Sustaining growth is really hard.  Consulting firm Bain & Company just published the statistic that only 12% of companies were able to grow revenues and profits more than 5.5% from 1998 to 2008 (read more in the Harvard Business Review downloadable book excerpt Profit from the Core.) Given that all companies want to grow, it seems remarkable so many stall.

But while most managers blame lack of growth on the economy, truth is we can learn a lot from those who DID sustain growth.  What doesn't work, and what does, can be found by starting with a great OpEd column about Microsoft published in The New York Times "Microsoft's Creative Destruction." Former Microsoft Vice President Dick Brass provides insight to why Microsoft has become a market laggard in new products – despite enormous revenues, profits and new product development spending. Calling Microsoft "a clumsy, uncompetitive innovator," he says products are "lampooned" and the company is "failing." Harsh words. 

He points out that profits are almost entirely from legacy products Windows and Office.  "Microsoft has lost share in Web browsers, high-end laptops and smartphones. Despite billions in investment, its Xbox line is still at best an equal contender in the game console business."  He explains how internal managers set up false hurdles, often claiming quality was the primary issue, for ClearType and a tablet PC. He claims the internal executives "sabotaged" new projects and he blames inability to meet market needs on "internecine warfare."

But all of that could be said about Apple as well. It once was just like Microsoft.  In the 1990s Apple stopped everything but new Macs from making it to market.  Remember that the first PDA (personal digital assistant) was Apole's Newton? Killing that product became a priority for several Apple executives, and caused the ouster of then CEO John Scully

So the Microsoft described behaviors can happen anyplace. When organizations begin to focus on Defending & Extending their "core" business it leads to hurdles and growth stalls. "Operational improvements" leads to "focusing" on doing what the business always did, perhaps just a touch better (like a next generation operating system [Vista], or a new variation on Office [2007].) The culture, decision-making processes and operating cost model all are geared to doing more of the same. Without intending any downside, in fact in pursuit of improved competitiveness in the "core" products, the business begins erecting hurdles to doing anything new, or different

This problem isn't limited to Microsoft  Although we can clearly see the impact and feel pessimistic about Microsoft's future. It has afflicted many companies, and is why they cannot adjust to market shifts. Even if loaded with executives and enormous budgets for R&D, technology or marketing. Don't forget how Apple looked even worse than Microsoft in 2000.

And that's why so few companies maintain growth. The desire to do more, better, faster, cheaper of what we've always done is overwhelming. Defending & Extending the existing business always looks marginally better, and marginally less risky, than doing something new, or different. In trying to maintain growth by getting better at what you've always done – you kill it.

Why? Because Defend & Extend management does not take account of market shifts. New products, new competitors, new technologies, new business models, new customer approaches — the list is endless of variations which competitors bring to the marketplace. And these variations change the market. Trying to stay on the same course becomes suicide when customers begin moving on.

And that's where Apple has excelled. When Steve Jobs took over he quit trying to Defend & Extend the Mac platform. To the contrary, he reduced the number of Mac models.  Instead of planning based on old market share and sales, he pushed a rigorous scenario planning exercise to create a robust view of future markets – and what needs customers would like solved. He then led Apple to study competitors, both in-kind and on the fringe, to identify new markets being developed and new solutions being tested.  He then Disrupted Apple – by cutting the Mac platforms and investing heavily in other market opportunities like music (iPod and iTunes).  And he encouraged product managers to rush new products to market in order to obtain market feedback, using White Space teams to rapidly learn what would sell. And he repeated this again and again, agreeing to a joint development project with Motorola before entering into mobile phone testing and launch (iPhone.)

Microsoft's proclivity toward D&E management is putting its future at grave risk. All signs are it will become another fateful, negative statistic. But it doesn't have to be that way. Microsoft can learn a lesson from its resurrected competitor and follow The Phoenix Principle. It can escape from xBox, and other new product, second-tier status if it will get a lot more robust about scenario planning, quit acting like the only game in town and start obsessing about competition.  Disrupt its culture and decision making, and start using White Space to rapidly get new products in the market and learn how to match them with market needs to succeed!

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