The Polarity Strategy

This is a series on Robert Greene’s 33 Strategies of War applied to designers and product builders.

You need something to judge yourself by. To motivate you. To create a sense of clarity and a source of direction. And this starts by waging war on an enemy.” Choose wisely.

In the first chapter of Robert Greene’s book War, he speaks of The Polarity Strategy:

The more clearly you recognize who you do not want to be, then, the clearer your sense of identity and purpose will be. […] Focus on an enemy…a value or an idea that you loathe and that you see in an individual or group. It can be an abstraction: stupidity, smugness, vulgar materialism. […] Your enemy is the polar star that guides you. Given that direction, you can enter battle.

In building products, the common practice is to do competitive analysis to understand the current landscape better, gather inspiration and examples, and gather common patterns of how others in the same or adjacent space has solved a particular problem that is relevant to what you’re trying to build.

In this practice, the usual idea is figure out a space wherein one can operate, to find a niche they an exploit, find a vector they can zone in to hopefully create some differentiation.

I’m not going to refute the value of competitive analysis as it is indeed valuable in painting the picture of the terrain, similar to laying out a map and seeing the strengths of existing armies. My gripe with competitive analysis is it has become a tool to replace strategy.

Simply understanding the players in a space does not equate to a strategy. Figuring out one part that is not done by the competition and doing it slightly better does not mean you have a strategy. Saying We will differentiate from XYZ by doing ABC better” is kind of ironic because by your own definition, you are not exactly differentiating but rather copying a commodity and hoping to create a sort of distinction. This often fails in creating any meaningful separation because you are still operating within the bounds of the competition and hoping that the audience will value that particular distinction you’ve chosen over your competitors which you hope will translate to more profits. This is not strategy. This is naively hoping met with laziness.

What I like about Declare War on Your Enemies” and particularly, The Polarity Effect, is its single-minded focus. It is a call to arms with ruthlessness at its root because it centers everyone at a real direction than a vague interpretation. It is not enough to simply say We will do XYZ better.” This is not inspiring and it does not create a level of clarity that mobilizes people into action. It is better to say:

We are at war with [insert status quo]. This [status quo] is a representation of [insert something abstract] and a new way needs to exist in the world. Our way will be that new way. [Insert something you value] depends upon it. This is why what we are doing is not just of necessity, it is of vital importance, and thus it is our obligation.”

This is still not a strategy per se (which is more about an integrated set of choices—namely, very deliberately choosing what not to do—to create superior value and sustainable advantage) but it is the foundation of a strategy. It says:

  1. What you are against (not in terms of existing competition but something much deeper and more existential)
  2. What you will create as the representation of combating what you are against and for which you will be measured upon
  3. It claims what it is that you value above all else (not in terms of what is simply valuable or what is not because many things are valuable, but what you value over everything else, and thus will be the measuring stick of how much you really value something)
  4. It claims why you specifically are uniquely positioned to go against the enemy”

Of course, this is not meant to be taken literally as if actually on a battlefield and a matter of life and death. It’s just work. That said, work definitely means something (if you think it does), so it’s worthy to go through the exercise seriously.

It doesn’t matter how other people feel about this because ultimately, you have different values and believe different things and you are the one executing your stated direction. Their own interpretation is just about their own values and beliefs: it’s okay, even imperative, that some disagree. This is how you know you’ve stroked a chord and have something that challenges the status quo verging on something that might be a formidable contender not just to existing players in the space but something that might actually change things for the better.

Of course, it’s also possible to go too far and wage war a little too seriously that dares to bend the law and create too much greed, or create neglected unintended consequences as a byproduct of singleminded focus. There are many books written about different founders on this so I won’t belabor them. But the point is this: a fine balance needs to be reached: a vision that is compelling enough against something that desperately needs to change, of which a simple competitive analysis won’t do by itself.

You need something that will give you clarity and direction. A stated enemy” can be an endless source of inspiration. Choose wisely.

August 17, 2022

33 Strategies

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