Why Preparing for “Every Eventuality” Wastes Resources

Turn­ing strat­egy into a com­pet­i­tive advan­tage means you’re look­ing for ways to focus your efforts to gain a com­par­a­tive advan­tage. The oppo­site of that is prepar­ing for every even­tu­al­ity, which spreads your resources. Let’s talk about why that is. We’ll use a mil­i­tary exam­ple, for clarity.

Let’s say you have an enemy force attack­ing your camp. You have two pos­si­ble approaches:

  • You can pre­pare for any even­tu­al­ity, which is expen­sive, and leaves you equally protected/equally vul­ner­a­ble anywhere.
  • You could gather more infor­ma­tion about where they’re com­ing from, the size of their force, and their capa­bil­i­ties. Then you can focus your pro­tec­tion on the side they’ll be com­ing from, and pro­tect only that side.

In the case of my friend from SEAL team 1, they got a source and dug deeper for infor­ma­tion, find­ing out what direc­tion the enemy would approach from and ana­lyz­ing the enemy, fig­ur­ing out what they were likely and unlikely to do, so they could direct resources to those areas.

And to add a lit­tle spice to the defense, they added an L-ambush to the equa­tion. So when the bad guys showed up and opened fire on the camp, they’d be fac­ing a pla­toon of Army Rangers, and would then take unex­pected fire from their unpro­tected left flank, where the SEALS were set up.

If the SEALs weren’t con­fi­dent in their intel, they could eas­ily have put peo­ple on watch in all the other direc­tions, to give them early warning.

Good strat­egy makes the dif­fer­ence. Most orga­ni­za­tions don’t have the over­whelm­ing resource advan­tage needed to pre­pare well for “any even­tu­al­ity.” But when you iden­tify a goal, build objec­tives, gather intel and turn that into a sys­tem that defines the lowest-cost path to your goal, you can do much, much more with a smaller resource budget.

3 Steps in Brand Strategy


For a com­pany to take lead­er­ship, it needs a strat­egy. At the risk of over­sim­pli­fy­ing the process, I’ve made a list of what you need, plus a list of the right and wrong ways to do it.

What you need:

  1. A stance that’s impor­tant to you, and is well-developed enough for you to share it. It’s gotta be some­thing that gives you an atti­tude and a swagger.
  2. An audi­ence that can be inspired to iden­tify with it.
  3. A con­nec­tion with that audi­ence that helps you develop that lead­er­ship into a help­ful influ­ence that gives some kind of influ­ence (lead­er­ship) to their lives.

How to screw it up:

  1. Just start telling peo­ple about you and your awe­some point of view. This makes you look like you’re just try­ing to feed your ego. But more impor­tantly, it keeps you irrel­e­vant by deny­ing you an under­stand­ing of how peo­ple see you and your message.
  2. Lis­ten to peo­ple so you can become what you think they want. This is like being the boyfriend/girlfriend who says yes to every­thing you want. They have no spine and offer no value.

3 Steps in Brand Strategy

Luck­ily, there’s a way to do it that looks more like a con­ver­sa­tion, but it needs to be planned. In other words, the brand needs to allow itself to be influ­enced by its lead­ing brand loy­al­ists (cus­tomers) to make this work; com­mu­ni­ca­tion works best when it goes both directions.

  1. Get your brand defined. Talk about what you believe in raw lan­guage, so you can be really clear. Don’t try to make it sound polit­i­cally cor­rect; make it real, even if it means using foul language.
  2. Think of ways your point of view might help peo­ple develop their own thoughts and feel­ings. Then go out and talk to them.
  3. Finally, find pic­tures, col­ors and other brands that you think com­mu­ni­cate the thoughts you’re try­ing to convey.

It’s too easy to talk about your prod­uct, and it’s too easy to pan­der. But it’s a lit­tle harder to take a stand and mean some­thing, even if it’s con­tro­ver­sial. If you can find out how your brand’s point of view can inspire peo­ple, you might be able to build a killer brand that changes the way peo­ple think. And if you change peo­ple think, you’ll change what they do.


3 Ways to Get Better Strategy from Your Team

Bet­ter strat­egy helps you make the right deci­sions, even when every­one else is fol­low­ing the indus­try leader. Fresh, direct think­ing is worth real dol­lars. Don’t leave the money sit­ting there. Instead, develop strate­gic think­ing on your team. I’ll tell you how I do it in my class­room, and how I do it in my company.

Note: I was recently asked to be on a really fun panel by my friends at eROI up in Port­land called “Change is the Only Con­stant: Dig­i­tal Mar­ket­ing in 2–15.” While I was talk­ing about strate­gic sto­ry­telling, the mod­er­a­tor asked me how we’re train­ing the next gen­er­a­tion to deal with dig­i­tal. This is the con­ver­sa­tion that resulted.

