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Vol. 1, No. 8
(626) 791-8973


© 2003 By William A. Cohen, PhD  

* From  The Road to Victory: The Ten Essential Lessons of Strategy, a forthcoming book to be published by AMACOM

Surprise is one of the most important strategy lessons in competing with others, because it can make up for a deficiency in resources. And who ever has enough resources? But even more important, when combined with secrecy, speed, deception, originality, and audacity, doing the unexpected and surprising your competitors can shift the balance of power decisively in your favor and result in success far out of proportion to the energy and effort expended. Another words, small organizations or companies can better larger competitors, and it won’t necessarily cost an arm and a leg. Like other strategic concepts, this is true in all human endeavors.

Surprise in Competitive Swimming

One of my university research subjects told me this story. He had been an all-league swimmer in high school, but could never quite beat a competitor from a rival school, who was league champion. However, in studying this “unbeatable” champion, he noticed that the champion’s time was directly related to how hard he was pushed by those he swam against. When he competed against poor swimmers, he never had a particularly good time, even though he still won. My subject was a very strong finisher, maybe the best in his league, but was never quite good enough to nose out this champion after having gone all out in a race. So my research subject decided on an unexpected strategy. He would not go all out! At least not at first. Instead, He would “pace” the champion, not push him. He would stay just far enough back to remain in striking distance but in number two position. Just as they approached the race’s finish, he poured on the steam and all his energy. It was totally unexpected, but he actually beat this “unbeatable” champion and handed him the only defeat of his career.

Gain Surprise by Executing What Has Never Been Done Before

If you can be the first to initiate some action in your industry or field, this can frequently surprise and defeat a stronger competitor.

A large construction company threatened to take over the land of a small farmer in Iowa. The company was building a highway, and it was easier to build directly through the farmer’s property than to go elsewhere. The farmer pleaded with the company. The re-routing was minimal. If brought to trial his lawyer told the farmer that he would probably win. The problem was that this cost money that the farmer didn’t have, and on the face of it the law favored the corporation and it could force the sale of the farmer’s property “for the public good.”

The farmer may not have had the financial resources to bring the construction company to court. But he did know how to think, and he thought of something that hadn’t been done before. The farmer subdivided a small but strategically situated portion of his land into one-inch square lots. He sold as many of these miniature lots as he could at one dollar each. Now if the construction company wanted the land, it had to deal with and sue against many different property owners instead of just one. Moreover, the farmer contacted what he had done and why to local newspapers. The construction  decided to reroute the highway slightly to avoid trouble, expense, and bad public relations.

Gain Surprise by Using Your Creativity

There’s no question that using your own creativity in any situation can create surprise to give you an advantage, even when you are up against a giant.

Some years ago, Calvin Copeland was making a good living with a fast food restaurant he had started in Harlem. His hard work led to greater success . . . a little too much success. Giant McDonald’s perceived a major opportunity, and golden arches were built right next store to Copeland’s establishment.

Probably, McDonald’s didn’t even think about Copeland. If it did, it probably assumed that any competition would be driven elsewhere or out of business. But Copeland thought about his problem and than applied the lesson of surprise and his own creativity to do what is not usual. He dropped the fast food which had made him a success and concentrated on something that no one else, including McDonalds, had ever heard of: fast “soul food.” With his unusual concept of fast soul food, not only did Copeland hold his own against McDonald’s, but his Reliable Restaurant chain soon grossed $2,000,000 a year – about twice what it did before McDonald’s came on the scene.

Be Bold and Chose the Least Likely Path

In 1997 Eric Poses invented a board game called Load Questions. It tests players on how well they know each other. Every time he got people playing, they loved his game. So he founded his company All Things Equal, Inc. and put it into production. The only problem was he couldn’t get distribution for it. And with no distribution, there were no sales.

This is a traditional problem with many small companies that produce new items that they must get to market. Their competitors, the major manufacturers, have their own sales forces which dominate the market. To get to the consumers, small companies have to get to the retailers. To do this they must go through one or more intermediary agents. However, even those independent distributors willing to carry the single line of a small company really can’t spend a lot of time or effort selling only one item. It’s much more productive to sell the multiple proven product lines of a major player. As a result, Eric’s sales were just about zero. The competition was just too strong.

So Eric did something different. He took the least likely, totally inefficient, crazy path. He loaded his car with product, and over the next four months, took off from his Santa Monica, California home base and drove around the country visiting small retail stores, promoting and selling his games face-to-face and in onesies and twosies. He stopped at nothing. He sold products out of his car, performed in-store demos for customers, and even made many stops at campsites and coffees shops all over the country to get the word out. Amazingly, he was able to sell over 1000 games this way. And his promotion paid off, too. He got media attention because of his crazy method of getting to market. Plenty of it. BusinessWeek, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and even CNN were just a few that carried stories about him, his company, and of course his game Loaded Questions. Toys “R” Us contacted him and ordered 6,500 games.

Poses even gained a unique differential advantage by his least attractive path. Says Poses: “Instead of just trying to work with a buyer to get the game on the shelves, I’m supporting sales by meeting with customers who are looking for a good board game. Now, from the thousands of products on the shelves, mine stands out.”

Flushed with success, he hit the road again and his sales kept growing. To date, he has sold $5,000,000 in product while outperforming competition from the largest names in the business. 50,000 miles on the road may sound like the least likely path to successful distribution. No one, least of all his competitors thought anyone was crazy enough to do it. But, apparently Eric Poses was, and it brought him success against all odds. Now his company has a product line of five games and All Things Equal, Inc. continues to grow.

Surprise Works for Big Companies, Too

It doesn’t make any difference whether your are a large organization or a tiny one. You can use boldness and creativity to create surprise and win. At the dawn of the automobile age, Ford dominated the market with the Model “T.” There were no extras available and as Henry Ford himself said, “You can get  a Model “T” in any color you want as long as it’s black.” Ford clearly wasn’t  worried about competition. Then GM changed the whole game by surprising Ford and doing the unthinkable. It gave the customer choices in color, styling and extras. Ford suffered a defeat it did not recover from, relative to GM, for almost 50 years. 

But Ford used surprise successfully, too. In the late 1950’s, Volkswagen had invaded the American market and won a significant, but small, following. This was with the original Beetle.  The big three American companies, Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler entered their own small cars to compete in 1959 with the Falcon, Chevrolet Corvair, and Plymouth Valiant respectively. First year sales for all three weren’t bad, but as the years went by all offered more luxuries and options, and the price and weight went up. In that segment of small cars, Volkswagen continued to grow. Sales of all three American cars continue to decline and all three companies eventually withdrew from the small car market. However, Ford analysts noted that while sales for their Falcon declined, sales for certain options increased. These options were the padded dash, bucket seats, and “four-in-the-floor.” Ford leaders used their creativity and in 1965 boldly introduced the Mustang. This vehicle created an entirely new automobile category. It took Ford’s competitors years to catch up.

You don’t even need a technologically superior product to create a decisive victory through surprise. Apple, pioneers of the personal computer had dominated the market for several years when IBM decided to enter the fray. Steven Jobs even took a full page advertisement in several newspapers welcoming IBM to the business! 

IBM entered the marketplace with a product that was technologically inferior to Apple’s. However, IBM boldly not only allowed, but encouraged,  anyone to write software for their operating system. Apple had maintained control and limited those who were authorized to write software for their system/ The result you know. There was a hundred times the software available for IBM’s machine as for Apple’s. IBM took over the market.