The Advancing Leadership Blog

Losing in order to win: An Olympic strategy for the business world?

You’ve probably heard about the strategy employed by some of the Olympic badminton teams last week in London. And in the vein of all those ‘What you can learn from the Kazakhstani Olympic Team’, ‘How training like Michael Phelps can improve your profits’, and ‘Train your sales team like Olympians’ business articles that pop up online to accompany global events, I am adding my own contribution on the Olympic Badminton Strategy: Why losing to win sometimes just results in, well, losing.

Why on earth is this relevant to you as a chief decision maker in a Canadian business, not a badminton player? Because any competitive strategy is generally applicable to any competitive activity, be it sport, business or child-rearing.

And they say that a smart man learns from his mistakes, while a truly wise one learns from the mistakes of others. Many TEC members will echo this; that one of the powers of the TEC group is that you can learn from your peers’ mistakes before making them yourself. So it is in the spirit of TEC that I tell you: There are business lessons to be learned from this experience!

If you’re not familiar with the Olympic Badminton Strategy, it goes like this: Under a new competition structure introduced for the 2012 games, competitors realized that by losing early-round matches they could avoid playing the stiffest competition – such as the current world champions – until the finals. The strategy backfired, and the teams were identified and disqualified, removed from the most prestigious competition they’ll probably ever play in.

Here are the top six lessons to be learned from the Olympic Badminton Strategy:

  1. Pick your battles This is the founding principle of the Olympic Badminton Strategy. Conserve your resources for the big battles, rather than expending them on the small ones. Sounds efficient, effective and bound to be successful! But not all small battles are created equal, and this contributed to the Olympic Badminton Strategy’s failure. Some battles look small, but they may hold strategic importance that is bigger than they look. Don’t underestimate the power of alliances, luck and public support that may be tied to small battles.
  2. Be creative Failure number two of the Olympic Badminton Strategy was that all the competitors were using the same strategy. Do you have the same strategy as your competitors? Are you fighting over the same customers? Are you placing your products in the same space? Imagine if Motorola had reproduced the iphone instead of creating the Droid – they would probably not be experiencing the success they currently are. If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, it might be an excellent time for you to investigate how you can differentiate your business from your competitors and broaden your customer base.
  3. Be adaptable Be prepared to change your strategy mid-game if necessary. If one of the Olympic Badminton Strategy-adhering teams, upon discovering that their opponents were set on losing, re-evaluated and changed their strategy mid-match, they may not have been disqualified (and perhaps the match would have been less ridiculous overall). This is referred to as a ‘strategic pivot’.
  4. Losing is not the same as failure Despite what you may have read amongst the slew of articles that followed the Harvard Business Review ‘Failure Issue‘ in April 2011, failure and losing are completely different concepts. The first involves trying and not succeeding, while the second involves absolutely nothing.
  5. Play like you mean it And even if you don’t mean it, don’t let your strategy be visible. People – customers and fans alike – want to believe that you believe in what you do, that you share their goals and values, that you care about their welfare. People will forgive a failure because they believe they share a greater purpose with you, or that it came from a place of good intent. If they see that your greater purpose is just to sell more products, that you’ve researched their demographic and found their vulnerable spots, and that you don’t really care about what they care about, they’ll feel betrayed and your business may face a backlash and lose customer loyalty. Think of RIM, a Canadian company currently facing massive hurdles. We may not hold out much hope that RIM will triumph, but we’ll respect it for the fight because we too want to see Canadian tech businesses succeed. If those disqualified teams had simply lost, their effort would be celebrated, their loss commiserated. As rejects, what do you think their homecoming will be like?
  6. Don’t get disqualified! The Olympic Badminton Strategy involved ignoring warnings from the referee, resulting in eventual disqualification. As in business, when regulators get involved, it’s a good idea to listen to them!

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