The Wire as a case study of failed corporate strategy


Note: Strictly for fans of The Wire. If you haven't seen Season 3, you should go see it before reading further.

I sat in meetings that were all about taking over corners. How many corners do we need? —Stringer Bell

In Season Three of the Wire, the show shows the downfall of the Barksdale organization and the rise of Marlo Stanfeld and his crew. This is a stunning downfall for the Barksdale crew who had put themselves in a great position of power by the end of Season Two.

What happened?

On outward appearances, this seems solely due to a series of tactical mistakes and unlucky breaks by and for Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell.

  • The reluctance from Stringer and the New Age Co-op to use violence against Marlo right in the beginning.
  • Marlo's paranoia and tactical superiority leading him to turn the tables on Avon's assasination attempt.
  • Unlucky timing at the end of Season Three where Slim Charles is left waiting for the go-ahead to 'get' Marlo at the rimshop.

None of this explains why a superior organization, with numerical superiority, a better 'product' from Prop Joe was taken down in a short time by a upstart.

What happened to the Barksdale organization is a a result of a few strategic mistakes, committed long before the first gun shot was fired between them and Marlo.

Market disruption

The blowing-up of the Franklin towers represents a fundamental disruption in the market. The Barksdale's marketshare disappeared in one single explosion. Since buildings don't get blown up on a whim, we can assume Stringer knew of this and had time to prepare.

In his book 'The Innovator's Dilemma', Clayton Christensen says, "Disrupting has a paralyzing effect on industry leaders. They are always motivated to go up-market, almost never motivated to defend the new or low-end markets that the disruptors find attractive."

Stringer's strategy of choosing to push a higher quality product rather than holding down the right territory or win some of it from Marlo ultimately proved to be highly flawed. Just like big corporations don't want to tangle with a small startup in a low-end margin product, Stringer didn't want to engage with Marlo and his peers.

Ceding the low-end

Christensen's book outlines the fall of integrated steel mills. Instead of producing all grades of steel (with very different margins), they decide to leave the low-margin steel to the upstart mini-mills. This is a great short term decision because their margins go up, they own the high-end of the market and the mini-mills are left with the unattractive low-grade steel business. However, over a period of time, the mini-mills got better at producing higher grade steel, causing the bigger mills to retreat to higher and higher margin segments. Ultimately they had nowhere left to hide. Closer home, we've seen this play out over and over again in the software world.

In The Wire, the Barksdale crew grew comfortable with the margins from the Franklin Terrace towers. Though they had the resources ('the muscle') to go hold down corners outside the towers in West Baltimore, they chose to not do so, letting people like Marlo grow in power and win uncontested territory. And when they they suddenly needed to in Season Four but by then it was too late.

In Microsoft, you saw this play out with Internet Explorer. After winning the browser wars, Microsoft let the browser team erode and ignored IE development. When they needed to respond to Firefox, they were suddenly faced with turning around an old, creaky codebase with a non-existent team.

Stages of failure

Jim Collins outlines the many stages of an incumbent's downfall in 'How the Mighty Fall'. You can see the Barksdale organization go through each of the stages until their ultimate downfall.

  1. The Hubris of Success - Stringer assuming that their superior product and muscle are the only things that count.
  2. Undisciplined pursuit of more - Stringer's attempt to pivot into real estate development, instead of focusing on their core competencies. Like many an organization attempting to expand, he not only failed at understanding the dynamics of the new business he was entering, he let himself be distracted from his core business.
  3. Denial of Risk and Peril - Not taking Marlo as a threat until it is too late. Tactical sloppiness resulting in Marlo almost taking out Avon.
  4. Grasping for salvation - In a typical corporation, this is where the CEO tries to bring in expensive consultants, fire a bunch of people and try and execute a turnaround (or sue a leading social networking company over patents?). Here on the Wire, this would be Stringer trying to take out Senator Clay Davis, not understanding the real threats to the organization. 5.Capitulation to Irrelevance or Death - all the events of the season finale for Season Three where by Season Four, you see Marlo firmly in control.

Inconsistent strategy and infighting

Even with all these mistakes, the Barksdale crew could have survived if they had focused on external threats and followed one consistent strategy.

However, like many large organizations, the leaders were distracted by their power struggle at the top and followed two conflicting strategies at the same time. All they had to do was to put all their resources behind either Stringer's 'co-op, lets move into real estate' play or get all behind Avon's street warfare. The two organizational leaders tried to do both, and failed at both.

Ultimately, the Barksdales did to themselves what once great companies like DEC, Sun, RIM, Nokia and many, many others did to themselves.

Ironically, it is Stringer Bell, smarter and more qualified than most corporate CEOs, who commits many classic CEO errors and dooms his organization to irrelevance.

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