Where Will You Play? (Strategically Speaking)

by Matthew E May

The question of where to play, strategically speaking, is deceptively simple. Most companies don’t give it enough deep thought and consideration. My friend Roger Martin would say, in fact, that most companies adopt a mindset of “our ‘where to play’ is where God ordained us to play.”

In other words, they act as if the space they occupy in the competitive playing field is somehow carved in stone, and can’t be changed, ala: “this is where we play, it’s where we’ve always played.”

That kind of thinking can be a death knell. Think newspapers. “We are a newspaper. Always have been, always will be.” The Washington Post or Boston Globe are at this moment kicking themselves for thinking that way.

“Your where-to-play is not fixed,” argues Roger. “It should always be adjusted to accommodate different situations, places, and spaces.”

In other words, strategy is as dynamic as your competitive playing field. You might be focusing on a ground game today, but tomorrow may demand an air approach. “Some may say that’s tactics,” says Roger. “But with the speed of change today it’s a meaningless distinction.”

Take the case of Intuit. Scott Cook founded the company with a singular purpose in mind: provide people with personal financial planning software. He called it Quicken. Quicken was product that put Scott Cook and Intuit on the map. (Note: I do not use the product.)

Intuit for years played exclusively in the personal financial planning software consumer market space.

After Quicken had been in the market for a bit, complaints began to come into the customer service and support call center about the software. Over time a distinct pattern emerged, to the tune of “we like Quicken, except it has no accounts receivable or payable capability.”

Customer service reps would typically advise the caller that they were using Quicken for the wrong thing. Quicken was for personal finance, and you don’t need AR or AP functionality for personal finance.

At some point the pattern became prevalent enough to prompt the Jerry Seinfeld question: “Who. Are. These. People?!”

Answer: Very small business owners. Businesses that could not afford huge, elaborate, and expensive accounting software systems. They wanted something a simple as Quicken, but focused on running a small company.

And so Quickbooks was born to occupy a vacant space in the financial software market…the business, not consumer, space.

Quickbooks is the winner in the space, and five times the revenue of Quicken. As Roger tells it, “Intuit would have been a tiny player had it kept its where-to-play as ‘software only for individuals.'”

Lesson: Play with the “where to play?” question so that you can win in new and different (i.e. innovative) ways.

“It’s a discipline not many companies have,” concludes Roger.

But where to play is only half the heart of strategy. You have to make a choice on the question of “how to win?” in a given where-to-play.

Stay tuned for more on that!

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Matthew E MayMatthew E. May is the author, most recently, of Winning the Brain Game: Fixing the 7 Fatal Flaws of Thinking.

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