I’ve become an avid reader of biographies in the past seven years. Some of them chronicled figures of whom I’d had some vague knowledge of before digging deeper into their stories. Others I’ve stumbled upon from recommendations and lists. Rebel Yell by S.C. Gwynne is one such biography. Gwynne tells the story of Thomas J. Jackson – or, as most know him, Stonewall Jackson. A man of great contradictions, Jackson became an icon of the Confederacy through his sheer brilliance as a military leader. Uncommonly brave and religious, Jackson was ruthless and generally not collaborative. But he saw the field of battle through a different lens. “(His) strategic innovations shattered the conventional wisdom of how war was waged; he was so far ahead of his time that his techniques would be studied generations into the future.”
It may not seem obvious, but Jackson’s ability to fashion new strategies to win numerous battles in the Civil War is a clear reminder that in far less lethal circumstances businesses need to bring creativity and clarity to the strategies they plan to adopt in 2015. Let me explain.
First, back to Stonewall Jackson: one need look no further than the first Battle of Manassas, the first big battle of the Civil War. In the face of an early onslaught, Jackson maneuvered his troops in a highly unconventional yet ultimately advantageous position with tactics no other had considered. His rout of the North served notice to President Lincoln that the Confederates were not to be simply outmanned and outgunned. Though we all know the ultimate outcome, a better strategy in battle after battle trumped advantages in numbers and weaponry.
Likewise, in far less dramatic circumstances, I’ve seen how businesses with powerful strategies learn to outflank and command winning shares. In Playing to Win, A.G. Lafley, former Chairman and CEO, Procter & Gamble, and Roger L. Martin, dean of University of Toronto, outline the critical steps to formulating strategies in markets. It begins with defining a ‘winning aspiration’ versus a plan to simply compete. Like Stonewall Jackson’s savvy selection of redoubts, it’s about choosing the right playing field — whether it’s product category or geography — in combination with a clean plan for how to win by crafting the value proposition and selecting a competitive advantage in either low cost or differentiation. There is no sustainable middle ground between the two. In the skin care category, for example, P&G successfully repositioned Oil of Olay, a mature and underperforming brand, with a broader value proposition (helps more than just wrinkles). By addressing a new market of women in the 35 plus age group, pricing the product higher to convey more value and devising a wholly different approach to distribution, they saw revenue grow dramatically from $800 million in the late 1990s to $2.5 billion ten years later. The authors repeatedly point to the need to make explicit choices. “Too often, CEOs in particular will allow what is urgent to crowd out what is really important. When an organizational bias for action drives doing, often thinking falls by the wayside.”
Quite literally on a different playing field, my favorite team the New England Patriots showed fans a whole new approach to attacking an opponent in its dramatic come from behind victory last week over the vaunted Baltimore Ravens. By employing a perfectly legal but completely unusual formation, Bill Belichick crafted a strategy that enabled Patriots’ receivers to be wide open against the Ravens’ bewildered defense. Ravens Coach John Harbaugh failed to react with as much as a time out and instead earned a penalty flag for unsportsmanlike conduct as he lashed out in frustration at the referees. Yet again, this past Sunday Belichick unveiled innovative formations and plays in the drubbing of the Indianapolis Colts; the coach and the team now move on to an unprecedented sixth appearance in the Super Bowl. In preparing for games, NFL coaches may be the most tireless workers on the planet: they obsess about every little detail and scheme for seemingly every eventuality from an opponent. And yet with only the best teams and finest coaches remaining in the playoffs, Belichick managed to conceive of a strategy that left his opponent flatfooted, literally.
This brings me to an observation formed over 30 years in business: too many organizations fail to develop creative strategies designed to win in the market. Whether it’s a preference for action over thinking, a misguided confidence that what worked in the past will do so again, or simply a lack of capacity for strategic planning, too often I’ve seen resources squandered. Better strategy is not complicated, but it is tough because it starts with hard choices. With a disciplined strategic approach to their 2015 plans, enterprises large and small unquestionably will put themselves in position to hit their goals. And that’s a resolution for the New Year we can all get behind.
Phil Greenough is the Founder and CEO of Greenough. Follow him on Twitter: @philgreenough