Growth strategy

Listen up, biz leaders: It's time to rethink everything

September 4, 2012: 5:00 AM ET

We're not living in ordinary economic times. Every company needs to determine if its strategy requires an overhaul or just thoughtful tweaks. Here's how to start.

By Geoff Colvin, senior editor-at-large

FORTUNE -- Remember when Motorola (MMI) ruled the mobile phone business worldwide? And then Nokia (NOK) did? And then BlackBerry (RIMM) did? And now none of them do? As Fortune headlined a recent BlackBerry article, "What the Hell Happened?"

We all ask the same question about Kodak, monarch of the global photo industry for a century, now bankrupt, while Instagram, a photo-sharing service with a dozen employees, is sold to Facebook (FB) for $1 billion. And while we're at it, what happened to Hewlett-Packard (HPQ)? To Yahoo (YHOO)?

We're not living in ordinary economic times. The convulsions of the past five years have left many business people asking the most fundamental questions about their companies: Will our strategy work in this environment? What must we change, and what must we not change? Do we need a new business model?

MORE: America's workers: A year of ups and downs

Reconsidering strategy can turn into a miasma that consumes endless time and yields nothing. Yet the process is manageable. One way to think through your strategy in today's uncertain environment is to answer three basic questions.

1. What is our core?

A finding that's consistent across cycles is that the best performing companies keep investing in their core no matter how bad things get. Look at what Dupont (DD) did during the Great Depression. Even as profits plunged, the company resolved to keep funding chemical research -- its core -- no matter what. Among the results: nylon, neoprene, and other products that brought Dupont billions of dollars over the following decades.

In good times, companies often wander into businesses for which they command no special capability. Then, when a downturn hits, those non-core businesses blow up and have to be axed. Pioneer bailed out of the grindingly competitive flat-screen TV business in the recent recession. Home Depot (HD) shut down its Expo chain of home design centers. Google (GOOG) closed non-core businesses that sold advertising on radio stations and in newspapers. More

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