Jack Ma, CEO of Alibaba.com, runs one of the most successful business-to-business marketplaces in the world. He’s profiled under "Builders and Titans" in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. His keys to success? “We had no money. We had no technology. And we had no plan.”
So how did that plan lead to nearly half a billion dollars in sales last year? In a word: Flexibility. If you read the real success stories of leading companies today, you’ll see that often their first ideas weren’t very successful. But because they didn’t have too much invested, they were free to abandon those ideas, or revise them and keep revising them, as they learned more about the market or as conditions changed.
In Joshua Ramo’s new book, The Age of the Unthinkable (see our book review), he suggests that replicating past successes simply won’t work in a fast-paced global market. Only companies which acknowledge that they can’t know the future will survive—because they are prepared to be flexible forever.
How does that work in a business climate that demands quarterly projections and next year’s budgets and five year strategies? One way could be the way Li & Fung does it: as Senior VP Alan Fromkin explained in our class this winter, they create a three-year goal, but they don’t dictate how they are going to reach it. Which gives them the flexibility to keep trying things until they get it right, at that time and in those markets.
It’s not an easy sell, when people around you are desperate for solid answers. But it is perhaps the only strategy that will succeed in the years ahead.