Our press seems to be warning us of business threats lurking behind every corner. Hiding behind every tree and politicians appear a little like Dad’s Army’s Corporal Jones (played brilliantly by the late Clive Dunn), looking nervously left and right before crying out ‘Don’t panic’ amid their panic.
Not many business books, few academics, fewer MBAs, and almost no business gurus give us solutions or the ability to prepare for these hidden business threats. However, help is at hand – strategic insight is available. Businesses do have someone who can show them how to cope with hidden business threats, someone who has been doing so not just for a few recessions but for millennia.
On the East African Serengeti plains, threats and strategies to avoid them interact daily. The stakes are high – if the danger succeeds, the prey is somebody’s lunch. If the threat fails, the predator starves. We may lose our job in business, but we can usually find another. On the Serengeti, life is more precarious, and the strategies to deal with threats are a matter of life and death.
One of the global experts in threat management is Serengeti’s zebra. This peripatetic grazer makes a fabulous meal for a pride of lions, so the threat is ever-present – every moment of the day, but especially around dawn and dusk when the crepuscular lions are most active in their hunting. The zebra’s difficulty is that he knows the lions are present but does not know when they will strike – he has to be constantly alert and ready with his survival strategies. Fortunately, the adept zebra has six strategies for coping with this ever-present risk. Therefore, six lessons in strategy for the modern threatened business. The key to the zebra’s success is choosing which strategy to use on which occasion.
Sometimes the right thing to do with a business threat is to face it head-on and fight. The zebra is well equipped to do so with razor-sharp teeth and a powerful equine kick that would crush a lion’s skull if it connected correctly. Regrettably, our Boardrooms are often too full of testosterone, and ‘fight’ becomes the first or the default threat strategy rather than just one from an armoury of possible strategies.
A rapid threat-inspired market exit may well be the best option. The zebra is a good sprinter and an excellent medium distance runner with its powerful equine traits. They can accelerate from trouble where they judge that to be the most effective strategy. The critical skill is in the judgement – when is flight the correct answer and when is it not?
Here the zebra joins with other zebra forming a visual cacophony of stripes that confuse the predator – these are the strategies of the conglomerate, the multibrand food giants, the codesharing airlines, the mergers, and alliances. Again, the zebra has the wisdom to know when to flock and when not to. By contrast, we often hear of the 1/3 – 1/3 – 1/3 of acquisitions – 1/3 fail, 1/3 are walking wounded, only 1/3 succeed – our business wisdom has a somewhat less successful track record.
Sometimes the correct answer is to stay still. Dozens of pairs of zebra eyes, ears, and nostrils assess the available information. Freeze is only a temporary strategy before moving onto another strategy, but it is the opposite of a knee-jerk reaction for the zebra. If you were to Freeze for too long, in analysis paralysis, and your life is in danger, freeze for an insufficient time; you may run straight into the lioness ambush party because you failed to assess the scenario adequately.
Rather than huddle together to confuse the threatening predator, the zebras burst out over a 360-degree range. The predators cannot follow everyone, so they have to make a decision which to chase – if they are lucky, they may get one whilst all the others survive. We have witnessed the breakup of once large companies into multiple smaller businesses – remember Hanson, Tomkins, and Tyco? We have seen divisions and sub-units spun off by MBOs and private equity purchases. Fragment is a bona fide business response to a threat.
Here is a strategy that we, the homo sapiens, excel at and often outdo the zebra in its execution. With the strategy of frolic, the zebra panics. They rear up, bumping into each other with zebra running in different directions in a chaotic melee. There is lots of noise, lots of activity, lots of effort but no discernible direction and no positive outcome. For the zebra, it is the strategy of frolic; for human business, we usually call it a re-organisation.
In ‘Strategies of the Serengeti,’ I show with copious examples that these strategies are almost timeless – they have been operating for the zebra and human business for as long as we can remember. We never seem to learn. The zebra seems adept at choosing wisely between the first five, and his survival is a testament to his ability to make the right choice. In business, we seem to have our favourite to which we default, or we may seek to choose between two strategies, but rarely does a Board have the scope to seek survival from business threats as broadly as the zebra. The threats are presently apparently lurking all around us; choose wisely. Perhaps considering the actions of this successful threat avoidance expert could aid our choice and accentuate our business threat survival possibilities.