Understanding Competitive Positions

The concept of a "position" simplifies comparing competitors

Practical strategy is the study of competitive positions. A “position” is how we describe the mental construct we use to compare alternatives. Subconsciously we are analyzing positions individually, comparing their elements, and as a constellation of relationships, comparing them to other position. Our of this subconscious process we make our conscious decisions.

The simplistic view, that discounts human psychology, is that success in competition is only explained solely by the size of a “force.” This is a mechanistic, rather than psychological view of competition. The physical rule is simple: the larger the force--whether an army or a single fighter, the more likely it was to win.

The problem is that this rule does not explain what is really happening in competitive situations where the smaller competitors often win, and why larger competitors die over time. The occasional effectiveness of size or force itself can be explained by a more elemental concept, the idea that positions can be grow or advance by methods other than force. Positioning also explains how and why some forces became larger than others. Size alone is not an advantage in many types of competitive situations, such as competition for small niche. Positions with advantages in given situations create success more easily, with fewer costs. Size of an organization is a result of good positioning.

Comparing Competing Positions

Competition is a mental comparison. People choose what positions to support and which to oppose. They make these choices based upon their own positions, hoping to advance or grow those positions. These comparisons are causally related to how people had to react in wild environments to survive. In a the most primitive sense, they are the judgments made by hunters about the capabilities of their prey.

  1. Competitive positions are paths. 

    They are not static. At any point in time, they are in a unique place in time and space. However, though they are anchored in the past, they are always moving a direction toward a new place in the future. Our minds can make the mistake of thinking of positions as static because people tend to discuss them that way, categorizing people based upon a pat position.

    In this article, let us use the concept of a career path to illustrate the basic aspects of what defines a position. Our interests, abilities, situation. and unplanned events determine what jobs we get initially. Our past jobs qualify us for our jobs in the future, but our choice of what jobs to pursue are determined by our career goals. People may categorize us as “an assistant,” “a boss,” or as whatever, but that is only what we are not, not what we have been and are becoming.

  2. Competitive positions have both objective and subjective characteristics. 

    Competitive positions exist as mental constructs used for decision making, but these constructs are tied to realities in the material world. For example, our physical size influences how people think about us. These physical elements, however, are perceived differently depending on our perspective. A poor man may see a millionaire as rich, but a billionaire may see a millionaire as poor. Those in a position perceive it differently than those outside of it. People attempt to view their competitive choices objectively, but our existing positions interfere with that. However, people will always point to physical evidence as the basis for their evaluations because they do not perceive the deeper sources of their opinions.

    Our career path is determined both by our actual performance and how that performance is perceived by others. These two aspects of the position are related but they can be quite different. A boss may view a great employee as an asset or as a competitive threat, depending upon how secure they are in their own position.

    Competitive positions are compared on five key components. 

    Both in looking at physical evidence and comparing less objective aspects of a position, we subconsciously compared positions in terms of five key elements or dimensions.  These elements are:

    • Mission,

    • Climate,

    • Ground,

    • Command, and

    • Skills.

    Comparing these five key areas are the basis of our competitive decision-making.

    For example, our careers are judged by people’s perceptions of: 1) our career goals and values, 2) job market changes, 3) our current employer and industry, 4) our decision-making skills, and 5) our skill at performing our job. 

  3. All positions are built around a set of motivations, Mission, the goals that determine both direction and strength. 

    Mission is the core of a strategic position. Whether they know it or not, people are always evaluating their options and the value of others in terms of their goals and values. Mission defines the underlying desires, conscious and unconscious, that determine the direction of the position path over time. Shared missions create organizations. Without a share mission, rewarding individuals, an organization cannot exist over time. A confused mission can often tear organizations apart. However, as individuals, most of us do not have one mission but many, often conflicting missions. these pull each of us in different directions, but others judge us by our actions, which physically illustrate our true priorities.

