Monday, February 9, 2015

Innovation: When The Competition Gives You An Opening

I was recently watching the Super Bowl and was reminded about the value of competitive awareness, empowerment of your staff, and taking decisive action when implementing a product line strategy.  Sometimes the best opportunities are not because of something we have done, but rather because of an opening that our competitors have created.  If we quickly recognize the opportunity and take action, we can gain a tremendous advantage.

The Super Bowl

Super Bowl XLIX was between Seattle and New England.  Let me recap what happened.  The game had been a back and forth affair.  At different times each team was leading.  Near the end of the game, New England was slightly ahead, but Seattle had the ball and was driving toward a possible winning touchdown.  The Seattle drive had been a combination of good play calling, good execution, and good luck – a tipped ball literally fell into a Seattle player’s lap at one point for a big gain. 

Seattle had the ball first and goal from the five yard line with less than a minute to play.  Seattle had one of the best power running backs in the league who was having a good game.  They also had a mismatch on the field – New England was in its “goal line defense” and Seattle had a spread offense.  That meant there were Seattle receivers who would not be well covered.  Therefore Seattle had two great options; use the running back or throw a short slant pass.  Both had been successful for them on numerous occasions. 

On the first play they tried the running back and he took the ball to the one yard line.  On the second play they tried the pass, and a New England cornerback intercepted the ball.  This stopped the Seattle drive and New England won the game. 

Many of the sports pundits and reporters have focused on Seattle and their play calling.  But I want to focus on New England and their cornerback.  That is where we find the product line strategy lessons.

First lesson: Competition is Dynamic

The business environment, is normally characterized by competition. Each of the competitors is trying to do what they think will allow them to be successful.  It is essential to have a strategy and a plan.  But it is also essential to be aware that your competitor has a strategy and a plan and they are doing their best to implement theirs and defeat yours.

Therefore you need to be regularly gathering competitive intelligence and learning what your competitor is doing.  Search for the patterns in how they operate.  These patterns can create openings for you to exploit.  I am not saying that you should always be reactive.  You should have your own strategy that you are implementing.  But in addition, you should be taking advantage of the opportunities that the competition may offer.

The New England team had studied Seattle’s play calling in that situation.  They knew the types of plays that Seattle favoured in a goal line situation.  Because of this knowledge, they knew that a pass play was often called and they knew the likely intended receiver. With this knowledge, they could implement a defence against that play. 

Second Lesson: Empowered Front-line Customer-facing Staff

This brings us to the second lesson.  The people on the front line need to have the knowledge, confidence, ability, and authority to take action.  When creating a product line strategy, it is often well understood in the executive suite, but not by the people on the phone, on the floor, or on the road who are implementing it. 

In today’s business environment, people are highly connected.  Customers want and expect immediate answers and information.  That means that our front-line customer-facing staff must be knowledgeable and able to act to provide that information and support to customers. Based upon the competitive strategy and upon the actions of the competitors in the market, our staff needs to know what to do and how to do it.  This will require more than sending a memo out on Friday afternoon.  It requires training and practice.

Let’s look at the New England cornerback.  He was a rookie (first year in the league), a backup player (seldom on the field), from a small college (no “big-time” experience).  He was probably the least experienced member of the team when it came to playing football at a premier level under a media spotlight.  But he had studied the Seattle offense.  He had practiced what to do in that situation.  As he has said, when that play started he knew immediately what was going to happen and what he would need to do to stop it.

Third Lesson: When Taking Action, Act Decisively

Our final lesson is that when the decision is made, we must act.  In most industries today, the pace of business is very fast.  If a potential customer cannot find or get what they want from one seller, they are immediately on to the next one.  While a competitor may open up an opportunity in the market as they implement their strategy; that opportunity can close again very quickly.  Instantaneous information, overnight delivery, and mass customization create a business environment where an action delayed is an opportunity lost. 

The front-line customer-facing staff need the confidence and authority to do what is both right for the customer and consistent with the strategy.  When they see an opportunity created by a mistake or oversight of the competition, they need to act, rather than submitting a request to senior management that gets discussed at the next quarterly strategy review meeting.

Let’s look at the New England cornerback again.  He recognized the play and knew where the ball would be thrown.  So he did what he had to do to get there and catch the ball.  It is instructive to see the picture of the catch.  The New England player is focused on catching the ball.  The intended Seattle receiver is falling backward, out of position and out of control.  It is clear who had taken decisive action and who hadn’t.

So let’s recap:

  • The business environment is dynamic.  
  • Your product line strategy needs to take into consideration what the competitors are doing.  
  • You need empowered front-line customer-facing staff.  This will require training and practice to know how and when to implement your strategy.  
  • Finally, the staff needs to act to take advantage of  opportunities.      


  1. 25 yrs. ago, when I was in the copier business, Xerox dropped a bombshell on the industry by selling low-end customers a small copier with no other fees (contract, supplies, etc.) for a three year period. Who could compete against that, especially small independent operations, as I was?
    I really wanted to know how they could afford to offer that deal ! When I was able to get my hands on the break-down and plug my figures in, I was amazed when I realized that I could beat the offer by a comfortable margin. The result was that two-thirds of the time I went up against Xerox on small machines I beat them, which caused my business to rapidly expanded. That resulted in Xerox coming to me and offering to hire me; which I politely turned down.
    Good article, Ray!

  2. If there is one thing that I have learned in all my years in sports, you want to play the most challenging opponents to see where you are. If you keep on playing the teams you know you can beat, you never can gauge your progress. The best teams really do bring out the best in your and your team as a whole.

    Lucius Cambell @ Skild