Afghanistan’s Fall Was Foreseeable

After 20 years of American occupation, the Taliban retook Afghanistan in a matter of days. Pundits across the news channels are expressing extreme surprise. But they should not be surprised, this speed of change was entirely predictable. The chaos in Afghanistan may seem a world away, but this unfortunate situation can offer 2 significant lessons for business.

Lesson #1 – Failure (change) always happens faster than we expect.

It took 35 years to build the infrastructure for VHS tapes, then DVDs, to become a big market. We had to open a lot of stores, and put a lot of machines in homes. Then that all became pretty much worthless in 18 months when streaming came along. We used travel agents to book air flights and hotels for 40 years, but they practically all disappeared in a year when we could book on-line. We were ardent radio listeners until iTunes and streaming services pushed radio further toward obsolescence in 6 months when the pandemic magnified these trends. Radio consumption in cars came to an abrupt halt when commuting stopped.

Fringe competitors are constantly trying to become mainstream. They never give up.  Innovators keep trying new ways to serve our customers. Then, when there’s a shift in technology, regulation or another major market component they leap forward in a huge step overtaking the marketplace. The Taliban never went away. They kept getting better and waited until the USA announced its planned withdrawal. That created the opportunity and in one big step they leapt forward. Business leaders continually believe that markets will shift gradually. Leaders underestimate how well fringe competitors are prepared to move forward, and leaders fail to anticipate how quickly customers will shift buying patterns (like Afghan troops dropping their guns and fleeing.)

It’s not gradual. Change happens fast. If you see a change on the horizon, don’t think it’ll come slowly. Think like the fellow pushed off a 20 story building.  At the twelfth story it’s not “so far so good,” but rather “we better prepare for disaster.” When change is going to happen, pack your parachute. Figure out how you’ll keep pushing forward. Or you’ll find a swift, hard landing.

Lesson #2 – You are either growing, or you are dying. There is no “maintenance, status quo.”

Despite two decades fighting in Afghanistan, by no measure was America becoming more popular. America’s image, trade, world standing were not improving in Afghanistan. America was fighting merely to maintain. Watch “Charlie Wilson’s War” and it’s evident America had no plans to “heap any love” on Afghanistan. No schools, agricultural assistance, preservation of mosques or other religious sites, family assistance programs, immigration. America just kept working to preserve the situation after killing Osama bin Laden. The relationship wasn’t growing, improving, becoming something beneficial to both sides. Without growth in the relationship it was deteriorating. Afghans were increasingly weary of occupation, and in a great sense ready for change.

Too often, business leaders think they don’t need to focus on growth. According to recent Gartner research only 56% of chief executives see Growth as the top priority for their firms. They don’t think they need to think about how to launch new solutions, new services, new opportunities to please their customers. They drift into preserving the status quo business, perhaps working on doing things a little faster, a little better, a little cheaper. But as time passes needs change. New needs emerge. Markets don’t stay the same, new competitors challenge old norms – challenge the status quo. The customer relationship deteriorates as new unmet needs aren’t addressed. If we aren’t helping the customer to grow, and thus growing ourselves, the market becomes dull, and ready for a major shift. Poised to be overtaken by something new.

We used to think we could create a market, then erect entry barriers to keep out competitors. Things like scale advantages, control of distribution, control of technology, regulatory limitations became the “moats” that would protect the business. And we thought with those protections we had “competitive advantage” allowing revenues, and profits, to go on infinitely. But that simply isn’t true. Fringe competitors are constantly attacking the “moat.” Things happen in the world creating opportunities for new solutions. A “reinvention gap” emerges as the old business becomes stale and customers are looking for something new. And fringe competitors are waiting for the opportunity to take action – and market share.

The only way you can remain vital is to constantly grow. You have to keep up with economic growth (3%/yr) and overall inflation (3%/year) just to remain even – without any return to shareholders. Add on 3 more points of growth to keep investors and you need to grow 9-10%/year just to sustain. Leaders too often take for granted that customers are happy, their particular market is “low growth” and they focus on the bottom line. Wrong, and deadly. Instead focus on the top line. You have to constantly grow revenues. It’s the only way you can remain vital with your customers, and the only route to success.

This analogy is not to belittle the catastrophic circumstances in Afghanistan. Under the Taliban most people will be denied the things I personally hold dear. It is a human tragedy.

But the story is one told all too often. Focusing on the bottom line, forgetting the need to grow your organization and your relationship with customers. And then thinking that any transition will take some time, providing ample room to react. I see these errors regularly. Think of Sears, ToysRUs, Hostess Baking, Sun Microsystems, Wang, GM/Ford/Chrysler, Motorola….. it’s a very long list of companies that made these two mistakes. As the newscasters harp on how fast Afghanistan fell, remember that this was a failure many years in the making. Lots of defend and extend behavior (military might) by America, far too little innovation and not meeting unmet needs (food, shelter, clean water, education, protection from harm.)

Are you on “cruise control” running your business?

Ask yourself,  Are you trying to defend and extend what you’ve always done? Or are you meeting unmet customer needs, helping customers to grow and in turn growing yourself? If you’re the former, get ready for a rude awakening.


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