Synergy is a Big Idea that has been around… forever. Or as near as makes no difference on a human scale.
In the animal world, we call it mutualism, but you know how fundamental an idea is, when your mum expressed it to you in plain language when you were just a small child. ‘The whole is greater than the sum of the parts’. That’s what synergy means. So, why is it such a widely used word in business – so much so that it has pride of place on many-a buzzword bingo card?
And there’s another question we need to get to grips with… How real are the synergy benefits that leaders so often advocate for? The fact is that the whole being greater than the sum of its parts is a nice idea – but logically, it would seem to be flawed. So, when does the concept apply?
Of all the strategic thinkers we have covered (like Igor Ansoff, Kenichi Ohmae, and Porter’s student, Kathryyn Rudi Harrigan), Michael Porter deserves a special place. His 1980 book, Competitive Strategy, transformed thinking, moving us from the pre-Porter world of strategic thinking dominated by Ansoff, to the post-Porter world that he still dominates.
Porter is an intellectual and an influencer who does not covet the easy quotability of some of his contemporaries. But the rigour of his analysis has made him all the more sought-after. His books have sold in the hundreds of thousands, and his speaking fees are legendary.
Michael Porter was born in 1947, in Michigan, and went to Princeton to study for a BSE in Aeronautical Engineering in 1969. He graduated top of his class and was inducted into the two most prestigious honor houses. He then shifted his focus to business, and went to Harvard Business School, where he received an MBA in 1971 and a PhD in Economics in 1973. From there he joined the faculty.
He remains at Harvard today, as a University Professor, and also Founding Director of Harvard Business School’s Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness, which he founded in 2001 to further his work and research.
But what you are interested in are Porter’s big ideas…
Michael Porter’s Big Ideas
Before Porter, Igor Ansoff dominated thinking on corporate strategy. His approach boiled down to choosing your market, matching your resources to meet the market’s demand, and then improving your competitiveness to increase your market share.
Michael Porter did not reject these ideas. Rather, he opened them out, approaching strategy from the perspective of the whole industry and then, later, as a national endeavour. He considered that earlier strategic thinking had become confused with simple (ahem) operational effectiveness. He argued that improving operational processes merely levelled out competitors, rather than giving them a differentiation that led to competitive advantage.
Let’s survey five big ideas that Michael Porter has given us. All remain core parts of any business education.
Primary and Secondary Activities, and the Importance of the Value Chain
Porter divided corporate activities into Primary Activities and Secondary Activities.
Primary Activities are the value chain from inbound materials to production operations, to outbound goods and their distribution, to the ‘far end of the value chain‘, marketing and sales, to customer care and after sales services. Here, Porter argued, lay the ground for competitive advantage. The key task is to integrate these into one value chain.
Secondary Activities are the business support functions, like IT, HR, Procurement, Facilities Management, and Finance. These cannot create competitive advantage They can merely enable efficiency, or act as a drag on the business.
Porter’s Five Forces
Corporations sit in a competitive environment, which creates five forces.
Porter’s current view is that a company must aim to use these forces to re-cast the rules of its industry, in its own favour.
Sources of Competitive Advantage, and the Three Competitive Strategies
Porter argued that there are two sources of competitive advantage:
Cost – being able to sell the same products or services at a lower price than your competitors, whilst maintaining profit margins
Differentiation – being able to offer products and services which your customers want, but that your competitors cannot (yet) offer
This leads him to his three competitive strategies:
Cost leadership – build the capability to produce at a lower cost than anyone else
Differentiation – find a new product or service, or enhance what you offer to make it different
Niche focus – find a profitable niche, and dominate it
Recently, we see competitors dominating their market with a fourth strategy, based on a third source of competitive advantage: deep loyalty. How does Apple dominate? Not by offering cheaper products, certainly. Although their supply chain efficiencies mean that their margins are exceptional.
And, some would argue, not by differentiation. Whilst they often lead for a short time here, their rivals also innovate, and certainly catch up quickly. Is there much a Mac can do that a PC cannot? Is there much an iPhone can do that a Samsung cannot?
And a company with as many and varied customers as Apple cannot truly be said to serve a niche.
No, I believe the source of Apple’s current dominance is largely the loyalty of its customer base, built on historic innovation, differentiation in multiple niches, and a reputation for excellence.
Like Ansoff before him, Porter sees diversification as a shrewd strategy that spreads a corporation’s risk. This maybe through product development, or business acquisition.
