Muzeable’s Essential Guide to Growth No. 347: Skills for the Modern Age 2 – Exploitation

Muzeable Thinking No. 10 – posted by Tim Brooks 31st May 2013

Imagination recap – jump to next sub-head if read it!

Recently I wrote about IMAGINATION – not ‘vision’ or ‘creativity’ but the ability to imagine how new things might actually create opportunity or impact (even change) for the business. I concluded that it was all too often a leadership gap, not least because it seems even woollier than creativity in a corporate world that values psychotic levels of certainty and ruthless decisiveness. It’s a world that values DOING more than THINKING and THINKING more than IMAGINING. Mulling is lost somewhere on the shared server and deep reflection is kept in a bag, in a box and most people don’t even know of its existence anymore. A corporate unicorn.


Imagination – at least superficially – appears brave and high risk versus structured analysis and ‘planning’. I would counter that given a world of complexity and uncertainty the more traditional and dare I say it parochial planning and future forecasting approaches we have grown up with only give the impression of being less fraught with challenge and doubt. Blindfolding yourself and sticking a pin on the tail of donkey is still a lottery even when you have a carefully crafted ’92-step process’ designed for the task. Further I was describing ‘corporate imagination’ and that can legitimately call on, and use, data as an input. Einstein imagined, but usually not in a data vacuum.


The key difference between creativity and imagination is that creativity is primarily an executional enabler or improvement tool – you can ‘buy it in’ or nurture it below the leadership level – CEOs don’t absolutely have to be creative – they just have to recognise and value it. Imagination is a creator, enabler and driver of strategy and growth understanding and it has to live in the C-Suite, the hot-seat even!


In search of ‘clean’ exploitation!

Today, I want to touch on another core competence essential for our difficult times – ruthless exploitation!


The ability to make the most of a short term or one off opportunity when it presents itself. The key point is in the stories we tell ourselves – knowing, better still totally acknowledging, that it might be a brief moment of lucky circumstance – a chance to fill your boots – is the success factor; the point of salience.  NB in no way is this a plea for unethical or poor behaviour. This is ‘nice’ or what I call – ‘clean’ exploitation!


A confession of mediocrity!

Let’s back up a bit. In our business lives we have probably all had one of those opportunities where the moons align and you get on a roll. As gamblers say – it’s best not to over-analyse a streak, but… my best example was as a Marketing Director in a year where one of my big competitors acquired another of my big competitors. As they merged, lost people, lost focus and lost continuity… we had one of our best years in living memory. Much to my shame… I just went with it and took too much credit. It was my great team [partly true], the plan, the ads, the digital activity etc. To be fair the team did do a good job, but the results went beyond that. Honestly, hands up if you’ve been there too?


Why is it important to own up and tell it how it is? On two levels, one is deeply strategic, one less so.


Strategically. Growth is a febrile difficult to understand thingamajig. Perhaps creating it is akin to the task of herding cats. Sustainable growth has added bells on – herding cats along the Oregon Trail! So if you aren’t brutally honest about the conditions of its occasional arrival what chance have you got of repeating or sustaining it? Understanding ‘why’ is a key to getting your GROWTH MECHANICS™ in place. This means you have discount any one-offs from your strategic thinking. The mindset must be that if you can’t repeat it [or something like it] then it ain’t going to be part of any STRATEGY or GROWTH FRAMEWORK™ that matters. Period.

On a more tactical level [and quite properly] we try to repeat stuff that works [remember you’ve sold everyone the idea that you did a great job when the ball fortuitously bounced your way!], So because some of this stuff mainly or only worked because of the lucky circumstances of your situation [merging competitors, whatever.] you are likely to hard wire mediocrity into your next 2 or 3 years of executional planning. The received wisdom – the legend in your own lunchtime, the Emperor’s new clothes moment – will be defended and abused to deliver different and inferior results. Sadly, my observation is that sometimes this is just about internal PR and personal career management.


The So What!

So whichever way you look at it – strategically or executionally – it is likely you are not doing right by the business.


If you totally acknowledge the moment and make it’s exploitation into a public ‘thing’ – a project mindset – then I would argue you will:

  • Get better results in the short term – because you give yourself permission to be ruthlessly tactical – exploitative
  • Build better long term morale and better behaviours – truth is deeply cleansing and the career BS will lessen.
  • Not create short or mid-term residual plans/activities/effects that are not beneficial to real aim of sustainable long term growth.


I know most of you would say you are already good at exploiting opportunities when they come your way and you might well be. But… this is about making exploitation a core STRATEGIC COMPETENCE and hard wiring it into analysis and thinking. Yes, we need to be able to play what’s in front of us in the current époque, but the new skill is having a really deep understanding of the context; the GROWTH MECHANICS™ of your market [this requires deep, reflective, strategic thinking] so that when EXPLOITATION is on offer you can act fast without damaging your long term growth through a random zig. Then, you need to know when the exploitation opportunity is over so you can get back to core.


Example – Apple and the billion dollar self-delusion?

It isn’t always about the small stuff either. I would – perhaps naïvely – suggest that even Apple have fallen foul of mixing up an [brilliant] exploitation opportunity  with a market position. The i-Phone was a truly gargantuan innovation breakthrough – whilst RIM slept… they created it and slotted it into the infrastructure of their greatest innovation – the i-Tunes Store business model and trail-blazed a new, premium category. But, despite the great innovation [which is clearly strategic] there was – if you did your analysis properly – a window of exploitation opportunity that went alongside it.
Only a naïve fool would have hard wired the initial hegemony into the business/growth plan with quite such confidence. The disruption would inevitably create a new category and a brutal, intensively competitive environment. Apple just had a few years start – their exploitation window. Apple is Apple, it’s why it’s so brilliant. But it is also polarising, arrogant, not quite mainstream and believes far too much of its own press. So, my view is that they didn’t really look at the future GROWTH FRAMEWORK™ honestly or brutally enough. Some of their current problems of overly-ambitious i-Phone forecasts vs current product/market realities are founded on this mis-analysis of their real situation.


An exploitation mind-set would have tempered this – if they had fessed up and said… this is a breakthrough for our business, but the next few years must be treated as a gravy train of exploitation whilst the competitors catch up and the category achieves some state of balance… I would argue that they might not be flapping around looking for sales numbers that might not be there; waiting a little too desperately for a killer innovation; watching Verizon etc. worrying about i-Phone purchasing commitments – all of which which might impact future margins etc. It would have created a GROWTH FRAMEWORK™ that would have delivered cohesion vs the current frenetic Q-by-Q rollercoaster ride. This difference between reality and self-deception is a key component of any long term strategy that will work!


So this remains short enough for a blog not an article I’ll stop there. I’d wanted to mention Games Workshop and Lord of the Rings… which is my best e.g. of hard wiring one-off exploitative growth into the plan… it always ends in a dip. But more importantly deflects even the best strategy/thinking into a potentially lucrative back street that turns into a cul-de-sac!

Next time: Skills for the Modern Age 3. The love of ambiguity.

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