Understanding Michael Porter: The Essential Guide to Understanding Competition and Strategy by Joan Magretta


  1. My goal is to present the essential Porter in a form that can be more easily digested and put to work than the original. But, to extend my metaphor, if you really want to digest these critically important ideas, you have to be willing to chew on them before you swallow. Strategy is not fast food, and neither is Porter.

Key Takeaways

  1. “The essence of strategy,” Porter often says, “is choosing what not to do.”
    1. “What Is Strategy?” (1996), one of the most-cited and best-selling HBR articles of all time, and “The Five Competitive Forces That Shape Strategy” (2008),
    2. Strategy explains how an organization, faced with competition, will achieve superior performance.
    3. The goal of strategy is to earn superior returns on the resources you deploy, and that is best measured by return on invested capital.
    4. Strategy is a path, not a fixed point. An effective strategy is dynamic.
    5. One of the important lessons about strategy is that if you’re pursuing a different positioning, then different metrics will be relevant. And if you force everybody to show progress on the same metrics, you encourage convergence and undermine strategic uniqueness.
    6. The essence of strategy is to create your own path.
    7. A business model highlights the relationship between your revenues and your costs. Strategy goes an important step further. It looks at relative prices and relative costs, and their sustainability. That is, how your revenues and costs stack up against your rivals’.
    8. The most common error of all is that competitive success comes from “being the best.” This mind-set is highly intuitive. It is also self-destructive, leading to a zero-sum race to the bottom. Only by competing to be unique can an organization achieve sustained, superior performance.
      1. Porter’s prescription: aim to be unique, not best. Creating value, not beating rivals, is at the heart of competition.
  2. Properly understood, competitive advantage allows you to follow the precise link between the value you create, how you create it (your value chain), and how you perform (your P&L). Competitive advantage is commonly understood as the weapon you use to trounce rivals. For Porter, it’s fundamentally about creating value, and about doing so differently from rivals. In this way, competitive advantage is about how your value chain will be different and your P&L better than the industry average. Competitive advantage lies in the activities, in choosing to perform activities differently or to perform different activities from rivals.
    1. Where does superior performance come from? Porter’s answer can be divided into two parts. The first part is attributable to the structure of the industry in which competition takes place.
    2. These five forces—the intensity of rivalry among existing competitors, the bargaining power of buyers (the industry’s customers), the bargaining power of suppliers, the threat of substitutes, and the threat of new entrants—determine the industry’s structure,
    3. When you analyze the power of suppliers, be sure to include all of the purchased inputs that go into a product or service, including labor (i.e., your employees).
    4. We now have a complete definition of competitive advantage: a difference in relative price or relative costs that arises because of differences in the activities being performed
    5. While not every single activity need be unique, robust strategies always involve a significant degree of tailoring. To establish a competitive advantage, a company must deliver its distinctive value through a distinctive value chain. It must perform different activities than rivals or perform similar activities in different ways. Thus the value proposition and the value chain—the two core dimensions of strategic choice—are inextricably linked. The value proposition focuses externally on the customer. The value chain focuses internally on operations.
  3. Making trade-offs means accepting limits—saying no to some customers, for example, so that you can better serve others. Trade-offs arise when choices are incompatible. Because a successful strategy will attract imitators, choices that are difficult to copy are essential.
    1. Trade-offs play such a critical role that it’s no exaggeration to call them strategy’s linchpin. They hold a strategy together as they contribute to both creating and sustaining competitive advantage.
  4. Fit has to do with how the activities in the value chain relate to one another. At one level, the idea of fit is completely intuitive. Every general manager knows the importance—and the difficulty—of aligning the various functional areas needed to compete in a business. But fit goes beyond simple alignment to amplify a competitive advantage and to make it more sustainable. Its role in strategy highlights yet another popular misconception: that competitive success can be explained by one core competence, the one thing you do really well. Good strategies depend on the connection among many things, on making interdependent choices. A common piece of advice for managers has been to focus on their core activities and to outsource the rest. Fit challenges that bit of conventional wisdom.
