Before you go further in reading this document I want you to pause and answer one question. How do you define Business Model? If you take the time to create a thoughtful response to that question you will gain more from what I have to say.
The term business model often surfaces when CEOs are reporting on the success (or failure) of their companies. They use the term in so many ways that it brings doubts as to just how well they understand what a business model actually is. The next time you hear the phrase being used try to understand exactly what they are talking about. See if you can conceptualize their description.
I have found it difficult to do that because when many leaders are saying Business Model what they are referring to are vague images in their minds of what their business should look and act like. It is more of a transient vision statement than an actual model. Unfortunately for them, and those that work for them, that apparition exists only in their minds. And to make matters worse that ghostly image is unintentionally evolving. What was there three months ago has morphed into something new without anyone else knowing, even though there are projects and initiatives underway to try and capture the earlier vision. If the model is not visible how does one go about building it? How can a group of executives ‘know’ they have a common understanding of the desired model if none of them are looking at a model?
There was one company that had three executives and a strategy consultant spend nine months developing a strategic plan. The management team needed to have a plan in place in order to meet certain goals. At the end of the process the group had settled on a particular corporate direction and some of the key strategies needed to make their vision come true. The most important strategy centered on the company having a ‘World Class Supply Chain Management System’ put into place. The CEO upon being asked to clarify what that would look like stated that the company would spend exactly what it took to give the customer exactly what it wanted. If the company spent one dime more than was necessary then that would be a problem. The CFO was asked the same question and he responded that being a world class Supply Chain management meant studying Wal-Mart, P&G and Dell and developing something superior to their processes.
Compare those responses and ask yourself if you think both of those people had the same vision in mind. It is obvious that they didn’t. Here were two people who had spent considerable time together to co-develop the strategy, could repeat the words of the strategy but weren’t on the same page when it came to how to execute that strategy. That is the danger of language – assuming we all mean the same thing when words are being used.
The term Business Model can also be found in the world of academia. In undergraduate business studies but especially in MBA programs the phrase is often used. Case studies of companies typically refer to their business models. The term is used hundreds if not thousands of times in the course of obtaining an advanced degree.
Since the phrase is so widely used in business and universities wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect a common definition? From seeing that term used in many different ways I came to the conclusion that people don’t share a common understanding of what constitutes a Business Model.
To verify my suspicions I conducted two surveys. One was with a group of business people and university students and the other was with a graduate business class. The audience in both cases was there to listen to a presentation I was going to make on the concept of Business Models. Prior to taking the surveys I asked those present to raise their hand if they were familiar with the term Business Model. Every person showed me they ‘knew’ what the term meant. My next instruction was for them to write down their definition on the piece of paper I had given them without conferring with anyone else. I was not looking for a homogenized version of the term but wanted to hear from each person individually. I also asked them not to include their name. What they had to say was more important than who said it.
I collected and recorded all the responses and now have dozens of different Business Model definitions. Allow me to share the beginning of just seven of them.
- A business model is a process ….
- Business model is the technical design …
- A business model is a description ….
- Rules and goals of the business as a whole.
- The method of running the business …
- A plan …..
- The strategies needed ….
As you can see from just these definitions my hypothesis was confirmed. Every one of those definitions is very different than the others. A description is certainly different than a process. Rules and strategies bear no resemblance to each other or any of the other descriptions in that list. There is a vast array of ideas being applied to the concept of Business Model.
The question begs to be asked: “How can business leaders and students attending the same university, studying the same field, have such a large array of definitions for one of the most basic business concepts?”
I think I know why.
It is not unlike the parable of the seven blind men and the elephant shown below. None of the seven men had ever experienced an elephant before and therefore had no basis or context for this magnificent creature. Each blind man was asked to describe an elephant. The first one touched the tail and described it as a rope. The second one touched a leg and said it was like a tree. One touched a tusk, another an ear, another the back,… While each man’s description of the elephant was technically correct if a person took only that one perspective s/he could not know what an elephant looks like.
In order for those men, or anyone else for that matter, to know what an elephant looks like they need to know all of its parts and their relationship to each other. By viewing each part individually it is not possible to know what any complex entity looks like.
A business is a very complex entity. Now mentally substitute the elephant in the story about with the idea of a Business Model. Scan the list of seven different definitions from my surveys and understand that each of those definitions is just one part of the business model.
I have come to understand that the reason why I receive so many different definitions for a Business Model is because it isn’t just one thing. Plans, rules and regulations, processes, strategies, design,.. are all different parts of the Business Model elephant. Each piece doesn’t capture the totality of the entity but it does provide one glimpse.
