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Does Your Strategy Match Your Competitive Environment?

How predictable are competitive conditions in your industry? How much power does your company have to shape its underlying competitive environment? These questions are critical to strategists, since clearly the kinds of strategies that work in predictable industries are likely to be worlds apart from those geared to shaping highly volatile environments.

This should hardly surprise you. In our recent research, we’ve found that fully three-quarters of the executives we surveyed at 120 companies around the world in 10 major industry sectors were well aware of the need to match their strategies — and the process by which they create them — to the specific conditions of their competitive environment. And yet, our research also found far too many were employing strategies suited only for predictable and immutable industries.

To understand the scope of this problem, take a look at this chart:


What it shows is how accurately executives in various industries estimated how predictable and how malleable their industries are. Each dot is a response of an executive we surveyed from a particular company in a certain industry. The closer the dot is to the middle of the chart, the more accurate the estimate. Thus, you can see, one executive from the consumer discretionary industry was spot on, right in the middle. But you can also see three IT executives, in the lower left-hand corner, who overestimated how unpredictable their industry is while also overestimating their companies’ ability to change those conditions. And up in the upper right-hand corner, you’ll see a fair number of financial executives underestimating how unpredictable their industry is and also underestimating their ability to influence it.

The problem with this is obvious, of course: You can’t begin to tailor your strategy to the conditions of your industry if you don’t perceive them correctly.

What’s more, as we’ve just done, many executives lump “predictable” and “malleable” together, and divide the universe of competitive environments very broadly into two parts, assuming that a predictable environment is one they can control and an unpredictable one is one they can’t.

But in fact, our research shows that it’s far more fruitful to think of those factors separately, and consider all four possibilities — that is, to consider not only strategies suited to predictable environments you can control but those geared to predictable environments that you can’t influence. Similarly, it’s important to distinguish between strategies suited to unpredictable environments you can’t control and those that can capitalize on the possibilities of unpredictable environments your company is in a position to shape to its advantage.

These distinctions are so important because the four different strategic environments require four different styles of strategy execution. For companies operating in predictable and immutable environments, a classical strategy — the one everyone learned in business school — works well. When immutable environments are unpredictable, adaptive, experimental strategies work far better. Predictable environments that you have the power to change call for visionary strategies (the entrepreneurial if-we-build-it-they-will-come approach). And shaping strategies are best for unpredictable environments you have the power to control, as many Internet players do.

Our research on this point is unequivocal. We found that firms that match their style of strategy formulation to their environment achieve annual total shareholder return that is 4% to 8% higher.

That’s why it’s so alarming that in our survey we found fully six out of 10 companies either misperceived their environment, used the wrong style for their environment, or deployed strategy-development practices inconsistent with their intended style.

Where does that leave you?

To help you understand the style your firm deploys and the style most suited to your firm’s environment we have developed a short, interactive survey. Comprising 23 questions, that you can complete in about five minutes, the survey is a great opportunity to test your strategic practices against our framework and to gain useful insight into the style most suited to your firm’s competitive conditions. Aligning your strategy formulation practices to your environment can help you unlock real value.

If you want to better understand the style you deploy and the environment your firm faces, please click here.

Martin Reeves is a senior partner at the Boston Consulting Group, the director of the BCG Henderson Institute, and a coauthor of Your Strategy Needs a Strategy (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015).