    1. Fit has to do with how the activities in the value chain relate to one another. Its role in strategy highlights yet another popular misconception, that competitive success can be explained by one core competence, the one thing you do really well. The fallacy here is that good strategies don’t rely on just one thing, on making one choice. Nor do they typically result from even a series of independent choices. Good strategies depend on the connection among many things, on making interdependent choices.
    2. You can think of fit as an amplifier, raising the power of both of those effects. Fit amplifies the competitive advantage of a strategy by lowering costs or raising customer value (and price). Fit also makes a strategy more sustainable by raising barriers to imitation.
    3. Fit means that the value or cost of one activity is affected by the way other activities are performed.
    4. But once you appreciate the role of fit, you will stop and think much harder about outsourcing. Instead of trying to determine which activities are core, Porter asks a different question: Which activities are generic and which are tailored? Generic activities—those that cannot be meaningfully tailored to a company’s position—can be safely outsourced to more efficient external suppliers. However, Porter argues that outsourcing is risky for activities that are or could be tailored to strategy, and especially for those activities that are strongly complementary with others. The fewer elements that remain in the company’s value chain, the fewer the opportunities to extend tailoring, trade-offs, and fit
    5. In competing to be the best, imitation is easy, and advantages are temporary. The more a company competes on uniqueness, the less susceptible it is to imitation, and advantages can be sustained over long periods of time. Great strategies are like complex systems in which all of the parts fit together seamlessly. Each thing you do amplifies the value of the other things you do. That enhances competitive advantage. And it enhances sustainability as well. “Fit,” Porter says, “locks out imitators by creating a chain that is as strong as its strongest link.”
  5. Continuity over time – if your company can achieve this, it has a robust, stable core but is also able to innovate and adapt
  6. Typical Steps in Industry Analysis
    1. Define the relevant industry by both its product scope and geographic scope.
    2. Identify the players constituting each of the five forces and, where appropriate, segment them into groups.
    3. Assess the underlying drivers of each force.
    4. Step back and assess the overall industry structure.
    5. Analyze recent and likely future changes for each force.
    6. How can you position yourself in relation to the five forces?
  7. Other
    1. In the early years, a shareholder asked CEO Herb Kelleher if Southwest couldn’t raise its prices by just a few dollars since its $15 price on the Dallas–San Antonio route was so much lower than Braniff’s $62 fare. Kelleher said no, our real competition is ground transportation, not other airlines.
    2. Early in his career, Porter identified a set of generic strategies—focus, differentiation, and cost leadership—that quickly became one of the most widely used tools for thinking about key strategic choices. Each of the three reflects the most basic level of consistency that every effective strategy must have. Focus refers to the breadth or narrowness of the customers and needs a company serves. Differentiation allows a company to command a premium price. Cost leadership allows it to compete by offering a low relative price.
    3. My advice is to concentrate on deepening and extending a strategic position rather than broadening and ultimately compromising it. Here are some thoughts about how to grow profitably without destroying your strategy. First, never copy.
    4. Expand geographically in a focused way. If you’ve penetrated your strategic opportunity at home, there’s always the rest of the world.
    5. Two questions will tell you whether you’re dealing with a disruptive technology or not. First, to what extent does it invalidate important traditional advantages? Second, to what extent can incumbents embrace the technology without major negative consequences for their business? If you stop and ask those questions, you’ll see that true disruptions are not so common.
    6. For a nonprofit, there is no directly comparable metric, so you’ve got to create one. A major challenge for every nonprofit is to define its goal or goals in terms of the social benefits it seeks to create. And then it must develop a value metric that looks at the results achieved versus the costs required to achieve them.

What I got out of it

  1. An excellent overview. Great way to frame strategy and to help hone in on where you should focus – being unique, not the best