That doesn’t mean a definition for a business model can’t be created to describe a business model. I have spent many years in this area and have developed a definition that works well. It aligns perfectly with the system I have created to make the Business Model Design a reality.
A Business Model is:
An aligned design of the products, processes, people and support functions that enables a business to achieve sustained performance.
My definition encompasses all of the ‘parts of the business model elephant’ listed by the seven responses from my surveys. Some of the survey responses are easily seen in the definition while others exist at a lower level. My goal was to use the fewest words to capture the totality of a business model and I believe I have succeeded. If there are aspects you believe to be missing, such as strategies and goals, trust that they are accommodated in the process but not readily apparent in the definition.
I am a much more visual person than auditory. When I was in a senior executive role my staff would come to me with an idea and I would always say “Show me the picture”. Without the picture I didn’t know if we were on the same page. We unknowingly use the same terms when we are referring to different ideas. Just go back to the seven responses listed above for proof.
With that in mind I have created a visual document to go with the above definition for Business Model. It is my “Show me the picture” of a Business Model but unfortunately I am unable to import it into this document. If you were able to look at it you would see that the diagram illustrates how the business entity exists within the competitive environment and then how each of the components of the business exists within the overall context of the business entity. Context is King and that understanding is embedded into this approach.
The model works regardless of whether the company provides a product or service. And while I use the term ‘business’ I am not referring to only for-profit companies. It is any entity that provides a product or service for someone else. Corporations, single business units, agencies, organizations and even departments can all use this diagram to show its inner workings.
The picture is a high-level view. Each of the parts in the diagram can be decomposed to help the reader better understand the context of what it is they are viewing.
When you study my Business Model Design take notice of the red arrows throughout the diagram. Those arrows indicate a flow. That flow actually represents a progression or sequence which in turn creates dependencies resulting in this document taking on a more three-dimensional perspective.
Look to SlideShare for a PowerPoint by me on this topic. There I wll be able to share my business model design diagram or canvas.
Before closing there is a concept I wish to share with you. “The environment determines the relevance of a design”. This is critical to understand because it can and should be applied in every aspect of a person’s life. My definition of Business Model ends with the words ‘sustained performance’. The only way to achieve that level of performance in anything we do is to constantly adapt to a changing environment. That is true for products, processes and businesses alike. As the expectations change so must the corresponding designs.
There is an entire system that goes with this diagram. And when applied it creates a laser-like focus on what a business needs to do in order to achieve its goals. That brings us full circle to the idea that “It’s all about Performance”.
Each person goes through the day making assumptions. We assume the sun will rise in the east; the light will turn on in the bathroom; the shower will have hot water; the car will start when we leave for work and our computer will connect to the internet. The number of assumptions we make every day as we walk through our lives must add up into the hundreds. We are blind to them because events unfolding in front of us do not challenge our assumptions but instead support them. Unknowingly to us most of our assumptions are strengthened every day.
Perhaps assumptions are mental habits or conditioning and serve a similar purpose to learning how to tie shoes. When we first learn to tie a shoe it requires considerable attention or intentionality. We think about each move and either verbally or mentally repeat the instructions. It is a very manual and slow process. As we learn to tie our shoes we create ‘moving memory’. The more we practice the less attention is required and the faster and smoother we become. After the memory is completely programmed within us there is no benefit to keep thinking about each movement. Movement without thought can be a good thing. Ask any athlete about thinking too much when playing a sport. Just let your body do what it does and it will perform well.
Assumptions are often referred to as something bad. Many times I have heard the phrase: “You know what happens when you assume something? Makes an ass out of u and me”. So what would our lives be like if we didn’t make any assumptions? What if we thought through every situation and condition before making a decision or taking a step? If making assumptions is a bad thing then it follows that not making assumptions is a good thing.
We have all had an experience where we made an assumption that led to an unexpected and negative incident. In those situations we vow to never assume anything again because it can sneak up and bite us. Is that vow realistic or even desirable?
Why do we make assumptions? To relieve ourselves of the active thinking about events that almost always occur based upon our experiences. We don’t waste our time thinking about whether the sun will rise. We don’t think about how our bodies will digest the food we have for lunch. We don’t think about many things going on around us.
So from one perspective assumptions are time savers. That is until the assumption does not work in our favor. It is similar to the noise the refrigerator makes when it is running – you don’t notice it until it stops. We don’t see our assumptions until things do not go according to plan. Then we look for what we missed and try to see how it could have gone differently. Quite often we discover an action we overlooked but did not recognize because we made an invalid assumption.
