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What every business can learn from soccer

By Arthur Goldstuck

There is a neat term in football that is roped in whenever a team scores a goal at a stage when its opponents appear to be dominating the game. It’s called scoring against the run of play, and it is usually the only consolation that the opposing team can take from having to pick the ball up from the back of their own net when it should have been the other way round. In the world of business strategy, there are innumerable examples of companies scoring against the run of play when the competition appears to be dominating the game:

* The Japanese motor manufacturers who came from nowhere to lay waste to Detroit in the 1970s;

* Newcomer Microsoft wresting software domination from giant IBM in the 1980s;

* and then in the 1990s showing minnows Netscape that their 80% share of the browser market didn’t mean they’d won the browser wars.

Those are just some of the more dramatic examples from the latter part of the last century. Who will be scoring against the run of play in this decade?

Obviously it’s impossible to say before it happens, otherwise it wouldn’t be against the run of play! If Linux takes over from Windows in the operating system market, for instance, it will follow a titanic struggle that we may not have seen coming in the 1990s, but is very much part of the game in the 2000s. Figuratively speaking, Linux is already making raids into Microsoft’s penalty area.

What we can say, however, is that such goals will be scored against businesses that presently dominate a niche, sector or industry.

Usually, when a team scores against the run of play, it is due to a lapse by the dominant team. The lapse can take one of many forms, such as:

* The dominant team becomes over-confident in its own ability to continue its dominance;

* The dominant team becomes arrogant about its superiority over the other team;

* The dominant team becomes careless, assuming that its superiority will protect it from the other team taking advantage of its mistakes or sloppiness;

* The dominant team commits too many players to attacking the other team’s goal – thus leaving its own goal exposed to a breakaway attack.

There is clear relevance to business in all of these examples:

* Over-confidence in continued dominance means you are not going to see the competition coming with new products or business models that could destroy your dominance (e.g. IBM in the 1980s);

* Arrogance means that, even when you see the competition coming with its new products and models, you cannot believe they could possibly pose a threat (Netscape’s fatal mistake when they dismissed Microsoft’s threat to their browser reign);

* Carelessness means you are so certain there is no competition that can take away your customers, you start, among many other mistakes, treating your customers in a cavalier fashion, and selling products that don’t deliver on the expectations you create;

* Committing too many players to the attack does not hold as clear a lesson, but is as relevant to business. Many a time, a company that dominates its sector finds itself so successful in capturing market share or growing the market, that continued growth in its client base becomes a holy grail, an end in itself, at the expense of all else.

The flaw here is that the organisation loses focus on its most crucial business fundamental: its existing client base. By not defending what it already has – i.e. not looking after its existing customers – and focusing too heavily on attacking the market, it leaves its existing client base wide open to attack from the competition.

This applies right now in South Africa, where the dominant cellular networks have been so successful in growing their market, they have neglected their existing client base – for example, by offering far better deals to new subscribers than for existing subscribers who loyally renew their contracts.

So far, fortunately for them, newcomer Cell C has not demonstrated that it can score against the run of play. Perhaps their strategists should be watching more soccer.

Arthur Goldstuck is editor of The Big Change and author of more than a dozen books on the Internet and urban legends. He runs an independent research company, World Wide Worx. He spends an unhealthy amount of time watching soccer.

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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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