The management shuffle announced by Yahoo last evening is only the latest evidence of strategy decay that pervades the leading ranks of the Internet business world. Yahoo says it made the changes to allow the company to move faster.
Fine, but in what direction do they want to move? What does Yahoo! want to be when it grows up? And what does that imply for what it will choose not to do?
In our celebrity culture, we love to focus on people. Decker gained, Rosensweig is out, Braun is out, Semel’s still there, Yang’s mentioned, but where’s Filo and who the Hell is going to head up the audience group (and why can’t Yahoo find anyone internally to take this on)?
People matter, of course, but in this context strategy matters even more. Faster movement is dangerous if you have no sense of direction. It just means you do more things more quickly, spreading that peanut butter even more thinly. To paraphrase an old quote by Casey Stengel: “if you don’t know where you are going, you will never get there.”
And let’s not just single out Yahoo. I have a growing sense that all the major Internet players – Google, MSN, Amazon, Ebay and AOL – have lost their sense of direction and differentiation. Rather than carving out and rapidly enhancing areas of distinctive advantage, these major players appear to be leaping like lemmings into the red ocean. Here are some of the red flags that give me cause for concern:
- Rather than helping people to connect more effectively with resources across the Web, they all seem increasingly focused on aggregating their own resources.
- They are becoming more and more obsessed with advertising revenue and risk losing focus on what is required to add more value to users. Advertising revenue is a dangerous narcotic – it shifts you more and more into a vendor mindset rather than a user mindset.
- They are investing large sums of money on infrastructure, further diverting time and attention away from development of new services for users (infrastructure services like Amazon’s EC2 and S3 are a very different business).
- They seem to be looking more and more at each other and trying to replicate each other’s services rather than focusing on the user and trying to be truly innovative in terms of new services.
Now, this growing homogenization of the leadership ranks might be understandable if the Internet were a maturing business arena. Given the rapid and sustained pace of innovation in the underlying technology, the rapid growth of usage, the continuing shift of spending to the Internet and the proliferation of new businesses created on the Internet, I find it hard to characterize this space as “maturing” – my sense is that it is still in its infancy.
Some observers have even begun to hail the emergence of “Internet conglomerates” as the wave of the future. Looking from the outside in, one can make explicit the assumptions that seem to be driving the investments, business initiatives and strategies of these leaders. These assumptions seem to converge on this view of the future: leading companies will be vertically integrated and horizontally integrated, offering a broad range of their own resources to users who will “settle” into their spaces. Certainly, the strategies of these companies seem to assume that Internet conglomerates are the wave of the future. Is this really the way the Internet will evolve as a business platform?
As I have written in Harvard Business Review, I believe that a quite different future will unfold, marked by a distinctive process of unbundling and re-bundling of firms. This perspective suggests that all the Internet leaders confront the same difficult choices that more traditional companies also face. Over time, will these companies choose to be customer relationship businesses, product innovation and commercialization businesses or infrastructure management businesses? None of the Internet leaders appear prepared to confront these choices yet.
Of course, there’s another interpretation of the initiatives pursued by the Internet leaders. They may be explicitly avoiding any view of the future and instead spreading their bets across many initiatives in the hope that some of these bets will pay off while others will prove to be dead-ends. Nick Carr refers to this as the spaghetti strategy – “throw a lot of stuff against the wall and see what sticks.”
As uncertainty increases, this has become the preferred “strategy” of many companies, not just in the Internet sphere. While strategy used to be viewed as the discipline of making choices, this approach proudly rejects the need to make any choices. It is a particularly seductive approach for large companies with lots of resources.
And yet this approach stands in sharp contrast to the strategies that enabled the Internet leaders to carve out their leadership positions in the first place. Unlike the thousands of other dot.com start-ups that embraced hustle as strategy and speed without direction, the founders of these companies started with a very clear, even though high-level, long-term destination in mind. It helped them to make difficult choices in the near-term and to launch waves of initiatives that cumulatively built very large and successful businesses. It has stood them very well in the first decade of their business.
In my own work, I use a FAST strategy methodology. It emphasizes the need to have a clear, but high-level view of a long-term destination while in parallel focusing on a limited number of high impact initiatives in the operations and organization that can accelerate movement towards this destination. What the Internet leaders seem to have lost is any distinctive long-term view of what kind of business they will need to build to remain successful in a rapidly evolving business landscape.
People can be moved in and out of executive positions. Large, high visibility acquisitions can be announced. "Strategic" relationships across leading companies can be negotiated. But without a clear and differentiated sense of long-term direction, all of these initiatives will make for good newspaper copy, but count for little in terms of sustained value creation.