Competing on uneven fields

Written by YRK Reddy | Updated: Feb 16 2008, 02:45am hrs
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently said that there was no game that was truly played on a level playing field, and asked business leaders to learn to compete on unlevel playing fields and prove their mettle. It is indeed sound advice, coming at a time when Indian corporations are preparing for hyper-competitive environments domestically as well internationally. There has indeed been no level playing field ever, as the powerful have historically tilted or forced conditions in their favour and continue to do so one way or another.

The patent reluctance to be fair in trade negotiations, for example, should be a pointer that the world is neither flat nor evenly round. It is warped.

The noticeable approaches of business readers and managers to external conditions impacting their performance are of two types. One is the familiar set that cries hoarse for policy changes that could make the external environment conducive to profits. The other is the strategic set which separates the task of influencing policy from its own aggressive strategies to succeed under unfavourable conditions.

The first setthe grumpy lotis dominated by mediocre businesses. Corporates in this set often attribute their poor performance to the policy environment, current or past. There are many grumpy ones in the SME and public sectors, even as several amongst them appear to be differently-abled having shown the way through hyper growth and sound performance. By and large, grumpy companies are characterised by lack of aspiration within the organisation, poor morale and strategic confusion. They live by the day, hoping for some miracle to thoda sa lift kara de from the morass. They are like the two characters in Samuel Becketts famous play, Waiting for Godotwaiting for Godot who neither knows, nor can recognise.

The other typethe gritty lotis made of sterner stuff and have a different outlook to business, the future and their strategy. Corporates in this set analyse the impeding forces and adverse conditions closely, but refuse to be cowed down. They look upon them as challenges that must be overcome and find innovative ways to get ahead. These companies often have fewer resources than their competitors. Yet, their motivational capital is mightier than their competitors, and the entrepreneurial spirit infectiously high throughout the organisation. Nearly two decades ago, Gary Hamel and CK Prahalad had identified strategic intent as a key success attribute, even if the Japanese examples they had cited do not exemplify this powerful idea convincingly now. Strategic intent is, in a way, the ability of the organisation to perform exceptionally well in spite of constraints. It contains a long-term view that serves as a rallying point for all employees to perform tasks with commitment. Entrepreneurship in such companies leverages internal skills to find innovative solutions and strategies to keep sharpening competitiveness along the value-chain and register exceptional performance on several dimensions. India, in general, is fortunately benefiting from an entrepreneurial tide and abundant aspiration at this point.

There are several companies prepared for a rough and uneven terrain. There are many examples of companies showing the way among big corporations as well as the medium enterprises that are looked up to for the verve and grit they have shown despite adversity. They serve as inspiration.

It is not as though such companies have ignored the need for policy reform and equity, or equitable treatment in international markets. They do form coalitions and work together with others to influence conditions of fairplay as much as possible, but with extra endurance. They do not whine all the time, but work away at the problems without letting it deplete their emotional, intellectual and strategic resources that will let them achieve real-time results. They are like the winners in the film Lagaan or the chariot race in Ben Hur or Maximus Meridius in Gladiator, who was stabbed in solitary confinement before he was let out to fight before the crowds.