Beware Institutional Mimicry

Apple Store Oct 4Microsoft Oct 4

One of the most common management pitfalls is the trap of institutional mimicry. Companies that are falling behind, or otherwise need to reinvent themselves, look around at the competition and other relevant benchmarks, and try to copy “what works”.  But instead of copying the real capabilities or underlying successful strategies that lead to success, they copy things that are easy to observe and easy to replicate — at least on the surface.  The result is wasted money, with little to show for the effort  (see also:  cargo cult).

Take, for example, Microsoft.  Finding itself falling behind in the area of consumer sales and brand recognition of their devices, Microsoft decided they needed fancy retail stores, just like Apple’s.  Their stores look just like Apple’s:  Gleaming hardwood floor, check.  Double rows of overhead lighting and big colorful product images on the walls, check. Lots of devices on sleek tables, check. Helpful sales staff in colorful T-shirts, check.  But as you can see from the images above, on a typical day Apple’s store is packed and buzzing, while Microsoft’s store is quiet, with less than one tenth the customers.  What’s going on here?

For Apple, their retail stores in and of themselves aren’t a differentiating capability.  They are in fact the outward manifestation of a more fundamental underlying capability — Apple’s unrelenting focus on providing a superb user experience, and their philosophy of unmatchable design excellence.  Creating that customer experience in physical stores was a logical extension of their core strategy.  In other words, the stores are a marker for Apple’s winning strategy, not the strategy itself.  Microsoft just hasn’t had that consumer focus in the same way as Apple.  There was no Steve Jobs at Microsoft, nor a Jony Ive.  There was instead Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, and now Satya Nadella.  Completely different fundamental corporate strategies.

Other examples of institutional mimicry include adopting Six Sigma or Lean tools, but not actually having a culture committed to operational excellence and continuous improvement.  Or hosting lots of employee “innovation jams”, but not actually having an organizational structure that allows innovative projects to survive.  Think of your own institution (corporate, academic or government).  Is it currently adopting a “winning strategy” from somewhere else?  If so, are you getting the fundamentals right, or are you just copying the window dressing?

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