Adapt or Die

The only certainty about any market is that it is in a state of permanent change. Some markets change very quickly, others much more slowly; but change is both continual and remorseless.

For businesses, of all types and sizes, adapting to market change is fundamental to on-going sustainability; and exploiting that change is critical for future growth and success. However, even some of the largest players misread the signs and get it wrong.

Think about Nokia; not very long ago the giant in mobile phones. Now Nokia is struggling against the likes of Apple and the smartphone; it just didn’t adapt soon enough.

Think about Comet, the now defunct retailer of white goods and brown goods; it didn’t adapt its traditional retail business model to embrace the on-line revolution. By contrast, Dixons Retail plc has reinvented itself several times. It started out as a camera and photographic retailer, based on in-store concessions. It progressively moved into brown goods, launched PC World as a retailer of computer hardware, moved into white goods, through the acquisition of Currys, and developed a huge on-line presence in parallel to its retail stores. It’s now Europe’s largest specialist electrical retailing and services company; and it has created massive competitive advantage, with which the likes of Comet just couldn’t compete.

So here are three interesting and different examples of how businesses have adapted to market change. Comet didn’t adapt and collapsed. Dixons Retail has continually adapted and, from small beginnings, is now a leading European retailer. Nokia didn’t adapt soon enough and has been left behind, with an enormous challenge ahead of it. But, of course that was the story of Apple. Apple lost its way a few years ago and came back with avengeance. But it came back through technical innovation that was at the cutting edge. So it actually drove market change rather than adapted to it; and that’s very difficult indeed.

Sadly, the world of industry and commerce has a huge graveyard of businesses that failed to adapt to changing markets; and, whilst there have been some spectacular corporate failures over the years, the overwhelming majority are small and medium sized businesses. So why do so many SMEs fail to adapt?

I’ve spent many years working with and supporting SMEs through periods of change and transformation and, in my experience, there are probably three critical factors.

The first is that many SMEs are actually very isolated from the markets they serve. They are minor players with small market shares and the only part of the market that is visible to them is that fraction, with which they regularly engage. They often don’t have sufficient budgets to fund professional market research and they tend to be poorly supported, in this respect, by larger customers and suppliers, who are frequently much better informed. So they are just out of the loop, unless they make a concerted effort not to be; and that leads me to the second reason.

The second reason is that many owner managers and directors of SMEs are too focused on the day to day issues of running their businesses and have a strong tendency to micro manage. Because they don’t empower their key employees, they don’t have the time to look over the horizon to see what’s going on in the wider market. It’s a vicious circle that leads to an introverted culture, within the business, and a strong tendency to remain within personal comfort zones.

The third reason revolves around skills and experience. Very often, owners and directors of SMEs may have backgrounds in sales, production, logistics, accountancy, operations, etc. However, they may not have broader based commercial or strategic skills and may, therefore, simply not recognise the importance of market intelligence or the need to adapt to changes that are taking place in their markets. In practice, once those changes have become obvious, they may respond but often at a very late stage, by which time they have lost a considerable amount of competitive advantage and are well and truly on the back foot, fighting for survival.

Having identified the problem faced by many SMEs, what can they do about it?

The answer is not simple because most of them can’t fund expensive market research; and moving ahead with a change programme that has not been properly evaluated could be even more risky than doing nothing. This isn’t a problem that has a clear cut solution in the way that a new piece of machinery could solve a productivity issue, at a known cost.

The main change that owners and directors of SMEs need to try and make is to put aside some time every week or every month to look over the parapet and see what’s going on in the wider market. Managing a business isn’t just about working in the business, addressing the various daily chores and tasks. It’s also about working on the business; monitoring progress and developing the strategy. Part of this should also include looking at the wider market and trying to pick up the trends and developments, within it. Talking to customers, suppliers, competitors, trade associations and providers of professional services can all help build up knowledge and information. The trade press and market surveys from organisations like Mintel and Keynote are good sources of information. Reading the business sections of the daily papers will provide an awareness of general business sentiment and trends. Attending trade conferences and exhibitions is also an important source of market intelligence.

All of this needs to stimulate discussion and debate within your own management team. But it all takes up time and to find that time, you’ll probably have to do less micro management, give more responsibility to your key people and stand back more. Ironically, you may well find that your business runs much more efficiently as a result. Over the years, I’ve found, time and again, that owner managers and directors, who micro manage and don’t stand back, become the main obstacle to growth and sustainability. In extreme cases, I’ve seen businesses collapse as a result.

By being better informed, you can start to see where the market opportunities are emerging, where the threats are developing and where the trends are heading. So you can then look at your own business and start to think about the general direction it is going in and whether this is exposing it to greater threats or positioning it to exploit emerging opportunities. In order to minimise the threats and maximise the opportunities, you may need to rethink your strategy and business plan; or in some cases actually develop a strategy and business plan.

For many owner managers and directors of SMEs, this may be taking you outside your comfort zone but it’s too important to ignore. So if you’re in this position, you really should bring in outside support. This could be in the form of a non-executive director or it could be via a business consultant or mentor. The way you do it is of less importance than the fact that you have available sound advice and support provided by a rounded business professional with a successful and relevant track record.

The objection to this is usually the cost; and yes there is a cost. But with the right person that cost will be repaid many times over, as your business’s success and sustainability grow. Successful SMEs are increasingly widening their horizons through some form of external support and once they’ve taken that leap, few revert back to the previous isolation that undermined their ability to adapt to the circumstances of an ever changing market.

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