We often find ourselves in a position of getting compared to others. We may compare favorably or make others look better in contrast to ourselves. When comparisons put us at a disadvantage, we face the question of how to improve ourselves. It's tempting to become perfectionistic and want to become superior on every basis for comparison so we're unbeatable. This hilltop position is usually unattainable or extremely vulnerable to getting knocked off. A strategic position chooses our battles for favorable comparisons instead of trying to win every match.
Conventional strategic thinking characterizes the space for comparisons in only two dimensions. Every rival is positioned in this matrix to identify futile quests for dominance in occupied positions and available niches for differentiation in open positions. It becomes possible to discern how rivals have "raised the bar" of minimum standards to qualify for comparisons in this space which positions some rivals as "off the map". It may become evident how every rival has settled for "industry standards" that make it possible to introduce a game-changer which redefines how comparisons get made.
In 2005, our thinking about strategic positioning get dramatically enhanced by Kim and Mauborgne in their book: Blue Ocean Strategy - How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant. Rather that position ourselves in two dimensional space, they introduced a strategy canvas approach. Each rival gets visualized with a value curve of positions taken on a long list of factors. The authors suggest taking one of four different actions with every basis for comparison (p. 29):
- Eliminating factors that the industry takes for granted
- Reducing factors well below the industry's standard
- Raising factors well above the industry's standard
- Creating factors the industry has never offered
To grasp what a difference it makes to utilize a strategy canvas, imagine you are competing for a contract as an employee, freelancer or consultant. If you assume the space is defined by a two dimensional comparison of industry experience and price, you can be beat by those with more experience who are also willing to work for less money. However, with a long list of factors in the comparison, you may become superior in how quickly you learn, who you already know on the inside, changes you've prepared for that no one has experience with yet, and how well you work with other people. Your "value curve" could appear far superior to those who merely beat you on price and industry experience.
There's another improvement in strategic thinking I recommend when considering how to take a strategic position. Imagine there is a river that will take you where you want to go with very little effort on your part. All you have to do is go with the flow of one good thing after another. There are four positions to take in this river:
- dead in the water - standing in the river like a stick in the mud, going nowhere in order to be in control of what happens
- swimming upstream - going against the river, thriving on adversity, being proud of overcoming obstacles (even though they're created by heading in the wrong direction)
- pushing the river - turned in the direction of the flow, while assuming nothing happens without making it happen, assuming the water is moving because it's getting pushed
- carried by the river - letting the flow show you what to do, how much to do, what order to do it in and when to do it that works out to be strategically perfect timing, proportion and balance to sidestep rivals and be successful.
This river is filled with processes to be trusted, aligned with and appreciated. They give us what we need right now once we understand how to work with them and open to their potential contributions to our strategies.