The skill of strategy analysis: Uncovering company priorities

John Siracusa dusted off an interesting quote from a former Microsoft employee.

Spolsky: But synergy…there are also negative synergies. In the case of Microsoft they call it “strategy tax.” Where, like, the Internet Explorer team is not allowed to fix the DHTML editor because it might compete with Word. So they’re forced to make that continue to be bad.

Via: The Apple strategy tax

The notion is an interesting one and is a reframing of the metaphorical expression that those who live by the sword die by the sword: Building a business a certain way will, in the end cause it to perish by that way.

In the case of Microsoft, the focus on their platform lock-in strategy binds them into avoiding compelling opportunities and, even more tellingly, keeps them from improving existing products.

It’s tempting to suggest that this “strategy tax” also applies to a company like Apple when it seems to act irrationally or sub-optimally to some arbitrary definition of optimality.

However, what if Apple’s motives are not “strategic”? What if Apple actually does act in a way to optimize what they perceive to be important: the end user experience or as I like to call it “the product“.

What if “the product” is dogma and nothing is allowed to compromise it?

This question is not designed to glorify or defend any one approach, but rather to ask what is to be compromised. In Microsoft’s case dogmatic “strategy” means the installed base and channel cannot be compromised. In Apple’s dogmatic product approach, is the relationship with partners subject to compromise? Is the platform itself compromised?

I would argue that yes, the product-focused company has to “pay a tax” for its product priority. It uses an approach with a huge built-in opportunity cost. But I would also argue that every company has some tax to pay for its priorities.

Ultimately, every company needs to decide what is important and to pay the tax for not doing what is unimportant. Business management, like engineering, is about compromise and the choice of trade-offs. Outside observers, unaware of what the company’s priorities really are, will always find it puzzling why companies do what they do. But to insiders, the puzzle is why anybody would do anything else.

The most important skill for an analyst, and that which separates her from the casual observer, is to determine what the company’s priorities really are. Interestingly, many companies don’t clearly state their priorities and may not even be aware themselves of what they implicitly are.

I believe that there are deterministic ways of uncovering priorities and categorizing companies according to them. I believe that knowledge of priorities leads to a more precise understanding of strategy and competition. I hope that within this forum, I can share and provoke debate over these methods so that these skills can become more commonplace.