“The opposite of success is not failure but mediocrity”.

I was really struck by this quote by Michael E. Raynor as I think it reveals an important principle in strategic decision making.

His point was that strategic behaviour – defined as utter commitment to a specific path – not only increases your chances of massive success; it also increases your chances of failure.

Why?

Because obviously if your strategy turns out to be horribly wrong, and you’ve put all your eggs in that basket, then you’re in trouble.

By contrast having no strategy is, in fact, relatively low risk. By embracing fuzzy mediocrity you give yourself the wiggle room to be reactive, and do whatever it takes to stay afloat. You’ll never do anything great – but you’ll probably survive.

We might say that following a strategy is like deciding to dedicate your whole life, 10 hours a day, to playing golf. Clearly here you give yourself a good chance of getting on the pro tour – a massive reward few can dream of. But, equally, you might not – in which case you’ll probably find yourself in a worse position than someone who led a normal, unfocused life. You become one dimensional – a condition which creates icons when things go well, and deluded fools when they go badly.

Because of this, it would be a mistake to see strategic thinking as a way to limit risk. Arguably it actually increases it. This is especially true for big corporates, who can muddle through by power alone quite happily. For smaller independents mediocrity is a little harder to pull off, but even for them strategic commitment is inherently dangerous.

This explains why truly great businesses are so rare, and why we find ourselves returning to the same cases studies again and again and again. It’s why if you ask 1,000 people who their “favourite brand” is, you’ll get the same names repeated ad nauseam.

There just aren’t that many who have the guts to be truly strategic; with the extreme commitment that entails.

When I first started my business, I didn’t understand this. I assumed, fairly reasonably, that my market would be all businesses and all CEOs – that everyone would want a great strategy which attacks uncontested market space. Who wouldn’t?

Well, as it turns out, quite a lot wouldn’t, for the above reasons. I’ve found that my clients tend to be particular types of businesses, and particular types of founders. They are people who, generally, are willing to gamble in pursuit of “greatness”. This is not a necessary component for a conventionally “successful” business. It’s an extra dimension which is in fact entirely optional.

So in short, recognise that strategy – real strategy, not some generic guff that’s been labelled as such – is unsafe. It’s not something you really need in order to have a perfectly good business – just as one doesn’t need to become a superstar in order to lead a happy and fulfilled life.

By definition these outcomes involve walking paths others are unwilling to follow.

And so, by definition, they won’t be walked by everyone – perhaps including you.