How Covid-19 Is Teaching Us To Rethink Business Strategy

The Covid-19 virus is a mean and cunning beast. It has turned our daily routines upside down and claimed millions of lives. However, in spite of its very negative record, the virus is also teaching us a valuable lesson on how to handle adversity and fierce competitors that are determined to eradicate you. This lesson reflects ways certain companies recombine and expand their capabilities to develop new businesses in rapidly evolving environments.

The coronavirus is indeed a model of rapid adaptation to the obstacles it encounters. When it enters a human body, it looks for an organ in which it can thrive, whether it is the lung, the brain or the liver. Sometimes it penetrates the brain, leading to loss of smell and taste. Most of the time, it is generating difficulties to breath. When it is recognized by the antibodies about to neutralize it, it mutates by inventing new combinations so that it is no longer identified as a threat. It is constantly testing new mutations and keeps those that show a better performance, in order to maximize its chances of survival.

Let’s describe the implicit strategy followed by the virus and examine how it fits with our current models of strategy.

1. When the virus finds human beings with low immunity, it enjoys a competitive advantage over the antibodies. It penetrates several organs and thrives. When the virus reaches human beings with strong defense systems – as in the Porter framework for analyzing a competitive environment – internal rivalry within each infected person is strong. Antibodies in large numbers and with great neutralizing power eliminate the virus. 2. The virus is always on the look-out for new territories (“blue oceans”) in which it can prosper, whether they are new population segments (the elderly and people with comorbidities are for instance more receptive than the young and healthy), new countries or new continents.

3. New behaviors like social distancing, face masks and disinfection make the spread of the virus more difficult. Acquired immunity, boosted by vaccination or previous infection, stymies the development of the virus. In theory, with no more space to grow, the virus should die off. However, in keeping with billions of years of micro-organism evolution based on trial and error, it reinvents itself with variants that escape the innate or acquired immunity or have a higher transmissibility.

4. The cycle repeats itself with variants of the virus, starting off at stage 1. The virus integrates feedback (the ability of the different variants to penetrate human cells and replicate) in order to reinforce the variants that provide an advantage.

Had the virus simply followed Michael Porter’s competitive advantage (stage 1) or Blue Ocean (stage 2) recommendations, it would have been stopped by vaccination. But, this virus is nimble. It is able to rapidly transform itself (stage 3) and make use of feed-back loops (stage 4) to learn and overcome obstacles. The implicit strategy followed by the virus after stage 2 is what we have called the “Bamboo Strategy”. As we have explained in previous articles, it means recombining your roots (assets and capabilities) to grow many new baby branches (business models) and scale up those who have the potential of becoming big branches. Similarly, the virus keeps the same RNA but continuously proceeds to slight mutations, in order to take on different forms, adapt and succeed in the long term.

Thus, without wishing to be too provocative, we can see the virus is a master in strategy as it finds unexpected ways to express its genetic material. It is a manifestation of the robust model of evolution, that has proved its effectiveness over billions of years. As with the virus, companies can recombine their roots (capabilities and assets) and express their potential in new branches (new business models) in order to make up for the inevitable decline of their dominant activities.

The implicit strategy followed by the virus – the “Bamboo Strategy” – is to strategy what guerrilla warfare is to conventional warfare. Speed, unpredictability, resurgence, ability to find unusual allies and seize unexpected opportunities are much more important than sheer power. The virus uses a mobility strategy and not a defensive strategy.

Let us conclude by a business story that exemplifies such ways of conducting a bamboo strategy. In 1984, a French entrepreneur, Jean-Pierre Savare, acquired a bankrupt group for one symbolic euro. It had several subsidiaries in the very mature industry of printing. In the group, fiduciary printing was a sleeping jewel with deep roots (expertise with high security printing, and legal authorization to print bank notes). The visionary entrepreneur, who had previously worked in the IT department of a big bank, envisaged that the newly acquired group could undergo a mutation to surf on the emerging wave of payment cards. The group was already good at printing on plastic (the body of the credit card), it had the legitimacy of printing means of payment, it just needed to add the competence for microchips, which it did by partnership and later on by acquisitions.

In a few years, the company, renamed Oberthur Technologies, became the world leader in card systems (credit cards, Sim cards for mobile telephony and other smart cards like electronic travel cards). In the early 2010’s, Oberthur set out to grow in the US to seize the opportunity offered by the move from magnetic stripe card to smart card. The US became their biggest market and it remains so.

The story could stop here but Oberthur then made another bold mutation, as they could foresee that the smart card industry was close to maturity. Building on their expertise in cryptology and production of secure documents, as well as their relationships with official authorities, they acquired expertise in biometrics to grow their burgeoning activity in identity documents (identity cards, passports, electronic driving licenses; social security cards, access badges….). They became a world leader in digital identity and biometric payment (including contactless payment). At present, they sell a wide range of products and services based on face, finger, or even iris recognition. Following a merger between Oberthur and Morpho, they changed the latter’s name to IDEMIA , and printed more than three billion identity documents worldwide in 2020, for a total turnover of over $2 billion.

The evolution of Oberthur Technologies illustrates the successful and progressive mutations that a commoditized and local activity (printing) can undergo to express its capabilities and become the world leader in high-tech printed cards.

Small, invisible and continuous additions of capabilities make it possible to survive existential threats. In the same way, the evolutions of the virus’ genome enable the spike proteins to take on different forms that will escape the armies of antibodies ready to bind and neutralize them.

Though very different in nature, both the virus and companies like Oberthur share certain bamboo qualities we would do well to integrate!