The inevitability of soccer. That quaint notion espoused by many sports globalistas since the 1970’s has always amused me. As a kid growing up in Harlem where basketball after every meal was a daily ritual, and the Yankees and Jets championships weren’t such a distant memory, soccer’s arrival was as credible as a Close Encounter of the Third Kind. Fast forward to 2017 and the amusement is replaced by reflection on the Beautiful Game. What changed my perspective on the sport of Pele, Maradona, Sawa, and Hamm? The awesome power of space.
No, I’m not talking about Captain Kirk and the final frontier but rather the strategic use of space to create opportunity. Whether I’m watching my son in league play or Cristiano Ronaldo in a Champions League match, the beautiful game rewards the Raumforscher—the German word for “space investigator”—like no other sport. Unlike basketball or American football, twenty meters of separation is not a closable gap. So when a player finds this space for him or herself, that space affords enormous potential for strategic advantage. When asked what does Futbol Club Barcelona look for in a potential recruit, FC Barcelona's Technical Director counterintuitively said, “how the player positions himself when he does not have the ball.” The point is simple: the most promising players have a comprehensive vision of the field and where strategic space lies.
Years of experience running and advising businesses has led me to the same conclusion. In the marketplace, strategic space matters like nothing else. Those businesses that can imagine and identify unaddressed customer need—often a need the customer cannot at present articulate—seize huge strategic advantage. That’s not an original idea but one first postulated by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, professors at INSEAD, in their insightful book Blue Ocean Strategy. Their basic premise is that businesses and organizations need to spend less time on studying their competition and focus more energy on creating innovative value that unlocks new demand. This is achieved by simultaneously pursuing differentiation and low cost.
In the mid-90’s I witnessed the potential of redefining market space. Working in partnership with Zurich Canada, our company took a commoditized insurance product and wrapped it in a powerful service solution—24/7 free access to expert advice for the home, auto, or personal health. This repositioning of an insurance product as a comprehensive service solution that protected the value of an asset, or supported healthy behavior, created clear differentiation in a very crowded market. In effect, Zurich repositioned the value of its core products, creating strategic space for its brand. Helping its customers take better care of their insured assets and their own health also enabled Zurich to drive costs (and prices) down which reinforced its value proposition. Strategically, its service solutions also served as a means to sustain this advantage by creating more touchpoints with its customer base leading to more value innovation. The ultimate outcome: Zurich Canada became the market share leader in consumer underwriting. Today, brands like Best Buy (Geek Squad) and Apple (Genius Bar) continue to adopt Zurich’s service-driven differentiation to create new space in their respective arenas.
As brands proliferate and speed to market accelerates, getting to space is just the first act. The magic of great Raumforschers like Barcelona FC’s Lionel Messi is knowing what to do in space once you receive the ball. This premeditation is, in essence, what distinguishes a good footballer from a great one. Messi’s mere presence on the pitch draws even the most disciplined defenses toward him as if by some personal gravitational force. This ineluctable pull creates space for his teammates but really creates myriad options for Messi when he delivers the ball to a teammate and the defense reacts. This defensive reaction, akin to a business competitors response to your innovation, enables La Pulga (or The Flea—Señor Messi’s Spanish nickname) to jump into newly opened space. Every nuanced move is calculated even before Messi has received the ball. Try and predict this jump at your own risk. That’s because, like any effective business strategy, Messi isn’t distracted by what the competition will do. He knows he's fully in control of the terms of engagement. To quote soccer commentator Ray Hudson’s brilliant description of Messi, "Defenders try to follow him on Facebook and he comes out on Twitter, that's how evasive he is.”
Although the great players pop up in spaces like a ghost out of the fog, their space-creating ability is not alchemy. A deep curiosity of this marvelously strategic game sparks their insight and this next level understanding leads to opportunity. With the same critical curiosity, businesses can foster a creative culture and analytical insight to develop a cadre of Raumforschers. To find strategic space and to leverage the advantage it brings, organizations (both commercial and non-profit) need to use tools and methods which allow them to see their market context from a wholly different perspective. Only then can they define new strategic spaces and appreciate the Beautiful Game.
Parting thought courtesy of Ray Hudson, soccer commentator and verbal gymnast: "Never smile at a crocodile and never give Messi that much space." Truer words...