If you were to see a newspaper headline such as “Breathing Jumps in Beijing, Even with Pollution,” you’d think it awfully odd. After all, Beijing’s population is rising, and everyone breathes as long as they can. More people, more breathing. Pollution doesn’t diminish breathing’s popularity.

You’d be right that such a headline would be odd, even if the headline appeared in one of the world’s great newspapers; say, the New York Times. Yet exactly that oddity appeared, in the Times, when 2015 was still crisp and new: “2014 Auto Sales Jump in U.S., Even With Recalls.”

Don’t worry. This essay isn’t about illogic in journalism. It’s about illogic that pollutes business, too. It’s about a dragon I thought I slew not long ago in Success Is In a Word. (Another headline: “World Doesn’t Heed Indignant Strategist.”)

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Behind every strategy there is competition for something: votes, power, profit, fame, etc.

Behind every strategy there is also a rationale, a reason why someone thinks it will work better than the alternatives.

People succeed (and fail) with wildly different strategies. But some strategies go further. They don’t make you think wow, that’s out of the box. They make you think yikes, you’re out of your mind.

Here is our end-of-year, politically incorrect review of absurd strategies. Remember: you don’t have to agree with us. We don’t even agree with each other, except maybe on a couple.

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Part One: The Attacks on Uber are Backfiring

By Ben Gilad

We are trained to think competition means offering customers better product or service than our rivals’. Based on this business-school perspective, we look for companies to use innovation, speed, service and other familiar factors to create competitive advantage.

How 2004 of us. In 2004, Elon Musk showed that using government and riding a favorite cause for the ruling party pays handsomely. (See Best Companies to Work For.) It is not that companies didn’t know that competition involves paying attention to regulators and lawmakers; it is that Elon Musk made it both an art form and a crucial element in his strategy. Without government subsidies, Tesla might have become a modern Tucker for all I know. (Never heard of a Tucker? That’s the point.)

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“The Sound of Competing” Episode 2: Harmony Versus Confrontation

Facing reality is more important than being nice.

Aversion to confrontation is embedded in many national and corporate cultures. Unfortunately, that niceness feature can turn into a nasty bug when it enables bad strategy and bad management.

Coca-Cola recently decided to issue stock that will dilute ownership of existing stockholders in order to pay huge compensation to top management. How huge? $24 billion. Twenty-six states in the USA spend less than that each year. That seems excessive, to put it mildly, even if you assume Coca-Cola’s top executives are the most talented people in the world.

Warren Buffett, Coca-Cola’s largest stockholder, abstained when the Board voted even though he thought it excessive too. He didn’t want to create a rift with management. That’s the downside of nice. Too much harmony, too little confrontation, too bad for shareholders. Shareholders at other companies, too. “Well, Coca-Cola did it for their executives…”

Then there’s confronting reality. The culture of the large automobile companies in Detroit has long been notorious as good old boys who don’t rock the boat. Look at what happened to GM when it chose to keep product defects tightly under wrap rather than face the issue head-on. This year it will probably recall more cars in the USA than it will sell.

If you don’t create a safe forum to say, aloud and in time, that the king has no clothes, the rest of the world will do it for you, and not so nicely. It is not a mere business school cliché, as so many companies discover too late.

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“The Sound of Competing” is a new podcast from Competing.com. It’s conversations from Ben and Mark, plus the occasional reckless guest. It’s remarkable. It mixes serious concepts with humor. It’s edgy without sacrificing critical thinking. It’s the antidote to the silly and shallow. Also, there are titanic battles between good and evil. A ping pong match between two strategy giants resulting in commentary smart enough to listen to.

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Competitive intelligence, trade secrets, and Oreos: Learn how a Chinese company tried to gain a competitive advantage from an American competitor using a twisted market strategy that led all parties to fail at competing. Clearly, taking risks does not guarantee a competitive advantage. 

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A short news item in USA Today on March 6, 2014, reported that a San Francisco jury found two men guilty of stealing trade secrets from DuPont. Stealing trade secrets intrigues me since I am in competitive intelligence (CI), and CI has fought for decades against the idea that we’re corporate James Bonds spying on competitors.

We won the battle. The only people now who consider CI to be as exciting as industrial espionage are those who haven’t left their caves since Y2K. Today’s misconceptions are too sad even for Austin Powers. CI today is misconstrued as fishing online for competitor data, mischaracterized as trolling social media for customers’ view of competitors, or misunderstood as sniffing financial reports. But this is another subject. At least it is no longer espionage. At last the world realized we are boring.

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Clear expectations inform and motivate. In competition they do more: they signal. That’s why people skilled at competing set expectations deliberately and strategically. Expectations declare boundaries to competitors: “this is my territory, stay away or we battle.” Expectations announce capabilities to customers: “this is what we will do for you.”

There are two ways to set expectations: unconditionally or conditionally. An unconditional expectation is a promise. A conditional expectation depends on something else. The unconditional type looks like this: “You will be able to keep your doctor.” The conditional type looks like this: “If enough young people sign up and pay for insurance then policies will be cheaper than they would be otherwise.” (On the concept of “otherwise,” see my co-editor’s essay “Success Is In a Word.”).

Conditional expectations are cautious and realistic. They spell out circumstances under which something may or may not happen. Given the no-place-to-hide ubiquity of Facebook and Twitter they are also wise. But they are far from exciting. In the age of millions of MBAs in marketing, apparently that is a no-no. We sacrifice the lesser good, wisdom, for the greater, hype! (That’s why I used an exclamation point instead of a period!)

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A 2013 survey conducted by the law firm Labaton Suchrow made a discovery that will surely astonish you: Wall Street ethics is in decline.

Of 250 financial professionals surveyed:

  • 52% felt their competitors (not them, of course) had engaged in unethical or illegal activity.
  • Nearly a quarter said they know firsthand of unethical behavior in their workplace.
  • A similar percentage reported they would likely engage in illegal activity (insider trading) for a $10 million profit if they could get away with it.
  • 28% felt Wall Street does not put clients’ interest first.
  • 29% felt unethical or illegal activity might be necessary for them to be successful.
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