The Art of Choosing Micro-battles

We described in earlier blog posts the Bain Micro-battles SystemSM and the skills and behaviors necessary to run it. Now we’re writing a series of posts on hot topics—this one on how to choose micro-battles. Here’s what to consider.

Micro-battles demand a strong strategic foundation

Micro-battles aren’t small things. They are your most important strategic initiatives. Strategic clarity is therefore critical when choosing them. While we believe it’s important to get started fast on your first wave of micro-battles, a program based on random initiatives will most likely lose momentum and fail. Selecting a coherent, impactful set of micro-battle initiatives depends first on two things.

  • Micro-battles should advance your insurgent mission and build on the three or four spiky capabilities that help you deliver that mission to your core customers. At China’s Yonghui Superstores, for instance, the insurgency is all about delivering safe, fresh food at scale. So you would expect most of its micro-battles to focus on strengthening the supply chain capabilities that make such a promise possible.
  • Micro-battles should also link directly to your full potential strategy and address your main sources of value. At a brick-and-mortar retailer, this would very likely mean launching a micro-battle portfolio that would position the company to take advantage of the dramatic rise in e-commerce.
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The micro-battle portfolio should have broad impact

If the micro-battles are linked directly to your insurgent mission and full-potential strategy, then it should follow that you’ll have a big impact on your company if you win these battles. While this connection is necessary, it’s not sufficient. The best micro-battle portfolios share several other characteristics.

  • They focus on initiatives that will have a big material impact on your bottom line. Micro-battles are about repeatability, so it’s critical to understand how capabilities built to win a specific micro-battle will scale across the organization for broad impact. Other questions matter as well: Can we get a big competitive win here? Can we delight our most important customers with something truly great that will get them talking in the marketplace?
  • They are winnable (especially in the early waves). When rolling out a portfolio of micro-battles, building momentum is key, so it’s essential to focus early on those you can win. Winnable doesn’t mean easy; it means there’s a high probability you can achieve the micro-battle mission if you apply the right focus and resources.
  • They address big sources of organizational dysfunction. Micro-battles are not someone’s day job. They’re required precisely because they demand senior leaders’ attention and a cross-functional approach. You need the battles because something is broken, and in choosing them, you should target the ugliest internal issues, the ones that everyone knows about and assumes management long ago gave up addressing. You want to target long-standing obstacles to great execution. If you can take these on and win, you’ll demonstrate to all that you’re serious about avoiding the growth paradox—namely, that growth creates complexity, and complexity kills growth.
  • You have the stars to lead them. It really matters that you can free up the right team to lead these battles. This starts with picking the right franchise players as leaders, especially in the early waves. You then want to encourage these leaders to surround themselves with a team that can execute the micro-battle mission, one that delivers the benefits of both scale and intimacy. This includes folks who are great at designing the right prototypes based on customer insight and those who know how to test for transferability and build Repeatable Models®. You will find that the same stars are in demand to support multiple battles. You’ll also gain insight about the folks who never seem to be selected and who might be candidates for replacement as you shore up your talent.

Selecting micro-battles is an iterative process, connecting who and what

More than anything else, this talent question will affect your micro-battle choices. You will have a major backlog of strategically important, potentially impactful initiatives, but a limited roster of stars to deploy to lead them. In your Leadership sessions, you will find the walls filled with lists of the stars of your business and when they can be freed up for the next micro-battle. Sometimes this will constrain your launch schedule, and the process can be frustrating. But it is the essence of executing a strategy: How do we deploy the top 100 stars of our company against our most important micro-battles?

Prioritize battles with clear hypotheses on failure point, repeatability and metrics

We’ve spent a lot of time in these blog posts talking about the elements of the micro-battle mission. We noted above how critical it is to link these battles to your insurgent mission and strategy. But it is also important to prioritize battles for which leadership has a strong hypothesis about the first failure point and the repeatable model you hope to develop and roll out. Clarity on these objectives will go a long way toward making sure you’ve identified the right problem, are testing the right prototype and are scaling the best solution in a way that will win the most buy-in and have the most impact.

As you develop your micro-battle mission around the idea of winning (focusing on the first failure point) and scaling (focusing on repeatability), it’s also critical to be clear about what constitutes success. The team needs to know which metrics to use as they measure progress against winning and scaling, and they need to ensure that these metrics are at the heart of their test-and-learn process. Micro-battle missions will vary in their precision on these issues. Choose those that are fully in focus and continue to work on clarifying the rest.

For wave I (and maybe wave II) be pragmatic—your goal is to create momentum

As you get better at micro-battles, the weighting of different criteria will change. For wave I battles, you want to build momentum and achieve clear victories, so you will assign greater weight to winnability and team leadership. You want the well-respected stars of the business to lead these campaigns and influence others to get on board with the program. In later battles, however, you can assign more importance to the size of the micro-battle and how it addresses big areas of organizational dysfunction. But be pragmatic early on. Your goal is to create momentum.

Should you cluster or distribute your early battles?

Another important consideration in forming an early portfolio of battles is how to distribute them across the organization. Should you cluster these battles in one part of the company or spread them around? The pros and cons are clear. The tighter you cluster these battles around a single division, function or market, the more synergy you’ll have between the battles. The same top executives will sponsor multiple battles, and as time goes on, they’ll keep getting better at it. The risk, however, is that large parts of the organization will be untouched by micro-battles.

If you distribute your battles more widely, on the other hand, more parts of the organization will experience their power. And as an executive team, you get to learn from various types of micro-battles and watch the progress of multiple teams. The downside is, you also distribute your attention widely, and there may be fewer synergies. There is no right or wrong answer here, but you’ll have to make a choice and take steps to mitigate the associated risks.

Remember, micro-battles beget micro-battles

As you build out a portfolio of micro-battles, it’s important to recognize that several of your wave I and II battles will give birth to new micro-battles. It all depends on the scaling model the team recommends. There will be some micro-battles, though not many, that you can scale across the organization through a playbook—that is, a clear, codified repeatable model that others can follow precisely with little need for local adaptation. Other solutions will need to be rolled out in stages—for instance, first in four markets, then eight more and so on. But sometimes, the micro-battle team will conclude that the best way to scale the micro-battle is to run a new micro-battle in another market or another channel. They haven’t come up with a viable repeatable model, and they argue that scaling their micro-battle will therefore depend on starting over each time. This is common when the solutions require a very high level of customization and going to another market could have a big material impact.

It helps to have already considered this when designing the initial micro-battle. We raise the issue here simply to make sure you don’t overextend yourself by launching too many new micro-battles without realizing that you might need even more to scale the ones you’ve already launched.

Don’t rush—you’re building Repeatable Models and the capabilities to support them

Here’s a final note of caution about overextending yourself: Don’t declare early victories on your micro-battles. Remember, these battles are about winning initially and then scaling. The scaling takes time. It requires you to not only design the right repeatable model but also invest in building the capabilities required to support it. Keep the team on the hook to deliver these capabilities, and don’t disband it until you’re confident they have done so. The key difference between micro-battles and pilots or quick wins is that you’re building the deep capabilities you’ll need to scale and deliver a repeatable model with major impact. Don’t be seduced by early wins—real results come through scaling. We refer to this as the macro-impact of micro-battles.


Micro-battle Missions and Why They Matter

The micro-battle mission should keeps your micro-battle teams and your company dialed in on developing the skills of a scale insurgent.

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