What is it that makes a strategy succeed?
The way we answer this, often, is by looking back.
Why did Microsoft become what it is and dominate desktops around the world? Why are there enough Apple phones in the world for the entire population? And why is IBM still around?
Or, what makes one particular influencer popular? Why does a particular chef or singer or artist hit the big time?
Surely there are patterns we can find and copy to become successful ourselves?
But there is a problem with this. All too often, history is not a good guide. The path others took is a fragile one and sometimes crumbles away behind them.
What are your chances of starting a search engine that will compete with Google? Google has more computing power than you can imagine.
If you’re a grad student at University, what are your chances of raising the several billion needed to set up the next Google?
An article interviewing Professor Bala Balachandran has a useful way to think about your options.
Michael Porter once wrote that your have two ways in which you can stay profitable over time.
One – you can do activities different from your competitors.
Two – you can do activities differently.
Four words that stand out, two of which are the same, leaving you with three to ponder. So much packed into so little.
Porter’s emphasis was on different and differently.
Let’s say you’re in the web search business – going back to our previous example.
Bing and Yahoo are going head to head with Google. I’m not sure what’s happening with Yahoo, really, but Bing is funded by Microsoft and so has the financial muscle needed to compete with Google.
Three quarters of the world’s searches happen through Google. The others are trailing.
Because they’re doing the same activities the same way.
A minnow that some people use – although less than 1% – is duckduckgo.com. Because it does search differently.
While Google tracks everything you do and can tell you the sex of your unborn child, duckduckgo does the opposite – it sells you on how it protects your privacy.
But what’s the technology that will actually sink Google? Is it too far ahead?
Google is big. But is it bigger than the entire world? Perhaps the next Google will actually be a distributed search engine like yacy that runs on a few billion distributed computers in India and China?
Professor Balachandran steps away from Porter’s emphasis on difference and focuses on the word activities.
His point is that strategy is inseparable from the activities you do.
A strategy that does not involve action is navel gazing – no more than a dream.
And you can build a strategy around activities – whether different or differently.
This chimes with what Scott Adams says about how he became a cartoonist.
He says he was an average cartoonist, an average storyteller and knew a little about engineering.
When he put all three together, he created one of the most loved comics in the world.
Many people can do each of these three activities.
By combining them, Adams got a strategic advantage over everyone else out there.
This is a strategy that all of us can use.
Do different things – or do things differently.