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.