I love me a good framework. And Geoffrey Moore is the kind of good product/marketing frameworks for technology companies. Moore’s Zone to Win: Organizing to Compete in an Age of Disruption is a must-read for anyone managing a larger technology organization (start reading it when you get to 200-250 people – it’s never too early to worry about disruption). More important, it’s really a companion book or coda to Escape Velocity: Free Your Company’s Future from the Pull of the Past, so if you haven’t read that one, start there and read both sequentially. Zone to Win is quite short and punchy, and it doesn’t disappoint.
I can’t believe is that I never blogged about Escape Velocity before since it was a very influential book in how we managed a bunch of things at Return Path in the later years when we got larger and were more in “disrupt or be disrupted” mode. I’ll start with the essence of that book before I move onto Zone to Win. Escape Velocity‘s principal framework is to divide the different product lines/lines of business you have into three planning horizons:
- Horizon 1 (H1): Current businesses that should be profitable and sustainable
- Horizon 3 (H3): Nascent R&D efforts with the potential to be disruptors or game changers
- Horizon 2 (H2): The bridge between H1 and H3 where an R&D effort that is taking off is scaled and hopefully achieves the eponymous Escape Velocity
The essence of the book is to talk about how larger companies become completely slavish to H1 businesses, their cash cows, and struggle to escape from their pull, whether that’s internal resource allocation or customer-driven demands. Failure to innovate properly beyond H1 businesses is why companies die. But the rest of the book is a lot less memorable, and it doesn’t quite prompt you into action.
That’s where Zone to Win comes in, and it helps me understand where we really got a couple things really wrong at Return Path (as an aside, Moore once met my Return Path cofounder George at a conference, and when George described our business to him, he said “Ah, a blue collar business. Those can work, too.” I think I understand what he meant by that, although it doesn’t sound like a compliment!)
In Zone to Win, Moore shows you how to put the three Horizons into action by creating an overlay framework to managing your company to help optimize all three zones simultaneously. The four zones are:
The key takeaways for me from this framework as well as the notes of where we got things wrong at Return Path, even while acknowledging that we had to play across H1, H2, and H3 simultaneously, were:
- Performance Zone: Managing your main H1 business in a way that drives growth and customer success for the long haul
- Productivity Zone: Managing your main H1 business for optimal profitability and scalability
- Incubation Zone: Starting new H3 businesses and hoping they work
- Transformation Zone: Getting your H3 business through H2 and into H1 to the point where it’s at least 10% of your overall revenue
What we got right at Return Path was first recognizing that we needed to incubate new businesses as the growth in our core business started to slow down, as well as recognizing that we needed to step up our game in managing the core business for performance. So, Moore would say something like “congratulations, you drew up the correct strategy.” But we fell down on implementation for reasons in three of the four zones. Our problem with the Performance Zone is that we discovered the three horizon model too late — there were several years where we were running R&D experiments in the middle of the core business, which created chaos. By the time we got religion around it, we were constantly playing catch up redesigning our management processes — like the teenager still wearing his kid clothes looking awkward and misfit. In the Productivity Zone, we did invest in productivity, but we weren’t aggressive enough about insisting on End of Life for some programs or products, and and we were bogged down by a convoluted legacy implementation of our CRM system that we never wholesale fixed. But the biggest problem we ran into was in the Transformation Zone, where we tried to jam two new businesses through that zone at the same time instead of focusing all our energies on one. I bet we could have pulled off even more of a transformational success with our security business (the one further along) if we hadn’t also been trying to get our consumer insights business through H2 at the same time. At least Moore notes that’s the hardest zone to get right, so I don’t feel quite so dumb.
There were probably other exogenous factors that caused us to fall down on implementation, too, but I think this had a lot to do with it. And don’t get me wrong, Return Path was a success in the end. It just could have been more successful if we had caught this book and adhered rigorously sooner. It was even published in time — somehow we just missed it. We were lured by customer traction and market pull into thinking we could do both. And it’s certainly possible that we were advised against this by one or more of our board members and plowed ahead anyway.
Moore is a masterful writer. If you haven’t read Crossing the Chasm or Inside the Tornado, for example, if you’re a GenZ founder and you think “wow those books came out before I was born, they can’t be relevant,” you should start by reading them. They’re still 100% applicable today, and Moore’s subsequent editions have updated some of the case studies, even if not totally contemporary — and these are worth reading even as a raw startup (in fact, especially as a raw startup). But once you finish those and your business gets larger, go straight into Escape Velocity and be sure to add on Zone to Win.