Playing not-to-lose and playing to win sound similar at first, but they are distinctly different ways of participating in anything competitive including sports, games, and of course, business! In the long term, playing not-to-lose is never a winning strategy. It can seem an attractive way to conduct operations as it involves very little risk. However, over time, it carries an extremely high cost in missed opportunities. It can easily become an entrenched culture that is difficult to change ,and years can be wasted in surviving rather than thriving.
Here are some of the ways it can take hold…
Fear of losing a hard-fought position
This can easily occur when you want to protect your status. When you’ve made it to the top of the hill, you may start focusing too much on those trying to climb up and knock you off instead of forging on to even greater heights.
Management’s receptiveness to feedback
Imagine giving the boss ‘bad news’ that you feel she needs to hear for the long-term good of a project. If these exchanges have gone badly in the past, you may elect to just ’keep you head down’ and continue with what you know to be less optimal.
Things have “always been done this way…”
In the 1970s and 80s, a familiar saying in the computer business was that ‘no one got fired for buying IBM’. People appeared less likely to blame your selection if things went wrong. This also applies to certain processes. Re-engineering them may yield long-term advantages but it can be easier to stick with what we know.
Often, considerable investments can be made in adopting particular methodologies, systems, software or other processes. Their use continues even when they’ve been made obsolete thanks to the ‘need’ (or hope) to see a return on the investment.
If it’s not broken, don’t fix it
If things are working well, don’t change it! However, if we wait for something to become clearly broken or ineffective, it can be too late (and too expensive) to fix. (We service our cars, why not business?)
When considering implementing something new, it can often appear to not be “the right time”. Other things seem to need to be in place before attempting the thing that really needs to be done. The upside to making an impactful change can be great but because they require effort, there are usually reasons to delay them.
So how do we play to win?
Playing to win requires a mentality and commitment to forward motion. Whatever initiatives are being addressed in the company, they need to ultimately be aimed at advancing the business in some way: improving the leadership, improving execution effectiveness, improving marketing, improving sales conversion, improving cash retention and more.
There’s no escaping the fact that playing to win involves risk and risks need to be managed. In sporting terms, that means that you need a defensive strategy as well as an offensive one. But if all you played was defense, winning is impossible. If something seems risky, play it small to see if it has a chance of working. Then play it big when the concept has been proven.
When Howard Schultz took back the reins of Starbucks as CEO, in his first 15 months, he made 125 small bets. Many didn’t work but they all likely advanced the company thinking in some way. Over time, their instant coffee and oatmeal have been huge hits. (By one estimate, the latter could be worth $450M a year in sales).
(Side note: When would you play ‘big’ on something that may not work? Answer: When you’re guaranteed to lose big if something doesn’t change now. If the company is going ‘over the cliff’ anyway, then that’s the time to play all-in and give it one last push. Hopefully, your company doesn’t reach that stage!)
Whatever product or service you provide, and whatever business model you adopt, a commitment to forward motion and action is really the only strategy that can yield growth. Some risk is inevitable. But a far bigger risk is taken with adopting a strategy to prevent loss rather than one designed to win.
Need help on your business strategy? Find out more on how Ian can help you, or contact him to ask for his advice!
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