What Competing Means

Welcome to Competing.Com! This is the place to discuss and learn about competing in business, politics, sports, and more.

What words come to mind when you think of “competing”? People often take it to mean fighting, conquering, leading, or managing.

  • Fighting for resources, money, or survival. I see competing as fighting if I believe (rightly or wrongly) that resources, money, or survival are a zero-sum game that I win through aggression. I know I’ve competed successfully if I get the resources, build my fortune, or survive.
  • Conquering opponents. I see competing as conquering if my objective, not merely the means to my ends, is to beat you. I know I’ve competed successfully if I have more than you and I’m widening the gap between yours and mine.
  • Leading to victory. I see competing as leading if I focus on organization and motivation; I can do anything if I’ve got the right team. I know I’ve competed successfully if I rally the troops (soldiers, teammates, managers) into forceful, coordinated action that achieves our goal.
  • Managing to make it happen. I see competing as managing if I buy lots of books, mine lots of data, and stalk customers with surveys and promotions. I know I’ve competed successfully if I’ve applied the latest techniques with the most precision because that’s the best that can be done.

People even talk about competing as an art or talent. As an art it defies logic or comprehension but you know it when you see it. As a talent you’ve either got it or you don’t.

All of those approaches have a point. It’s good to be strong, ambitious, inspirational, and analytical. The meek may have to wait an awfully long time before they inherit the earth. But there’s more to it than that.

As my friend and colleague Ben Gilad has taught me, competing is a skill. Moreover, it is a skill that can be taught. We may not all have the same capacity for excellence at competing, just as we don’t for excellence in math, languages, singing, or sprinting. But it is a skill nonetheless. We know that because people can improve at competing just as they can improve in math, languages, singing, and sprinting.

We do not teach or learn competing effectively through conventional wisdom and especially not through Monday-morning quarterbacking. We tend to conflate outcomes with strategy: if I like my outcomes then I must have had a good strategy, and if I don’t like my outcomes then I must have had a bad strategy. Actually, the second line never happens. What happens is more like if I don’t like my outcomes then you must have implemented my good strategy badly. The point is that what happens to us depends not only on what we do but also on what others do. Realistically and creatively understanding and strategizing around what others do, as well as what we do, is the heart of competing as a skill.

At one time General Motors had roughly 50% market share in the United States. Today it’s got under 20%. Could GM have competed better? No one’s perfect, so probably they could have. But enough to maintain 50%? When new competitors enter your market, well-financed, committed for the long term, and with high-quality products, you’ve got to expect to lose some market share. Someone fighting would have focused on beating the competition or luring customers with low, low financing. Someone conquering would have insisted on regaining an unobtainable 50%. Someone leading would have boosted morale or shaken up the team. Someone managing would have held people accountable and replaced non-performers with new hopefuls. None of which would have dealt with core problems and none of which would have been competing. Competing would have reset expectations, reexamined the business model, and figured out how to prosper in a changed world.

Obviously I’m oversimplifying. My point is not what GM did right or wrong. My point is about how competing is different from fighting, winning, leading, or managing.

The Oakland Athletics, a major-league baseball team, famously did learn to compete better. Its turnaround story is chronicled in the movie Moneyball.

One reason President Obama won reelection over challenger Mitt Romney is because his campaign competed more effectively. (Smart people disagree on whether that statement is a tautology. If you think the answer is obvious, think about the other one for a while.) Perhaps the best evidence is that the Obama campaign was not surprised at the outcome whereas the Romney campaign purportedly was. Similarly, Nate Silver’s election forecasts were far more accurate than those from other organizations; witness the what-do-we-say-now election-night surprises on Fox News.

Competing in business, sports, politics, etc., is a given. It does not guarantee success; after all, all sides are competing! Competing better makes it possible to succeed.

Welcome to the conversation.

About the author  ⁄ Mark Chussil

MARK CHUSSIL is founder & CEO of Advanced Competitive Strategies, Inc., and, with Benjamin Gilad, a cofounder and partner of Sync Strategy. He has conducted business war games, built custom strategy simulators, and taught workshops on strategic thinking for dozens of Fortune 500 companies on six continents, resulting in billions of dollars made or saved.

A pioneer in quantitative business war games and a highly rated speaker, he has 35 years of experience in competitive strategy. One of his simulation technologies has won a patent; a patent is pending on another. He has written three books, chapters for five others, and numerous articles.

He has been quoted in Fast Company, Harvard Management Update, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. He received the Fellows Award from the Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals society in 2013. He earned his MBA at Harvard University and his BA at Yale University.

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