Business Strategy – It’s Not Tiddlywinks

We often produce strategic plans for clients, despite the clients being uncertain about what strategy is and how it differs from other kinds of planning.  Illustrations are often drawn from either sport or war.  From the perspective of a former rugby player, there is little difference.

What sport and war have in common is a clear and unified objective.  The objective is to win, and the simplicity of that purpose helps to understand everything one team does to defeat another.  From the highest level of long term strategy down to situational tactics, and even the post-match analysis, every plan and action can be linked back to the intention of winning.

In other areas of enterprise, it’s less clear.  How does a government department “win,” for example?  At whose expense does it score points, and who is the loser when they win?  Likewise, corporate subsidiaries in the private sector, strategy sometimes sacrifices one area of enterprise to gain advantage overall, and these priorities will change over time.  It’s not uncommon for one business unit to lose its way as strategies change with the parent company.  Winning can sometimes look like losing when the objective is unclear.

For charitable organizations, like government agencies, the idea of winning is obscured by the absence of a profit motive and the tolerance of deficits.  Indeed many charities are uncomfortable with the idea of competition with their peers, believing that their victories are negated by losses elsewhere, resulting in harm to the community.  The very idea of winning, without which strategy is meaningless, fills them with guilt and anxiety. 

Yet everyone has to make plans for the future, and anyone hoping for their plans to be taken seriously will toss around the word, “strategy.”  The adjective “strategic” is meant to add gravity to otherwise inconsequential planning exercises, but is in practice given all the weight of a tiddlywink. 

Tiddlywinks is the kind of game people used to joke about, and not just because of its silly name.  Historically the game has appealed to intensely competitive non-athletes.  That is to say, it’s a game without much consequence for winners or losers. 

In the words of New Zealand rugby legend, Tana Umaga, to a referee who penalized him under a new safety rule, "It's not tiddlywinks mate."  What he meant was that the game had consequences.  For 80 minutes, players were exposed in a bone-jarring contest, on a green field, at the centre of a vast stadium, with huge television audiences watching in real time.  Losing hurt.  Everyone on the field, would have a hand in the outcome, including the referee.

It’s not a trite observation to say that rugby is not tiddlywinks. When losing really hurts, whether in sport or war, politics or commerce, strategy becomes more important.  If there isn’t a causal nexus from strategy to outcomes, you’re doing it wrong.  Incidentally, watch old footage of Tana playing, see how he builds his team’s emotion, creates space and seizes opportunity, and the relevance of strategy may become more obvious.

Is all of this just a thinly veiled excuse for another post about sport on a consulting and public policy blog.  In part, perhaps.  But, honestly, it’s meant to be illustrative of how important strategy is to actual outcomes, and how much more powerful strategy becomes when it’s integrated top to bottom and across an organization.

Here goes:

After the NBA championship was decided I shared my hypothesis about how the Raptors had won and how likely they would be to contend again.  I suggested that they’d invented new ways to win, and that this was imbedded in strategies they’d developed before Kawai’s arrival. 

Their success remains a mystery to American coaches, players, and commentators.  Even Kawai may be confused about how the Raptors became champions last year.  Now, only 10 games into the season, I’m almost ready to say “I told you so.” 

I’m not saying it to you, in particular, since most of you didn’t read the first post about this.  I’m addressing the universal “you,” the faceless multitude who believe that Toronto’s championship was an accident or aberration.  It was the intended result of a coherent plan in which Kawai was but a pawn.

Going right to the highest level of strategy, Raptors’ GM, Masai Ujiri had to overcome the disadvantage of location.  Big name players didn’t want to spend their prime years in Toronto.  It was cold.  The money looked funny.  They were far from their families.  They had to go back and forth through customs for every road trip and visit home. 

Also, due in part to these problems, the team hadn’t won anything important.  Superstars like to play with superstars as part of their personal success strategies.  If they were drafted after college and became stars in Toronto, like Carter, McGrady, and Bosh, they were always open to offers south of the border.  It was a self-perpetuating problem throughout the club’s history.

Ujiri’s strategic response was to draft and recruit players into a system designed for a reduced dependence on superstars.  This required a rethink of how the Raptors would operate on the court, which in turn meant releasing Coach of the Year, Dwayne Casey, promoting assistant coach, Nick Nurse, and building a different kind of team.

Look at the team’s composition now.  Rather than overpay for talent south of the border, they have more players, from more countries, than any team in the league.  Instead of bidding at a disadvantage for draft choices from American colleges, they replaced Kawai with a bunch of guys who were once highly rated but have yet to fulfill their potentials. 

The roster has a couple of failures to launch, now getting their second, third, or final chances at a good NBA career from a Raptors’ development system that brings the best out of players.  One plummeted in the college draft because of personal problems and was rescued by Ujiri from a Spanish league.  One tore his ACL in his final college game, missed the draft completely, and was homeless for a time.  Two were highly touted drafts who laboured in oblivion, deep down in the roster of unremarkable NBA clubs.  Every one of them is highly motivated now to recover their mojo.  Each will find a place in Nick Nurse’s democratic offense and janky defense.

As a result, the Raptors have more depth and resilience than teams that invested everything in a couple of superstars.  The rest of the league employs the much riskier strategy of banking on one or two players to carry their offense, night after night, diminishing the relevance of every other player.  In contrast, everyone on the Raptors understands their system and is ready to play their role when called on. 

This is how the Raptors could go to Las Angeles last weekend without Lowry, or Ibaka, and later, Anunoby, yet still beat the Lakers and take the Clippers right to the wire in back to back games.  It’s also how, two nights later, they broke Dame Lillard’s 260 game streak of double-digit scoring while handily defeating the Portland Trail Blazers.  This shutdown defense and fast break offense was executed by a team that was unfamiliar to many NBA “experts”. 

Just to reinforce the point, the Raptors have an 8-3 record to start the season.  Projected over an 82 game season, this is a slightly higher success rate than with Kawai last year.  In fact it rounds up to 60 victories, which was what the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks achieved last year.   So, while there is a long season ahead, they have already mowed through the opposition, defying the general view that they have not chance without a rented superstar.  And, they have achieved these early results with two starters and their most productive big man on the injured list.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn’s highest paid player won’t see the court this year, Kawai is walking with a pronounced limp, Steph Curry has a broken hand, Anthony Davis and Paul George are both returning from shoulder surgeries, and the list goes on.  Think of the playoffs last year, as the Raptors ran roughshod over the fallen bodies of superstars like Imbiid and Klay Thompson, each of whom vowed to quash the upstarts. 

Starting to see a pattern?  The Raptors have eliminated the disadvantage of location by eschewing the league convention of recruitment and reliance on a couple of superstars, instead designing their on-court offensive and defensive strategies to fit their off-court budget and recruitment challenges. 

While Commissioner Silver was talking as if the NBA was internationalized by the Raptors’ championship, and commentators noted that the team was composed of Asians, Europeans, Africans, and North Americans, this wasn’t happenstance.  Ujiri and his crew had recruited in a way that minimized the deterrent effect of the Canada-US border and maximized the strategic latitude he’d given Nick Nurse.

Although all the pundits said nice things about Toronto in the end, the consensus until the final victopry was that they had no chance.  Kawai couldn’t do it alone, and by any conventional analysis, the outcome depended on superstars.  Every team Toronto faced had more superstars, more all stars, more first round draft picks, and therefore Philadelphia, then Milwaukiee, and then Golden State were destined to win.

Despite being wrong, over and over and over again, there has been no widespread re-examination of this analysis.  Free agency fever raged soon after the victory parade, the Raptors lost Kawai, and were immediately relegated to the second tier of NBA teams for 2019-20.  Las Angeles, with the Clippers, Lakers, and Warriors, and the superstar tandems of Leonard-George, LeBron-Davis, and Curry-Green (or Thompson), became the obsession of NBA commentators. 

One month into the season, the Raptors are keeping up with the big boys and on any given night can beat them.  It makes no sense to the sportscasters down there.  They avoid talking about it.  They can’t explain why they were wrong last year, so there is a pretty good likelihood that they’ll be wrong again this year.  Their simplistic analysis, wholly dependent on the offseason relocations of gimpy, budget-draining superstars, cannot absorb what is happening before their eyes.

As I predicted in my past post, last year’s bench mob has stepped into starting roles, and new Raptors, including G-League players and retreads from elsewhere, have stepped into the breach.  The offense is still democratic, the defense is still frenetic, and the effect overall is daunting.

Even the great Kawai was mauled in his first meeting with them.  He only scored 11 points on 11 shots.  Although he assisted on nine of his teammates’ buckets, he was equally generous to the Raptors, giving up nine turnovers. 

He must have wondered how it was that he carried the whole team on his back last year, as the myth goes, but was being shut down this year by the same bunch of nobodies he left behind?  This is the delight of strategy.  It works until it doesn’t, and given the slow uptake of the basketball fraternity south of the border, the Raptors’ strategy might work for a very long time.

So too will strategy work for our clients provided, as Tana Umaga reminds us, they take it as seriously as the All Blacks or the Raptors.  Good strategy enables success.  Bad strategy makes failure inevitable.  Whether the arena is corporate, political, or charitable, anywhere the game is more consequential than  tiddlywinks, a commitment to strategy is critical. 

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