This is especially true in business. Decisions based upon invalid assumptions can lead to disastrous results but we are blind to the assumptions until the results are coming in. And then it can be too late.
Imagine the value of a list of common invalid business assumptions that lead to poor performance. By knowing the assumptions you can avoid making them. Stay blind and you are doomed to repeat them over and over again.
During the past four years my business partner and I have been compiling such a list and have found them to fall into four categories. For the sake of brevity I have only included one invalid assumption in each category along with a description of the assumption. I have three more invalid assumptions for each category listed in a lengthier document. If you wish a copy of that document contact me through this blog or directly reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The first category of invalid business assumptions executives make are about the Goals they develop. These are important assumptions because the goals of a business establish the performance requirements for the entire enterprise. For instance if a corporate sales goal is to increase revenue by a certain dollar amount then the year will be considered successful only if the business performs at that level. Anything less is unsatifactory. Goals and performance requirements are the same thing.
· All Goals are Achievable.
o Just because you set a goal does not mean you can achieve it. Businesses are challenged to set “Big, Hairy, Audacious, Goals” (BHAGs) but if those goals are not achievable then setting and working on the goals is actually harmful. There is nothing wrong with setting stretch goals but they need to be attainable. If it is impossible for your business to grow a certain percentage with your existing Business Model – there are five discretely defined components to a Business Model – then you have to either change the goal or redesign your business to be able to achieve that goal. If you are not designed to achieve the goal then no matter how hard you work or push your people you will not reach the goal.
· Invalid Goal assumption 2
· Invalid Goal assumption 3
· Invalid Goal assumption 4
The second category of invalid business assumptions made by executives concern the Design of their business. There seems to be an intuitive understanding that businesses have a design because the term Business Model is used frequently by CEOs. A model is the physical manifestation of a design. When a product is prototyped the designer creates a set of blueprints (designs) that are used to build the model. The next time a CEO speaks about his/her business model ask him/her to show you the design. And since the CEO’s understanding of the business design is so vague it is easy to have invalid assumptions about it. Here is one.
· Improving Information will Improve the Design of the Business
o Many executives look to IT systems to solve their problems. With better information they will be positioned to make more intelligent and timely decisions. Executives need to remember that systems support organizations / organizations execute processes / processes create products or services / products or services are delivered to customers. Systems are the last thing executives should be looking to change! Will replacing the dashboard (information system) in your car change its performance capabilities? No. The root cause problem in your business is seldom the result of any IT system. The fault usually lies in the design of the business.
· Invalid Design assumption 2
· Invalid Design assumption 3
· Invalid Design assumption 4
The third category of invalid business assumptions deals with Strategies. This is an activity that nearly executive has engaged in and can relate to. It is the source of out-of-the-box thinking and it sets the direction of the corporation for years to come. Strategic planning is considered essential for the survival of every company because executives know that to be stagnant is to die. They have to change and the vehicle for change is thought to be strategies. And if this is indeed the vehicle (which we know it is not) then any invalid assumption in this group can be crippling. Here is the first invalid business assumption in this group:
· Strategies are Strategies
o Not all strategies are created equal. There are at least three types of strategies: design strategies, implementation strategies and execution strategies. The nature of each type of strategy is very different as well as their timing. Business executives often confuse a design strategy with the design of the business. They are two completely different ideas and need to be kept separate in order to reduce confusion. Know the difference between design and strategy.
· Invalid Strategy assumption 2
· Invalid Strategy assumption 3
· Invalid Strategy assumption 4
The fourth group of invalid business assumptions is about Performance. Performance is important for the health of the organization. If there is substandard performance from the customer’s perspective then sales will suffer and the business will fail. Customers are looking for companies that can offer the greatest Value Proposition. If there are performance issues as it relates to the return on investment then stockholders will opt to invest their monies in better performing businesses. Shareholders are looking to create personal wealth and companies that are not financially successful suffer in the market place and that has a negative impact on the company’s stock price. Actual Performance is very important in the long-term prospects of any company.
· Performance Problems are Always Execution Problems
o Business executives are aware of the impact that the quality of a design has on the performance of the product but they fail to apply that understanding to their business. 80% of the time the quality and relevance of the business design is at the root of performance problems. A poor design can never result in good performance. But since executives are unaware of business design they see execution as the culprit. Execution is particularly attractive to management since those problems are the fault of the employees while the quality of the design is management’s responsibility.
