The borderlands are where the hurt happens – whether the no-man’s land at the US / Mexican border or the 20 feet or so beyond the breakers where the big pelagics slowly patrol. But zones aren’t just physical. Shifts of any kind create disruptions.

Shifts produce changes in behavior and changes in behavior create opportunities for the careful competitor.

I discuss how smart, nimble competitors out-maneuver the giants they face in Killing Giants: 10 Strategies to Topple the Goliath In Your Industry in detail, and one idea that needs further examination is that of timing.

My partner at Decision Triggers, Steve Feinberg, and I discussed how we can shift time in our recent article in The Conference Board Review (“Seeing What Others Miss: Creating Advantages Through Tactical Shifting,” Winter 2011), but in order to bring this idea home in a more implementation-oriented fashion, let’s discuss how we can take advantage of the moment our giant competitor shifts gears – and takes their eye off the ball.

And, as we did in the article, let’s turn to antiquity to set the stage – where the Theban king Epaminondas taughts us about tactical shifting, we now turn to Sparta.

The Spartan general Lysander ended the Peloponesian War by capturing the Athenian fleet at Aegospotami because he saw his enemy’s attention waver – and he won the battle, and the war, without risking a fight at all.

The Athenians played a cat and mouse game, tempting the Spartans to attack. Days went by, with the fleets staring at each other, refusing the fight. But Lysander saw something in the Athenian regimen that flipped the polarity of who was cat and who was mouse: the Athenians, over time, were getting sloppy.

On the last day of the stand-off, the Spartans refused battle and watched the Athenians withdraw to their harbor, their sailors then departing their boats to forage for food – at which point, the Spartans, instead of retiring for the night, sailed in and caught the Athenians flat-footed, capturing the entire fleet.

The Spartans executed 3,000 Athenian sailors, including their general, Philocles, then rolled up the Athenian garrisons along the coast, eventually accepting the surrender of the city.

Thirty years of protracted warfare, on land and sea, through famine and plague, all came down to timing – hitting the Athenians when they were shifting from fighting to foraging – and being ready to attack the moment the enemy took their eye off the ball.

Shifts produce changes in behavior. Changes in behavior create opportunities for the careful competitor.

And if you’re a Giant Killer, you wait for these shifts, these disruptions in standard operating procedure, to strike.

Winning by taking more than “our fair share” of the vacuum.

At Sony, we were faced with such a shift when our competitor, Scotch/3M, decided to withdraw from the VHS business in the late 1990’s. We launched what in hindsight was an audacious plan to not just expand our presence into “our fair share” of the ensuing vacuum – we decided that we’d take it all, and leave nothing for our competitors. This would double our market share, making us number one in this commodity business and twice the size of our largest remaining competitor.

A combination of strategic planning, retail space management capabilities and a very aggressive promotional calendar won over the majority of the retailers looking to make up the volume. We ended up the biggest dog on the block.

The opportunity was there and we decided not to let this once-in-a-career opportunity disappear.

Winning by hitting them when their eye is off the ball.

At Plantronics, we had a similar situation on a much smaller, more tactical, scale when our chief competitor, GN Netcom, decided to change plugs on one of their acquired brands’ headsets. When we learned of this impending shift, we laid plans to attack every customer location still using the soon-to-be-orphaned brand’s products. After all, if GN wasn’t going to stand behind its product – and if you’re going to have to change anyway – wouldn’t it be a good time to consider us instead?

We got in front of our customers minutes after the announcement and before they could think through a transition plan. This was like knocking over the casino vault during the changing of the guard. GN was caught flatfooted, Plantronics walked away with a sizable chunk of the accounts available to us (sorry, can’t remember exactly what percent – it’s been a few years now), and we completely threw our largest competitor into a tailspin.

Which brings us to the point.

When your giant is shifting gears, hit them.

When they’re changing over products, discontinuing products, changing programs or generally moving from a known to an unknown, hit them. It may seem like business as usual to your giant, but to their customers, change is always fraught with concern. Is this new thing going to work? What do I do with my old stuff?

I allude to this strategem in Killing Giants: 10 Strategies to Topple the Goliath In Your Industry in the chapter entitled, “Winning in the Last Three Feet,” which shows how many battles can be won after the opponent thinks the war is over.

Question for you, dear reader:

How have you used timing to upset the balance of the giants you’ve faced? When have you found the opening when your giant was shifting gears, changing the guard, or generally not paying attention? Share your stories! Thanks!