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To Trounce Competitors, Master The Oldest Attack Strategy In The Book

The pressure caused by my train diving under the English Channel at 150 miles per hour hurt my ears, but I’m out now, zooming past the French countryside, and can concentrate again. Front-page headlines here in France and the U.K.—and everywhere in Europe—are the same: an upset in the French presidential elections.

You may not be following the French election drama, but if you take 10 minutes to break it down, you will uncover an ancient strategic pattern at work. This same pattern is shaping U.S. elections. It’s a pattern that could help you break through whatever is standing in your way.

It’s the oldest play in the book. You’ve seen it on football fields and fútbol fields, indeed in almost any game of life. It follows three phases: (1) the defender is attacked from the right, (2) he pivots to the right in response, and then (3) the attacker passes on the left, leaving the defender scrambling off-balance. The Chinese call this pattern "rally to the east, attack to the west" (stratagem #29 in my book, Outthink the Competition). 

Here is how it works in real life.

Phase 1: Attack from the right. During the Republican primaries, Rick Santorum and the Tea Party were attacking Mitt Romney from the right.

Phase 2: The defense pivots to the right. Romney took strongly conservative positions on everything from immigration to abortion to health care to defend himself. With each passing day of a primary that lasted too long, Romney moved further and further to the right. The Democrats saw this happening so were careful not to engage too early. To attack Romney from the left would have given him reason to stay centered and they wanted him to move as far to the right as he would.

Phase 3: The real attack from the left. Two weeks ago, the attack from the right disappeared when Santorum suspended his campaign. Romney found himself like that defender, off-balance, positioned too far to one side, creating an opening for the Democrats. While for the past three months, Democrats have been labeling Romney a "flip-flopper" without a core, without true values, they have abruptly reversed their argument, deciding to paint Romney as someone who has a core after all … someone with strong convictions that are extremely conservative.

When news broke out last week that Romney, speaking at a private fundraiser in Florida, said he planned to cut government programs and combine departments, a pro-Obama blog, ThinkProgress, ran the headline "Mitt Romney Tells Rich Voters His Secret Plan to Cut Housing Assistance." A few days later when Romney received the endorsement of Pennsylvania’s governor, Tom Corbett, who made headlines for a proposal requiring women seeking abortions to first undergo an ultrasound, within hours the Democratic National Committee (DMC) released an ad "Mitt Romney and Tom Corbett: Too Extreme for Women." Senior White House Advisor David Plouffe was quoted last week as saying, "Whether it’s tax policy, whether it’s his approach to abortion, gay rights, immigration, he’s the most conservative nominee that they’ve had going back to Goldwater."

What makes this right/left strategy work is that by defending himself against one attack, your opponent exposes himself to another. Democratic strategists understand this pattern and are executing it well.

This same pattern is shaping the French elections. In the first round of elections (there will be a second since no candidate won more than 50%) Francois Hollande, the Socialist challenger from the left, beat Nicolas Sarkozy, the incumbent president from the center-right. A big cause of this was the success of the attack from the far right, led by Marine Le Pen, who came in third. Le Pen is like the Tea Party threatening Romney (Sarkozy), forcing him to move more to the right, creating room for Obama (Hollande) to win. Again, by defending himself against one attack, your opponent exposes himself to another.

What does this pattern have to do with your business? Consider Frank (not his real name), a CEO who attended my workshop recently. He shared with me that he sold a range of high-end products and has been successful at keeping his main competitor from competing with him. He has removed competition by triggering the right-left pattern.

His competitor sells low-end products but is dying to move upscale. To keep his competitor out of the high end, Frank sells a few low-end products at little to no profit and regularly speaks to customers about his interest in offering more low-end products. His competitor naturally gets word of Frank’s plans and decides to defend himself, to focus even more heavily on the low end. By defending the low end, his competitor exposes himself to an attack on the high end. 

How can you apply this pattern to your advantage? To explore the possibilities, ask yourself four questions:

1. What attack or threat is your competitor defending against?

2. What alternative attack does his defense expose him to?

3. What "fake" attack could you launch?

4. What "real" attack would your competitor, defending themselves, be exposed to?

[Image: Flickr user Chris Frewin]