Weakness or Strength: what to focus on?
A common dilemma for every manager… and every fighter.
Shall I focus on my strengths in order to leverage my already present advantage? Or, alternatively, shall I work hard to eliminate my weaknesses in order to become more invulnerable? These questions puzzled me for many years during my career in business. I took courses at top business schools, read many business books and looked through the specific articles. However, the clearest and most elegant answer came from the least expected place.
The notion of competitive advantage, as an attribute that allows an organization to outperform its competitors, is well known and is part of everyday business vocabulary. Every MBA program professor would mention it almost certainly during the first lecture. It even became popular to think in terms of unfair competitive advantage in order to underline the necessity to make it exceptionally difficult for competitors to copy, steal or buy one’s particular advantage.
The observation of any competitive game reveals that, besides luck, every winner had some kind of undisputable advantage that allowed him/her to cross the finish line first. Interestingly, quite often the specificity of that advantage is recognized by player and community only in retrospect. It’s not always easy to predict in advance which kind of hypothetical advantage will eventually secure the victory in the match. Nevertheless, the search for a magical silver bullet never ends, as everyone knows that vampires cannot be killed with normal weapon. A good hunter must be armored with something truly special.
Everyone knows that vampires cannot be killed with normal weapon.
On the other hand, there are plenty of cases when companies (or individuals) epically failed despite having all the imaginable advantages that they apparently possessed. Here comes the notion of strategic weaknesses, vulnerability, fragility, bottleneck or the infamous Achilles’ heel. An organization may seem huge and invincible up until the moment it unexpectedly cracks down under some kind of weird or specifically focused pressure. Naturally then, business leaders are constantly paranoid about where in their ship there’s a tiny, but a critical leak.
If we keep working hard on eliminating our points of vulnerability and succeed in that, we risk becoming just as average as the rest of the crowd. But if we devote ourselves to building our advantage by differentiating ourselves as much as possible, we may stay fragile to an unexpected danger due to some holes in the system we ignored.
The dramatism, as it seems, emerges because by definition each player has limited resources. It can be argued that the most precious resource of all is our attention — your attention as an individual or the attention of your top-management team as an organization. For example, in Jiu-Jitsu a mature fighter tries to physically control the opponent’s head knowing that, as a result, they will gain control over the entire opponent’s body. Moreover, the true master tries to impose his mental game on the opponent, overloading the opponent’s attention with ambiguity, complexity, and unpredictability, forcing him to react only protectively and eventually lose. If our attention is the scariest and most precious resources, one is constantly in pain of choosing between two extremes — either eliminating one’s weaknesses or reinforcing one’s strengths. Is there a solution?
One is constantly in pain of choosing between two extremes — either eliminating one’s weaknesses or reinforcing one’s strengths.
Once you start training the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, you will notice you have a similar inherent conflict. Initially, all novices are alike in their zero knowledge of fighting principles and techniques, but they are very different in terms of their body shapes, reactions, athleticism, and prior background. What should be the most optimal strategy if one wants to move as quickly as possible along the learning curve?
Later you get a realization that becoming excellent in every technique is physically impossible. There are literally thousands of various ways how to submit the opponent by threatening to strangle him or by breaking one of his many joints. Luckily you start noticing that there is no need to be the master in applying perfectly all those techniques. You just need to know them well enough to recognize the threat when the opponent will try to apply a particular technique to you and then be able to neutralize it. Generally, this is the recipe of survival — learning the available arsenal well enough to recognize when the specific danger is coming.
This is the recipe of survival — learning the available arsenal well enough to recognize when the specific danger is coming.
However, not losing does not mean winning, at least not in the competition against the experienced fighters. You also need something else. Here comes Tokui Waza (得意技). A Judo term, meaning your favorite technique. It could be a throw, a move, a turnover, or even a way of attacking — but it is a technique that you prefer more than anything else. Why? Most likely it’s an intersection of idiosyncratic anatomy, mind patterns, past experience and various other factors which make you be You.
With time you can’t help but notice that you learn and apply some techniques quicker, spontaneously and with less effort as if there were your techniques, unlike the rest, more neutral ones. They fit your hand like a perfect glove or like steering wheel of a sports car. Often you can’t even explain why you are getting more interested in some techniques and not the others — they grab your attention and it just sticks. A famous Swiss psychotherapist Carl Jung once said that your curiosity is a way the future you gives signals and directs the current you. In that light, often we can understand the true reason behind our interests only in retrospect (if ever).
Carl Jung once said that your curiosity is a way the future you gives signals and directs the current you.
Which technique should you practice then — the one you favor (Tokui Waza) or the one you are indifferent about? Any good gardener or farmer knows and acts out the rule — water those plants which are growing on their own. It’s simply more efficient in terms of limited resources usage. Many psychologists would confirm that a patient can be saved only if he/she has the desire to live. Every parent and teacher knows that it’s infinitely more difficult to force a kid to learn something he/she is not genuinely interested in. And, on the contrary, once the curiosity is activated, the learning process becomes easy, quick and effortless.
Once a fighter finds the technique that resonates, he can devote more time to dig this hole deeper by learning many variations of particular submission, shutting down typical opponent’s resistance and strategically planning to trap the other fighter in a series of prerequisite steps. Generally speaking, this is the recipe of growth — pour your attention and energy to developing your Tokui Waza, the discovered pattern of natural strength.
This is the recipe of growth — pour your attention and energy to developing your Tokui Waza, the discovered pattern of natural strength.
To summarize, in order to win in Jiu-Jitsu, one should first learn the most widely known techniques on a Hygienic level, i.e. good enough to detect and neutralize the danger. Second, one should develop a few techniques on an Abnormal level, i.e. applied exceptionally well in all kinds of situations to all possible opponents. Each of the levels (Hygienic and Abnormal), if practiced at the expense of the other, will not make one a champion. Only combined together, they become necessary and sufficient conditions for the victory.
The principle of securing Hygienic level of most parameters and growing a few parameters to an Abnormal level is universal. It is applicable in sport, business and generally in life. It is true for an individual, an organization, a nation and probably even a state. However, what constitutes those parameters greatly differ from industry to industry, from market to market, from one historic period to another. That’s the entrepreneurial “fifth element” — the combination of art and science, logic and intuition, relentlessness and resourcefulness, effort and will. This is what makes the game of Business so exciting for all of us to play.