“Don’t be fooled by the Open Court!”

This was the advice from the playbook on court positioning and strategy from my friend Craig O’Shannessy,  a pioneer in sports analytics, and Head Professional of a local junior tennis academy in my hometown, Austin, TX. Craig was refering to a common play in tennis in which an attacking player pushes his opponent deep into the backhand corner, to create a huge opening – an “open” court on the opponents forehand side.

A majority of players play the next ball into the open court and rush to the net, only to find that the smart opponent not only anticipates this move, but swiftly gets into an offensive position on the forehand side creating several options to win the point – a down the line pass, a cross-court pass, or a deep lob.

Counterintuitively, Craig’s research in sports analytics  shows that a much better approach is for the attacking player to go the the opponents perceived situational “strength” – in this case, the opponents backhand side of the court, which consequently dramatically reduces the array of options for the opponent to respond, increasing the chances for the opponent to close out the point on the next exchange.

Even Sun Tzu, master of war strategy strongly recommended attacking an opponents weakness to score a decisive win, quickly. Strategists and pundits dole out the same frothy advice, in different forms, usually for steep fees. Business books abound with how companies should utilize flanking strategies to create adjacent markets, or conquer new white spaces away from your competitors strengths to drive growth. In other words, “go for the open court”.

However, technology innovation combined with globalization is creating new rules for strategy. These new rules are exemplified by business upstarts that are quicklying disrupt the core markets and traditional strongholds of their competitors, i.e launching a frontal attack by creating a unique niche or white space within the competitors “established” strengths, markets or categories. This emerging paradigm is opening up new opportunities for disruption in markets and categories that in the past were simply conceded to entrenched market leaders.

For example, Neflix is creating original content and programming to compete with TV and movie studios, fundamentally revamping their position from content distributor to that of content creator. They are ultimately going right after the strengths of their former “masters” attacking their core strength – original content production.

Samsung is another example of not only attacking Apple’s core strength, but even upping the ante in the mobile war, gobbling up market share like Pacman on a rampage.

American companies lusting after a $13B Indian fast food Market are surprised to not only see new Indian upstarts putting up a tough fight ( political issues aside), skillfully manuevering within their own markets with local know how, tastes and preferences, but also extending their business models to open new Indian fast food joints by appealing to the tastebuds of Americans. By attacking the likes of McDonalds on their hometurf,  they are begining to compete for wallet share in a mature, seemingly saturated market.

My own employer, SAP has introduced revolutionary technology SAP HANA to disrupt the traditional database market, a direct strike on the core strengths of established incumbents like Oracle and others, disrupting the status-quo, creating a pathway for new innovation, and ushering in an entirely new way for customers to envision and run their businesses.

All said, Sun Tsu would have been proud. As we enter a third wave of new business thinking and competitive strategy, remember Craig s advice: “Dont be fooled by the Open Court!”

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