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The critical ‘when?’ question in strategy

George Tovstiga , Professor

Time matters in strategy. Should a firm enter a market now - or later? Does it need to move quickly when doing so? Timing matters, but there are no clear rules. When facing the question of when to…

Reading time :
20 Nov 2018



Time matters in strategy. Should a firm enter a market now - or later?  Does it need to move quickly when doing so? Timing matters, but there are no clear rules. When facing the question of when to act, strategic decision makers are often thrown for a loop.

Themistocles, the ancient Athenian strategist who engineered the stunning defeat of the Persian navy at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC, sought guidance from the Delphian Oracle before moving into battle against Xerxes’ fearsome invading force. Timing was a critical factor in the Hellenic counter-attack. Themistocles is said to have divined the timing of his attack to coincide with the hour during which the prevailing fresh sea breezes were favourable for the Greek coalition fleet whilst fatally exposing the lofty, towering barbarian ships broadside to the attacking Greek triremes.

No firm immune

Unfortunately, business managers today have no Delphian Oracle to turn to for guidance. And, while timing of strategic action has always been problematic, it appears that the changing rules of competition are making it ever more so. The consequences of poor timing can be dire. Examples of poor timing abound. Microsoft discovered this in 2001 when attempting to pre-empt the market with the introduction of its Tablet PC.  Microsoft was too early; its tablet failed. That trophy went to Apple’s iPad – and then some 10 years later, in 2010. Another example: Facebook could probably not have timed the launch of Portal, its Web-connected home video-chat device, worse than when it did so in October 2018. It did so just barely a week after a massive security breach exposed the private information of about 30 million of its users  – and this just 6 months after Facebook’s catastrophic Cambridge Analytica scandal!

Strategy theory of little help

 Despite its importance, strategy theory has little to say about the critical ‘when?’ question. Arguably, this is because strategic timing is intrinsically tied to decision-making in real practice circumstances. Several attributes compound the problem:   

 Effective timing of strategic action is predicated on the firm’s disposition and ability to act - not its annual budgeting cycle

External factors prompting a response and firms’ ability to act appropriately are seldom if ever synchronized. Competitive environments can change, quite literally, overnight. A firm’s ability to react, on the other hand, is typically hampered by organisational inertia effects; often these are further compounded by firm-internal dysfunctionalities. 

The future is becoming less certain

For many firms, the future has moved from “complicated” – where variables are still relatively clear – to “complex” – a very different and darker future where even the basic contours are elusive.  The energy industry serves as an example: Legacy energy giants such as Shell are facing an uncertain future that inescapably will demand a fundamental shift from “dirty molecules” to “clean electrons”. The big question remains: when will this future arrive?

Shrinking windows of opportunities 

Not only are futures becoming complex, time windows for responding to opportunities (as well as threats) are shrinking. Firms are being left little time to experiment. Fast-paced and dynamically intertwined technological, economic and societal forces are at play.  Rapidly evolving business opportunities such as the internet of things, 3-D printing, cloud computing, and autonomous vehicles, are shutting out those players that are incapable of adapting quickly.

 Playing to catch the wave

 Given these challenging circumstances, what can firms do to get their strategic timing right?

 Playing to catch the wave. Successful firms time their strategic moves much like a surfer times that next wave. They play close to their markets and nurture a deep understanding of those critical few   competing factors that really matter. Critically, these factors change. Importantly, playing close to the market enables firms to anticipate the next wave. To use another analogy: Canadian ice-hockey legend   Wayne Gretzky attributed his phenomenal success to his innate ability to “skate to where the puck will be”. Playing to catch the wave enables firms to be at the right place at the right time.

 Alignment, agility and responsiveness. Successful firms play to catch the wave by developing and nurturing agile mechanisms that enable them to respond quickly to changing competitive circumstances.   These mechanisms are enabled by dynamic capabilities that enable the firm to (1) detect, make sense of, and anticipate changing market conditions; (2) configure and align their resource base and   organisation accordingly; and (3) prioritise and orchestrate appropriate responsive action swiftly. These, in turn, are supported by continual and rapid iterations of thinking, doing and learning. Microsoft’s recent   metamorphosis to refocus and align its formidable competitive capability to move beyond its legacy proprietary software platforms goes to show that even relatively entrenched incumbents can succeed at this.

 When all is said and done, of course, we cannot ignore entirely the role of chance circumstances and serendipity in ‘being at the right place with the right offering at the right time’ – and, of course, competitive   circumstances matter.  Chance, however, favours firms that approach their strategic timing intelligently. So that even while external contexts are becoming increasingly volatile and unpredictable, and windows   of opportunity ever shorter, successful firms play close to their markets, which allows them to anticipate changes faster than the competition. Simultaneously, these firms nurture agile mechanisms and   capabilities that enable them to respond rapidly, intelligently and at the right time to new, emerging competitive challenges.

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