Designing business and marketing strategies is a complicated endeavor, often muddled and ill conceived. One of the biggest challenges I overcome when coaching my clients on a new strategic direction is getting them to focus only on those things that will allow them to win where there competition can not.
To do this well, an organization must consciously decide what they WON’T do. These tradeoffs usually make or break a great strategic plan. The world’s leading authority on strategy, Michael Porter from HBS (you’ve heard of his “5 Forces”), believes this to be the crux of what allows competitive strategy to be possible and sustainable.
This is almost universally difficult for business leaders to agree upon and commit to, yet it's critical to their success. No one wants to admit defeat, and many businessmen and women still believe that deciding to stray from ‘doing what they have always done’, is a sign of failure. On the contrary, choosing what not to do free’s up more resources to focus on the right things, shows a willingness to learn from mistakes, and provides clarity of direction that can inspire the organization.
Deciding what NOT to do isn’t only critical in business strategy; politicians are well served to narrow their focus as well. Jon Huntsman and his team provide us with the perfect example as we march into tomorrows primary in NH.
Knowing that his rivals had the momentum, awareness, preference and funding to all but completely drown out his message in the first primary, he made a conscious decision to basically ignore Iowa altogether so he could focus his resources on NH. The results of the Iowa primary easily showcase this fact (less than 1% of voters chose him).
Huntsman has been much more visible across national media (and in NH) than he was in Iowa, due to his strategic decision to ignore the first primary of the year. By consciously deciding what he WOULDN’T do, he and his team were able to focus all their attention on where they thought they could make the biggest impact; to showcase that he is able to garner votes, if not win (Romney and Paul will most likely wind up 1 an 2).
Hunstman knows that if he is able to deliver his unique message in a focused arena, he has the greatest chance to make an impression...and thus, potentially gain as much attention coming out of NH as those that finish at the top of the polls. Imagine if he goes from >1% of the vote in Iowa, to, let’s say, 10% in NH? That would be a ten fold increase in votes, which may not simply show him off to more of the country, but compel his party to give him a second look. Without question a focused strategy, in part born from a clear decision of what not to do. (Editors note: Huntsman garnered 16.9% of the votes - but bowed out after the primary. Knowing when to cut your losses is equally important).
The next time you're struggling to figure out how to develop your business, learn a new craft, win an election, or simply improve in any area you work or play, try first starting with what you won’t do. You’ll be surprised by where that leads you.