Strategic Flexibility and Competitive Advantage
- Kathryn Rudie HarriganKathryn Rudie HarriganColumbia Business School, Columbia University
Concerns regarding strategic flexibility arose from companies’ need to survive excess capacity and flagging sales in the face of previously unforeseen competitive conditions. Strategic flexibility became an organizational mandate for coping with changing competitive conditions and managers learned to plan for inevitable restructurings. They learned to reposition assets and capabilities to suit their firms’ new strategic aspirations by overcoming barriers to change. Core rigidities flared up in the form of legacy costs, regulatory constraints, political animosity, and social resistance to adjusting firms’ strategic postures; managers learned that their firms’ past strategic choices could later become barriers to adapting corporate strategy.
Managerial insights concerning how to modify firms’ resources changed the way in which they were subsequently regarded. Enterprises saw assets lose their relative productivity and value as mastery of specific knowledge become less germane to success. Managers recognized that their firms’ capabilities were mismatched to market or value-chain relationships. They struggled to adapt by overcoming barriers to change.
Flexibility problems were inevitable. Even if competitive conditions were not impacted by exogenous change forces, sustaining advantage in a steady-state competitive arena became difficult; sustaining advantage in dynamic arenas became nearly impossible. Confronted with the difficulties of changing strategic postures, market orientations, and overall cost competitiveness, managers embraced the need to combat organizational rigidity in all aspects of their firms’ operations. Strategic flexibility affected enterprise assets, capabilities, and potential relationships with other parties within firms’ value-creating ecosystems; the need for strategic flexibility influenced investment choices made to escape organizational rigidity, capability traps and other forms of previously unrecognized resource inflexibility.
Where entry barriers once protected a firm’s strategic posture, flexibility issues arose when the need for endogenous changes occurred. The temporary protection afforded by imitation barriers slowed an organization’s responsiveness to changing its strategy imperatives—making the firm rigid when adaptiveness was needed instead. A firm’s own inertia to change sometimes created mobility barriers that had to be overcome when hypercompetitive conditions arose in their traditional market arenas and forced firms to change how they competed.
Where exogenous changes drove competitive conditions to become more volatile, attainment of strategic flexibility mandated the need to downsize the scope of a firm’s activities, shut down facilities, prune product lines, reduce headcount, and eliminate redundancies—as typically occurred during an organizational turnaround—while simultaneously increasing the scope of external activities performed by an enterprise’s value-adding network of suppliers, distributors, value-added resellers, complementors, and alliance partners, among others. Such structural value-chain changes typically exacerbated pressures on the firm’s internal organization to search more broadly for value-adding innovations to renew products and processes to keep up with the accelerated pace of industry change. Exploratory processes of self-renewal forced confrontations with mobility or exit barriers that were long tolerated by firms in order to avoid coping with the painful process of their ultimate elimination. The sometimes surprising efforts by firms to avoid inflexibility included changes in the nature of firms’ asset investments, value-chain relationships, and human-resource practices. Strategic flexibility concerns often trumped the traditional strengths accorded to resource-based strategies.