Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Analogy #167: Enemies are Our Friend

There’s something special about sports rivalries. They help motivate teams to perform at their best. Even in the down years, when it is time to play a game against a rival, the team finds that extra effort to perform at its best.

Not only do rivalries help to motivate the athletes, they help to energize and bring a sense of pride to their fans. I found this out the hard way.

One of the greatest rivalries in college sports is between Ohio State and Michigan. I am a graduate of the University of Michigan (twice) and am currently living in the home city of Ohio State. I’ve found it doesn’t take much to energize the people around me in Columbus. All I need to do is wear my University of Michigan shirt around town. I don’t do that anymore. I don’t need to create that much energy against me.

During half-time of one of the Michigan-Ohio State football games, I decided to take my car into one of those fast oil places to get a quick oil change. Because the rivalry is so important to the people of Columbus Ohio, every one of the workers at the oil change shop were watching the game on TV while working.

As I pulled into the shop, the mechanic gave me and my car a very mean stare. At first, I was confused. Then I remembered that I had a large University of Michigan decal on my car. Based on the look I got from the mechanic, I was afraid he would sabotage my car. I won’t do that anymore, either.

Intense rivalries are good for sports. They give the athletes the incentive to play harder. They give the fans more to root for. It creates great excitement and energy. Without the rivalry with the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees would be less exciting. They need each other.

There’s nothing like having a common enemy to pull a team and a community together. The same can be said for the business world. Enemies can have a great positive impact on motivating a company to act on its strategy.

Without an enemy, a company can become complacent. Enemies can pull a company together and get them play more like an enthusiastic team.

Therefore, if you want to get your company fully motivated to execute a strategy, it can help if the strategy is in some way connected to fighting a common enemy (or rival). So, at the same time you are developing your strategy, it can be beneficial to also develop that common enemy.

The principle here has to do with motivation. One of the greatest hindrances to implementing a strategy is a lack of cohesive motivation in the company—a lack of desire to put in the extra effort to do whatever it takes to make the strategy a reality.

According to a survey of 50,000 employees by the Corporate Leadership Counsel, only 11% reported that they felt fully engaged in their current work. There was 76% that were neither engaged or disengaged, and 13% felt fully disengaged.

In this highly competitive world, it is virtually impossible to win with a team where 89% are not fully engaged in their work. The only sports teams which make it to the top are teams where all of the members are highly motivated and fully engaged. This attitude is also needed to win in the business world.

How do you get that extra motivation to become fully engaged in the workplace? One way to do so is by creating a strong common enemy.

There are four benefits from properly managing the idea of a common external enemy. These are each briefly discussed below.

1. External Enemies Minimize Internal Bickering and Squabbles
Just as the Ayatollah Khomeini was able to unite the warring factions of Iran by using a common external enemy of the United States, you can use a common external enemy to bring your warring factions together. By getting the focus on something big and ugly outside of the organization, it makes all the petty little internal bickering seem small and unimportant. Showing that we all share a common external enemy gets us to focus on what we have in common rather than what pulls us apart.

During war, personal ambitions need to take a back seat to fighting the common enemy. This is also true in business. Focusing on the common external enemy makes us more of a cohesive team. We band together for the common strategic fight. The internal bickering and game playing that can derail a strategy subsides as the dialog moves to the common threat.

The common enemy can be a competitor, a country, or any other external environmental threat to the status quo. As long as the common external enemy is positioned as being a greater threat than any internal politics, you can band together and become better motivated to jointly make the strategy to beat the enemy a success.

2. We are More Motivated to Fight Concrete Enemies than Abstract Principles
When you can put a face to the force you are fighting, it is easier to focus your energies against it. Abstract principles are harder to build up a hatred against and a motivation to vanquish. For example, your strategy may depend on excellence in innovation. It’s a noble goal, but somewhat abstract. However, if you say that the goal is to out-innovate competitor “X” and displace them as the innovation leader, then you have motivation.

People like to play to win. It’s hard to feel like a winner if there is no rival to compete against. By putting the strategic goal in a competitive context against an external enemy, there is that extra incentive—a focus on a company to beat.

In a classic Harvard Business Review article called “Strategic Intent,” Hamel and Prahalad talk about the success companies have had when they put a concrete competitor’s name to a strategy. Using the example of Cannon’s “Beat Xerox” and Komatsu’s “Encircle Caterpiller,” the article showed how these companies achieved great success. Putting a concrete enemy’s name to the strategy caused them to think that they could become more than they were today by showing them someone else who had already achieved that level.

In addition, it helped them to visualize the types of things they would have to do to achieve such greatness. Finally, it provided a great rallying cry, a foe to be defeated. Victory is sweeter when it comes from battling a visible foe.

3. Enemies Heighten Activities from a “Check List” to a “Game”
Many activities need to be accomplished in order to fully execute a strategy. If you just put all of those activities on a big piece of paper and give it to someone, it looks like a boring “To Do” list. It can become de-motivating, because of the magnitude of the daunting tasks. There isn’t a lot of fun in putting a check mark next to a difficult task when completed.

It is like all of the drills and exercises that athletes go through. They aren’t much fun. Athletes do them, however, because they know they will help them perform better on game day. It is the motivation to win the game against the enemy that causes them to do all of those difficult and strenuous activities.

The same is true in business. If the “To Do” list is renamed as “skill building exercises needed to beat the enemy,” then those same activities look a lot more appealing. The potential thrill of victory makes all the preliminary activities easier to swallow. It is no longer just work. Now it is a game. Games are more fun than work, even if it is the same activity. Winning battles sounds more appealing than accomplishing tasks. Competing is more fun than just doing.

4. Enemies Can Motivate Speed
A “Check List” doesn’t create much of an incentive to act quickly. You know that if you get a task done quickly, it only means than you get to the next item of work sooner. The reward of getting to do more work if you work quicker is not much of an incentive to work fast.

However, if the work is repositioned as a race against a common enemy, then there is an incentive to work faster. The United States worked faster at getting a man on the moon because there was a “Space Race” against the USSR.

People would rather win than lose. If the strategy is positioned as a race against an external enemy, there is that added motivation from wanting to win the race.

A common principle in strategy is that the first to own a position in the marketplace typically has the upper hand and is the most successful. Therefore, the analogy of a race can be quite applicable—a race to win ownership of a position in the marketplace before someone else.

There is a lot of work required to make a strategy succeed. This work is usually added on top of one’s everyday responsibilities. In order to get this work done quickly and effectively, it helps if the work is positioned as necessary to defeat a common enemy.

Many many years ago, a friend of mine worked at Miller Brewing. He told me the CEO at the time had a welcome mat in front of his door with the Budweiser logo on it. He wanted everyone to wipe their feet on the enemy before entering his door. Similarly, when I was at Best Buy, the Circuit City company was always referred to as the “Evil Empire.” By personalizing the battle in these terms, it made it easier to motivate people to defeat the enemy.

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