Captain Contrarian: Innovation by competitive attack

April 12, 2016

Crafting a product, department or corporate strategy never happens in a bubble. It’s an ever-moving target because of trends in the marketplace, shifts in consumer behavior, and competitive actions.

Decades ago, visionary leaders would try to synthesize what was happing in the world around them into successful strategies that would be perfectly positioned when the world got “there.” It was an “I/we know best” approach that worked well for those few true visionaries who could pull it off.

Consumer-centric is common

It used to be that convincing potential clients of the value of consumer-centric thinking was the biggest hurdle. That’s no longer true. The benefits became obvious when success after success could be achieved in lieu of a visionary at the helm. Instead, the insights derived from consumer-focused research and Design Thinking defined the strategies. This was a more “customer knows best” approach, but the end result was the same—the product/company was perfectly positioned by the time the world “arrived.” If you were ahead of either of those curves, you were creating differentiation for yourself and products.

But as more and more companies prioritize consumer research and have customer centricity at the core of what they do, how does your strategy development need to change? In other words, if you are all talking with the same consumers how do you come up with differentiated insights?

Well, if you have mastered trend analysis and the subsequent determination of where to “be” when the world gets “there” and you are up to the chest wading in consumer insights and customer-driven innovation, maybe it’s time to raise your game in competitive intelligence.

Look, the world is full of smart people and the worst assumption you can make is that your team and colleagues are the only smart ones in your industry/product space. A better assumption to make is that they have a team of equally smart people who are noticing the same trends, drawing the same conclusions, and studying the same consumers as you. They have equally smart consultants (well, nearly so) at their disposal, with equally creative minds and divergent thought processes generating equally innovative solutions.

It's a better assumption to think that you would all come up with the same great solution were it not for differing internal capabilities and areas of expertise that will be leveraged to create competitive advantage. Wouldn’t it be great to know what your competitor is up to so you could have an even better strategy?

It sounds like it’s time for some contrarian exercises!

Oh, no, you didn’t ….

Besides just saying “no” a lot to aggravate your colleagues, what’s a contrarian exercise? It’s an activity that helps you pinpoint the weaknesses in your strategy. Knowing your weaknesses can help you identify where to focus in the face of a grueling competitive environment.

If you are all talking with the same consumers, how do you come up with differentiated insights?

Here are some approaches that we use to get the contrarian juices flowing:

Scout Team: You know the guys at the end of the bench of those college hoops teams that go berserk when the action on the floor swings in their team’s favor? They rarely see playing time, but they play a pivotal role on their teams. Week in and week out, they run the oppositions’ offense in an effort to prepare the starters for what they’ll see on the court during competition. In the Scout Team exercise, we do the same. By assuming the profile of a competitor, we look at the assets they would likely leverage and adopt their strategic position.

Our clients come along for the ride and take a turn poking holes in their own strategy and market position based upon their competitor’s position: “It looks like our competition is all about X consumer. Once they’ve secured that market segment, it's easy for them to eat our lunch in Y segment … our product needs to deliver on the consumer needs we’ve identified AND build a moat around our position in both segments!”

Counter Attack: That every action has an equal and opposite reaction is true in both physics and competitive markets. As soon as you launch your brilliant new product/strategy to win, your competition will be crafting a counter attack. In this exercise, we assume the competition’s role and craft moves, which helps us anticipate what we might need to head off in our own innovation process.

Different from the Scout Team, this exercise focuses more on the tactical responses. For example: "Once we launch X product, our competitors will likely do Y and/or Z immediately and possibly A-B-C down the road." A bit more of this type of exercise and maybe we wouldn’t have four- and five-blade razors as well as 64- and 55-calorie beers.

War Games: The armed forces run live simulations to test their strategy and defenses, gaining valuable intelligence into where to deploy resources. While lives aren’t always on the line in product development, it can be just as valuable to watch the players make their moves. In this intensive exercise, players assume the role of various “generals” in the entire industry landscape to see how the pawns are moved and the resulting outcomes.

Our facilitators throw unexpected actions into the mix to upset the equilibrium and tip the scales of leverage to see how well positioned our clients and their current products/new innovations are to survive the turmoil of a living, breathing, unpredictable market landscape. For example, competitor X came out of nowhere and acquired competitor Y, giving them a more complete product portfolio. In response, competitor Z bought up existing IP to extend their position as innovative leader. Now what do we do?

Doomsday: This is the “zombie apocalypse” of product development. Can your innovation survive when the rules change or there are no more rules? Can your new product still succeed when the one thing you’re counting on as truth is taken away? This grueling session tests the mettle and ingenuity of the teams involved by blowing up the most cherished assumptions of the industry and product space.

You wouldn’t believe the creative outcomes when our clients have one proverbial arm tied behind their backs. “We’ve dominated the 25-45 mom segment for years …” Boom, moms stop buying your product entirely because of a labor scandal overseas and a PR disaster stemming from a supplier that hid information about their workforce. “We’ve always had the lowest cost-of-capital of any of our competitors…“ Bang, your credit dries up because your parent company became overleveraged in an acquisition. What now?

Are you ready for the real world?

You may have mastered the ability to synthesize trends and know where to be and when. You could have armies of researchers canvasing your users and non-users. You are living consumer-centric design principals every minute of every day. Yet competitive advantage seems to be hard, if not impossible, to come by. Maybe you haven’t taken the contrarian view or have not explored it deeply enough to properly shore up your strategy.

Through role play, scenario planning, and simply taking the gloves off to brutally attack our own clients’ positions, we help pressure test their innovations and strategies before they find out the hard (and expensive) way where they are weak.

Walking a mile in another man’s shoes is a great way to build empathy. Spending some time in your competition’s shoes can shine a light on those elements of your strategy that require the most attention.

— Written by Dan Sarbacker