Focus - A military approach to the drinks industry

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McKinney Rogers UK partner Chris Hart works with global drinks brands to advise on improving market and competitive awareness and internal organisational structure. Here, he relates the top five pieces of advice the military can offer big business.

Ambiguity, complexity and change have become bywords within the drinks industry over the last six months. Many may argue that this has always been the case. Shifts in consumer trends at both global and local level on top of continuing consolidation and increasing regulatory control means the environment is changing at pace. As the drinks industry changes, it is worth looking at our markets from a fresh perspective and perhaps even incorporating models and frameworks from other disciplines. One such example is the way the military deals with uncertainty and ambiguity, an approach that is based on bringing clarity and alignment to understanding your operating space and decision making. There are five basic tenets to this approach.

  • Planning

When a company must deal with the complications of constantly changing variables and unpredictability, their approach must be simple and clear. Planning is not about just driving growth at all costs - it is about setting what the long-term aim is and why you want to achieve it. Procurement of a brand now is what you might want to achieve, the reason why is to establish category presence in order to take market share from your competitor in the future. Once you are clear on what you want to achieve, then you can concentrate on the steps vital to achieving it including aligning people with your organisational intent and providing them with a framework within which they can operate.

  • Flexibility of response

It is not enough in battle or business to have a plan for what you expect - always prepare for the unexpected. Knowing your market well is different from planning to meet unforeseen eventualities. By having well thought-through plans to deal with potential shifts in your position or the market - whether your biggest challenges are production, taxation changes or distribution problems - you will be able to deal with 'unexpected' problems better if you plan ahead when the pressure is off. In one memorable instance we helped a company develop such a plan which protected their distribution channels when a mass riot flared up, leaving them largely unaffected.

  • Understand the enemy

Even organisations which do plan still fall into the trap of planning in a vacuum, failing to assess their competitors' likely actions and plan countering moves. By pooling the data available and the experience of your senior team in a targeted exercise, you will turn information into intelligence more readily than individual efforts could. It would border on clairvoyance to predict the Scarlett Johansson endorsement of Moët & Chandon earlier this year, but it would not have been a leap to presume that one of the biggest names in Champagne would consider such a move. Get a team to trawl news across the industry for the last few years to come up with these 'what if' scenarios. Whatever your agreed counter move, it will be more decisive and effective if well-considered in advance.

  • Getting the most from your team

For many leaders, it can be tempting to try and take everything on yourself. In a combat situation, a commander can brief lieutenants only so much before they enter battle. A business leader must take the same approach - ensure your people understand the broad strategic intent, what the key measures of success are and what resources they have at their disposal. For instance, tell the team your vision is to become number one in the market, and in order to achieve this, the sales team mission is to be selling 30% more product in Japan by this time next year. Tell them that they have a given number of people and a fixed budget to achieve this. Give them the freedom to decide how they want to do it. This will motivate people to use their intelligence, and great people will rise to the challenge. It will also enable leaders to concentrate on big decisions. Trust your deputies, your regional MDs and your heads of foreign operations, as they should trust those beneath them in turn.

  • Leading with courage

The advice above won't prevent the odd sleepless night. But if leaders feel fear, they must never show it. Be frank about the risks with your team, but communicate simultaneously that you're ready to tackle those risks, and that you can't win without the whole team behind you. Fear is contagious, both among employees and shareholders. Employees will trust and follow a leader who can inspire and be trusted. Be clear, honest and inspirational and you will see the results around the office and on the end-of-year results.

Changing practice and culture can bring a step change for any organisation, but these five steps are grounded in success in business and military campaigns alike. As the recovery happens, those organisations that get the most from their people, their assets, their competitive intelligence and their markets will be those best positioned to win the recovery.

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