Attacking Strategy

December 10, 2007

One thing I learned from Robert was that you always attack the strategy of your enemy. This sounds simple, but it’s not. Most of the time, you’re attacking the tactics–or just trying to beat them in the game they chose. (We have to outrun them to that hill as opposed to, what if we made that hill a worthless target) In general, a of his stuff is difficult to apply as a real, regular human. I don’t dispute that absence increases fondness, but just getting up and leaving in the middle of relationship is complicated when you actually care about the person. But one thing you can always do in life is attack strategy. Figure out what it is, and then find a way to to interrupt it.

I found a perfect example when I was reading Wikinomics over the weekend. The writers talk about how in the 90’s there was a huge push to patent gene sequences and research in the race to develop blockbuster drugs. From what I gathered, the idea was to isolate the gene that caused the disease and then develop and monopolize the drug that treats it by keeping the data locked away.

Merck was just one player in this scramble. Inevitably, it would have been a war of attrition to see who could grab the most patents and keep them the most secret. The strategy of their competitors was to be better at this than Merck was–to cut costs, be more efficient at it, invest more and to slowly gather patents as possible.

Instead of playing this game, Merck shocked the world by releasing 15,000 of their proprietary human gene sequences to the public and announcing that they would release the rest of them as they came about. And then the dynamics utterly changed. Merck’s strength was never in researching genes, it was in developing and marketing drugs. So they attacked their competitor’s strategy by making it obsolete–making it no longer a commodity. They turned their weakness in research–a battle that if they won, would be Pyhrric–and took it off the table. And then competed where they were strong–marketing, distribution and other infrastructure. Most important, they got access to everyone else’s research when they were forced to follow their lead and make their patents public. And from what I gathered (although it’s still ongoing) that’s where they won.

Attacking strategy is a long-term plan. It’s getting inside and disrupting. It’s how you understand that even if you win otherwise, your victory is defined by the fact that you’re reacting against someone else. That means you’re focusing your energy in a lot of directions that you don’t necessary wish to; it’s full of waste and costs and friction. I am trying to to look at situations and go “what is their strategy?” and “can you I go around it?” instead of just accepting it as a given.

*More coming from Wikinomics, but you should read it if you haven’t yet.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

7 responses to Attacking Strategy

  1. This is a minor nitpick, but patenting something is making it public. The only entity that I know of that can file a secret patent is the NSA on a narrow range of cryptographic tools and techniques.

    Also, I don’t know that Merck’s motivations were entirely to gain a competitive edge. They just correctly assessed that all drug companies would benefit from the greater efficiency of an open system. There really isn’t a loser in this deal, but there isn’t necessarily an incentive to be the first one to open their research.

    It’s like when Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, etc. publish their APIs and all their sites interact with each other fairly seamlessly, adding value for everyone. It takes balls to be the first company to say “yeah you can access the content we’re hosting with our resources without visiting our site, but I really hope you guys do the same for us,” but the end result is positive for the consumer and the corporations.

    Of course, this is just another place where the business/war analogy breaks down, because I believe business interactions usually positive sum, and wars are usually negative sum (or zero-sum at best).

  2. The NFL is a great place to see both successes and failures in attacking enemy strategy. One thing I’ve picked up partly from watching the games, partly from real world experience and partly from Greene is that ideally, you attack by using your strengths and forcing the opposition into an arena where you can dominate.

  3. You’re missing a couple things. Making something public and making something available for public use is different. Merck did the latter.

    Secondly, no one, especially in business, is ever motivated by anything other than gaining a competitive edge. Why do you think Google, Facebook and Yahoo opened up their API’s and created value? For fun? Because the value made them feel good inside? No, Google did it with Maps because it undermines the strategy of MapQuest. FB did it because it undermined Myspace. If being closed was more advantageous, they would have continued to do it. Do you think Gandhi would have used passive resistance if military force would have been the better option?

  4. Right, because chances are the other team’s strategy is based on their strength. Going up against it is the most costly way.

  5. A lot of the stuff you write is really interesting to me, but I can’t help but hope at some point you’ll stop drawing such disparate historical support for your argument. It destroys your reliability for the reader.

    “Do you think Gandhi would have used passive resistance if military force would have been the better option?”

    Gandhi’s writings show that the question you just posed (at least in the terms you present it in here) could not and would not have even occurred to the guy. “Military force” could not be a better option by its very definition:

    “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.”

    Yes, his philosophy in a sense did “reformulate the field of battle to his advantage.” But it wasn’t motivated by a desire to “gain a competitive edge,” that gain was secondary and not the incentive.

  6. People are people and people are liars. In his case, passive resistance was the strategy that best worked. Look at what he was faced with, an occupying force, he had no means of raising funds and was massively outnumbered. Peaceful protest was his only option and had he had other options, this probably would have been the best. Now, let’s look at the American revolution. What did we do after our rebellion? We turned around and crushed Shay’s Rebellion, because it didn’t fit with our plans. It’s how the world works.

    What you’re implying is ridiculous. You look at it like this: What did Gandhi want at the deepest, most basic level? Was it “non-violence” or was it “getting the British out of India”? And then you see which one was the end and which one was the means. Means are flexible (and so is the rhetoric that justifies them) and ends are not.

  7. I understand the difference between making something public and available for public use. I should’ve clarified that I was referring to the phrase in the original post “who could grab the most patents and keep them the most secret,” which seemed to imply that one could keep a secret patent. Now that I think of it, it’s not even really relevant to the discussion and I apologize for bringing it up.

    However, I still don’t buy that economic actors are driven primarily by a desire to gain a leg up on competitors, much less that they are never “motivated by anything other than gaining a competitive edge.” I don’t disagree that companies try to shape the market primarily to benefit themselves, but I believe that they are often more concerned with absolute gains than relative gains. This can be seen especially with producers of highly fungible products, like pork/cotton/milk, who will spend far more money trying to increase national demand than trying to wrestle market share away from other pork/cotton/milk producers.

    Economic actors’ incentives and motivations are complex, and it’d be oversimplifying to distill it all down to “they just want to gain an advantage over their competitors.” Even if it were true, there’s still value in studying proximate causes when analyzing strategy.

    And don’t get me wrong – I’ve been reading you for a while; I respect you and don’t mean to draw attention away from your main point of attacking a competitor’s strategy. I just wanted to challenge a few minor views I disagreed with, even if I think your conclusions are good.