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Vol. 1, No. 4
(626) 791-8973


By William Cohen

© Copyright 2002 by William A. Cohen  

 In the spring of 2001 more than 36 million viewers watched the final episode of “Survivor” on CBS television. They saw a forty-year-old nurse and mom, Tina Wesson, win the $1,000,000 first prize after forty-two days in the Australian outback with little food and under severe environmental conditions. Fifteen other competitors, younger and stronger, of both genders and with arguably better survival skills, had been eliminated. For every “immunity challenge” won during a physical and mental competition with the others, the rules granted immunity from being eliminated from the game for a week. Tina hadn’t won a single one. Colby Donaldson, the superbly conditioned 27 year-old rodeo rider won eleven immunity challenges. He came in second against Tina and won $100,000. Both contestants stated that while luck was an important factor, Tina’s victory was based primarily on her strategy.

Important Lessons from a Television Show

For those unfamiliar with this currently popular series, contestants are taken to remote locations and divided into two separate “tribes.” With little food and under extremely primitive conditions, these individuals must not only survive, but compete at “immunity challenge” tasks. At first, this competition is between tribes. The winning tribe is granted immunity for all of its members for that week. The losing tribe must vote to exclude one of its members. After voting, and with the words “the tribe has spoken” the member that has been voted out is sent packing. As the numbers dwindle the two tribes are integrated into a single tribe. Thereafter, immunity challenges grant individuals, and not the entire tribe, immunity for one cycle. When there are only two survivors remaining, the previous six survivors eliminated pick the winning survivor who gets the $1,000,000.

Richard Hatch, 50 pounds overweight, and the winner of the first “Survivor” contest echoed this explanation of the importance of his strategy in winning. “I won,” he said “by sticking to my strategy.” The second place contestant in this first contest, wilderness guide Kelly Wiglesworth, had won four straight individual immunity challenges. She fully expected to win over Hatch, who was unpopular and known to all as “the survivor you love to hate.” Still, like Colby, Wiglesworth also lost to a superior strategy, as have all “Survivor” winners since these first two. Strategy is clearly what it takes to win.

This Strategy was Simple, but It Helped Win an Election

This is not only true for a television game. In Clinton’s first presidential election, he was behind in every poll in his race for president. Hurt by allegations of sexual misconduct and philandering, leading political analysts and columnists agreed that it was just a matter of days before he would be forced to drop out. Then, with an amazing strategy based on just four words: “It’s the economy, stupid!” Clinton advisor James Carville turned it all around. Clinton concentrated on this short message to the exclusion of all else. This simple strategy led to defeat for George Bush and to two terms of a Clinton presidency. Though living twenty-five hundred years ago, the Greek General Xenophon would have related to Carville’s strategy, and the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu would also have understood it perfectly.

Strategy and Business

It should be no surprise that if you examine why some businesses always seem to best their competition, you will again find strong signs of a clear strategy in evidence. These companies seem to be able to take almost any product or service and go up against almost any competitor and win. It doesn’t make any difference if they are a “learning organization” or not. It doesn’t matter whether they use “1:1 marketing.” If there is an economic downturn, these companies seem to either get out just in time, or use the downturn to become even more profitable. Technological breakthroughs or shortages, which drive others into bankruptcy, always help them. Moreover, these winners are in every industry from cottage to high tech, and of every size from giant corporations to home businesses. What they share is their ability to overcome the competition in almost every situation that that they find themselves. But they share something else, and that is the reason that they are able to overcome their competition.

Mastering Principles Means Success . . . Even in Romance

What these companies share are identical principles which appear again and again in the business strategies they employ. Early on I suspected that these principles for business strategy success existed. But this thought was not original with me.

When I first studied military strategy at West Point, I recall one of my professors stating that the same principles of strategy for war, were also true for romance. This motivated an immediate interest among the young cadets in my class who in those days were all male. Their professional interest might be battle, but their primary interest for the coming weekend inevitably had to do with besting the competition to win the favor of members of the opposite sex. Later, the Englishman, B.H. Liddell Hart, arguably the greatest military strategist of the 20th century, said almost the same thing. Reflecting on what I believe to be one of the major lessons in strategy, he said:

“With deepened reflection, however I began to realize that the indirect approach had a much wider application —that it was a law of life in all sphere: a truth of philosophy in all spheres: a truth of philosophy. Its fulfillment was seen to be the key to practical achievement in dealing with any problem where the human factor predominates, and a conflict of wills tends to spring from an underlying concern for interests. In all such cases, the direct assault of new ideas provokes a stubborn resistance, thus intensifying the difficulty of producing a change of outlook. Conversion is achieved more easily and rapidly by unsuspected infiltration of a different idea or by an argument that turns the flank of instinctive opposition. The indirect approach is as fundamental to the realm of politics as to the realm of sex. In commerce, the suggestion that there is a bargain to be secured is far more potent than any direct appeal to buy. And in any sphere it is proverbial that the surest way of gaming a superior’s acceptance of a new idea is to persuade him that it is his idea! As in war, the aim is to” weaken resistance before attempting to overcome it; and the effect is best attained by drawing the other party out of his defenses.”

The conclusion from all this evidence is unmistakable. Strategy is important!

THE LESSON: If you want to succeed in business, in an election for President of the United States, or in the CBS Television reality game of “Survival,” you must use strategy.