At a strategic planning workshop last week I retold the old sneaker joke…
When two hikers on a Southern African safari are suddenly confronted by a lion, one of them drops to his knees and starts to put on his sneakers. His friend says, “why you’re doing that – you can’t outrun a lion.” To which he replies, “I don’t need to outrun the lion, I just need to outrun you!”
This joke led to a fantastic discussion on the firm’s competition and their “sneaker strategy“, that is, how it intended to outrun its rivals.
- Boutiques and one-man-bands
- Direct, comparable competitors with a similar service/staff profile and geographic footprint
- Indirect competitors from adjacent sectors including the Big 4, engineering firms and change management consultants
- Clients in-sourcing, DIY and captive suppliers (clients doing without or taking on more risk was also in this category)
- Web-based products and providers, mostly off-shore, providing lower-priced solutions for process and commodity work.
For each competitor set we then went through an exercise trying to identify how the firm could beat the competition. In some cases, my client’s competitive strategy was confident and compelling, but in others it felt more like a wish and a prayer. The discussion was instructive in that it clearly identified that their current client relationships were the bedrock of much of their competitive strategy. It also revealed major knowledge gaps, especially how little they knew about Competitor Set 5.
Framing the discussion around, “how are you going to run faster than the other guys?” or “what do your sneakers look and feel like?” was particularly instructive in opening minds and challenging assumptions. It was much better than getting people to talk about positional advantages and distinctive capabilities. This textbook approach is okay but it often yields textbook answers.
When someone said, “they’re starting 20 meters back but running 20 km/h faster than us”, the discussion went on to how the firm could [i] slow their progress, or [ii] join their team, or [iii] shift the finishing line, or [iv] start a different race? It was clear that the level of the discussion was at least two or three notches above anything we had attempted before.
If your firm wants to win the race, or at least get a medal, I’d highly recommend this simple but effective planning tool. Feel free to change the joke to suit your context – a grizzly for North America, a tiger for India, an angry red roo for Australia or a Man United supporter for England.