Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What’s True in Games is True in Life: Play To Your Strengths

Executive Summary:
We often get carried away trying to research and adopt the various programs and crazes of the day that other businesses have used to become successful.  As much as those initiatives and programs may be effective when employed correctly, there may be a simpler solution to drive your business’s success.  If you do something exceptionally well, then focus your business strategy on that.

The Rest of the Story:
I have found that the games that endure and are the most engaging are the ones that emulate life in some way.  They involve real challenges requiring strategy, solid decision making, optimizing our resources, and adjusting to changing threats.  Often, they involve skill, experience, and a little luck.  Just like life, and just like business.

Therefore, what is true in games is true in life and in business.  Pick your favorite game or sport and take some lessons from it to drive better performance for your work team or business.

Recently, my family and I were visiting with some friends and we ended up playing a board game.  I know, it sounds lame, but it was a fun game, very engaging, and I’m betting that some of my readers might run in geeky circles just like me.

Anyway, my wife lamented as she began the game with a highly biased playing piece.  It was weak in every attribute but one and had no remarkable perks to balance it out.  Her piece had only one strong attribute, which was exceptional.  Because of the obvious limitations, my wife thought she was doomed.

As you might guess at this point, she trounced the rest of us handily.  It wasn’t even a decent contest.  She did it by playing to the one strength of her playing piece.

She deliberately sought out opportunities where her one strength was an advantage.  In some cases she created them deliberately.  She avoided situations where her weaker attributes would be a disadvantage and eventually acquired supplemental pieces to replace or shield her weaknesses.  She cleaned up.

In business, we can do the same.  I’m reminded of two recent small business encounters where the businesses succeed by playing to their strengths.  The first is a small parts machining operation.  The second is a small-town water sports vehicle shop.

The small machine shop possesses a special talent for rapidly turning models or drawings into machine programs and producing small orders with a quick response.  It keeps a small inventory of common materials on hand and has a supply chain that can help it get small quantities of just about any material in a short time when necessary.

As a result, this machine shop sells itself as the place to call when you need your order filled tomorrow, or even today.  It has developed a relationship with manufacturers and engineering businesses in the local area that often need rapid replacement parts or quick prototypes, and it is a rather successful, if small, operation.

This machine shop seeks out businesses that need quick response and small quantities.  It deliberately avoids customers looking for large quantities or small and intricate, highly complicated components for very good reasons.  Why would it do this?

If the machine shop were to accept a large order, it could not compete with larger shops for cost because it’s own capital equipment is too small or too few to process large orders without a great deal of set-up or manual intervention.  It also could not process the large order as quickly, assuming a competitor could start at the same time.

Similarly, the machines this shop has are very good, but they are not ideal for machining highly complex components.  Again, to do so requires a great deal of extra programming, set-up, and human intervention.  The owner actually sends that business to his friend who specializes in machining the impossible (who also reciprocates appropriately).

It’s one thing to recognize that your abilities are not as high-performing as a competitors, but the real reason this shop turns away large orders or intricate designs is that while this machine shop would be struggling to process a large order, it could not respond to its customers demanding a quick response, which it does do better than anyone else.

Sure, the owner plans to grow his business and be able to start taking larger orders, but he has no intention to sacrifice his responsiveness strength to do so, and he will need some significant capital to do it.  In my book, he’s very smart.

Let’s look at another example where the strength is not so obviously one-dimensional.  Let’s look at a small town boat shop.

This boat shop is the only one located on the main drag of a small town where yearlong residents, seasonal residents, and tourists gather to enjoy access to beautiful lake country.   Let me outline what this shop has done to stay in business where the customer base is limited.  You see if my outline shows how the shop is playing to its strengths.

It sells most of its watercraft through catalogs and keeps very little inventory on site.  In fact, most of the vehicles on site are for rent, or are used and for sale on consignment.  Now the presence of rental and used equipment means that the business needs to service these vehicles.

Because it is a small town, the boat shop employs its own mechanic and services its own equipment.  Well, it keeps its mechanic busy by servicing anyone’s watercraft.  Also, since watercraft engines and other small engines such as snowmobiles, lawnmowers, and yard tractors, are all basically similar and the supply chain is the same, it also services these other small engines.

Lastly, the boat shop has some extra space in its building, and because many of the summer water sport customers are also fall and winter outdoor enthusiasts, the boat shop rents some of its store space to a local gunsmith.

In a small town full of empty storefronts and businesses for sale, this one is proving to be reasonably successful.  Clearly, the strategy is to maximize the offerings to a limited customer base with the resources it needs to operate and has on hand.  Do you see how that strategy makes the most of the boat shop’s strengths?

The boat shop’s particular strengths are presence, and service.  Its presence on the main strip of this small town makes it the most accessible place to buy, sell, rent, or service watercraft and related equipment.  It leverages store space to another, business that shares the same market, but doesn’t compete. 

It also services as much as possible to make the most of its mechanics.  It doesn’t risk its limited cash flow by investing in new inventory that may or may not sell.  Instead, it makes it easy and risk free for customers to pick craft from a catalog and purchase it through the store.  Perhaps this means it can offer more brands as well.

Finally, while the laid-back personas of the personnel do not immediately shout professionalism, they are friendly, and they are highly focused on meeting a customer’s needs.  When I rented a jet ski for a day, I asked what time they opened, or what time they would deliver it.  They opened at 9:00, but they would deliver it whenever I wanted to start.  We settled on a plan where I would just call when I was ready and they would run it out.  However, laid-back it was, it was easy as can be for me:  good service.

Our strengths can be versatility, or diversity.  They don’t have to be singular like the machine shop or my wife’s playing piece.

The plethora of other specialized experts enabled by the internet makes it easy for us to focus on what we do best, and partner with someone else to bolster or take care of the rest.  We can outsource logistics, warehousing, accounting, sales and marketing, and even engineering design, just to name a few.

As much as we can use partner or contracted services to cover our weaknesses, we can also carefully select partners with skills or specialties that further support or enhance our strengths.  If your specialty is low-cost operations, you might obviously select a low-cost logistics partner over a more expensive, rapid response or plethora of services logistics specialist.

My point is that we should take some time and determine what are our business strengths and make sure that our strategy is designed to capitalize on them.  Particularly for small and medium-sized businesses, focusing business strategy on strengths can be much more effective than adopting popular programs.   Just make sure that as you align your strategy with your strengths you also exercise the discipline to not accept business that sabotages your strongest performance, just as the rapid response machine shop avoids large orders. 

If you have exceptional strengths, play to them and avoid situations where you are not strong and you might just wipe the game board clean with your competitors.

Stay wise, friends.

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