Thursday, October 8, 2009

When our strength trips us

In one of my earlier post, I had mentioned that ‘strength over a period of time can become irrelevant’. There are enough examples from the world of business, marketing and brands to prove this point. For a change, I wish to refresh our collective memories with examples from modern history across diverse topics. 

The breaking down of the Berlin Wall is one of the most dramatic moments in modern history symbolising the end of communism in Easter Europe. What seems to be forgotten is that the first crack to appear was in the most unlikely of places, a worker’s union. I am talking about the dock workers union (Solidarity Union) led by Lech Walesa in Poland. This crack rapidly became an ever expanding fault that brought down communism. Isn’t it ironic that the backbone and strength of the communist movement, unions, should be the prime mover in its collapse?
Experts attribute this collapse for Deng to open up the Chinese economy and save Chinese communism. The timing is too much of a coincidence to disbelieve this theory.
Once upon a time, Indian field hockey team were world beaters. Their strength was their amazing dribbling and ball-play ability, almost wizard like. They won gold in all the Olympics from 1928 to 1956. Their crowning moment was when they won the World Cup in 1975. Since then it has been downhill all the way except for the occasional patches of brilliance. In fact, India did not even qualify for Beijing Games last year.
An important reason, amongst many others, for the dramatic decline in Indian hockey team fortunes was the introduction of Astroturf during the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Their strength, artistry, suddenly became irrelevant. Playing on Astroturf was all about power, stamina and lusty hitting. By the time India managed to get their first Astroturf (I think in 1982) other countries and Cricket had marginalised Indian hockey.
In direct contrast to India’s decline is the amazing record of Chinese table-tennis (or Ping Pong) team. Rules were continuously modified to make it difficult for Chinese to win. However, Chinese teams adapted to the ever changing rules and continue to dominate. 

Indian movie production and distribution until the 60’s was dominated by large studios. A studio’s fortune (or strength) rested on the popularity of the actors and technicians in their ‘portfolio’. Studio’s felt that they needed to have a vice-like grip on them (bonded labourers). Little did they realise that once an actor became a star, it is the public who had control over them. The stars threatened and demanded exorbitant fees. When the studios couldn’t cough up, they simply walked out to work with independent producers.
By 1970, most of the studios were wiped out and the movie scene in India is dominated by numerous independent producers.
In contrast, Hollywood studios have continuously adapted to take on challenges that threatened their existence. They did go through anxious moments and almost capitulated. Entry of large corporations like Sony, Viacom saved the day. And today they peacefully co-exist with Indie producers. 

There are various reasons for this phenomenon. Strength tends to blind-side us, strength tends to makes us play it safe, strength creates inertia to change, strength becomes irrelevant with dramatic changes in the eco-system and so on.
The ones who do not take their strength for granted and work on it to make it relevant are the ones who succeed.
I am throwing a few names here with what I think are their strengths. If you think I am wrong or wish to add to the list, please do so.
Microsoft: Windows or Proprietary Software or both                             
Google: Search
Apple: Steve Jobs or innovation or both
Hollywood: Marketing
Amazon: e-Retailing
Nokia: Low cost phones
USA: Capitalism
India: India?

(Image courtesy:jemil75)

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