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Vol. 1, No. 7
(626) 791-8973

Seize the Initiative and Keep It

© 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

About twenty-five years ago, a young night school student in San Francisco saw a full-page advertisement in a magazine for a solid-state chronograph watch for $90. The price caught his eye because Seiko had only introduced the chronograph watch the previous year, and it sold for almost $300. The young man was a jogger. At $90, this young man thought the watch would make a terrific watch for joggers.

Several hundred thousand people saw that advertisement, and at least a thousand of them must have been joggers. No doubt many of these joggers actually bought the watch. A hundred of these buyers probably had the same idea of selling the watch to other joggers as this young man, but failed to act on it. Richard Thalheimer was the only one of these several hundred thousand who were aware of the product and had the potential to do something who actually took the initiative, cut a deal with the importer, and started selling the “Jogger’s Watch.” Thalheimer did this, advertising in a different magazine called Runners World.

Richard Thalheimer had just finished his law degree at night school at the time and had planned on becoming a lawyer. But, his one advertisement in Runners World brought in $90,000 in sales. So, he started a company selling unusual and hard-to-find high technology products through catalogs. Within three years, his annual sales reached $100 million. Today, his approximately 100 Sharper Image stores are well known throughout the country and his total sales from his stores, catalogs, and web site exceed $400 million a year.

How many times have you had a great idea and failed to seize the initiative? Later you saw that someone else took the same idea, acted upon it, and was highly successful. You can bet the others who saw the initial watch advertisement and had the same idea as Thalheimer, but did nothing, felt the same way as you probably did.

Nothing Happens Until You Make It Happen

Nothing happens until you make it happen, until you take action. One of the major factors in success or failure in any situation is procrastination. Putting things off until “you can get around to it” or until conditions are perfect almost always results in failure. W. Clement Stone, who rose from poverty to build an international insurance company worth hundreds of millions of dollars, asserted that to overcome procrastination, you need only say these three words to yourself, and then act on them: “Do it now!”

Is it any wonder that the rewards in industry, in any organization, go to those who “show initiative?” Those who sit around waiting for something to happen or for someone else to tell them what to do are rarely successful. The same is true for the strategist who looks to the competition to dictate his own actions. General George S. Patton said: “I don’t care what the enemy intends to do. I only care about what I intend to do.” Patton knew that taking the initiative is always critical for any strategy.

Taking the Initiative is Crucial

Failing to seize the initiative is crucial, especially in competitive situations. No matter how well developed your ability to counter the actions of competitors, there is no way that you can win by defending against a competitor’s actions alone. But by maintaining the initiative, you are able to dominate the situation and to control the time and place of necessary actions which will lead to the attainment of your goals and success in your strategy.

This concept can be clearly seen in face-to-face sport competitions such as boxing, karate, or tennis. A competitor initiates an attack. This must be avoided or deflected. But as soon as a defensive maneuver is completed, the defender must seek an opening through which to initiate a counterattack. The initiative need not be a physical one. The lesson of seizing the initiative places a premium on intellectual ideas as well as physical action. In fact, an intellectual initiative can sometimes obviate the need for direct physical confrontations.

In Competition, He Who Has the Initiative has the Advantage

Henri de Jomini was a great Swiss strategist of Napoleonic times. He started his career as a banker, but ultimately became a general, first in the French Army, and later in the Russian Army.

Jomini wrote one of the great books on strategy. It was entitled The Art of War. Today, when one thinks of the foremost western war strategist, von Clausewitz probably comes to mind. Howeverm, this was not always so. In the 19th century, Jomini was far more influential than the German strategist, Clausewitz, who was his contemporary. During our own Civil War, it was said that generals of both the North and South rode it to battle with two books in their saddlebags: The Holy Bible and Jomini’s The Art of War.

It was Jomini who pointed out that the competitor taking the initiative has the great advantage because he can strike a blow at a point of his selection, whereas the competitor acting on the defensive must defend everywhere and is often taken unawares and must always regulate his movements according to the actions of his adversary.

There are Two Parts: Taking the Initiative and Then Keeping It

There are two parts to this lesson which must be mastered. First we must gain the initiative. Then we must keep the initiative until we attain our objective. Neither is easy. Sometimes we slip up. We allow a competitor to take the initiative. This puts us in a reactive mode. This is analogous to the opponent in the boxing ring who must defend after being struck first. When this blow is unexpected, it can be devastating and can put us at an extreme disadvantage.

How To Gain and Keep the Initiative

You can gain and keep the initiative if you take these five steps in any competitive situation:

  • Analyze the Situation – You should learn as much as you can about the situation before you act. This doesn’t mean wait until you know everything: that will never happen. It does me that you should at least investigate the basics. I watched a woman on television last night who had lost a lot of money to one of those “work at home schemes.” All she needed to do was to make one call to the Better Business Bureau to find out this was a scam.

  • Seek Hidden Opportunities and New Solutions – Frequently capturing the initiative lies in a hidden opportunity and going “where no man has gone before.” For example, Sam Walton built Wal-Mart by going as much as 20 miles out of town where his customers were not. Land was cheaper. That way, he was able to offer quality products for a lot less than his competition, and his customers didn’t mind the inconvenience.

  • Act Now! You can analyze and re-analyze anything to death. We call that “analysis paralysis.” Don’t wait for perfect answers or the perfect plan. Super-successful General George S. Patton said: “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.” Of course, Patton was referring to warfare, so we don’t need to take him literally regarding executing the plan “violently” for strategy in business. Rather, we should translate his meaning as “A good plan energetically executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.”

  • Act Boldly – If you want to win, you’ve got to take risks. If the risk is acceptable, go ahead! Even the turtle can’t move forward without sticking his neck out. That’s the nature of life.
  • Keep the Pressure On – In business you are going to have competition. To stay ahead of your competition and retain the initiative, keep the pressure on. If you’ve just introduced a wonderfully successful product and service don’t “rest on you laurels”. As Mary Kaye Ash, the woman who build a billion dollar cosmetics company once said: “Nothing wilts quite as fast as laurels rested upon.” Instead get your next product in the pipeline . . . and the next and the next.

 Make these five steps a part of your winning strategy: analyze the situation, look for hidden opportunities and new solutions, act now!, act boldly, and keep the pressure on.