portfolio agility

In turbulent markets, companies can enhance their agility and minimize risk by orchestrating a network of resource providers. The story of Promon, a Brazilian engineering company, illustrates the advantages of orchestrating a network.

Promon initially grew on the back of government funded infrastructure projects that were the mainstay business of Brazil’s engineering firms during the 1970’s and early 1980’s.  This all changed when a fiscal crisis in 1986 prevented the Brazilian government from commissioning new projects and forced it to renege on existing contracts. Most Brazilian engineering firms collapsed in the face of this sudden-death threat and disappeared.

Promon survived and thrived while its competitors floundered, in large part, because the company successfully transformed itself into an innovative systems integrator for the telecommunications, power and industrial segments. As an illustration, one joint-venture formed by Promon has 82 employees who supervise a project with 1,907 workers representing 573 separate subcontractor companies. Promon rolled out this system throughout the 1990’s. System integration projects increased from less than 20% in the late 1980’s to over 90% by the end of the 1990’s.

The company developed sophisticated skills for forging and managing partnerships, which allowed it to increase net revenues (including both revenues for services and the value of goods and services procured under its responsibility) from $10 million in 1987 – the year after the Brazilian government’s fiscal crisis – to $852 million in 2008, while decreasing total staff from 4,000 to approximately 1,360 professionals over the

Last week, I moderated a panel on multinationals in emerging markets for the London Business School’s Global Leadership Summit. Four prominent business leaders–Paul Bulcke, CEO Nestlé; Anshu Jain, who runs Deutsche Bank’s investment banking business; Vittorio Colao, the CEO of Vodafone; and John Connolly, the global chairman of Deloitte shared their insights on several topics, including which multinationals (other than their own) they most admired for their success in emerging markets.

People often use the term “emerging markets” as a catch all phrase implying that all countries within this category are broadly similar to one another. In reality, of course, the differences between India and China or Brazil and Russia dwarf their similarities. The heterogeneity of emerging markets raises questions for companies seeking to invest in these countries: How should we prioritize investments across emerging markets? How do we differentiate a more attractive market from a less attractive one? What criteria should we use in evaluating and comparing different markets?

Below I summarize some of the insights on how four different executives from four very different industries evaluate emerging markets.

  • Nestlé. GDP growth is important for a food company, of course. In Africa, for instance, GDP has grown at about 5% per year over the past decade. Second, a country or region needs to meet a threshold level of

Firms do not pass through a life-cycle, but individual opportunities do. To thrive in turbulence, organizations must rapidly shift resources from stagnant businesses to the most promising opportunities for future growth, a capability I refer to as portfolio agility. Unfortunately, reallocation of resources is easier said than done.

Opportunities at different stages in the life-cycle vary in objectives, appropriate management style, performance metrics, and predictability. A venture in the start-up stage should focus on milestones that validate customer demand and technical feasibility, for example,  while success of a mature business can be measured by financial metrics.  Many companies, however, apply a one size fits all management style to all businesses in their portfolio, regardless of their stage in the lifecycle.

Shifting market conditions require executives to reallocate resources across opportunities at different stages in their life-cycle. This sounds straightforward in theory, but many firms struggle to achieve portfolio agility in practice. Portfolio agility requires a diversified collection of units, a disciplined process, group control of resources, a cadre of general managers who can work on various businesses, and leaders willing to make the hard calls. In addition, several common pathologies, such as delayed disinvestment, systematically derail portfolio agility within organizations.

An over-reliance on value-based management can also impede portfolio agility, to the extent it prevents experimentation outside a company’s core activities. In the downturn, many firms have tightened their investment criteria, to focus on projects with a positive net present value, an approach that emphasizes credible forecasts of cash flow. The most credible forecasts, however, come from low-risk projects in known domains–sticking to one’s knitting, in management-speak. An investment process that values credibility and low risk above all else penalizes projects with uncertain outcomes, even

In turbulent markets, firms need portfolio agility–the ability to quickly and effectively remove resources from businesses that have stagnated or no longer fit a company’s strategy and reallocate them to promising opportunities. Before shifting resources among them, executives often  categorize units within a portfolio using frameworks such as the growth share matrix. Despite its widespread use, this framework gives a static snapshot of a portfolio at a point in time and overemphasizes the benefits of scale.

An alternative approach to mapping a portfolio begins by dis-aggregating an organization into components that correspond to opportunities, recognizing that these units vary by life-cycle stage-i.e., start-up, scaling the business, maturity, and decline. Opportunities begin 

Contrary to the conventional wisdom in management, companies need not pass through a life-cycle. Rather, individual opportunities pass through a life-cycle beginning with the start-up stage, followed by scaling the business, maturity, and decline. It is more accurate to view firms not as a monolithic entity, but as a portfolio of opportunities at various points in their individual life-cycles.  How can executives visualize the businesses in their portfolio to manage them more effectively?

The standard method for evaluating a firm’s portfolio is to array them using a two-by-two matrix, such as the Boston Consulting Group’s popular growth-share matrix. The vertical axis of this matrix measures the growth rate of the market, and indirectly cash usage, since faster growing markets typically require more investment to keep pace. The horizontal axis measures market share, and indirectly cash generation, under the assumption that businesses with a higher share of the market tend to throw off more profits. Combining these axes generates the familiar quadrants of the matrix, including the cash cows (low growth, high share), stars (high share, high growth), dogs (low on both dimensions), and question marks denoting businesses with low share of a growing market.

