business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Compete, as we are fond of saying, is a verb. So is the word win.

It is abundantly clear in the business world today that winning is harder than ever. Nearly every day the news carries more stories of companies and sectors being relegated to oblivion by the new forces of consumer change and emerging technologies that enable vastly new behaviors and competitors.

It’s enough to make anyone consider giving up, but instead, consider taking new and unexpected directions.

A few months back I read a wonderful quote about competition from retired tennis champion Mat Wilander. Wilander said, “Against the top players, you can’t play the game you want to play. You have to play the game they don’t like.”

It’s a sentiment worth considering. To give it context, Wilander was discussing Roger Federer, the seemingly ageless tennis great who has managed to sustain play at a high level even at age 36, when most top tennis players are years into retirement.

In many ways, sports are a poor model for business success. After all, in sports are played under specific rules and always on a level playing field. In business the rules are constantly being re-written and somehow the playing field seems to constantly shift, invariably away from all of us.

But Wilander’s comment merits consideration. It would be easy if success came from only doing those things you like to do and are good at doing. Even the most innovative company can probably count on that good fortune for only a short time. Advantages, as we know, are fleeting.

Instead, you need to focus on shifting the game, creating advantages for yourself. Increasingly that seems to rely on finding a way to create connection and experiences that others can’t easily replicate. It means fully understanding your strengths and weaknesses and learning, as the old song reminds us, to accentuate the positive whenever and however possible.

As we do that, let’s remember that what once was competitive advantage might not cut it in today’s environment against today’s competition. Federer would never play with a tennis racket from the 1970s and neither should you rely on old tools. If your main marketing vehicle is a newspaper ad, that appeals to my sense of nostalgia, but it misses the huge portion of your potential audience that gets all news and information through social media. You need to constantly update.

As one last metaphor for this story, I’ll borrow a chapter from the book Kevin and I co-wrote, “The Big Picture, Essential Business Lessons from the Movies.” The chapter concerns the first movie in the now endless Pirates of the Caribbean series.

In the movie our hero, William Turner, finds himself constantly bested by the pirate captain Jack Sparrow. In his frustration, Turner says, “You’d never beat me in a fair fight.” Sparrow responds, “That’s hardly incentive to fight fair.”

Or to Wilander’s point, make the competition play the game they don’t like. It may mean pushing service, organics, local connections, price or whatever. It’s not about cheating (we’re not pirates after all) but it means identifying and exploiting advantages.

That’s the path to winning.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.
KC's View: