”Duh duh. Duh duh. Duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh.”
Theme music from the movie Jaws

During the summertime, the most often quoted movie on the golf course is Caddyshack (“Miss it Noonan!”). However, if you happen to be at the ocean, a lake, or even the community pool, you’ll undoubtedly hear someone humming the theme song from Jaws. And if you’ve seen the classic movie, each time you hear that haunting music, fear bubbles up.

When your competitors think of your organization, do they hear the theme from Jaws? Do they restlessly toss and turn in bed at night thinking about what you might be doing to take their customers, or do they sleep like a lamb knowing you won’t do much of anything? In your market, are you the shark or the lamb?

Recent research published in the Journal of Zoology surfaced some new insights on what makes sharks such successful and feared predators. Embedding these three characteristics in your approach to the business can create a strategy attack that’s sure to leave at least a few competitors in your wake.

1. Discipline. In the past, sharks were perceived as random killers of opportunity, picking up prey wherever they could. The new research suggests that sharks are disciplined hunters, stalking their victims (seals, not little Jimmy) from a consistent base of operations approximately 100 yards away. The base is close enough to see their prey, but not close enough to be seen and scare off their victims.

This characteristic of discipline is generally non-existent in poor to mediocre organizations. Chasing shiny objects becomes the norm for leaders that have not invested the time to construct the guardrails for their strategic direction. The running gear company Brooks moved outside the wake of their competitors by forging a path of disciplined growth that required difficult trade-offs.

When Jim Weber took over as CEO, the company was struggling to find its footing. His belief that the Brooks brand could not only survive but thrive with a singular focus on performance running required the teeth to cut 50 percent of their product line and 40 percent of retail partnerships. Revenue dropped in the short term and the loss of big national accounts was not for the faint of heart. However, moving the company’s swim lane to experience-driven product design helped Brooks pass Asics to become the leader in the specialty run segment.

Creating a disciplined strategy attack:
1. To which type of customers do you provide the most value?
2. What is your strategic criteria for assessing business opportunities?
3. Will this new potential opportunity help you pursue your vision?

Managers describing their business approach as “opportunistic” is often code for “we have no strategy” so anything that comes down the pike is fair game. Great organizations have the discipline to set their strategies and focus in their areas of expertise. Jim Weber, CEO of Brooks, said, “At Brooks, I knew in my first days that to survive, we had to focus, and it was my job as CEO to clear a path for my team to do so. If I couldn’t deliver clarity of focus, I risked not being followed. Brands are like sharks: If they don’t move, they die.”

2.  Learning. Research shows that older sharks tend to be more effective and efficient hunters than younger sharks. This indicates that sharks learn from their previous kills. How well do we learn from our successes and failures? A study out of Harvard Business School has shown that 60-90 percent of all business learning’s ultimately diffuse to competitors. If we aren’t continually learning from our experiences and generating new insights, staying ahead of our competition will be as challenging as swimming against an ocean current.

Innovation is spawned by insight: a learning that leads to new value. While we typically use an insight at the beginning—to create a new initiative or project—insights can also be discovered at the end. Intentionally investing time individually and collectively at the conclusion of an initiative can create a virtuous cycle of learning. Jony Ive, former Chief Design Officer at Apple, agrees: “I’ve always thought there are a number of things that you have achieved at the end of a project. There’s the object, the actual product itself, and then there’s all that you learned. What you learned is as tangible as the product itself, but much more valuable, because that’s your future.”

Creating a learning strategy attack:
1. Where do leaders keep track of their key learnings or insights?
2. How often do leaders share their learnings with colleagues inside andoutside of their functional areas?
3. What tools do you use to proactively generate new learnings about the market, customers, competitors, and our organization?

The ability and willingness to learn new approaches to our business can help us avoid the whirlpools of poor performance. As Charles Darwin said, “It’s not the strongest of the species who survive, nor even the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”

3. Surprise. The final key to a shark’s success is the element of surprise. Sharks tend to attack prey such as seals when the light is low, and they rise up from below to remain unseen before they take that first bite. When is the last time you surprised your customers and the competition?

Prolific engineer and inventor James Dyson has continually surprised markets by solving people’s points of frustration. Before revolutionizing the vacuum with his cyclone technology and see-through, bag-less canister, Dyson solved a problem many of his British neighbors who worked in their yards felt: wheelbarrows getting their tires stuck in the mud. Instead of a “wheel” barrow, he introduced the Ballbarrow in the United Kingdom, which used a ball in place of the wheel to solve the problem of the wheels getting stuck in the mud. It pleasantly surprised customers who quickly snapped up 45,000 and it unpleasantly surprised competitors as Dyson captured 50 percent of the wheelbarrow market within a year.

The ability to profitably surprise is rooted in generating insights on customer’s important pain points and then using your expertise to solve them. Ironically, the insights on how to surprise customers rarely comes directly from their mouths. In the case of Dyson’s revolutionary vacuum, preliminary market research showed that customers said they would not buy a cordless vacuum without a bag. Fortunately, Dyson ignored the research and produced it. He said, “You can’t ask your customers to tell you what to do next. They don’t know. That’s our job.”

Creating a surprise strategy attack:
1. What customer pain points have not been adequately addressed in the market?
2. What types of activities or offerings would surprise you if your competitor introduced them?
3. What about your current activities and offerings could be substituted, combined, adapted, modified, expanded, or reversed to surprise your market?

Albert Einstein described insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Should your business be fitted for a straitjacket? Are you using the same strategies and tactics year after year and expecting dramatic new growth? Introducing the element of surprise into different aspects of your business will force the competition to react to you, instead of you reacting to them. Better to be the shark moving forward than the seal swimming backward.

A study of 750 bankrupt companies found that 50 percent were caused by bad strategy. In today’s economy, years of complacency and competitive convergence can quickly be followed by one bone-crunching, blood bath of bankruptcy. Organizations that continue to splash around without business discipline, a lack of new learnings, and a business-as-usual approach will be nothing more than chum for superior competitors. Listen. Hear it? Duh, duh.

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