In 1984, one year before the sci-fi classic “Back to the Future” was released, the professors Danny Miller and Peter Friesen from McGill University in Montreal published a seminal paper on corporate life cycles. Both works contained clairvoyant features for the future.
Building on an empirical sample of firms the paper titled “A longitudinal study of the corporate life cycle” describes how companies can be classified into five life cycles from birth to decline. The authors applied five dimensions to accomplish this task: strategy, structure, environment and decision making style.
Fast forward 30 years. The year 2015 which was vividly described in “Back to the Future Part II” has just passed and an entire economic sector, namely the banking industry, appears to be in the doldrums. Many banks seem to be in decline.
Do you work for a bank in decline? Let’s have a quick lock how Miller and Friesen verbatim characterized a declining firm along the four dimensions thirty years ago (emphasis added):
“Firms in the decline stage react to adversity in their markets by becoming stagnant […]. Firms seem to be caught in something of a vicious circle. Their sales are poor because their product lines are unappealing. This reduces profits and makes for scarcer financial resources, which in turn cause any significant product line changes to seem too expensive. So product lines become still more outdated […]; the firms just muddle through.”
“[…] There is a tendency to attend to what the owners want, that is, to preserve resources, rather than cater to the needs of customers. The market scope of declining firms is quite narrow […]. Failure in one major product line simply cannot be counterbalanced by success in others as might happen in more diversified companies […]. Shrinking markets can be extremely competitive and firms that rely totally upon them may find themselves in deep trouble. Performance thus tends to be very poor. This may be caused partly by the simple structure.”
“The locus of decision-making power is at the top of the firm. In fact, even routine operating decisions (these predominate in declining firms which shy away from strategic decisions) are executed by higher level managers […]. While managers who are close to customers and markets may be well aware of the problems that exist, their information does not seem to filter up to those with enough authority to do anything about it.”
4. Decision-making Style
“Decision making is characterized by extreme conservatism. There is little innovation, an abhorrence of risk taking, and a reluctance even to imitate competitors’ innovations, let alone lead the way […]. Sometimes it is due to the temperament of the top managers. Occasionally, it results from funds shortages stemming from previous declines in performance. But almost inevitably, key contributing factors are ignorance of markets […]. Managers fail to delegate and there is little in the way of participative management. Thus the top executives must spend most of their time handling crises. They just haven’t the time for much analysis. So they take very few dimensions into account in decision making […] and employ very short time horizons.”
Resonating with today’s banking industry
This rich description of a declining firm crafted in the year 1985 may resonate with many people across the globe working for banks in the year 2016. If it rings a bell with you, your bank may well be in decline. However, not all hope is lost: in their empirical study Miller and Friesen also showed that 42% of the firms in the decline phase progressed to the revival phase. But don’t get your hopes up too soon: Miller and Friesen describe the survivor bias as one of the major shortcomings of their study. Their empirical study only contained surviving firms. Those which did not make it through the decline phase were not included in their research.
Unfortunately, it appears as if Miller and Friesen’s 1984 description of declining firms had quite some clairvoyant features for many a bank of the year 2016.
Miller, D., & Friesen, P. H. (1984). A longitudinal study of the corporate life cycle. Management Science, 30(10), 1161-1183.
Dr. Patrick Schüffel, Professsor, Institute of Finance, Haute école de gestion, Fribourg Chemin du Musée 4, CH-1700 Fribourg, firstname.lastname@example.org,www.heg-fr.ch
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