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The Brittle vs. Ductile Strategy for Business

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Companies and startups often pursue a path of “brittle strategy” and in it’s execution, it can be translated, in layman terms, into something like this:
Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? On his way down past each floor, he kept saying to reassure himself: “So far so good… so far so good… so far so good.” How you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land!
– Movie : La Haine (1995)

Brittle strategy :

A brittle strategy is based on a number of conditions and assumptions, once violated, collapses almost instantly or fails badly in some way. That does not mean a brittle strategy is weak, as the condition can either be verified true in some cases and the payoff from using this strategy tends to be higher. However the danger is that such a strategy provides a false sense of security in which everything seems to work perfectly well, until everything suddenly collapses, catastrophically and in a flash, just like a stack of cards falling. Employing such approach, enforces a binary resolution: your strategy will break rather than be compromising, simply because there is no plan B.
From observation, the medium to large corporate company strategies’ landscape is often dominated by brittle “control” strategies as opposed to robust or ductile strategies. Both approach have their strong parts and applicability to corporate win the corporate competition game. The key to most brittle strategy, especially the control one, is to learn every opponent option precisely and allocate minimum resources into neutralizing them while in the meantime, accumulating a decisive advantage at critical time and spot. Often, for larger corporations, this approach is driven by the tendency to feed the beast within the company that is to say the tendency is to allocate resources to the most successful and productive department / core product / etc.. within the company. While this seems to make sense, the perverse effect is that it is quite hard to shift the resources in order to be able to handle market evolution correctly. As a result of this tendency, the company gets blindsided by a smaller player which in turn uses a similar brittle strategy to take over the market.The startup and small company ecosystem sometimes/often opts for brittle strategy out of necessity due to economic constraints and ecosystem limitations because they do not have the financial firepower to compete with larger players over a long stretch of time, they need to approach things from a different angle. These entities are forced to select an approach that allows them to abuse the inertia and risk averse behavior of the larger corporations. They count on the tendency of the larger enterprise to avoid leveraging brittle strategies, made to counter other brittle strategies. These counter strategies often fail within bigger market ecosystem as they are guaranteed to fail against the more generic ones. Hence, small and nimble company try to leverage the opportunity to gain enough market share before the competition is able to react.

Ductile strategy :

The other pendant of the brittle strategy is the ductile strategy. This type of strategy is designed to have fewer critical points of failure, while allowing to survive if some of the assumptions are violated. This does not mean the strategy is generally stronger, as the payoff is often lower than a brittle one – it’s just a perceived safer one at the outset. This type of approach, will fail slowly under attack while making alarming noises. To use an analogy, this is similar to the the approach employed with a suspension bridge using stranded cables. When such a bridge is on the brink of collapse, will make loud noises allowing people to escape danger. A Company can leverage, if the correct tools and processes are correctly put in place, similar warning signs to correct and adapt in time, mitigating and avoiding catastrophic failure.
To a certain extend, the pivot strategy for startups offer a robust option to identify the viability of a different hypothesis about the product, business model, and engine of growth. It basically allows the Company to iterate quickly fast over the brittle strategy until a successful one is discovered. Once found, the Company can spring out and try to take over the market using this asymmetrical approach. For a bigger structure, using the PST model combined with Mapping provides an excellent starting point. As long as you have engineered within your company and marketed the correct monitoring system to understand where you stand at anytime. Effectively, you need to build a layered, strategic approach via core, strategic and venture efforts combined with a constant monitoring of your surroundings. This allow you to take risks with calculated exposure. By having the correct understanding of your situation (situational awareness), you will be able to mitigate threats and react quickly via built-in agility. However, we cannot rely solely on techniques that allow your strategy to take risk while being able to fail gracefully. We need techniques that do so without insignificant added cost. The cost differential between stranded and solid cables in a bridge is small, and like bridges, the operational cost between ductile and brittle strategy should be low. However, this topic is beyond the scope of this blog post but I will endeavor to expand on the subject in a subsequent post.
Ductile vs Brittle :
The defining question between the two type of strategies is rather simple: which strategy approach will guarantee a greater chance of success? From a market point of view this question often turns into : is there a brittle strategy that defeats the robust strategy?
By estimating the percentage of success a brittle strategy has against the other strategies in use, weighted by how often each strategy is used by each competitor you can determinate the chances of success.Doing this analysis is a question of understanding the overall market meta competition. There will be brittle strategies that are optimal at defeating other brittle strategies but will fail versus robust. However, the robust one will succeed against certain brittle categories but will be wiped out with other. Worse still, there is often the recipe for a degenerate competitive ecosystem if any one strategy is too good or counter strategies are too weak overall. Identifying the right strategy is an extremely difficult exercise. Companies do not openly expose their strategy/ies and/or often they do not have a clear one in the first place. As a result, if there is a perception that the brittle strategy defeats the ductile one, therefore the brittle strategy approach ends up dominating the landscape. Often strategy consulting companies rely on this perception in order to sell the “prêt a porter” strategy of the season. Furthermore, ductile strategies tend to be often dismissed as not only do they require a certain amount of discipline, but also the effort required in its success can be daunting. It requires a real time understanding of the external and internal environment. It relies on the deployment of a fractal organisation that enables fast and risky moves, while maintaining a robust back end. And finally, it requires the capability and stomach to take risk beyond maintaining the status quo. As a result, the brittle strategy often ends up more attractive because of its simplicity, more so that it’s benefit from an unconscious bias.

The Brittle strategy bias:

Brittle strategies have problems “in the real world”. They are often unpredictable due to unforeseen events occurring. The problem is we react and try to fix things going forward based on previous experience. But the next thing is always a little different. Economists and businessmen have names for the strategy of assuming the best and bailing out if the worst happens, like “picking pennies in front of steamrollers” and “capital decimation partners”.
It is a very profitable strategy for those who are lucky and the “bad outcome” does not happen. Indeed, a number of “successful” companies have survived the competitive market using these strategies and because the (hi)story is often only told by the winner’s side only, we inadvertently overlook those that didn’t succeed, which in turn means a lot of executives suffer from the siren of the survival bias, dragging more and more corporations into similar strategy alongside them.
In the end all this lot ends up suffering from a more generalized red queen effect whereby they spend a large amount of effort standing still (or copying their neighbors approach). This is why when a new successful startup emerges, you see a plethora of similar companies claiming to apply a similar business model. At the moment it’s all about UBER for X and most of these variants. If they are lucky, they will end up mildly successful. But for most of them, they will fail as the larger corporations have been exposed and probably bought into the hype of the approach.
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About the Author
This article was written by Benoit Hudzia of Reflections of the Void, a blog about life, Engineering, Business, Research, and everything else (especially everything else). see more.

Callum Connects

Mikyung Kim, TV Commercial Producer

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Mikyung Kim is a savvy producer who runs her own TV and print production business, based in Hong Kong.

What’s your story?
I am a TV commercial and print producer working with advertising agencies and brands to bring their communication needs to the screen. My background is in film production and I started my career in Hollywood working with Oscar winning directors Michel Gondry and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Before starting my own company last year to produce content directly with agencies and brands, I was with Ogilvy & Mather Hong Kong for nearly five years as the Senior Producer and Head of TV running the film production department.

What excites you most about your industry?
How it’s constantly evolving! Every day is different and it’s certainly never boring. I love that it’s a creative industry and that my job involves talking to people with creative minds on how we can bring a story on paper to life. It’s exciting that the advertising industry places high value on the creativity and effectiveness of content. I’ve produced a few commercials that creatively push the envelope with fun and sometimes wild ideas that have converted into positive brand awareness. Ever heard of KFC Finger Lickin’ Good…Nail Polish that yes, tastes like chicken? https://www.adweek.com/creativity/kfc-just-made-edible-finger-lickin-good-nail-polish-yeah-tastes-chicken-171245/

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in Seoul and raised in Hong Kong until graduating from high school at HKIS. I spent my university years in Boston at Emerson College and worked in Los Angeles at Anonymous Content and Partizan Entertainment. But on a brief visit back to Hong Kong in 2010, I decided to move back and continue my career here, and it was the best decision I ever made.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Hong Kong is my home so it will always be my favourite city for business and for me personally. What I love about Hong Kong is that while I am based here, I can actually work with agencies and brands from anywhere in APAC. If I need to attend an important meeting, I can just hop on a quick flight easily. I spent most of 2017 working in Seoul with Korean agency Cheil and Samsung, and currently I am working with Japanese agency ADK and Toyota based in Singapore.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Fake it until you become it,” from Amy Cuddy’s TED talk. Worth a watch. This helped me early in my career when I felt like I was under qualified for the job I was in. I learned to fake my confidence and fake a powerful body language until I truly felt that confidence became something real. It was nerve wracking at first but it worked and now I don’t have to fake it.

Who inspires you?
My friends. Noelle who worked part time jobs while being a full time student to pay her own tuition while we were in college together. Osti who is a lawyer focused on supporting developing nations and a board member of Redress, an environmental NGO working to reduce waste in the fashion industry. Vanessa who runs a real estate company, co-owns the gym Crossfit Asphodel, started a health foods business called Quo and NGO The Keep Moving Project to promote wellness in our community. Cathy who will be the first Asian woman to direct a big budget superhero film starring Margot Robbie with Warner Bros and DC. And too many more to name!

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
5.2 million plastic bottles are thrown away in Hong Kong every day. Plastic pollution is a major issue for the environment and we as responsible citizens can do our small part by reducing our consumption of unnecessary plastic. I do mine by having a water filter at home and carrying my own reusable water bottle with me everywhere I go. I love the brand Hydroflask because the stainless steel material keeps water hot or cold for hours, so I don’t feel tempted to buy a cold water at 7-11 on those hot, humid days we have here.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
About five years ago I purchased my very first stock and put one month’s salary into it, which at the time was a lot of money for me. Knowing how that stock has performed now, I would have put all my savings into it.

