Here’s a compiled list of foundational guidelines on developing and executing effective strategies.
1. Never play someone else’s game.
In Guys and Dolls, Marlon Brando gives this bit of advice: One of these days in your travels, a guy is going to show you a brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken. Then this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the jack of spades jump out of this brand-new deck of cards and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not accept this bet, because as sure as you stand there, you’re going to wind up with an ear full of cider.
An established competitor will always try to force others to play by their set of rules, to get consumers to use their set of criteria to evaluate the product category. Don’t play their game. Make your own set of rules. Show people another set of criteria to care about. The only way to victory is on your terms.
2. Find out what your competitor is doing and do something different.
Michael Porter said that the heart of strategy is in doing a different set of actions that people value.
This is a kind of obvious, yet time and time again companies follow their competition. If they’re doing it, it must work, right? But ask yourself this: If you do the exact same things as your competitors, how can you possibly beat them?
3. Identify lots of options.
They say all chess strategy and tactics boil down to making moves that increase your options and narrow you opponent’s options.
Options give you flexibility. They allow you to adapt as the situation changes. You should never have just one way of how to do anything. And you should be always looking for another, better way.
4. Strategy is all about surprise.
Sun Tzu said that all war is deception.
I think what he meant was that it’s all about doing things that your opponents wouldn’t expect. In competition, your opponents are always looking for ways to counter your actions. Misleading them disrupts their thinking and gives you an opportunity to counteract their moves.
5. The best-laid plans still require constant adaption.
19th Century Prussian Officer, Carl von Clausewitz, believed that the key to victory lay in a commander’s insight—what he called coup d’oeil “glance of the eye.”
Plans are essential as a framework and starting point for any initiative. However, a leader needs to be able to quickly adapt to changing conditions. Being able to read the field is one of the most essential skills for a quarterback. A great play is important. But being able to assess the situation and make the appropriate moves in a split second is what separates victory and defeat.
6. Strategies should be as simple as possible. But no simpler.
This is the essence of Strategic Intent first coined by professors Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad. It is the “big idea” that gives a company purpose and direction.
It should be clear, but it should also be inspirational. Nike could just be in the business of producing athletic products. Or they could be about designing products that help bring out the athlete in all of us. Small difference, but one that changes the entire outlook of what they do and guides the direction of their actions.
7. Always define winning in every situation.
Vince Lombardi famously said, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” But I have a slightly different interpretation of that.
At the outset of any endeavor, it’s essential to define what winning would be in that circumstance. Because you can’t beat every enemy. You can’t reach every goal without failure. You can’t eliminate all competition. But you can create small wins for any situation.