Strat­egy in Hir­ing: Hire for Curios­ity and Diligence

Strat­egy fails because of a lack of focused curios­ity and dili­gence in find­ing answers. I straight-up tell stu­dents that they don’t deserve to be sit­ting in my class­room if they’re not both curi­ous and dili­gent. If they develop meth­ods for unrav­el­ing the prob­lem (not a solu­tion, but the prob­lem), they will make fewer assump­tions than peo­ple more expe­ri­enced than they are. The weak­ness will become an advan­tage in clarity.

In a com­pany, you have what I don’t have as a teacher: the abil­ity to choose your staff. So look for sto­ries, port­fo­lios and past work that seems smart and looks a lit­tle dif­fer­ent than what every­one else is doing.

And when you get them on staff, encour­age them to think out­side the box by first under­stand­ing the box really, really well. The clever­est, most effec­tive strate­gic ideas are found by under­stand­ing the sit­u­a­tion bet­ter than any­one else.

Strat­egy in Debrief/Reviews: Ask­ing “Why?”

Usu­ally, we focus on the fact that we saw suc­cess or fail­ure and then claim to have expe­ri­ence. But to stop there is to limit the under­stand­ing we gain from expe­ri­ence. But if we ana­lyze suc­cesses and fail­ures, look­ing closely at why, we build the very under­stand­ing that gives value to expe­ri­ence. On the other hand, peo­ple will remain incom­pe­tent strate­gists sim­ply because they assumed the wrong things about the expe­ri­ences they’ve had.

In a com­pany, you often have project debriefs, which is a per­fect time to not only ask “How can we improve,” but also “why?” For exam­ple, a 5’11″ bas­ket­ball player might want to improve his crossover, but if some­one said “You should improve your post-up game,” he should prob­a­bly ask “why?”

To make this much more effec­tive, also have every­one show up to the meet­ing with their own assump­tions. Ask them to have them writ­ten, so they’re not just wing­ing it. And chal­lenge them to dig deeper each time.

Strat­egy in Guid­ance: Make them Say it Straight

Too often, stu­dents want to hide their assump­tions at the begin­ning of the research. They want to reduce risk. Unfor­tu­nately, this hides errors in think­ing and makes them risk-averse and scared. So I force them to make deci­sions, which gives them expe­ri­ence fast. In the class­room, that means ask­ing them to make bold state­ments about what they found in the research. I then read through their stuff and find con­tra­dic­tions that make them strengthen their research/story.

In a com­pany, you can do the same thing. Expe­ri­ence can start with ask­ing them to make deci­sions and judg­ments about things. It will both build their con­fi­dence and help them see where their judg­ments are fail­ing them. Ask them to keep a work­ing hypoth­e­sis of what they’re find­ing to be true. If they state their assump­tions, they can also exam­ine them.

And when they ask you a ques­tion, ask them to come with an edu­cated guess at what the answer might be. If they say “I don’t know,” maybe don’t let them off the hook so easily.

This is how strat­egy looks in the class­room, and in busi­ness. Not such a big dif­fer­ence. You hire smart, you guide them through a review of a com­pleted project and you make lots of room for them to make judg­ments. Pretty soon, you’ll have more strate­gic account­abil­ity and a cul­ture that’s able to make the smart moves, even if every­one else in your indus­try is still fol­low­ing old, tired best practices.

Lack of Strategic Clarity Leads to Missed Opportunities

Missed oppor­tu­ni­ties usu­ally aren’t missed sim­ply because we can’t take advan­tage of them. In fact, it’s usu­ally a knowl­edge prob­lem, not an abil­ity problem.

Prob­lem 1: Peo­ple Don’t Know How to Clar­ify an Opportunity

Usu­ally, you find lead­ers tak­ing a stab at a solu­tion, rather than really try­ing to under­stand an oppor­tu­nity, ask­ing the hard ques­tions about it.

Clar­i­fy­ing ques­tion can seem rude. Blunt­ness and the abil­ity to ques­tion people’s words both lead to clar­ity, but peo­ple don’t like that.

They don’t know how to ask why to make sure they know how it fits their com­pany goals. In fact, some­times they’re not even clear about their own com­pany goals, cre­at­ing a sec­ond set of mov­ing parts to con­tend with.

And if you don’t under­stand the oppor­tu­nity, and you can’t clar­ify, you’ll prob­a­bly let it pass you by.

Prob­lem 2: Can’t Ask Strate­gi­cally Rel­e­vant Questions

The habit of default­ing to best prac­tices will keep you from approach­ing an oppor­tu­nity in the most direct way pos­si­ble. You won’t be able to adapt to a prob­lem unless its within what you already under­stand how to do. And when you have a ham­mer, everything’s a nail.

