other hand, change can be
confusing. One school of thought says that it's all just too
complicated, that no manager can ever solve the complex problem
that represents a firmwide strategy today. So managers should use
the hunt-and-peck method of finding a strategy: Try something, see
if it works, then proceed to the next. It's basically just a succession
of incremental experiments.
I say that method will rarely work, because the essence of strategy
is choice and trade-offs and fit. What makes Southwest Airlines so
successful is not a bunch of separate things, but rather the strategy
that ties everything together. If you were to experiment with
onboard service, then with gate service, then with ticketing
mechanisms, all separately, you'd never get to Southwest's
You can see why we're in the mess that we're in. Competition is
subtle, and managers are prone to simplify. What we learn from
looking at actual competition is that winning companies are
anything but simple. Strategy is complex. The good news is that
even successful companies almost never get everything right up
front. When the Vanguard Group started competing in mutual
funds, there was no Internet, no index funds. But Vanguard had an
idea that if it could strip costs to the bone and keep fees low -- and
not try to beat the market by taking on risk -- it would win over
time. John Bogle understood the essence of that, and he took
advantage of incremental opportunities over time.
You don't have to have all the answers up front. Most successful
companies get two or three or four of the pieces right at the start,
and then they elucidate their strategy over time. It's the kernel of
things that they saw up front that is essential. That's the antidote to
Great strategies are a cause.
The chief strategist of an organization has to be the leader -- the
CEO. A lot of business thinking has stressed the notion of
empowerment, of pushing down and getting a lot of people
involved. That's very important, but empowerment and
involvement don't apply to the ultimate act of choice. To be
successful, an organization must have a very strong leader who's
willing to make choices and define the trade-offs. I've found that
there's a striking relationship between really good strategies and
really strong leaders.
That doesn't mean that leaders have to invent strategy. At some
point in every organization, there has to be a fundamental act of
creativity where someone divines the new activity that no one else
is doing. Some leaders are really good at that, but that ability is not
universal. The more critical job for a leader is to provide the
discipline and the glue that keep such a unique position sustained
Another way to look at it is that the leader has to be the guardian of
trade-offs. In any organization, thousands of ideas pour in every
day -- from employees with suggestions, from customers asking
for things, from suppliers trying to sell things. There's all this
input, and 99% of it is inconsistent with the organization's strategy.
Great leaders are able to enforce the trade-offs: "Yes, it would be
great if we could offer meals on Southwest Airlines, but if we did
that, it wouldn't fit our low-cost strategy. Plus, it would make us
look like United, and United is just as good as we are at serving
meals." At the same time, great leaders understand that there's
nothing rigid or passive about strategy -- it's something that a
company is continually getting better at -- so they can create a
sense of urgency and progress while adhering to a clear and very
A leader also has to make sure that everyone understands the
strategy. Strategy used to be thought of as some mystical vision
that only the people at the top understood. But that violated the
most fundamental purpose of a strategy, which is to inform each of
the many thousands of things that get done in an organization
every day, and to make sure that those things are all aligned in the
same basic direction.
If people in the organization don't understand how a company is
supposed to be different, how it creates value compared to its
rivals, then how can they possibly make all of the myriad choices
they have to make? Every salesman has to know the strategy --
otherwise, he won't know who to call on. Every engineer has to
understand it, or she won't know what to build.
The best CEOs I know are teachers, and at the core of what they
teach is strategy. They go out to employees, to suppliers, and to
customers, and they repeat, "This is what we stand for, this is what
we stand for." So everyone understands it. This is what leaders do.
In great companies, strategy becomes a cause. That's because a
strategy is about being different. So if you have a really great
strategy, people are fired up: "We're not just another airline. We're
bringing something new to the world."