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Always Play Offense

The old adage in sports is that defense wins games.  It’s one that has shown itself to be true for all time and for all sports.  Unlike many analogies that hold true between sports and business, though, this one does not.  If you play defense in business, you will lose.  It’s almost guaranteed.  There is no gentleman’s agreement between companies that your competitors will wait for you to move first.  To be successful, you need to take the initiative and move first and fast.

This has never been more true than today, when there is very little sustainable differentiation to be found in any fast-growing market.  Even in slower-growth markets, differentiation is much tougher and defensive strategies will allow more aggressive competition to catch up.  Just ask Boeing, a huge company that gave up it’s unilateral dominance of the commercial skies when it defended its existing commercial business position for years instead of advancing it at the same pace it had for decades.

To be clear, what I mean by offense in business has to do with how strategies are set and tactics executed, for sure, but even more importantly, how a company is managed.  A company or better put, its employees, are on the offense when they are aggressive, flexible, agile, fast, willing to take risks and excited by change.  A culture with these attributes will move fast and overcome obstacles and challenges quickly.  Any culture that routinely accepts people moving overly deliberately and digging in their heels will slow over time and become less competitive.  Once such a culture exists, it’s also very difficult to reverse without major organizational changes.

When I speak of taking an offensive stance in business, I’m not just referring to selling and marketing.  I believe that in order to maximize success, one needs to constantly push all aspects of business – product development and release, support, service delivery, capital formation, third-party relationships and even human resources.  Drive every part of your business further and faster and you’ll find that subtle advantages will begin to emerge.  These advantages won’t be static, either, because, over time, they will compound, making the company better and a substantially stronger competitor in the market.

Are there downsides to such an approach?  Sure thing.  When you’re driving hard and moving fast you open yourself up to the possibility that you will quickly execute a poor tactic or strategy.  If you remain nimble, though – a part of taking an offensive approach to everything – you will generally catch crash-and-burn situations before they happen.  In fact, such situations become part of your thinking and business wisdom, further enabling you to make faster decisions in the future. 

At all times, a business should think of itself as its own greatest competitor.  If the focus of a business is simply staying ahead of the outside competition it lets that competition set the standard.  Good companies work to set the industry standard and to stay ahead of their competition at all times.  Great companies go way beyond this point.  They are never happy with their leadership position and are willing to question everything and make sweeping changes in order to get even further ahead.  If you find that you compare yourself too frequently with your outside competitors and that you wait to see what move they make next, you’re probably being defensive and will ultimately be in a tough spot.  If, however, you routinely take stock of the entire marketplace and aggressively work to create success in new and unique ways, including challenging your own leadership position, you will be much more likely to have long term success.

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  • Ken Bado

    Spot on Will!
    Could not have put it better myself.

  • Ken Bado

    Spot on Will!
    Could not have put it better myself.

  • http://broderick.wordpress.com/ Shawn Broderick

    I always liked Paul Graham’s mosquito analogy in http://www.paulgraham.com/wealth.html

    “A startup is like a mosquito. A bear can absorb a hit and a crab is armored against one, but a mosquito is designed for one thing: to score. No energy is wasted on defense. The defense of mosquitoes, as a species, is that there are a lot of them, but this is little consolation to the individual mosquito.”

    Shawn

  • http://broderick.wordpress.com Shawn Broderick

    I always liked Paul Graham’s mosquito analogy in http://www.paulgraham.com/wealth.html

    “A startup is like a mosquito. A bear can absorb a hit and a crab is armored against one, but a mosquito is designed for one thing: to score. No energy is wasted on defense. The defense of mosquitoes, as a species, is that there are a lot of them, but this is little consolation to the individual mosquito.”

    Shawn

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