I worked for several years with a consulting firm called Creative Strategies. The name always struck me as ironic. In real business, from what I’ve seen, the best strategies aren’t creative. Instead, they’re obvious. Do what you do best – what makes you different from the others – and do it for the people who want it or need it. Find a successful business and its strategy seems obvious. Still, maybe what seems obvious after the fact wasn’t obvious beforehand.
My favorite quote about strategy is this one. I’m not sure who said it first:
1. “I don’t know the secret to success. But I do know the secret to failure is trying to please everybody.”
And that quote reminds me of several other great quotes on strategy. Most of them are more reminders of what we all know, but forget. You’ve probably already heard (or read) some, maybe even most, of these:
2. “People don’t want quarter-inch drills. They want quarter-inch holes.” (Theodore Levitt)
3. “Speed, price, quality: Pick two.” (Anonymous, quoted in The Economist)
4. “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” (Winston Churchill)
5. “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” (Michael Porter)
6. “A satisfied customer is the best business strategy of all.” (Michael LeBoeuf)
7. “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.” (Steve Jobs)
8. “In preparing for battle I’ve always found that plans are useless, but planning is essential.” (Dwight Eisenhower)
In the more than 30 years that I’ve been helping people with business planning, research and occasionally strategy, I’ve worked with several sophisticated strategy frameworks developed by the best and brightest. I learned Porter’s five forces model and the Boston Consulting Group’s growth-share matrix methodologies in business school, and I’ve worked with some others as well. But those methodologies are needed most by large organizations that manage thousands of people and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of resources. Back in the real world, where startups and small businesses are trying to make things happen, the right strategy is almost never subtle or sophisticated.
And that point of view, from the front lines of small business, has me thinking that the most important principle in real-world small business strategy is displacement, which I define as:
9. “Displacement: In the real world of small business, everything you do rules out something else you can’t do.”
That idea comes from the physical principle of displacement of liquids, which is what happens when water splashes as you throw something heavy into it. I’ve seen for years that the small business can’t do everything – although as entrepreneurs and business owners we always want to – so we have to be sure we do the right things, and the most important things.
And, finally, one last quote that I think is wrong and potentially dangerous:
10. “There’s only one growth strategy: work hard.” (William Hague)
What’s wrong with that one? Because so many people work way too hard trying to do everything, or the wrong thing, instead of focusing strategically on the important thing. Consider displacement and what that means. Or the wisdom of the “pick two” quote, or Porter’s “choosing what not to do.” Or, going back to my favorite, “trying to please everybody.”
Author: Tim Berry