How do you unwind?
Exercise is essential in my daily life to help clear my head and de-stress. My go to is a workout at Crossfit Asphodel, running outdoors, yoga and hiking. But a glass of red wine and live music at Soiree in Soho on Sunday night works pretty well too!

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
One of the best trips I ever took was to the island of Lombok in Indonesia. Two girl friends and I did a 3 day 2 night hiking and camping trip to summit the Mount Rinjani Volcano. It was physically challenging but mentally relaxing. There was no cellphone reception, no distractions, we had the company of nature and nights with skies full of shooting stars. It was pretty magical. We then went to the Gili Islands for a few days of scuba diving, yoga and sitting on the beach doing nothing but sipping on coconuts. That was pretty relaxing too.

Everyone in business should read this book:
“Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office” by Lois P. Frankel and “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg. Essential reads for every working woman and/or man who wants to know how to support the working women in their life.

Shameless plug for your business:
I am a TV commercial and print producer that can plug into an existing advertising agency or brand team to produce their communication needs. Many advertising agencies these days are scaling down so they have creative directors and account services but may not have an in-house producer, so I can fill that gap by becoming a part of the existing agency team. For brands that want to produce content directly without involving an agency, I can also bridge the gap by bringing my production knowledge in-house and working as part of the marketing/brand team and liaising with the other departments in the company such as product team and ecomm.

How can people connect with you?
They can email me at [email protected]
or visit my website at mkimproducer.com

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Callum Connects

Renée Ballard, Owner of Renée Ballard Communications

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Renée Ballard runs a social media agency working with business women, helping them find their business’s voice.

What’s your story?
I began my career in PR/communications ten years ago in Australia, after arriving home from two years in Dubai. In Dubai I was working for Emirates Airlines as a flight attendant and flying around the world non-stop for two years. This really sparked my interest for how people communicate. I started out as a community manager for an online advertising company, then moved into the corporate world of outdoor advertising, managing internal and external PR and communications. After having a baby four years ago, I decided to leave the safety net of corporate, and stride out on my own. I now run a social media agency and I specialise in working with business women, helping to find their business’ voice so they can use social media to achieve their business goals.

What excites you most about your industry?
I love the open accessibility online provides. It’s free for businesses to get online and connect with their target audience. Twenty years ago, advertising and PR was insanely expensive and quite elitist, but through incredible platforms like Facebook or Twitter, any business can connect with who is looking for their product/solution. Social media is particularly effective for small businesses because they have the edge when it comes to authenticity and a clear voice.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’m in Hong Kong because I’m a trailing spouse. I know it’s such a daggy term, but I love it, it makes me sound so dedicated to my husband! Alas, we came to Hong Kong for my husband’s work. He’s the Design Director of Asia for an international retail design agency. We’ve been here for almost two years and it’s been a huge learning curve in terms of business and culture. We love the fast-paced nature of Hong Kong and the fact that everything is open late – it suits me perfectly because I’m nocturnal.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
That’s easy, Hong Kong. It’s the perfect blend of start-ups and mothership-sized institutions. I love the small business side, watching the collaborations between workshare spaces with galleries, networking groups and foodies; it’s a hothouse of creative partnerships here.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
When you’re are feeling scared about your next step, lean in and feel the difference. Is it fear mixed with excitement? Or fear mixed with dread? Always go with the former and cut loose the latter.

Who inspires you?
I love Tamara Mellon (Jimmy Choo founder). She has created multiple empires and she never stops trying new business models and pushing her limits. It helps that I love shoes too.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
I just turned 40 years old. At best, I’m probably halfway through my life. It makes me constantly question, “Am I where I want to be?”

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would have asked more questions to the people I looked up to, and listened less to the people telling me I won’t achieve my goals.

How do you unwind?
In this day and age, it’s scandalous to say, but I love sunbaking. At any chance, you’ll find me poolside, laying in the sun in a trance-like state.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Northern Danang in Vietnam. We were there at Christmas, at the foot of the mountains and it was beautiful. Heaps of wildlife and jungles and enough five star resorts that I was never parched once.

Everyone in business should read this book:
‘The E Myth’ by Michael Gerber. It’s an oldie but a goodie because it succinctly outlines how to transition from a one person operation to a global business like McDonalds. Once you see how important systems and processes are, you can recognise shambolic companies a mile off.

Shameless plug for your business:
Renée Ballard Communications is a social media agency that works with business women who are ready to make social media work for them. We create effective, powerful social media strategies that are tailored to the people who will be breathing life into them. We hand on heart promise to never use annoying, marketing buzzwords and that we value laughter above everything else.

How can people connect with you?
[email protected] or www.reneeballard.com or +85296670115

Twitter handle?
@ballard_comms

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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