• The Anguish of Complexity: A Reflection

    by  • March 1, 2016 • Branding, Leadership, Marketing, Strategy • 5 Comments

    Vacuum Pack Launch 1979Thirty-five years ago at a ceremony in Vancouver, BC, I accepted AMA’s Marketer-of-the-Year Award on behalf of Nabob Foods. We earned that honor by re-staging a tired coffee brand with innovative packing technology and breakthrough advertising.

    That night, I presented the marketing strategy that catapulted a regional brand to national leadership in Canada. What I did not share was the corporate strategy that resurrected this near bankrupt multi-product, multi-brand company. After buckets of red ink and much soul searching, our young management team came to terms with the fact that Nabob could not survive as a ‘generalist’ against multi-nationals twenty times its size. We took a step few do, making the difficult call to trim the company down to a shadow of its former self. By time the complexity dust cleared, two factories became one, ten product lines became two . . . five hundred employees became two hundred.

    Tough Sacrifice is the Secret to Success

    Severing the heads of 300 faceless workers in distant plants may be tolerable; firing confidants as well as loyal and long-termers who you see every day is another matter. So is purposely shrinking sales that will soon have to be augmented. This was a tough strategic choice, but there was more to it than that. It was also a tough sacrifice. Tough sacrifices are about you. They claw at your emotions because they require that you do something that you don’t want to do. Tough sacrifices rob you of sleep, sober your disposition, heighten your stress, and choke your patience on the littlest things in life. I suffered these disorders during that gut-wrenching time.

    Now for the good news. The business that remained grew rapidly because we concentrated on running it, and nothing else. You see, we gave up something of value (brands and businesses that accounted for 40% of the company’s sales) for the sake of other considerations. This is the essence of sacrifice – a lesson that served me well for the rest of my career.

    In the CEO Afterlife

    Nabob (later renamed Jacobs Suchard) went on to thrive as a profitable coffee ‘specialist’ for many years until it was acquired by Kraft, and I went on to council some of the world’s most respected organizations, a blue chip list that included Campbell’s Soup, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Pfizer, and Starbucks.

    Consulting opened my eyes to the glaring and repeated errors made by dwellers of the C-suite and their understudies. Four years ago, I began penning blogs to share my views on leadership, strategy, marketing, and branding. In The CEO Afterlife became the conduit to carry these musings to leaders and managers caught in the tangled knots of complexity, uncertainty, and information overload.

    Complexity Cripples

    Never before has business seen so much complexity. Left unchecked, complexity stifles, stagnates, and brings an organization to its knees. This phenomenon is resolvable, all the way from corporate strategy to marketing/brand strategy to an administrative assistant’s daily “to do” list. The solution is focus, and although leaders talk focus, few practice it. Nor do they understand how to leverage focus and specialization for competitive advantage. As marketers well know, unfilled needs create opportunities to meet the need. I decided to address the complexity problem/opportunity as it applies to leadership, strategy, marketing, branding, and culture in a book — Do Less Better: The Power of Strategic Sacrifice in a Complex World.

    DLB 3D (smal)Do Less Better would never have been possible had I failed to keep pace with the pulse of the new economy of the information age. Equally important for the book’s insight is the luxury of stepping back from the day-to-day to ponder the present-day pertinence of the stratagems that worked for me in the line of fire, and as an advisor to CEOs and CMOs. Several practices remain intact, ready to be unbridled, ready to address the issues that inhibit performance in the 21st century. Some required significant adaptation. Others, I’ve buried in the resting place of turntables, Betamax players, boom boxes, and Walkmans.

    Sure, my heyday as a business leader occurred during an era of less complexity. But, if the concept of strategic sacrifice and focus worked in that world, why wouldn’t it work now?


    Did you like this? Share it:


    Formerlife: Jacobs Suchard CEO (Kraft, Nabob), Strategy Consultant. Afterlife: Palgrave Macmillan Author, Historical Novelist, Business Journalist

    5 Responses to The Anguish of Complexity: A Reflection

    1. March 8, 2016 at 6:17 am

      Hi John, great stuff, what do you think has led to the rise in people’s greater awareness of complexity?

      • John
        March 9, 2016 at 12:47 pm

        With the softening of old economy markets (consumer packaged goods in particular), the route to growth for many multinationals has been acquisition. I see case after case of companies acquiring businesses that aren’t a good fit, resulting in complexity. Campbell’s Soup is the quintessential example – 10 years of acquisitions all the way from organics to baby foods to fresh foods. Sales remain stagnant; so do profits. This has been going on for so many years for so many giants that they have forgotten how to generate organic growth. That requires another elusive key success factor – innovation.

      • John
        March 9, 2016 at 12:49 pm

        Appreciate your question, Bruce.

    2. Em
      March 17, 2016 at 12:56 am

      Hi, John. I rarely come across a post that underscores the importance of sacrifice in order to achieve greater results. It’s refreshing in the midst of “get results quick by following these steps” kind of content.

      • John
        March 17, 2016 at 11:50 am

        Yes, you are so right. Conventional wisdom pushes leaders and managers to do more and more, when actually doing less better delivers a better result. Of course, to do this, we need leaders who appreciate the power of strategy. Great strategy drives businesses to excel by climbing mountains rather than entire ranges.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *