When you played on the satellite courts, you had to rely on lots of topspin, particularly on your serve. The crowned shape of the court essentially made the court feel about five feet shorter than what you were used to. This meant visiting players had a lot to overcome. They double-faulted a lot. They hit most shots long. And it took them a long time to figure it out.
Our home courts were even better: concrete blacktop surface with chain-link fence nets a straight 3’ high from post to post. Not regulation either, and very different if you came from a proper country club world. A fast, pebbly surface meant you needed grass court reflexes with clay court footwork. And the net! You could hit a flat serve wide on these courts with no fear of hitting the tape.
Best of all, we’d play singles matches in one place and then the doubles at the other, making sure that no one ever got used to their surroundings. We had a wonderful home court advantage, not to mention three nationally ranked singles players – unusual for a public high school in Maryland, where I grew up.
The tennis story is a metaphor that mirrors a discussion I had with Dr. Steven Feinberg, author of “Advantage Makers.” Companies have hidden topographies. Water will flow where the topography allows it to, regardless of how hard you try to make it do otherwise. You can try to make a company, a brand, or a management team play by your rules – but if you’re working against the natural topography of the culture, you’re going to fail.
So here’s three lessons for getting things done:
Develop a strategy that takes advantage of your company’s natural strengths as well as eccentricities and you’re going to win. Develop one that relies on a strength they don’t have – or worse, one that relies on what is currently a weakness – and you’ll fail.
Create a process that takes into account the specific resources and assets of an industry and avoids relying on things hard to find, and you’re going to win. Create a process that will take more money and time than the company itself will naturally desire to spend, and you fail.
Launch a demand generation plan that leverages the people, culture and capabilities of your company – one that makes your management visibly relax before your very eyes – and you’ll win. Rely on an implementation plan that makes them visibly nervous – “I hate doing that kind of thing… but I guess I have to…” and you fail.
Understanding the natural topography of your company is a mandatory prerequisite to success. It’s unfortunate that we often mistake “what’s best for the company” with “what makes sense to us, personally, in a vacuum,” which is so often the first step down the road to failure.