· Invalid Performance assumption 2
· Invalid Performance assumption 3
· Invalid Performance assumption 4
Knowing that you are operating under an invalid assumption may give you the chance to change your decision making. If you are making assumptions about things that you can control then you do have the option to make changes. If your assumptions are about large external events such as the economy, then you can not control the outcome but you can develop scenarios.
This post is actually a response I gave to a blog from the ITtoolbox. The gentleman I was responding to takes the position that companies may believe themselves to be customer focused when in fact they fail to take into consideration what the customer wants. Seems fairly obvious but he is correct. It isn’t unusual for executives to not understand who their customers are and still believe they are customer focused.
But the author of the original post and I quickly diverged when it came to how we see the organization. It is his contention that the organization (especially in those companies that view its employees as their number one asset) should drive the design of the processes. Read on to see how his opinion may contradict his own view of being customer focused.
There is one more point I want to make before you begin reading this blog. I view publicly-held companies, privately-owned businesses, government agencies, non-profit organizations and even departments to be basically the same. Each one of those entities has customers they are serving and processes they are executing. As you read through my response don’t think it does not apply to you if you don’t work in a ‘business’ – these ideas do relate to you.
I agree with your initial premise that a value chain that does not consider the customer is in trouble. How can a company believe it is customer focused if it does not take the time to define and quantify the expectations of the customer and take into consideration what the competition is offering?
How a business is designed will determine whether it is customer focused and plays a huge part in its level of performance. I know this to be true since I am a business architect. I provide customized business design tailored to reach the goals of my customers. In order to do that I have to understand all the components of a business and how they relate to each other.
Business designs have 5 components:
Ø Capstone – all strategic information about the business
o Internal: Vision; Mission; Values; Principles; Goals; Business Strategies, etc.
o External: The competitive environment (trends, obstacles, risks, critical business issues, …). Designs that do not take into consideration the competitive environment are flawed. It is a big mistake to not understand the context in which your business exists. A once robust design can become quickly obsolete if the context (environment) changes. As Joel Barker once said: “When the paradigm shifts everyone starts back at zero.”
Ø Market Model
o Here is where your perspective comes into play. Business leaders need to understand what each market place is looking for from products and services being sold into that market. Leaders must take the time to define the expectations of customers and then quantify them. Vague and arbitrary requirements do not provide good input into product development.
o Here is where we appear to diverge. Business leaders have to understand if their existing Market Model can deliver on the growth goals of the company. The Capstone creates the performance requirements for the Market Model. The performance requirements for the Market Model are not arbitrary.
o If the Market Model is not designed to achieve the growth goals then either the goals need to be adjusted or the design needs to be updated. By having defined and quantified the expectations of the customers it is possible to analyze whether one’s offerings to the market place need to be redesigned. This is being customer focused – you are delivering what the market wants.
Ø Process Model
o Input – Process – Output. Every business has processes to fulfill the demand for its products and services. Those processes do affect how the customer is being served. All of the processes performed by a company are considered to be its Process Model.
o Here is where we definitely differ. The Process Model receives its performance requirements from the Market Model. For instance, if the market place establishes a two week lead time your business will not be competitive with a four week lead time. You will have to reengineer your processes to deliver on the promises made to your customers. This is in keeping with being customer focused.
o Your processes will determine what skills, talents, knowledge and experience you need in your organization. Therefore processes create performance requirements for organizations.
Ø Organizational Model
o Processes are executed by the organization. As mentioned previously the design the Organizational Model receives its performance requirements from the Process Model. If the business needs to outsource some of its work and has never done that before then new skills such as Vendor Management and Service Level Agreements will be need to be executed and either the existing staff will be trained or experienced personnel will be brought in.
o Process designs should factor in the skills of the organization but the company should not under deliver to the market place due to inabilities of the organization. If you under deliver to the market place your sales will suffer accordingly.
o The organization needs to be designed in order to execute the processes that deliver its products/services and achieves the strategic goals of the company. The models are all connected and when designed to support each other the business can actually achieve alignment. Alignment has to be designed into an organization.
Ø Systems Model
o The organization uses systems to execute the processes. Many executives start with systems and work backwards. This is the reason why there are so many dissatisfied business leaders. They are applying a new system to an outdated business design.
o Will changing the dashboard in your car have an effect on the design of your car? Investing in new IT systems before updating the overall business design can only bring marginal improvements.
Designing a business is a cascading process and if you are changing your processes or organization before defining and quantifying the goals of the company and the design of the Market Model then you can not consider your company to be ‘customer focused’ and you can not know if your goals are even achievable.