The Value of Negative Space

“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do, and not doing it.” — Michael Porter

I’m a recent convert to Michael Porter’s principal for strategic action. It solves the common problem inherent in unclear goals. If top line strategy and objectives are ambiguous or unclear, then mission creep sets in; we can justify lots of activities in the pursuit of those loosely defined goals.

Thinking from a more abstract level than Porter probably intended, you can define any positive space by first defining the negative space. In theory, if you can effectively define all the things you’re not going to do, what’s left is your strategic plan.

negative-spaceDefining what you’re not going to do clarifies what you’re going to do.

For example, a negative space way to sharpen my strategy is simply to identify which of the many activities that are lingering on my to do list have less impact in getting me closer to my loosely defined goals. Setting the less effective activities aside, what I’m left with is what I will do. And what I’ll do determines what milestones I’ll achieve, and the goal I’m aiming for. Then I can ask myself. “Is that goal sufficient? Will those milestones that remain on my list get me to that goal?” If it is and they will, I have just sharpened my strategy.

Let’s attack a strategic question concerning sales:

What is it you want to accomplish in a meeting with a possible client? There are lots of answers to this question:

I want to build a relationship.
I want them to think of me when an opportunity presents itself.
I want to uncover seven reasons to follow up with them.
I want to understand their most important challenges.
I want to understand their business model and what their role is within it.
I want to walk out of the meeting with a deal to quote.
I want to resource and inform my client in ways that help them.

These are all good objectives. But if I set out to accomplish all of them in a client meeting, I run the risk of jumping around and not making useful progress on any of the objectives (the tactical equivalent of mission creep). The suggestion, if you’re thinking like Michael Porter, is to choose which of the objectives are less important. This is often easier than choosing the most important. The situation, your industry, your personality, your client’s preferences and the current status of your relationship will all impact which objective you choose not to pursue. Peel away the onion and see what’s left.

What remains is the clarified objective for your meeting: what do you need to do, and not do, to achieve that goal.

At whatever level of granularity you operate on the strategy-tactic chain, Michael Porter’s advice is useful.

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