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In Double Down: Game Change 2012, the detailed account of the USA presidential campaign of that year, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, the authors point out that the incumbents always lose the first debates. In part, at least, this is due because the candidates are fresh and hungry and the incumbent has not been campaigning for four years!

In part, perhaps, because it is easy to have a portfolio of attack than one of defence. Who knows!

But when I read the book (as I read all books on political campaigning because they tell us more about ‘management’ and ‘change’ than anything from Harvard), I found the observation fascinating. Interestingly, what is a simple, mundane fact for people close to that reality (campaigning) as the authors put in the book, is a bit of revelation for others like me, miles away.

So the incumbent looses first, I thought, interesting. Inevitably I thought about the magic of the ‘position’. Being first to market has always been seen as an advantage. That was until people started to suggest that being second is not bad at all. Seeing the problems and the struggle of the first is not a bad strategy, to then jump in, better prepared. Second, or third, to market, may, just may be, the wining card.

For fifty years, the whole strategy of Avis, the car rental company, was crafted around the ‘We are second, we try harder’ tagline, against Hertz that was number one. In boat/yacht racing ( an activity for which I have not read any books, I had zero insights, but have been exposed recently to by a wonderful client), wining a race is not the point, if you have several of them composing the regatta. We also have the common expressions of ‘lose the battle, win the war’, etc. There is an ‘innovation strategy’ called Fast Second, you can imagine why.

So we may lose the first debate but what matters is how we win the whole race, presidential or not.

Is this not ,simply, at the core of strategy? Of course it is. But it fascinates me that such a simple concept and principle gets totally side-lined by the day to day ‘obsession with winning ‘at any cost: the argument, the battle, the decision at that meeting.

I’ve seen more people in organizations in racing mode than regatta mode. More people using the same bandwidth and energy and adrenaline in the small things as in the big things. More determined to win, to be right, to make a point than to let things go and see the whole picture .

I wrote yesterday about being compelled to react, to address all the problems in front, versus ‘I am going to pass that one’, or ‘I’ll lose that one’.

‘The incumbent always loses first’ is a wonderful reminder for our strategies. Not to follow it, or dare I say, make it as a goal, but to inject in us a sense of long term view. Psst! It’s a regatta, stupid.


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  1. Scott Fahlman

    I’m reminded of a favorite quote, whose author is unknown to me: ““The early bird may get the worm, but it’s the second mouse who gets the cheese.” And you know what happens to the first mouse. 🙁

    In the hi-tech industry, it’s remarkable how often the second or third or fourth attempt to put out a product or service in a specific class is the one that “takes” and makes billions for those involved. The real innovators who put out the first attempt often enjoy some moderate success for a while and then get swept away.

    Google was not the first search engine. Before them was Lycos (developed and patented by my colleague Michael Mauldin at CMU), then Alta Vista (backed by a bigger company), and several others. Then came Google. Page and Brin, as grad students, had a clever idea (the Page-rank algorithm) for somewhat improving the quality of results, and that gave them just enough advantage to grab the lead briefly. And then they cemented the leading position by out-engineering the competition on all fronts, backed by some good investors.

    Microsoft Excel, now dominant, was not the first spreadsheet. That honor goes to VisiCalc, developed by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, which opened everyone’s eyes to the possbility that “toy” personal computers might actually be useful tools for business. Then came the better-designed Lotus 1-2-3, which was dominant for a time. Microsoft Excel came along and, after a struggle, finally became dominant due in large part to the dominance of the Windows operating system for small computers.

    Apple was not first to market on any of the products for which it is now best-known: the “smart” phone, the tablet, and the digital music player. In each area, products had been out for years, sputtering along and not making much impact. In each case, Apple was able to produce a beautifully designed product that did more or less the same thing, but that people loved, and they embedded these products in a support system that others had not imagined: the app store and the iTunes store and thousands of eager designers producing inexpensive value-added products for Apple customers.

    So maybe the lesson is to watch for exciting, innovative developments, and then to think hard about what all the ways in which they could be better. And then you had better have the financial backing to take full advantage and cement any technical lead you achieve. And let someone else get that first bite of cheese…

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