In deciding how to diversify, Porter proposes three tests:
Does the new industry, product set, or niche offer attractive returns on investment? Is there the opportunity to build differentiation or cost leadership?
Is the cost of entry proportionate to the likely returns? If not, the risks are too high.
Does the acquisition or the new venture leave the parties better-off? This is basically Ansoff’s concept of synergy.
The National Competitive Environment
In The Competitive Advantage of Nations, Porter fully articulated a line of thinking that placed national conditions at the heart of corporate success. A strong home base with good infrastructure and healthy competition grows successful global companies. Porter’s Diamond Model sets out four factors that affect a nation’s industries.
Michael Porter on Competitive Strategy
An old, but excellent video of Porter describing some of his main ideas.
Igor Ansoff was the pre-eminent thinker who codified the way we consider business strategy. Other strategic thinkers have since either followed him or reacted against him. His first major book, Corporate Strategy, laid the groundwork for the discipline and set the direction for Ansoff’s whole academic career.
Ansoff lived a long life, that encompassed three continents (if you include his conception in Japan). He was born to a Russian mother and US diplomat father in 1918, in Vladivostock, as Russia was becoming the Soviet Union. When the family returned to the United States, he was educated in New York, studying physics and mechanical engineering, before serving in the 1939-1945 war. On his return, he took a service scholarship and completed a PhD in applied mathematics at Brown University, in 1948.
His first job was at the Rand Corporation, where he used his mathematics to contribute to operations research and strategic management, but he became frustrated with the lack of application of his work and also by his inability to truly excel as a mathematician. Seeking a new direction, he moved to Lockheed, first as a long-range planner, then leading acquisitions and diversification, and finally, taking a senior management role, where he learned how to manage people. He was successful in leading a profitable division, but wanted something else from his life, so he deliberately left Lockheed and sought an academic role.
A series of academic appointments followed, first at Carnegie-Mellon University (from 1963), where he wrote his seminal book, Corporate Strategy, then to found the Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University (from 1969). Here, he published the paper: ‘The Concept of Strategic Management‘ that led people to refer to Ansoff as the ‘father of strategic management’. Finding the distractions of running a school not to his taste, Ansoff moved to Europe in 1975, to join the European Institute for Advanced Studies in Management, in Brussels. Here, he wrote the book that was to address the need to incorporate strategic thinking into day-to-day implementation, Strategic Management, 1n 1979. He saw this as his most important work.
Ansoff’s final academic post was back in the US, when he joined the US International University in 1983. Here he wrote the follow up to Strategic Management in 1984: Implanting Strategic Management. He retired from academic life in 2000, becoming a distinguished emeritus professor, and died in 2002.
At the heart of Ansoff’s thinking was the idea that strategic planning could be approached in a rigorous way, using a variety of practical tools. Most notable of these tools is his 2×2 matrix, now best known as The Ansoff Matrix. This first appeared in a paper in 1957, while he was at Lockheed. The matrix offers a simple tool for assessing four growth strategies.
Ansoff introduced many new concepts, two of which have become management commonplaces. The first is the much over-used and often misunderstood concept of synergy: that by bringing together the right components and integrating them effectively, the final result is more valuable than the sum of its parts – ‘2 + 2 = 5’ in Ansoff’s memorably simple explanation. The second is the concept of ‘gap analysis’. This is the idea of determining where you want to get to, understanding where you are, and then identifying what it will take to bridge the gap.
The problem that Ansoff found was that his focus on rationality and his extensive kit of strategic thinking and decision-making tools were leading managers into what he called ‘paralysis by analysis’ – another coinage that has become commonplace. This led him to focus his efforts on understanding why this was happening and how to overcome it. In so doing, he effectively became his own most ardent critic. This led him from Corporate Strategy to Strategic Management – an understanding of how people behaved strategically. This was quite a theoretical analysis, synthesising ideas from many fields. So his 1979 Implanting Corporate Management put the focus on practical ‘how-to-do-it’ techniques.
His later research sought to underpin many of his hypotheses with strong empirical evidence. Ansoff always stayed close to working business leaders and his students were able to conduct detailed research into what Ansoff called his ‘Strategic Success Hypothesis’. This asserted that a business could optimise its returns by matching strategic activities to its changing environment, and by developing internal structures and capabilities to support its strategy. In this way, he anticipated the McKinsey 7S model, in much the same way as Ansoff anticipated a lot of our modern understanding of strategic management.