    For example, we must balance our career choices depending on the relative importance of money, time with family, job risk, job stress, job satisfaction, and so on. People judge us by how they see us resolving these conflicts. The decisions that we make about the actions we take speak much more loudly than what we say about our goals. Of time, we will choose job positions in organization’s whose shared missions allow us to satisfy

  4. Competitive power comes from the unity and focus of a focused Mission.

    Unity and focus within any group, from a marriage to a nation, defines group strength. Unity joins people, resources, efforts in a shared mission, coordinating them to increase efficiency. Focus unites people, resources, and efforts in a smaller problem space at given time to increate effectiveness. In comparing positions, people judge the relative “strength” of given alternative position based upon its unity and focus. These two characteristics of mission clarify what a person or organization is all about.  In comparing missions, people often describe "unity” and “focus” as wanting something more badly. Developing a position can be seen in terms of developing better unity and focus over time.

    A successful career depends on working well with others and focusing our skills on an area where our contribution is vital. If we are easily distracted or confused by our conflicting missions, people will see that in our actions and judge us accordingly. The more focused we are on developing our existing position by working with others, the more people will support us and the harder it is for others to oppose us.

  5. The external competitive environment drives change and provides rewards. 

    Our position in the external environment is defined by climate and ground. These two elements are also tied to each other, both externally in physical reality and internally in our psychology. Psychologically, both take many different forms. We see climate in the physical weather, in the shifts of emotion, and differences in attitude. What unites all aspects of climate psychologically is change, shifting over time: the weather between hot or cold, emotion between happy or sad, attitude between positive or negative. Ground can be the physical ground, the marketplace of an industry, or a job position. What unites all aspects of ground psychologically is that they all produce rewards: a field, crops, a building, rent, a market, sales, a job position, a paycheck. Climate can be predicted, but not controlled, but change creates opportunities. Change is tied to ground, which we can choose based upon how we move our positions, but we cannot know what rewards a given ground holds until we explore it. Developing a position can be seen in terms of fining better ground associated with a better climate.

    In our careers, we can control neither our industry’s trends nor how people are paid within our profession or market. The value of existing skills is always being eroded by worldwide demographic changes and by the evolution of new skills that can outmode the old. Change, that is, people getting promoted, leaving the company, new products, new competing companies, all create opportunities. Every job position offers new ground which can be explored for potential rewards.

  6. Our internal capabilities as a competitor come from our ability to make decisions and executing them.

    Our internal capabilities are compared based upon our command and skills. These capabilities are purely mental, depending on our inborn character. developed from what we choose to learn over time. Command is a person’s ability to make good choices about priorities. Skills needed the training we need to execute those priorities. Command and skills depend on one another. We cannot choose courses of action that we do not know how to execute. The more skills we develop, the more options we have at our command. Developing a position can be seen in terms of improving our command and adding to our skills.

    In our careers, we can develop our decision-making skills in choosing priorities, and our professional knowledge and abilities to execute those choices. A writer has to choose what project he should be working on, but he is always improving his skills in putting together words. A machinist must choose the best tools and technique to perform a given task, but he also needs the skills needed to use those tools correctly.

  7. Positions are advanced through an adaptive loop of continually adjusting in responses to events. 

    Events come from our external environment through changes in climate and discoveries of new ground, but our responses arise from our internal capabilities, our command of the situation and our skill in negotiating it. We cannot control external events. We can only control our responses to them. Events are the face of change. Positions are only advanced or developed by adapting to change, moving to better ground, improving command and skills for reaping its rewards. From unexpected events, we can learn to foresee future change. When things go as too much as expected, we are learning nothing new from our environment. Existing knowledge is discounted over time. We need surprising changes to stimulate us to learn. Improving our competitive position depends on our learning. We must learn to look for surprised, but many people are unable to see what they do not expect to see.

    In a building a career, there is a difference between ten years of experience and one year of experience repeated ten times. Getting raises, promotions and a better position at another company are all based on the same process of adapting to change.


In modern society, we have lost track of many of these basic aspects of competitive reality, the reality understood by our hunter ancestors. Positions are constantly moving, they are paths, tied to the path, but having a direction that can be guessed based upon an understanding of mission. The strength of a team is determined by its unity and focus. The ground and the climate affect where we can go, what we can do, and what we must look for. Individuals’ capabilities for decision making and their different skills can be known from past behavior.