Do you want to win?

4 10 2010

Last week I started reading what is probably the second most famous text on military strategy (after Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War“); Carl von ClausewitzOn War“. I’ll be honest – it’s not an easy read.

Thawson & Partner's new aggressive strategy made quite a splash in the legal press

My reason for reading was not that I was plotting any sort of immediate show of armed force (although if I was, I promise you’ll read about it here first!), but to look for lessons that could easily be applied to strategy in the law firm arena. While it was a fascinating read, I struggled to apply many of the concepts, and turned instead to Robert Greene‘s “The 33 Strategies Of War“.

Much easier.

In fact the first chapter immediately grabbed my interest, it was titled “declare war on your enemies: the polarity strategy”. There’s quite a lot of depth to the chapter, but one of the key messages is to know your enemy.

Sounds simple?

I’m not so sure. Although the market is ultra-competitive, many firms struggle to know who their competitors really are. When I was undertaking my primary research for my MBA thesis on law firm strategy, one of the questions I asked the CEOs and managing partners was “who are your competitors?”. Answering was much more difficult than I anticipated. A huge number of variables came up: what geography was I talking about? which practice area? in which industry did I mean?

These  are undoubtedly good questions and show a good understanding of the need to segment markets, but it does make me think about the benefits of good, old-fashioned, competitive spirit. It might be that you can find “enemies” that compete in 80% of the firm’s markets, or it might be key teams have their own “public enemy number one”, but I do believe finding a key competitor to focus upon can bring real benefits.

I remember when I was in private practice, there was one firm I absolutely wanted to beat. In the area of law I practised they were generally ranked slightly higher than my firm, they had a slick brand, nicer offices, were reportedly more profitable and they paid better. I had a huge amount of respect for the firm, and on a human level, liked a great many of their lawyers. But boy, did I want to beat them! If we were ever responding to the same request for proposal, I would want to go the extra mile to make sure we were at the top of our game.

Now this response might be unique to me, but I suspect  having a handful, of clearly identified competitors could help galvanise a firm (or team) and focus it on winning? Could a common firm-wide “enemy” help break down silos within the firm?

Could having a clear idea of an “enemy” help the law firm define itself? If you know what you don’t want to be, might that help you identify differences? It might be that this polarisation helps clients identify more clearly what they are looking for in advisors.

As Greene says “see yourself as a fighter, an outsider surrounded by enemies. Constant battle will keep you strong and alert”.

Another benefit to focussing on competitors, which I discovered  in corporate life, was that commercial and sales people can then  think more broadly about the impact of their actions on the market place. For example, “if we hire Mr X, will it hurt company Y?”, “If we launch this new product at a price that undercuts Z co, what will it do to their margins?”. Without a clear idea of competition, it is hard to benefit from this type of thinking.

To me, competition is a key part of strategy. It should be about winning in a market place. A clear view of who your competitors are must help this process. It’s not always easy (I’ve written before about the benefits of collaboration among law firms, so there are undoubtedly multiple perspectives to think about here), but I do believe it’s worth thinking about. The one cautionary note is that it shouldn’t be done at the expense of losing focus on the client.

So, this week’s message? Find an enemy, have a fight. You might feel better for it….