Maybe you’re an MBA, but lack curios­ity (a car­di­nal sin in strate­gic think­ing). You know how to write some­thing that looks like a SWOT, but it doesn’t end up being a tool that helps you do any real busi­ness math. Think: vague strengths, inabil­ity to use it as a pro­cess­ing tool for ideas, a lack of curiosity/energy that results in you quit­ting after 1 or 2 ver­sions of the SWOT.

Prob­lem 3: Can’t Get Rel­e­vant Answers

Too often, we lean on old research meth­ods or we’re using research for the wrong rea­sons (as a crutch):

We lean on old meth­ods, like ROI, which give us backward-looking info. Or maybe we’re used to doing quan­ti­ta­tive research, but we have a ques­tion that can only be answered qualitatively.

We’re using research to pro­tect us from blame instead of help­ing us take full advan­tage of the oppor­tu­ni­ties in front of us.

Prob­lem 4: Fail­ure to Decide

This is fail­ure in lead­er­ship. It’s prob­a­bly a lack of expe­ri­ence in mak­ing deci­sions. The leader is wait­ing for proof in order to be able to make a deci­sion. This leads to business-as-usual. And you can hire all the fresh-thinking tal­ent you want, but if the lead­er­ship is afraid of mak­ing deci­sions, none of that fresh think­ing will turn into success.

Steps to Take

Get Clar­ity: Cre­ate an over­sim­pli­fied view of the oppor­tu­nity, just so you can play with the idea. Now you have clear bound­aries, and you can get curi­ous about details from there.

Now that you have clar­ity, come up with some strate­gi­cally rel­e­vant ques­tions that you can then go and research.

Ask “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could find out” ques­tions before you start research. This way, you’ll be let­ting the oppor­tu­nity deter­mine the lines of ques­tion­ing, rather than let­ting your default research method define it. In other words, you’ll find out what’s impor­tant, rather than what’s eas­i­est to measure.

The last prob­lem, fail­ure to decide, just requires tak­ing some changes, being curi­ous and under­stand­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ties in front of you. Then you have to build your bold­ness by putting your money where your mouth is. Then, you’ll be build­ing up the men­tal mus­cles nec­es­sary to make quicker, smarter deci­sions and become a leader peo­ple can follow.


Miss­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties frus­trates and dis­cour­ages us, but improv­ing in these areas can help you get a fresh perspective.

If you’re seri­ous about get­ting bet­ter in these areas, don’t stop here. Write down some action items with dead­lines and see if you have the heart for this kind of work.

Why Strategists Enjoy Fighting Goliaths

This photo, “Netherlands-4416 - Goliath” is copyright (c) Dennis Jarvis and made available under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 license

This photo, “Netherlands-4416 — Goliath” is copy­right © Den­nis Jarvis and made avail­able under a Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 license

I’m work­ing on David-and-Goliath sce­nario: com­mer­cial­iz­ing a prod­uct to com­pete with a well-funded indus­try leader. This big indus­try player also enjoys the ben­e­fits of a pow­er­ful board of direc­tors and a high-quality offer­ing. To sum­ma­rize: I’m impressed.

I’m also excited.

A few things about com­pe­ti­tion: if you pay atten­tion to them, they can tell you a lot.

  • What are their habits? If they’ve been in busi­ness for a long time, they’re prob­a­bly pretty pre­dictable and are likely to repeat the same tac­tics. That’s great for you. For exam­ple, do they solve prob­lems with a stan­dard process (usu­ally involv­ing throw­ing money at it), or do they think through big prob­lems to get to victory?
  • How much suc­cess have they had? Suc­cess breeds blind­ness (par­tic­u­larly to threats) and over­con­fi­dence. If you can pre­dict what they’ll do, you can cre­ate a plan that antic­i­pates their moves—like chess.
  • How much money is there in the indus­try for that kind of prod­uct? Are they at capac­ity? Are they get­ting a lot of funding?
  • Who are they mar­ket­ing to? If you can fig­ure this out, you can start to ask why cus­tomers choose them. If you can find that out, you can usu­ally iden­tify a part of that tar­get audi­ence that you can serve bet­ter than they can.
  • How do they han­dle adver­sity? In other words, what’s their morale like (related to lead­er­ship)? What bad habits or reac­tions does adver­sity reveal?
  • How do they talk to their cus­tomers? Find­ing out how they talk to their cus­tomers gives you a huge head start on writ­ing your own SEO and sales copy, not to men­tion design and brand cues for your own product.

A good strate­gist has rea­son to respect strate­gic com­pe­ti­tion, but we cer­tainly don’t fear big­ger com­pe­ti­tion. Because resources are only rel­e­vant when you know how to allo­cate them.

I love going up against an indus­try leader, but it’s not because I know how to think. But rather, because I have a process and the dis­ci­pline nec­es­sary to ask the right ques­tions, find the answers and plug those into a strat­egy that gives my team a great chance of winning.