The opposites game: how to tell if a strategy is nonsense

By my conservative estimate, about 90% of business strategies are, when you get down to it, exactly the same.

They use different words, different rationales, different techniques, different frameworks, but beneath it all the actual content, the actual meaning, is identical.  What is this universal mega-strategy of which I speak?  Simply this:

“Be good”

That’s it.  Nothing more than a commitment to do what they do well.

Sometimes this strategy is articulated in a manner so generic as that it could be applied to pretty much any organisation – e.g. “deliver excellence”, or “serve our customers better every day”.  And sometimes it’s articulated in a manner specific to the given industry – e.g. being a delivery company that’s punctual, or a law firm that wins cases, or a florist that makes beautiful bouquets.  Either way the crux is identical: “we’re going to be a good version of whatever it is we are”.

It’s understandable why so much strategy would devolve to this conclusion.  Most businesses believe, quite reasonably, that they will be rewarded for being “better than their competitors”, and thus the approach seems logical.  But in reality it doesn’t work for a couple of reasons:

  1. Every brand in the sector is trying to do a good job, so there’s no reason to think that you can outperform them in any meaningful way by just “trying to be better”
  2. Even if you did somehow manage it, consumers don’t tend to notice difference in degree so much as they recognise difference in kind, so you’ll struggle to have your “betterness” cut through the noise

No, strategy of course defines what you do differently – and “better” is not different; it’s the same, just more.

Still, whilst this is easy to say on paper, in the real world it can be quite hard to tell the difference between a “be good” strategy like this, and a proper one.  “Be good” strategies are highly seductive, and can easily be disguised in fancy language that makes them seem more meaningful than they really are.  So that’s why I like to use a little technique I call “the opposites game” to wheedle them out.

How does it work?  Easy.  Simply ask:

Does the opposite of this strategy sound stupid?

If the answer is yes, then you’ve got a meaningless “be good” strategy on your hands.

I mean think about it.  What’s the opposite of “delivering excellence”?  “Delivering inadequacy”?  Which of your competitors are offering that?  Or “serving customers better every day” – as opposed to what, serving them worse?  Where are the logistics companies trying to deliver packages late?  Or the law firms trying to lose cases?  Or the florists trying to make ugly bouquets?  They don’t exist because such ideas would be nonsensical – which in turn reveals the redundancy of any strategy which claims the opposite.  Of course you do these things.  So does everyone!  If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be in business.

By comparison legitimate strategies will have coherent opposites.

For an extremely simple illustration of this idea, say your strategy was to be the low cost option in your market.  What’s the opposite of this?  High cost, or in other words, “premium”.  Budget and premium are both legitimate, differentiated positions, and thus each represent a true strategic choice.

They are incremental to the basics of the category, rather than non-negotiables.

Thinking about our hypothetical delivery company, whilst punctuality is not a strategy, being “local” (say) would be.  It is totally plausible to imagine both a locally focused delivery company (e.g. City Sprint), and the opposite: a globally focused one (e.g. FedEx).  They operate differently to serve different needs for different customers, and thus represent different strategic choices.

By the same token, whilst selling beautiful bouquets may be meaningless, selling customisable bouquets wouldn’t be.  The opposite of course would be selling a fixed range of bouquets which consumers couldn’t put their own stamp on, which is totally legitimate (and in fact the category norm), and so adopting a “build your own” model would be legitimate too.

The point here is not that these are good strategies.  The point is simply that they are strategies.  They represent genuine choices rather than empty fluff.

At the end of the day, actual “bad strategies” – strategies that don’t work, but which are genuine strategies nonetheless – are actually pretty rare.  Far more common are strategies which aren’t strategies at all, of which the “be good” variety is by far the most common.

So I encourage you to subject your own strategies to the opposites game test.  It won’t tell you if you’re doing the right thing.  But it will at least tell if you’re doing something.

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