How to Avoid Spread-Out Positions
In this week’s article, we are going to discuss several analogies that can help us recognize spread-out positions. As we discussed in our last article about the six benchmark positions, spread-out positions are those that cover too much competitive space. Though these positions can be easy to establish, they are hard to defend and advance so they should be avoided.
We often establish spread-out positions without realizing what we are doing. They arise when we are pulled in too many directions at once. We are trying to improve our positions in the minds of others. Spread out positions arise when we try to improve our position in too many different ways in too many different minds. For example, comedies about trying to juggle too many romantic relationships can be amusing. Such dilemmas may even seem attractive, but, in real life, we need to avoid them if we want to avoid disaster
Often, we can get into these positions with the best of intentions. For example, if we are in business, we want to serve our customers. But what happens when a number of our best customers all want different things from us? By trying to serve them all, we will end up serving none of them very well.
We must maintain our existing positions while advancing. An analogy I frequently use for strategic progress is climbing a ladder. While one foot is being lifted to the next rung, we need to keep our other foot firmly planted on the previous one. If we have to reach so high as to weaken our existing support, we are likely reaching too far.
What creates strategic strength and power? In practical strategy, we teach that strength comes from focus and unity.
In advancing, focus requires narrowing our attention to one opportunity at a time. We cannot focus on many different opportunities at once. Nor can we focus if we tackle one type of opportunity today and a completely different type tomorrow. Spread-out positions require multiple, simultaneous points of focus. If our opportunities pull our attention in many different directions at once, we cannot defend our moves. Spread-out positions require us to divide our focus so that we are weak everywhere. Practical strategy tells us to avoid spreading ourselves too thinly. Strength arises from concentrating resources. Our time is always finite. Our resources are always limited.
We can juggle only so many balls at a time. Add one ball too many and they all come crashing down. The balls we are juggling all have to follow similar paths. If one ball has one path and the following ball has a different path, they are all going to come crashing down.
Spread-out positions also undermine a group's unity. In any successful organization, its members must be joined by a single, unifying goal. As we look for supporters, we are looking for ways to unite our goals to theirs. This shared goal must serve the individual goals of everyone involved. This uniting principle is called mission. These missions cannot be to different from one another. Even the smallest organization, a marriage of two people, must have a shared mission that serves the needs of both individuals. All positions must be advanced over time, but the people must advance together, in a similar direction under a shared goal.
Too Big Opportunities
Some opportunities are "too large" relative to the size of our resources, making them impossible to utilize. They spread our limited resources too thinly across too wide of a strategic area. The bigger the opportunity, the more attractive it always appears, especially at a distance. Since opportunities are openings, a big opening seems to offer plenty of room with lots of potential. Unfortunately, openings that are too large offer many more disadvantages than advantages.
Most of us are attracted to spread-out positions because they seem to lead to much bigger and better things. They are so large that they can be easily seen even at a distance. That is to say, even before we start exploring them. Their size alone can confuse us about how achievable they really are.
One analogy for this is walking to a casino in Las Vegas. Living in Vegas, I frequently hear about visitors making this mistake. They see a casino. It doesn’t look very far away. However, when they start walking toward it, it doesn’t seem to be getting much closer very quickly. What is going on? They are unfamiliar with seeing buildings on the scale of Vegas casinos. Using a normal sense of proportion, what looks close by is actually very far away, but very large. It will take a lot of walking to reach it. Unless you take a cab, you will be too worn out to enjoy it by the time you get there.
The general rule of all competition is that the longer it takes to complete a move, the less likely your success will be. If we invest in an opportunity, and it gets no closer, we have misjudged its scale. It may be a good opportunity, but if we use up all of our resources before we can establish a position taking advantage of it, we are simply spreading ourselves too thinly.
Avoiding Spread-Out Positions
To avoid spread-out positions, we must:
Learn to say ‘no’ to some opportunities. We must pick opportunities that increase our focus and unity. Our shared mission can change over time, but it cannot pull us in many different directions at one time. No athlete is the best in every sport. We must choose the games we want to play and avoid those in which we are not likely to be successful.
We must stop doing some things as we start doing other things. As we shift our focus, we must end some tasks to undertake new tasks. The general guide is to do more of those things that are the most valuable and less of those things which are the least profitable. “Profit” is the measure of how much value we are generating for others. Again, the goal here is to improve our position in the minds of others.
We must know our limitations. This advice comes from Dirty Harry Callahan, but it applies to us all. We have limited time, energy, and skills. To use another cliche, we must not bite off more than we can chew. Before making a move, we must make sure that the opportunity matches our excess resources and doesn’t outstrip them.
Of all benchmark positions, spread-out positions are the weakest. They are the weakest because, by definition, competitive strength, that is, our ability to rise in the perceptions of others, depends upon our focus and unity. People see us as strong when we are focused on goals that are similar to their own. We can only advance if our small steps take us in a single direction that improves our position.
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