We Have Met the Enemy …

There are other coffee chains. And damn fine independents. The coffee is good at Dunkin' Donuts ... and McDonald's for that matter. (My next door neighbor will go to the mat defending DD.) Still, Starbucks is sailing in pretty blue ocean to this day. So why is its stock in the tank, why did founder Howard Schultz decide last week to can the CEO and re-take the job himself?

Simple, as I see it. There is an Enemy of inestimable power—moreover, power growing by the day. Incidentally, the same Remorseless Enemy that brought McDonald's to the brink a decade ago. Namely, itself-themselves.

I "like," in a fashion, "the Starbucks case." The company does not have an external enemy worth talking about, or to blame the decline on. And its stock is surging South. Ergo, its enemy must, necessarily, be Starbucks. And if a company that is unchallenged in conventional terms is in a pickle, that bodes poorly for all of us. In fact, it's downright scary.

You see, I think most "strategic analysis," indeed most "strategic thinking," is specious. (Specious being a synonym for "baloney.") Consider GE's troubles before Jack Welch. IBM's pre Lou Gerstner. Microsoft's current troubles—or at least loss of infallibility. Big Pharma's swan dive. Or, take the case of Home Depot, circa 2001.

Of course Home Depot was somewhat flummoxed by Lowe's as Bob Nardelli came aboard in December 2000. I'd judge, with unrealistic precision, that Lowe's was about 3% of HD's problem. Bob N, admittedly with a pronounced "GE bias" about Operational Excellence, was simply staggered by the lack of useful, fundamental systems and measures at a company that logged $50 billion in revenue. Bob made some boo-boos, big ones, and was given the boot. But he also made amazing progress in creating operating infrastructure—getting the company's innards in order in the aftermath of years of Starbucks-like growth. That is, Bob N confronted directly Home Depot's Enemy #1—not Lowe's, but Home Depot.

Yes, to use the oft repeated Walt Kelly quote (from his comic strip, Pogo): "We have met the enemy and he is us." "Innovation" is the business topic du jour. Of course, it's really the "topic du always"—even for 5-year old companies that started with a bang, and took advantage of said bang to undertake expansion. Or, for that matter, those choosing not to expand and graying in place. To use an even more oft used quote by the ubiquitous whomever: "Get thine own house in order first, dude." That is, in, conservatively, eight out of ten cases, I'd judge after 35 years of close observation, it's not a surging competitor with a "disruptive" strategy that generates a star's tailspin, but the star's inherent entropic (remember Newton) drift, away from innovativeness and toward mediocrity; such companies, almost all companies, do not have to learn how to innovate ... they have to learn how to not not innovate. "Data drawn from the real world," said Norberto Odebrecht, founder of the remarkable Brazilian heavy construction giant, Odebrecht, "attest to a fact that is beyond our control: Everything in existence tends to deteriorate." It's the molding innards, not the lousy strategy or uppity competitor, that cause most of, if not all of, the decline. And addressing said molding innards must, simply must, be the new or extant CEO's Job #1. (Or, more accurately, Job # 1, #2, #3, #4 ... at least. Make no mistake—that was Welch's script at GE. A ship sinking under the weight of its own morbid obesity was returned to fighting trim—GE learned to Execute, again, after years, decades, of accrued flab & barnacles.)

The purpose of this Post is not one more "Tom Rant" against "them"—the strategy uber alles clan, no matter how much they clearly need to be ranted against. Instead, it is a simple reminder ... to my professional self, as well as you and those bosses of bumbling giant pharmaceutical companies busy not discovering new drugs. Namely, your problem (my problem, their problem) lies near at hand. Don't necessarily change your strategy—why waste your energy? And don't worry excessively about "the vision thing"—why waste your energy? Worry instead about Execution and Operational Excellence. Worry about the plaque building up in your increasingly clogged arteries—and even capillaries. Worry about policy manuals laden with blubber and still super-sizing and inhaling Big Macs. Worry about not enough customer visits and too many meetings attended by too many people viewing too many PowerPoint presentations. Worry, worry passionately and continuously, about the internal, ever-thickening Walls of Steel that separate and alienate those who must, to succeed, work together. Worry about offices for executives that are bigger than they were 10 years ago—and employee turnover that has grown in tandem with executive office-size creep.

Starbucks' enemy is Starbucks. Tom Peters' enemy is Tom Peters. You and your department's enemy is you and your departmental mates. Make no mistake.