I was leading a workshop for a group of GMs & CEOs recently when the subject of strategy came up.  It appeared that within the group there were strategies for everything – we had personal effectiveness strategies, time management strategies, strategies to stop smoking and even strategies to de-clutter and simplify life.  Then there were sales strategies, marketing strategies and customer service strategies to name but a few. But there was little actual strategy.

Nobody, to my surprise, could clearly articulate what their overall business strategy was, or even what purpose it served.  That’s not to say that they didn’t try; but what I heard that day wasn’t strategy – it was a series of bland statements of lofty ambition linked by motherhood statements like “building a can-do culture of commitment to excellence”.

Don’t get me wrong – those are, in and of themselves, admirable attributes or aspirations, but they’re not strategy.  To try and illustrate the concept of strategy, I offered a short anecdote about my friend Jay, an amateur boxer.

Weighing in towards the bottom of his weight category, Jay was matched against a taller opponent with a longer reach but what he lacked in stature he more than made up for in courage and tenacity. But his intent this time wasn’t to “keep going forward until victory was assured” – he’d tried that more than a few times in the past with limited success.   His trainer finally convinced him that it was time to stop eating so much leather and develop a strategy.

Understand the opposition

Jay faced a taller opponent with a longer reach.  That meant that there was a zone around his opponent in which Jay could be hit but not hit back – the Danger Zone. 

Jay was, to be honest, more of a brawler than a boxer, with very little finesse or technique.  He was used to standing his ground and relying on raw courage and his willingness to take a punch and keep moving forward.  His opponent for this fight liked nothing better than to stand toe to toe and trade punches, especially when his opponent wasn’t able to hit back effectively!

For Jay, his trainer pointed out, adopting this approach in this fight would have been to resign himself to being a flesh-coloured punchbag for the entire bout.

Compete on your strengths, not theirs

In its very simplest form, strategy leverages strength against an opportunity.  Jay's trainer knew that taller boxers are often vulnerable to body shots and can struggle to throw good punches close up.  To win this fight, he decided, Jay would have to get up close and personal with his opponent and there was the first challenge.  To land punches on his opponent, Jay had to get within range and that meant passing through the Danger Zone as quickly as possible and then, just as importantly, retreating back again to safety.

With his trainers guidance, Jay decided that his approach for this fight would be to remain outside his opponents reach and then close quickly to land a barrage of punches – first to the arms to weaken his opponents defences, then in later rounds to the body to slow him down – before rapidly retreating back out of range.  Finally, and only when his opponent’s defences were depleted, would he go for a knockout.

Set Direction With Goals

This approach would call for a lot of moving around the ring and so Jay would use energy faster than his opponent would.  He was used to standing his ground – proud of it, even -and his footwork was sluggish; if he moved like that against a taller boxer he’d be eating a lot of leather.

Jay realised he had three main priorities – strategic goals – that would underpin his strategy for this fight. 

  1. Develop the footwork to enable him to move forwards through the Danger Zone AND back out of it cleanly;
  2. Master a limited range of tactics to help create openings in his opponents defence; and
  3. Build his cardiovascular endurance to give him the capacity to do this for the duration of the fight.

With these high level goals mapped out, he and his trainer worked out a plan to develop specific skills during his regular training sessions rather than simply getting into a ring and slugging it out with a sparring partner as he’d done before.  In between those sessions, he hit the pavement to build up his cardiovascular base with periodic “beep test” assessments to measure his progress.

Stick To Your Guns

A new strategy takes time and effort to implement.  The temptation to revert back to old habits was strong and Jay did exactly that within the opening minutes of the first round, to the point where his trainer had to remind him – none too gently – to stick to the strategy they’d worked out.  He was fighting his opponent’s fight, not his, and if he carried on doing this he’d soon be tasting canvas as well as leather.

This, typically in such stories, is the point where our hero comes back, Rocky-like, to seize victory from the jaws of defeat.  Unfortunately that’s not what happened to Jay...

The fight went the distance and Jay ended up losing on points.  But he lost while sticking to his strategy.  If he’d carried on fighting his opponent’s fight, he’d have most likely been knocked out in the second round.

Strategy Isn’t A Guarantee

Just because he’d lost didn’t mean that the strategy was wrong – it just meant that on that particular day, his opponent had executed his own strategy better than Jay had executed his. Now, Jay was able to apply the guts and determination that were his hallmark.  He maintained his training regime because his next fight, a few months later, was to be against a similar opponent.

Jay won that fight, easily.

A sound strategy doesn’t guarantee success but its absence makes eventual defeat almost certain.  Good strategy shifts the odds in our favour and constantly seeks ways to improve those odds even more.

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