The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL recently. The Canadiens won because they shut down the Penguins’ star player and team captain Sydney Crosby. Canadiens forward Tomas Plekanec was assigned the task of shadowing Crosby so he couldn’t be effective and he was largely successful in that mission. After the game, Plekanec said you know you’ve got Crosby out of his game when he starts running all over the place and getting angry. I couldn’t have thought of a better way to express what happens when a company loses the initiative and is playing “out of its game.”

I have been spending a lot of time this year emphasizing the importance of being on the offensive. When you’re on the offensive, you have the initiative. That means you can choose the time, place and nature of your actions. You have freedom of manoeuvre to bring your strengths to bear against your competitors’ or opponents’ weaknesses. If you’ve lost the initiative, you are constantly reacting and having to fight on terrain and at a time not of your choosing.

So, offence is essential, but we also all need to find ways to leverage a temporary defensive posture so we can regain the initiative. The key is to know how to do so. Here are some techniques to bounce back from the defensive and get back to attacking, not by throwing yourself everywhere on the ice, but rather by focusing your actions and manoeuvres to be as effective and efficient as possible with your limited resources. When you’re on the defensive unwillingly, you need to use all your ammunition and forces wisely to get the attacker off balance and reacting to your manoeuvres. You have to setting the pace and leveraging your strengths against your competitors’ weaknesses.

1.    Be honest about your situation with yourself, your employees, and your allies.
2.    Take the time to prepare your defences by selecting strong positions beforehand or reinforcing your existing strong positions.
3.    Withdraw from weak positions where you can’t possible win, or win without a major investment of time and resources.
4.    Put time on your side by getting early to potentially strong future positions. In practice this means that you have to experiment with new products or markets that could become worthwhile in the medium to long term.
5.    Reassign the resources you can free up from weak activities to high potential activities.
6.    Maintain morale by adopting an offensive mindset and by deliberately choosing where and when you will go on the offensive.
7.    Develop detailed intelligence about markets, competitors, buyers, suppliers, etc.
8.    Maintain strict secrecy about your activities. Don’t announce what you will be doing unless you absolutely believe it will confer some kind of competitive advantage in your strategy.
9.    Accept small defeats and failures so you can learn from them and transfer the lessons learned to future endeavours.
10.    Concede your opponents’ or competitors’ or customers’ obstacles or strengths, while bringing the competition or battle back onto your turf.
11.    Create alliances of other smaller or weaker competitors so you can be stronger together.
12.    Claim a defeat is a win, or that weakness is actually strength.

These are the approaches that have been taken in the past to turnaround business failures into spectacular successes. When Steve Jobs returned to the helm of Apple in 1997, he spent six months evaluating the company’s products. After the initial overview he told the Apple brass that the company was struggling and closing in on bankruptcy for the simple reason that they had lost their “mojo.” In the crude terms he was known for, he told them “our products are crap.” He turned it around by ruthlessly killing over 20 products and focusing just four products: a high-end Mac, a regular Mac, a high-end laptop, and a regular laptop. That was it. Apple has been so widely successful in the last decade and half, having introduced the iPod, the iMac, the iPhone, iPad, iTunes, etc., that it’s easy to forget that the company went back on the offensive only after a defensive retrenchment and savvy manoeuvring to regain the initiative.

A few years before, Lou Gerstner was brought in by the IBM board to replace Akers and turn that company around. Akers had been preparing to break up the company and sell it piecemeal. He thought that Big Blue couldn’t be turned around and that there was no real synergy in its various businesses. Gerstner had been very successful as CEO of American Express and Nabisco. He immediately cancelled the planned divestments and worked to rebuild the company’s brand and launched its return to growth. Gerstner recognized that IBM’s future couldn’t be built on past glory. He saw the explosion of the Internet so he retooled the company to take advantage of the new reality. However, his experience running two of America’s largest consumer oriented companies, with all their complexities, led him to conclude that there was a need for large-scale IT integrators to help these companies with their information and knowledge management processes. That was his biggest move and it underlay IBM’s return to growth and dominance.

These two examples are probably two of the biggest corporate turnarounds in recent history. They both started with excruciatingly honest appraisals of the companies’ respective situations and a willingness to launch a desperate fight to regain the initiative. As we approach the end of 2013, it’s a good time to examine where you and your organizations are on the defensive through your competitors’ actions. The question is, are you willing to recognize these failings and to fight to regain the initiative?

Richard Martin is a consultant, speaker, and executive coach. He brings his military and business leadership and management experience to bear for executives and organizations seeking to exploit change, maximize opportunity, and minimize risk.

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