Playing Offense vs. Playing Defense
I hate playing defense in business.  It doesn’t happen all the time.  But being behind a competitor in terms of feature development, scrambling to do custom work for a large client, or doing an acquisition because you’re getting blocked out of an emerging space – whatever it is, it just feels rotten when it comes up.  It’s someone else dictating your strategy, tactics, and resource allocation; their agenda, not yours.  It’s a scramble.  And when the work is done, it’s hard to feel great about it, even if it’s required and well done.  That said, sometimes you don’t have a choice and have to play defense.
Playing offense, of course, is what it’s all about.  Your terms, your timetable, your innovation or opportunity creation, your smile knowing you’re leading the industry and making others course correct or play catch-up.
This topic of playing defense has come up a few times lately, both at Return Path and at other companies I advise, and my conclusion (other than that “sometimes you just have to bite the bullet”) is that the best thing you can do when you’re behind is to turn a situation from defense into a combination of defense and offense and change the game a little bit.  Here are a few examples:
  • You’re about to lose a big customer unless you develop a bunch of custom features ASAP –> use that work as prototype to a broader deployment of the new features across your product set.  Example:  Rumor has it that Groupware was started as a series of custom projects Lotus was doing for one of its big installations of Notes
  • Your competitor introduces new sub-features that are of the “arms race” nature (more, more, more!) –> instead of working to get to parity, add new functionality that changes the value proposition of the whole feature set.  Example:  Google Docs doesn’t need to match Microsoft Office feature for feature, as its value proposition is about the cloud
  • Your accounting software blows up.  Ugh.  What a pain to have to redo internal system like that – a total time sink.  Use the opportunity to shift from a new version of the same old school installed package you used to run, with dedicated hardware, database, and support costs to a new, sleek, lightweight on-demand package that saves you time and money in the long run
I guess the old adage is true:  The best defense IS, in fact, a good offense.