Pan-Am was once America’s largest airline. BlackBerry used to be the fastest-growing company in the world. Blockbuster Video actually passed up the chance to buy Netflix. The failure of these companies is proof that no matter how popular or beloved your brand, its survival depends on your ability to adapt.
To help companies proactively identify external threats as well as their own weaknesses, I share a technique called Kill the Company. It’s designed to objectively analyze your entire business and identify where your biggest vulnerabilities are.
It starts with gathering people from across your org and presenting this challenge: “What would you do to put us out of business today?” By reversing the usual question – “how can we beat the competition?” – you enable your employees, the people with insider knowledge of your business, to identify its weak spots.
The first time HBO did this exercise, it generated three pages of tactics that a top competitor could use to destroy its network. An American mining company runs this exercise regularly to protect itself against both competitive and market forces. A city council in Texas even repurposed it as Kill the Community to identify and address potential threats to their city.
With your own company, ask people to brainstorm all the ways that your business could be rendered obsolete – and have them place each tactic on a sticky note. Ideas might be anything from “a security breach of user data” to “X competitor sells the same product for a third of the price” or “Y competitor offers same-day delivery.”
When you give people freedom to say it like it is, they really lean into it. I’ve seen teams of six generate upward of 30 ideas in a half-hour. And this is exactly what needs to happen. After all, the competition doesn’t care about manners or stepping on egos. It just wants to get to the big opportunities before you do.
Now ask participants to place all their ideas up on a whiteboard. Organize these by smallest-to-largest threat, or by easiest-to-hardest to address. What do you think are your top three threats? Where are your biggest threats clustered? Manufacturing? R&D? Clusters of kill tactics indicate areas that need immediate attention.
Once there’s consensus on your top three threats, ask everyone for ideas on how they’d prevent these from happening? Maybe an acquisition to expand your customer base? A logistics change to cut delivery time? Or outsourcing a portion of your service? This is the moment when goals start being clarified and your issues find solutions.
By the way, sometimes a few tactics generated in this exercise can actually be turned against your competitors. If that’s the case, talk about how to act on those right away. Additionally, this exercise can reveal overlooked strengths within your organization. So if you’ve clearly got a lock on technology, determine how you can leverage that strength to maintain your position.
Kill the Company identifies exactly where and how your business is vulnerable. It empowers employees, and it helps leaders work on weaknesses while seizing opportunities. By killing your own company at least once a year, you’ll prevent anyone else from writing its actual obituary.