Innovating for competitive advantage: A personal view

Doug Conthrone, ACMA, CGMA, who retired this year after spending 17 years as a finance executive with the Coca Cola Co., explains how creative vision and smart change management can keep continuous improvement flowing.
Doug Bonthrone, ACMA, CGMA
Doug Bonthrone, ACMA, CGMA

An example of how innovation can occur anywhere in a business comes from my experience more than ten years ago in China, a key strategic market for Coca-Cola. As the 1990s ended and China was becoming an increasingly attractive emerging market for a rising number of businesses, Coca-Cola was having trouble growing as it wanted to in a particular market segment there.

Coke is a franchiser operation that typically has independent bottlers working as its franchisees in the countries in which it sells its beverages. At the time, I was the company’s equity portfolio director for Asia Pacific, helping lead and coordinate interactions with the bottlers in that region.

We were performing well in China with our sparkling (carbonated) beverages, but we weren’t satisfied with sales of our non-carbonated beverages, which we call “stills”. Swire Beverages, one of our franchisees in China, had put a lot of money into building still beverages capacity there, but it had been vastly under-utilised for several years. Furthermore, growing market share in the stills segment had been identified as a key strategic priority, but we weren’t winning as we wanted to in the marketplace.

So we needed to change what we were doing, and the first priority was to identify what was and wasn’t working. Coke and its bottlers were developing the capabilities necessary to develop, supply and sell still beverages in China, but no one was happy with the way and pace at which the system was investing in stills. Working with Swire Beverages, I developed an approach that provided a financial framework that encouraged and gave the bottlers confidence to put more effort into stills. This framework covered the launch of a still beverage and three to four years afterward — what we called the “nurturing” period — to provide sufficient time for the still brand to become established. After that, the financial arrangements between Coke and its bottlers reverted to their normal terms.

The strategy was very successful, and within a couple of years significant new still beverage production capacity was required in China. Coca-Cola’s still beverages have continued to experience rapid growth in China, and a bottling system that had been frustrated with the performance of stills has invested ahead of the curve to develop additional still beverage capacities and capabilities. Naturally, the original framework we developed to encourage and support the growth of still beverages in China has evolved a little, too.

Although this change was successful, change and innovation seldom come easily, and this is a challenge each business must address to be successful over the long term.

Managing innovation

Machiavelli (author of the 16th century political treatise The Prince) once gave an excellent description of the lonely role a change agent must play: The people who are doing well by the status quo will resist you, while those who support you are not going to vocalise their support until they know the change is going to succeed. In my view, this is why it’s imperative to build a culture within a company that continuously looks for and welcomes change and innovation of both a tactical and strategic nature. In other words, innovation should not be something a business does from time to time, but instead becomes a way of life and how the business operates. In my experience, sound change management across the depth and breadth of the organisation early, during and after the innovation process is important for a successful outcome.

Dealing with big, hairy, audacious goals

Strategic change typically requires a stretched target that provides a unifying destination for a business that pulls everyone and everything together in pursuit of it. This overarching objective will underpin all strategic and tactical planning, and I call it establishing a BHAG, or a big, hairy, audacious goal.

In 2009, Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent worked with the company’s bottlers to come up with a BHAG of doubling system revenues by 2020. In broad numbers, it was taking a revenue level that took around 123 years to reach and aiming to repeat it in 11 years.

In my experience, most successful businesses possess or have had this kind of BHAG vision or destination. You need to pick a realistic time frame to achieve the BHAG, particularly if significant change is involved. I wouldn’t have anything shorter than three years, and between five and ten years is probably a good time scale for most businesses.

You also have to recognise that the BHAG is not the end of the journey. It’s just a specific milestone along the journey of achieving success and building a sustainable business.

What are we trying to do? In short, it’s freeing up people and resources to invest in the business in ways that will enable it to prosper in a competitive environment over the short, medium and longer terms. Every year, a business must look at how it can do more with less and how it can improve internally as well as externally in the marketplace. I’ve never bought into the old saying that, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” as a business doesn’t operate in a static environment. New threats and challenges constantly appear, and I believe it’s better to be proactive than reactive.

Consequently, each business should continuously look at how it can improve, because if its competitors are improving and growing while it is not, it will fall behind in the race for long-term survival. There are few certainties in business, but you can be sure that if your business isn’t doing better than its competitors, it’s probably not going to be around for long. For me, that means embracing and pushing sensible innovation across every facet of the business on an ongoing basis.

Five steps to successful innovation

Give people responsibility and the freedom to make mistakes. If you don’t make mistakes, you’re probably not trying hard enough, so it helps to provide a framework within which people can innovate and find it is easy to do so. The responsibility part means the change agent ensures that key stakeholders are aligned each step of the way and are kept informed on what’s working and what’s not working, and there’s a learning process in place so mistakes aren’t repeated and lessons are shared.

Get a budget based on robust financials. What do you think the change project is going to cost overall? What are the key variables, and how sensitive is the budget to changes in these variables? How is the project’s viability affected by changes in key variables, and how likely are these to occur? If there is a reasonable chance of success, then make sure you have the money available when needed.

Break it into stages. At Coca-Cola we have a stage-gate process, and as we go through each stage, we check our progress against agreed targets and decide whether to proceed to the next stage. If we do proceed, the budget for the next stage is released. If one goes through a stage without getting the expected results, find out why before deciding on next steps. Maybe your change management has been inadequate, your assumptions were wrong, or perhaps the world has changed and made your innovation obsolete.

Adjust. Be ready to alter course or even pull the plug, if necessary, as soon as it looks likely the innovation will fail or won’t be financially viable, although one should not be put off by some early setbacks. Anticipate and look for bumps in the road, and if things are going wrong, make a course correction. On the other hand, if the innovation turns out better than expected, be ready to quickly put more resources behind it to accelerate what’s working.

Fish where the fish are. Focus change efforts on areas that have the biggest opportunity and are easiest to achieve. This means looking not only at areas where improvements are required, but also at areas of specific competence or competitive advantage. This applies to both tactical and strategic innovation.

Five steps to accomplishing big goals

Ground the BHAG in reality. Ask yourself: What are the opportunities? What are the threats? What competencies do I have and need? What are my competitors doing, and what are their strengths and weaknesses? What new competitors or roadblocks could arise in the future? Form your goal sensibly, because you are not going to achieve it in isolation, but within a competitive and constantly evolving environment.

Scope your goal. Look at resource implications over time and the likelihood of success, and prioritise the areas where you get the most leverage for the least risk in terms of both impact and probability. Furthermore, resources are finite, so choiceful decisions must be made where resources are invested with regard to amount of return, time periods and probabilities of success.

Don’t try to be point accurate. Doing loads of calculations around thousands of variables is useful to understand the range of possible and probable outcomes, but don’t get fooled by false precision. Trying to be point accurate and predict every variable, especially if you have a plan that’s three years or longer, is generally a mistake.

Be flexible. Just as you do with innovation stage gates, set up a monitoring system that will warn you as early as possible and allow you to change course if you encounter new influences you didn’t anticipate, or your results aren’t turning out as expected. Also, be wary of putting all your eggs in one basket, as an error of judgement or an unexpected occurrence could have catastrophic consequences.

Good execution is essential. It’s better to do five things critical to the BHAG really well than 15 important things adequately. And always expect the unexpected — no effort ever goes entirely according to plan.

About the author
Bonthrone has served around the world in many senior management positions with the Coca-Cola Co., the last of which was director of global services strategy in London.