Great strategists win by seeing options that others ignore. They approach the game with a different playbook. When I interview a CEO or analyze a company, I seek to uncover the unique mental playbook with which they navigate the complexities of business competition.
Rich Karlgaard at Forbes recently provided an opportunity to step inside the mind of Steve Case, the visionary business thinker who started as a mid-level marketing manager, created AOL, grew it into a company worth $166 billion, and took over one of the world’s largest media companies, Time Warner. As a venture capitalist, Case continues to invest in disruptive opportunities like Zipcar, which I covered in this blog a couple of years ago.
Dissecting the Forbes interview, here is what I see as Case’s playbook:
1. Move early to the next battleground.
When asked what he saw that others missed when he started AOL, Case said, "I had read Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave in college, in 1980, and was struck by his concept of an electronic global village, people connected to an interactive world, with services and information at their fingertips. Belief in this concept became my North Star."
In my upcoming book Outthink the Competition, I call this play "Move early to the next battleground." As the pace of competition accelerates, your ability to play across multiple time horizons becomes essential.
Where is the NEXT battleground and what are you doing now to prepare for it?
2. Coordinate the uncoordinated.
Case goes on to talk about "people connections, chat rooms, message boards, just as Toffler had predicted … the Internet made possible a new kind of communication—between people who weren’t family or close friends but who shared a passion."
Companies that are winning today are talking like Case. They talk about "coordinating" things rather than owning them. The paradigm is shifting. Case’s recent investments—like Zipcar and LivingSocial—play on this shift. We looked recently at innovations in tourism for a client and found companies like Airbnb.com and ParkCirca, which are coordinating unused living spaces and driveways to disrupt old-school incumbents.
What is uncoordinated out there and how can you bring them together?
3. Borrow the road.
Case explained his rationale for the Time Warner acquisition by saying, "We pushed a public policy called open access to let us buy bandwidth from cable providers. That failed, so we sought out the largest broadband cable provider, Time Warner. That’s what led to the merger." In other words, AOL was seeking to buy access to homes. While this is not one of the strategies my research shows is growing in usage, it is a well-worn tactic used by companies ranging from FedEx to Logitech to Lenovo to great effect.
Who has access to what you want? How could you borrow their road?
4. Be good.
The research in my next book shows a clear shift in perspective from the view that corporations exist to serve shareholders, to a view that corporations exist to share a large, complex web of stakeholders. Case shows a leaning toward to this new (more enlightened?) perspective. In explaining the rational for his Zipcar investments, for example, he says, "We liked the economics" and also, "It makes no sense for most city dwellers in their 20s to own cars." On top of that, we have the environmental benefit of car sharing, which means fewer cars.
What big problem can you help solve? How could you do so profitably?
The possibilities we see and the choices we make are determined by the mental playbooks with which we navigate our environment. Case’s playbook has worked for him, so try it out yourself and see what new opportunities appear.
[Image: Flickr user Case_Foundation]