Mirror chess is a loser

Most companies that copy the strategies of more successful competitors don't succeed. Right now you see this with technology companies entering the services business.

Management Speak: It's a training issue.

Translation: We know the software is defective, but it's easier to blame the users than to fix it.

-- If you think this translation is defective, feel free to blame the anonymous IS Survivalist who contributed this week's entry.

When I was a kid, I played chess -- or at least a game that used the same board, pieces, and rules that chess players use. I wasn't all that good at it: I lacked the aptitude, I lacked the necessary patience, and mostly I was too lazy to study the game.

I substituted ingenuity. Pitted against a superior antagonist, I copied his moves, figuring I'd stay even until I spotted an opportunity. Clever, don't you think? I figured that because only tens of thousands of people had played the game over the centuries since its invention, the odds were good nobody had ever thought of this strategy before.

My opponent thought it was clever, too. "Mirror chess, hmm?" he asked. Then he moved. "Checkmate," he commented.

Mirror chess can't win, which is why most companies that copy the strategies of more successful competitors don't succeed. Right now you see this with technology companies entering the services business. IBM makes more selling services than technology. after all, so imitating IBM must be a good strategy, mustn't it?

Well, no. It's a very bad strategy, precisely because it's a good strategy for IBM. IBM is already there. So are EDS, CSC, Accenture, my old compadres at Perot Systems, and a zillion other companies as well. The services market is overflowing with entrenched competitors. It's mirror chess, and it's a losing strategy.

Does this mean a company should never copy a competitor's moves? Not at all. At least two very good reasons exist for doing exactly that. One is defensive: sometimes the game is poker, and a competitor raises the ante -- perhaps by improving service, or reducing time to market, or finding a way to dramatically cut costs. You can't win by copying the move, but you might lose completely by failing to do so.

The other reason is offensive. Early in the life of a new market, a competitor proves a concept, then gets fat, happy and complacent. Whether it's Microsoft taking over WordPerfect's and Lotus 1-2-3's turf, intranets taking over from Lotus Notes (see a trend?), or America Online taking over from CompuServe, moving into a good market dominated by a weak competitor is a great strategy.

In chess, opponents start off with equal strength. In business, that's almost never the case, and level playing fields are for those who lack the wit to find one tilted in their favour.

How's your strategy? Send Lewis an email at RDLewis@ISSurvivor.com. Lewis is president of IT Catalysts, an independent consultancy specialising in IT effectiveness and strategic alignment.

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