If any of you have read my free little ebook Make Companies Without Competitors, or seen my “Love your competitors” talk, you’ll know that central to my philosophy is the idea of non-competition.
Contrary to the common metaphor of the market being “battle ground” or “playing field”, where there is implicitly an enemy to be defeated, I prefer to think of it as an ecosystem, where every company represents an organism that exists in symbiotic balance with the others around it.
Of course in practice it rarely works out like this, since we are irresistibly drawn to zero-sum competition even when it isn’t in our best interests. However in principle the theory is sound. In principle each business should perform a unique role which complements the roles of its competitors – without going directly against them for the same trade.
Acting this way ironically creates businesses that tend to dominate their competition, even though that was never the intention – hence why it’s one of the main things I preach.
Considering this then, you’d think that the word “winning” wouldn’t really be in my business vocabulary. And formerly you would be right. Formerly I preferred the word “success”, or even “health” to “winning”, because it more accurately reflects a positive outcome in an ecosystem dynamic.
However I got to thinking and I realised that although this may be technically true, in practice most businesses should actually think about “winning” more than they do, not less.
Well, the problem with the word “success” is that it can be quite mediocre. Success for most businesses could be defined as simply being semi-stable and semi-profitable – which is nothing to sniff at, sure, but it falls far short of anything we would recognise as greatness.
If you’re a local bakery or locksmith or some such this may be as far as you aspire to go, which is great, I admire that. But for more “mass” businesses that’s not the intention.
Nevertheless, muddling along like this tends to be where most end up.
The lure of “mediocre success” is, i would suggest, one of the main reasons most businesses suck at strategy. They manage to limp to that status unstrategically, and then spend the rest of their days trying to eke out extra little bits of growth with random tactical fiddling.
In other words, because they’re doing “OK” by their own standards, they lack the impetus to develop a strategy, and so never get round to it.
And that’s where “winning” becomes useful.
You see winning, as a concept, has no such mediocrity problem. If you ask a founder what “winning” would look like for their business, they are likely to give you a much more juicy and ambitious answer than they would when asked about “success”. Winning implies a certain gloriousness and finality; something which would require genius and risk to achieve.
Winning means altering the shape of a category.
Winning means changing the way consumers think.
Winning means making old ways of doing things obsolete.
Winning means doing something they’ll teach in business schools.
Winning means making a dent in the world.
In other words, winning demands strategy.
It’s not a coincidence that one of the most successful strategy books of all time is called Playing to Win. In it A. G. Lafley, the former CEO of Procter & Gamble details the stories behind various billion dollar successes the company achieved in the past few decades. It’s a pretty dry read, and frankly I wouldn’t recommend it, but even so there’s no denying the guy has a great strategic track record – and his commitment to winning has a lot to do with it. The brands he talks about were already turning over hundreds of millions of dollars in their “losing” unstrategic states. It was only the ambitious vision of “winning” that prompted them to take strategy seriously, and push them into the billions.
Other companies, satisfied merely with “success”, would probably have never bothered.
Now of course, I’m not saying that creating a $200million brand wouldn’t be a win for you and I. It’s all relative of course. A company with the resources of P&G can pretty much chuck out any stupid idea and push it to that scale. What matters here is recognising what winning looks like for you, not anyone else.
And the answer must be something of a stretch.
So to kick start your strategic journey, I’d Invite you to begin by defining what winning would look like for you.
Despite the origins of the word, it doesn’t have to be competitive in nature. It simply has to be an outcome that would represent an unambiguous “smash” for you. And typically, that will be something beyond the humdrum success you are achieving today.
Then, and perhaps only then, you’ll begin to feel the need for strategy.