The danger of “only winning” in business

Only beating the competition isn’t strategy.

Geoff Wilson

What a week it’s been on the political scene. We saw U.S. Senate Republicans almost (thanks to John McCain’s last-second “no” vote) pass an absurd bill to effect the “skinny repeal” of Obamacare. The bill would have stripped the economically rational parts of Obamacare (the mandates) and left the rest.

The bill was so ridiculous that Senate Republicans actually didn’t want it to be passed by the House and sent to President Trump for signature. Some just wanted to make a symbolic move in the name of winning something on healthcare.

The bill was an act that focused on “winning” against a foe, but it was ultimately grounded in no vision whatsoever for the future health of the country (literally and figuratively).

Strategy focused only on winning against the competition may not be enough

“We won the battle but lost the war.” You’ve heard that plenty, I’m sure. It’s a tired adage. The problem is that modern organizations are rife with battles yet extremely light on defining of the war. A case in point would be your functional organizations, which may define winning in ways that have nothing to do with the mission of the greater company. Your human resources team wants to hire and train, your supply chain team wants to source cheap raw materials, and your engineering team wants to create a better mousetrap. Which of these three investments make the most sense for the company? Who knows.

The same is true for business managers. So many business strategies are built on beating the competition that doing so has come to define strategy. But what if the competition is playing the same tired game? Who’s out there looking for ways to deliver value to customers that the competition hasn’t thought of yet? One of the reasons the book Blue Ocean Strategy by Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne has captured so many imaginations is that it has exhorted us to look for ways to deliver value that others have not figured out. The concept is literally “find out where the competition isn’t,” but in a way that implies innovation in that void, not mere presence.

But doing so requires vision

The major issue with applying this “more than winning” approach to strategy is that it takes time and expertise—it requires vision. You need to have the time to think of strategy as avoiding the competition and focusing on the vision for the customer. And you have to have the expertise to actually figure out how to do it. Chances are there aren’t many people in your company who have both the time and the expertise.

The U.S. Senate nearly taught us this week that only focusing on winning against a foe can lead to really stupid outcomes. Absent a compelling vision for how to deliver stable, cost-effective health care to citizens via regulatory boundaries and mandates (an admittedly hard thing to do), the Senate simply aspired to do something to beat the competition. May your own strategy avoid such a ditch.

Now it’s your turn:  How have you seen this sort of thing play out in your career?

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