Do You Have A Strategy?

In business today, I often get the sense that “strategy” is used, or preserved rather, like an elegant, untouched jewel. It’s for decoration purposes only, and to impress if the opportunity arises. A recent read of Tren Griffin’s book, A Dozen Lessons for Entrepreneurs, left me with one definition of strategy by Griffin: “A business strategy is the manner in which a company strives to be unique,” and another by VC Ben Horowitz, “The strategy is the story you tell. It’s the why.” Both are insightful, yet unsatisfying when you think about what to make of them in practice. If you were to set out to start a company tomorrow, you would be armed with very little.

In 1996, Michael Porter published a seminal piece, What Is Strategy?, to revisit what strategy actually was and how some companies had gone astray. Strategy is useless, he argues in his earlier writings, if it isn’t implemented correctly: “The essence of strategy is in the activities—choosing to perform activities differently or to perform different activities than rivals. Otherwise, a strategy is nothing more than a marketing slogan that will not withstand competition.”

Very few companies successfully define a strategy and even fewer implement it. And yet, a good strategy can sustain you in the toughest of times. Chuck Klosterman, in his new book, X, collected a series of pieces he published. There is one particular gem, Three-Man Weave, that provides a better example of a well executed strategy than anything I’ve read in the business news.

Penguin Random House; Amanda Dewey

X by Chuck Klosterman

A Story About Strategy

On February 21, 1988, Chuck Klosterman witnessed one of the most astonishing basketball games. The two teams in question: North Dakota State University at Bottineau, the favorite, and United Tribes Technical College, the underdog.

The United Tribes team was the underdog for a variety of reasons. Chief among them was the school had very little money. The second, more peculiar, reason is the team found itself with a full roster of only five players after injuries, some players quitting, and academic ineligibility. Klosterman remembers: “On paper, there’s no way the United Tribes should have been able to compete with this team. They probably shouldn’t have been in the same tournament.”

The game started like any other and preceded well for United Tribes. They walked into that game with a plan. Their coach, Ken Hall, recalls: “‘We had a very strict game plan….This was ‘88, so the shot clock was still forty-five seconds. We set up a shot clock during practice and got used to running it down to ten seconds on every possession. We’d spread the floor, and then Barry [Webster] would try to take his guy one-on-one. Bottineau played man-to-man the whole game. Barry would collapse the defense and kick it out to the perimeter. And if they didn’t collapse, Barry just went to the hole.”

But with four minutes to go, a kink erupted: Barry Webster, their star player, who had 33 points by this point, fouled out. Three minutes later, with about minute left in the game, a second player on their team fouled out. United Tribes now found themselves on the court with three players against Bottineau’s five. The game was tied. With one minute left, United Tribes had possession of the ball. One of the two remaining guys on the court miraculously breaks away from the encircling defenders, his teammate inbounds the ball to him, and he makes the layup. In the most unlikely of circumstances, just when Bottineau believed they had ensnared their opponent, United Tribes caught them by surprise, and went on to win the game.

Some may attribute this to luck. But what few know is how the team had devised a detailed strategy before the game. United Tribes never lost sight of their competitive advantage: They could run. They didn’t have a height advantage. They were not the most skilled. But they could outrun and endure any team. And so they focused on the one thing they did well – their strategy was to run. The opposing team’s point guard said “They would just run and shoot. That was the whole offense.” It wasn’t a complex strategy. It also didn’t matter.

United Tribes’ coach recalled: “‘Bottineau had those tear-away sweatpants! Half of their team was dunking during pregame, and I didn’t have one guy over six foot. But as anyone who ever played for me will tell you, everybody on our roster was in the best shape of his life. We could run all day.’”

Their strategy was to outrun other teams, a strategy unique to their strengths and one they tried to implement in every play. Chuck Klosterman summarizes the game: “In this particular game, a team won with only three players on the floor….To refer to this as a David and Goliath battle devalues the impact of that cliche; it was more like a blind, one-armed David fighting Goliath without a rock. Yet there was no trick to this win, and there was no deception – they won by playing precisely how you’d expect. The crazy part is that it worked.” The crazy part is that simple strategy worked.

When implemented well, strategy works. The problem is most people don’t know how to implement it at all. United Tribes clung to that belief in an unbelievable game. Klosterman recalls, “This is how five Indians – and then four, and then three – defeated a team that should have crushed them by 30: They ran and they ran and they ran.”

Revisiting Strategy

United Tribes’ strategy is numbingly simple. And, more importantly, it played to the team’s strengths. The coach was clear on the strategy and the players were equally clear. They never strayed from their strategy, not with one man down, not even with two. The fatal mistake the other team, Bottineau, made was they fell trap to copying United Tribes strategy at the end of the game, which played into the opponent’s strength.

Internally, this is where companies so often go wrong with strategy. Without a strong strategic positioning,  companies copycat competitor strategies as opposed to focusing on their own unique strengths. Perhaps a bigger mistake is not following through to implement a strategy once you’ve adopted one.

Strategy is an invisible decision-maker. Land a strong strategy, and it will lift the weight of the daily decisions your company faces. Every company makes trade-offs; the question is whether they make the right ones. United Tribes didn’t try to do everything; they stuck to their strategy and focused on what they were good at (which was relatively very little.) Michael Porter writes: “Strategy is making trade-offs in competing. The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do. Without trade-offs, there would be no need for choice and thus no need for strategy.”


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