Think Like the Competitor, Act Like the Competitor, Beat the Competitor

Heath Gross

How many of you remember this dialogue?  If you don’t know what a dial-up modem sounds like, you are probably too young to remember this movie.

Scientist:         General, are you prepared to destroy the enemy?

General:          You betcha!

Scientist:         Do you think they know that?

General:          I believe we’ve made that clear enough.

Scientist:         Then don’t! Tell the President to ride out the attack.

Colonel:           Sir, they need a decision.

Scientist:         General, do you really believe that the enemy would attack without provocation, using so many missiles, bombers, and subs so that we would have no choice but to totally annihilate them?

[Loudspeaker]             One minute and thirty seconds to impact.

Scientist:         General, you are listening to a machine! Do the world a favor and don’t act like one.

[Loudspeaker]             One minute and twenty seconds to impact.

Recently my firm was asked by a major pharmaceutical company to support a war game exercise for one of their OTC brands.  Every time I hear the term “war game” I can’t help but think about the 1983 movie, War Games, staring a very young Mathew Broderick.  I was 13 years old when I first saw this movie and even then, this particular dialogue stuck with me.  “General you are listening to a machine! Do the world a favor and don’t act like one.”  What a great line, one that we would all do well to listen to, in both business and life.

Over the past couple of years our firm has steadily evolved from a tactical oriented competitive intelligence agency, focusing almost exclusively on just answering KIQs (Key Intelligence Questions), into a full-service competitive strategy firm.  One aspect of that evolution has been an increase in opportunities to support our clients’ strategic decision-making process.  I have always believed that, if done right, a war game exercise can be a great tool for decision support and team building.

In today’s business environment we have become increasingly dependent on technology; a war game reminds us that computers are no match for the human mind when it comes to creativity, and understanding human motivations:  two key ingredients to developing effective business strategies.

Computers are great for storing and mining data, for extrapolating, calculating and projecting… but computers only know what we teach them.  Computers have no emotional intelligence.  They lack the ability to understand human motivations.  They cannot create or truly strategize.  Sure, they can cram data into algorithms and models that certainly can provide insight.  But they can’t think. For now, at least, thinking is still the sole domain of humans.

Developing a strategy to counter your competitors’ messaging requires that you understand how the competitor thinks, what motivates them, what keeps them up at night.  It requires you to put yourself in the shoes of the competitor and ask, “What would I do if I were them?”

That is the true essence of a war game.  War games come in all shapes and sizes, but the goal of every war game is the same: to role-play the enemy (competitor) to try and predict what they might do.  A war game enables you to develop contingency plans and offensive strategies that can proactively disrupt or blunt the predicted actions of the competitor.

Of course, there are other factors involved in developing a business strategy besides just the actions of competitors.  A good war game will factor in a number of variables into the scenarios, exploring both the macro and micro influencers, from the general economy to regulatory, technology and consumer trends.

I could write a book on how to conduct an effective war game (in fact a number of people have) but for now I will leave you with a few simple suggestions:

Know Your Enemy: Ok, so this is business and these aren’t really your enemies, but they are your competitors. Having robust briefing decks on each competitor is key.  You want the teams to have the decks a few days before the war game so that they can learn as much as they can about the role they will be playing: How does the competitor make decisions?  What is their culture like? What kind of budgets do they have?  These are just a few examples of the kinds of things the teams will need to know in order to effectively think like the competitor.

Don’t conduct your war game in a vacuum: One mistake I see a lot of companies make is basing their war game scenarios on too many assumptions.  Certainly, you can’t know everything your competitor is going to do (if you could you would not need to do a war game), but conducting research before the war game is one of the keys to success.

Don’t rely solely on secondary research: Most companies are very good at gathering secondary research, but when it comes time to plan your strategy, it is generally worth the investment to hire a good primary research vendor to fill in as many of the knowledge gaps as possible BEFORE the war game.

Have fun, be creative: For most people, the idea of a full day or two of ‘Strategy Development’ sounds like as much fun as a root canal.  There a number of things you can do to keep the war game fun, so explore some options with the idea that a war game can be a team building process as well as a strategy development exercise.

Immerse the teams: Using things like video, competitor name tags, and props can help to immerse the teams, enabling them to ‘get into character’.  The more the teams feel like the competitor, the more likely they are to think like the competitor.

Remember, war games give us an opportunity to do what technology can’t: think.  In a world where we are spoon-fed data at a nauseating pace, war games give you a chance to step back, unplug, be creative, have fun, and in the process develop a creative business strategy that will help you out maneuver and outperform the competition.

Heath Gross
Founder / CEO