I am reminded of what may be one of the most dangerous articles on competitive strategy I ever read. ‘Hardball: Five Killer Strategies for Trouncing the Competition.’, Stalk and Lachenauer, Harvard Business Review, April 2004, pp. 62-71. This urges management to deploy five strategies ‘in bursts of ruthless intensity’:
- devastate rivals’ profit sanctuaries
- plagiarise with pride
- deceive the competition
- unleash massive and overwhelming force
- raise competitors’ costs.
Now the article is correct to highlight the competitive strength and commitment of powerful firms like Toyota, Wal-Mart, and Dell. But to reduce their highly sophisticated strategic management to a fatuous list of bullet points is an insult to these mighty industry leaders. Worse still is the danger that lesser organisations will take these headlines and try to implement them with the minimal information and resources more usually available. We can just imagine the annual Strategy conference:
The CEO rouses top executives with a stirring rendition of their determination to carry out this ‘hardball strategy’. With luck, they might even get the authors to come and wind up the level of inspiration. The troops leave the event fully energised and equally determined to start – and win – a huge competitive battle. Unfortunately, virtually no organisation actually has the information necessary, nor the analytical skill, to work out how to turn these trivial phrases into reality. Nor do they have anything like the resources required or the management capacity to make it happen.
The audience will walk off with only the vaguest idea of what to do. They will initiate a lot of pointless activity amongst their people that would be better spent making sure they run their own business properly. If they actually get so far as to initiate this competitive warfare, they will burn huge amounts of cash, destroying profitability in their markets, and doing irreparable harm to their reputation with customers.