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Gary Hamel: New Strategist

What is the meaning of corporate strategy? Is it about getting to the front of the queue, keeping your place in the queue, or is it something different. Gary Hamel, once considered by Forbes Magazine to be ‘the world’s leading expert on business strategy’ might argue it is starting the next queue.

Gary Hamel
Gary Hamel

Very Short Biography

There are very few biographical details about Gary Hamel available. He was born in 1954, attended Andrews University. His first job was in hospital administration, but he soon started a PhD at the University of Michigan. There he met long-term collaborator, CK Prahalad. In 1983, Hamel joined the faculty of the London Business School, where he has remained to this day.

However, in 1993, we transferred from a full-time to a visiting professorship and moved to Silicon Valley, co-founding a consultancy firm, Strategos, a couple of years later, with Prahalad. This timing was clearly linked to the publication of their landmark Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, Competing for the Future in July/August 1994. It was followed later that year by the book of the same name, Competing for the Future, which became a massive seller.

This set Hamel up for a string of high-selling books, prominent HBR articles, prestigious consulting assignments, and eye watering fees on the conference circuit.

Following the sale of Strategos in 2008, Hamel founded the Management Innovation Exchange. This is an online community dedicated to innovation and disruptive thinking, that very much chimes with Hamel’s approach to strategy as disruptive. He remains influential and sought after and, as a relatively young man, seems likely to continue to influence strategic thinking for  a number of years.

Hamel’s Big Ideas

What are the ‘Big Ideas’ that managers need to be aware of? And, in particular, how can we separate out Hamel’s ideas from those of long-term collaborator, CK Prahalad, whom Pocketblog has already covered?

Here, I’d like to focus on the flavour of the ideas that seem more to arise from Hamel’s thinking. But I must emphasise that I have no insight into how the two work together andI am aware I may be misinterpreting, so welcome comments.

Core Competencies

The first big idea that Prahalad and Hamel put forward was that of core competencies. Corporations need to stop focusing on what industry thy are in, and start looking at what they can do well, as their source of competitive advantage. Hamel is fond of citing examples like Amazon and Apple, who are in the retail and consumer electronics industries respectively… or were.

Now, Amazon is a dominant player in provision of web servers, cloud storage, and data processing, whilst Apple makes much of its money today as a music vendor and software marketplace provider. It was the asset bases and the skill-sets of their people that allowed each business to grow into new markets and achieve a dominance there.

It seems to me that these examples illustrate Hamel’s particular contribution – he favours taking contrarian lines and looking for the surprising, disruptive directions of thought.

Strategic Intent

Prahalad and Hamel charted a shift in corporate strategy from the 1960s and the focus on portfolios and selecting winning product sets, to the 1980s and the focus on efficiency, continuous improvement, cost-cutting and re-engineering, and Total Quality Management (TQM) – all as means of tweaking the corporation to ever better incremental performance levels.

In the 200s, the focus needed to shift again, and in 1994, they foresaw this, under pressures of globalisation, technology shifts, changes in customer expectations, deregulation, and new entrants into markets. Corporations would increasingly need to answer long term questions about where they will be in the future. And if they don’t have the answers, then someone would surely displace them.

Companies, Hamel and Prahalad said, should no longer seek to optimise their position within a fixed market, but should rather either change the rules of their industry altogether, or go and find new markets to conquer.

Hamel distinguishes between:

  • Rule Makers
    These are the founders of their industries, who built dominance by an audacious and concerted move into a new or emerging space. Henry Ford, whom we covered two weeks ago is a great example.
  • Rule Takers
    These are the fast followers – companies that copied successful Rule Makers and also built a strong presence in the same market, largely by taking an established formula, and applying it well. Some would never catch up their rule maker. Others would find substantial improvements or deploy sufficient hunger, to overtake the incumbent leader.
  • Rule Breakers
    These are businesses that disrupted the rules by which the incumbents play. They do things sufficiently differently to rock the market and change it forever. Some have been driven by technological advances, but others have been equally radical by simply applying new thinking. Virgin Airlines and then EasyJet each disrupt the British Airways near-monopoly n the UK, for example.

Strategy as Revolution

Nowhere is this clearer than in Hamel’s 1996 solo HBR article, ‘Strategy as Revolution‘. It seems to me that this article really set the scene for ten years later when Hamel co-founded the Management Innovation Exchange (MIX). Here, he put forward ten principles to consider, if you want to create a truly innovative strategy. I’ll pick out four:

  1. Distinguish between ritualised, calendar-driven strategic planning from the true practice of challenge and investigation that leads to real strategy.
  2. Harness revolutionary ideas throughout the company, because many of the staunchest defenders of old and comfortable orthodoxies are at the top of the organisation.
  3. Don’t worry about making change. Instead, focus on engagement with the people who can make the change happen.
  4. Embrace surprise: you don’t need to plan the whole route or even be sure of the ultimate destination. The direction is the strategy.

Conclusion

It’s too soon to write a conclusion on Hamel. His focus on disruption has helped many businesses change, but it is not clear whether he is riding the wave, or controlling the wave machine. If you want a constant stream of stimulation and challenge though, it is well worth checking out and even participating in his Management Innovation Exchange.

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