The matrix provides executives with a snapshot to consider resource allocation among units, identifying cash cows, for example, that could fund investments in rising stars, while looking to disinvest from dogs and puzzle over question marks. Although portfolio planning using the BCG and related matrices took hold in many companies, laboratory experiments and empirical studies find no evidence that these tools improved performance, and suggest on the contrary they lead to sub-par

Companies, like people, must pass through a life cycle according to the conventional wisdom in management. Start-ups begin their life in a period of rapid-fire experimentation, pass into the organizational equivalent of adolescence as the company scales its business model, eventually mature into the dull reliability of middle age, and then lapse into unavoidable decline. Like Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, the stages of the corporate life cycle are clear and inevitable. Sometimes companies progress through this sequence as a cohort. Minicomputer makers arrayed along Boston’s Route 128 including Wang Laboratories, Digital Equipment Corporation, Data General Corporation, and Prime Computer rose and fell as a group. Other times a company passes through the lifecycle in isolation, as Polaroid or Laura Ashley did. Whether firms pass through it together or alone, life cycle according to this viewpoint, is destiny. For many people, maturity is a tough life stage, hence the midlife crisis. The thrill of youth has passed, while the

In turbulent markets, firms must disinvest from under-performing units to free resources necessary to exploit new opportunities. Most firms are better at getting into new things than getting out of established ones. In a recent survey, respondents cited their firm’s lack of a “well-defined processes to exit declining businesses and kill unsuccessful initiatives” as the second biggest obstacle to agility (out of a total of thirty possible factors). My last post summarized data suggesting that firms typically delay exit beyond the optimal point, and in the process deplete resources to invest in growth opportunities.

Why do firms struggle to kill failing initiatives? There are many sound reasons to delay exit, including uncertainty about the payoff to persistence, closing costs, and interdependencies among units that prevent a clean severing of ties. In many cases, however, executives fail to exit even as evidence mounts that the costs of persistence outweigh the benefits of staying the course.  Instead they double down, and increase their investment rather than pulling back to revisit their ingoing assumptions, and make mid-course corrections or pull the plug.

Management scholars refer to this tendency as “escalating commitment to a failed course of action,” and have

In my last post, I argued that turbulent markets demand portfolio agility–an organization’s capacity to reallocate cash, people, and other resources from stagnant or declining businesses into promising opportunities, and do so in a timely manner. Effective portfolio agility consists of both investment and disinvestment. Unfortunately, most companies are better at getting into new businesses than they are at getting out of declining subsidiaries or ones that no longer fit as the corporate strategy evolves. Firms can rarely avoid disinvestment forever, but they often delay the inevitable for far too long. These delays consume scarce resources, and starve promising initiatives of the cash they need to succeed.

Research has shown that companies regularly divest businesses to re-balance their portfolio. In a study of 9,276 deals completed by 86 of the Fortune 100 firms in the 1990s, Belen Villalonga and Anita McGahan report that the median number of divestitures was 17 for firms they studied. Divestitures were almost as common as major acquisitions–the median for firms in their sample was 19 completed acquisitions over the same time

When I ask executives to list examples of agile companies, they often mention firms such as Tesco, Southwest Airline, or Wal-Mart, which excel at operational agility–the ability to seize opportunities within a focused business model. Operational agility is important, but it is not the only way that firms can exploit changes in their environment. Diversified companies including Johnson & Johnson, Goldman Sachs, Samsung Electronics, and the Tata Group exemplify portfolio agility, or the the capacity to quickly and effectively shift resources, including cash, talent, and managerial attention out of less-promising opportunities and into more attractive ones.  Fluid reallocation of resources is necessary in turbulent markets, but many companies struggle to achieve portfolio agility.  Below are five prerequisites for portfolio agility.

1) Diversified portfolio. The broader the range of business units, geographies, or products a firm encompasses, the greater scope it will have for portfolio agility. The conventional wisdom holds that the disadvantages of diversification–including loss of focus, subsidization of under-performing units, organizational complexity, and potential for empire building by top executives-outweigh the advantages. Conglomerates, as a result, trade at a “diversification discount.” My last post argued that the benefits of diversification–protection against unexpected threats and exposure to growth opportunities–are more valuable in turbulent markets. Firms can gain the benefits of diversification while minimizing the costs in several ways: Firms can, as General Electric does, give business units a great deal of autonomy to achieve their profit and loss objectives.  Companies can also minimize complexity and maintain focus by diversifying around a set of core competencies, as Procter & Gamble does with multiple products that all draw on the company’s marketing expertise, or firms can stick to a core business but diversify across global markets.

2) Disciplined processes for revisiting investments. Portfolio agility requires a process to evaluate the existing portfolio of business units, regions, products, or customers on a regular basis to reallocate resources from less to more productive uses.  In turbulent markets, the relative attractiveness of opportunities shift more rapidly than in stable contexts, necessitating more frequent reviews.  A disciplined process is conducted by

Leading in turbulent times

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Don Sull is professor of management practice in strategic and international management, and faculty director of executive education at London Business School. This blog is dedicated to helping entrepreneurs, managers, and outside directors to lead more effectively in a turbulent world.

Over the past decade, Prof Sull has studied volatile industries including telecommunications, airlines, fast fashion, and information technology, as well as turbulent countries including Brazil and China, and found specific behaviours that consistently differentiate more, and less, successful firms. His conclusion is that actions, not an individual’s traits, increase the odds of success in turbulent markets, and these actions can be learned.