Agility: The Business Super Power

The article was written by Emily Stubbins, Executive Brand Strategy Director at Hyperquake, USA

In a recent conversation among colleagues – sparked, in part, by the release of the new “Avengers” movie – an interesting subject came up: If you had to choose the ultimate business super power, what would it be? Big budgets, global reach, an innovation pipeline full to bursting, a PR machine capable of generating positive press 24/7?  Without hesitation, I answered “agility.” Don’t get me wrong; those other powers are pretty awesome, but agility is the one capability companies large and small require to capture or maintain a competitive edge in today’s volatile economic climate. It is the super power that can help companies sidestep the widest array of challenges and triumph over their adversaries.

Prospects and challenges abound

Consumer-focused companies operating in today’s turbulent, competitive marketplace must be able to demonstrate opportunity agility – to move quickly and effectively – to address rapidly changing economic conditions and evolving consumer expectations. Smaller companies typically possess and regularly employ this all-important super power. They continually survey the marketplace to identify prospects and challenges, then — lacking the financial and personnel resources which large corporations can mobilize to capture opportunities or offset stumbles – use agility to outmaneuver the competition. For example, when introducing new products and services, smaller companies can leverage their niche focus, targeted product portfolio, flat organizational structure, and controlled investments to quickly and inexpensively take an offering from concept to market-ready – although generally not to great scale or on a consistent basis due to the prohibitive cost.

In contrast, large companies possess the financial and technical wherewithal to regularly introduce new products and services; however, they typically don’t possess agility and, thus, may encounter difficulties when trying to respond to evolving market opportunities. Many large companies move so slowly (due, in part, to multiple approval layers and entrenched processes and systems) and are so focused on maintaining their current market share that they can miss easily observable market changes.  Among common challenges large companies face:

  • Product ideas may stall at inception because they lack big-enough scale. For example, Nike developed compression undergarments for specific athletes and considered expanding the concept to the consumers but decided the potential market size wasn’t large enough to justify the investment. Fast forward a few years: Under Armor has created an entire industry around the concept.
  • Product and market data can be so geographically and organizationally spread across a large company that systems and individuals may not be able to recognize or act on the need for change in a timely manner.
  • The product advocate (either an individual or a department) cannot create the required business case and navigate the corporate approval process quickly enough to take advantage of an emerging opportunity. It’s analogous to Superman trying to course-correct an asteroid; once a large company’s product strategy is in motion, it is difficult to steer it in a new direction. Look at Sony. The company found the concept of portable digital music players interesting, but the organization wasn’t ready for a shift of that magnitude. Sony had the technology and the consumer base to introduce a game-changing MP3 player; its executives just didn’t see the need to cannibalize Sony’s successful Discman portable CD player. Instead of leading the portable music revolution, Sony kept adding more skip protection and fashion colors to its Walkman product line – and missed the MP3 revolution.

Photo: Sony Discman CD player vs MP3 player. Credit: Donald Bell/CNET Networks

Virtually all large companies started out small and used agility to grow. Over time, however, many of these companies became so big that they lost this all-important super power – often resulting in a lack of product innovation and loss of market share. How can large companies regain the agility they need to compete successfully in today’s dynamic business environment? By joining forces with smaller companies to creatively and quickly bring new offerings to market – much as The Avengers do to defeat their latest enemy.

Combining the large-scale research and production capabilities of major corporations with the small-scale agility of niche companies can produce an amazing innovation incubator. Both types of organizations bring something to the table: Large companies can research the heck out of an idea and invest in technologies that smaller companies can’t. Also, nobody can go vertical like a big company; they can take an item in production from a few hundred to millions of pieces a day. And while it can be cost-prohibitive for a large organization to conduct small-scale market testing, smaller companies do this as a matter of course. Among other considerations for large companies that are looking to recharge their agility:

  • Accept the fact that you can’t function as a start-up and find someone who can. Use your strengths and theirs to jointly break ground that neither of you could independently.
  • Be open to different metrics for success in a new/smaller-scale environment. Learn first, scale second.
  • Allow enough time when testing a new product offering, channel, or brand to really see results; then work on a re-integration plan for those results. For example, Clorox bought Burt’s Bees to take the category learnings from that brand and apply them to GreenWorks.  The company built a bridge between two consumer groups and created a halo around the edges while maintaining the integrity and consumer bases of both Burt’s Bees and Clorox.
  • Look for ways to “think small” even if the company is big. Procter & Gamble, for example, has formed a number of small internal groups that operate like a start-up and specialize in upstream innovation and new business creation.

Joining forces for good

The greatest opportunity for companies of all sizes to foster agility is to make like the characters in the “Avengers” and join forces for the common good. The process may not be easy; partnership requires compromise. Traditional processes and timelines may not work in this brave new world, so get ready to turn your thinking inside out and upside down.  The results may be truly “super.”

About the Author

Emily Stubbins is responsible for leading relationships with some of Hyperquake’s largest clients. She joined Hyperquake in 2004 with a background that includes positions in design, corporate marketing and agency client service.