This article originally appeared on Forbes.com
After six years in the economic doldrums—and despite the US stock market’s stunning rally—many business leaders in developed nations still seem paralyzed when it comes to growth strategies. The evidence:
• Mergers and acquisitions are down 14% globally since 2008 and have plummeted 35% in Europe.
• Massive amounts of cash are piling up on balance sheets. This hoard instinct represents an idle $1.4 trillion in corporate cash and cash equivalents sitting idle in the non-financial S&P 500 companies through late last year, up 69% from 2007.
• Stock buybacks in the US so far this year are on a pace to substantially exceed last year, adding to the $2.2 trillion in buybacks from 2008 through 2012.
Sitting on the sidelines waiting for the fog to lift is certainly understandable. After all, the outcome of today’s stagnation is not only murky. The whole experience is unprecedented. We’re in the midst of the longest and most perplexing recessionary period ever. No one today has coped with anything like it. At the same time, political uncertainty is mounting.
Despite all this, at least two factors are fairly clear: One, business leaders have always lived with uncertainty. When hasn’t this been the case? Two, if money is not invested to spur real growth, expansion and innovation, it’s certain that none of these will occur.
Doing anything is always risky. Doing nothing, however, is a major strategic decision, usually a bad one—especially now. What’s so different today is that the already-dizzying rate of change is accelerating. This is especially evident in the technology sector. For instance, Apple recently declared that soon it will halt support for its original iPhone, which was only introduced in June 2007. This dwindling half-life—from innovation phenomenon to antique in six years—defines today’s business environment.
In that same brief period, moreover, Korea’s Samsung vaulted ahead of cash-rich Apple in two ways: R&D and marketing spending. The first was not just on phones but across a whole range of innovations and adjacent markets. In only 10 years, Samsung went from entering to leading the global flash-memory market. In three years, it went from entering the global smartphone market in a serious way to leading it. Today, Samsung is the world’s largest technology company by revenue.
Samsung’s expansion illustrates not only the flashing speed of change but also the blurring of industry borders. Companies that hesitate can be eclipsed by the proverbial entrepreneur in a garage and by competitors from different geographies. This is why chief executives need to scan the horizon for competitors’ moves and act, even if none seems to be doing anything. Or as Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee famously said: “Change everything except your wife and kids.”
Business leaders can also anticipate change by understanding that a lot of what seems like uncertainty is actually unfamiliarity. This distinction means that old ways can be adjusted and new methods acquired in pursuit of real opportunities that never have been seen before.
For example, executives long understood that capital was scarce and talented people abundant. Neither is true now.
Today, businesses must hoard talent. A current shortage of 10 million highly skilled workers could grow to as many as 95 million by the end of the decade, according to some estimates.
Meanwhile, the world is now awash in capital. Some is on the sidelines but more will arise from developing nations. My own firm estimates that the total global capital pool will expand 50% by the end of the decade—up $300 trillion from roughly $600 trillion today to nearly a quadrillion dollars by 2020. That’s a lot of money. It points to the need to develop highly sophisticated strategies around anticipating and finding opportunities in asset bubbles.
Here’s another unfamiliar certainty: The global population is aging. We know with almost complete certainty by how many people and where. What’s less certain to companies is how to respond. This, however, can be a great opportunity. Take cosmetics, for example: While 81% of 18- to 49-year-old women use cosmetics and skin-care products weekly, so do 80% of women age 60 to 69 and 75% of women over age 70. One cosmetics firm has seized on this as a golden opportunity. Developed through research on aging skin, it is offering a line of beauty products to one of the largest and fastest-growing segments in the world: women over the age of 60.
Of course, not every business leader can put a similar pretty face on his or her worries. All senior managers, however, do have considerable skin in the game of developing a strategy that both embraces uncertainty and pierces unfamiliarity.
To put this in a mnemonic, what’s needed is a new strategic “A” game: one that’s alert, agile and able to move with alacrity.
Orit Gadiesh is chairman of Bain & Company.