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.
Academics, managers, and investors agree with near unanimity that corporate diversification destroys value. In their best-seller, In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman argued managers should “stick to the knitting” by focusing on the business they know best. Their argument presaged a series of management articles and books using different terms–including “core competency,” “unbundling the corporation” and “profit from the core“–to make the same point: Firms should focus on activities and markets where they have a sustainable competitive advantage. Diversification, according to this line of thought, dissipates attention and resources and breeds complexity. Outsourcing, off-shoring, and alliances allow firms to offload peripheral activities and focus narrowly on discreet activities where they excel.
A series of studies by financial economists documents a correlation between diversification economic value destruction. Philip Berger and Eli Ofek find that diversified firms trade at a discount of approximately 15% compared to focused competitors in the same industry. Larry Lang and René Stulz show that a firm’s diversification is negatively correlated with its Tobin’s Q (a firm’s market value divided by the book value of its