King of the Mountain

Shakespeare had some words for it: Uneasy rests the head that wears the crown. Meaning managers in businesses holding a dominant lead -- say a market share double the frontrunning competitor -- have a legitimate right to insomnia. Andy Grove's legendary paranoia is well-founded. In spite of the fact Intel chips power 80% of the world's PCs, Andy knows somewhere a cadre of eager beaver MBAs are burning the midnight oil figuring out a way to chip out a few of Intel's hard-earned share points. And when you're that big it's hard to keep all the inroads into the kingdom covered.

But King of the Mountain is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways. For those who would be King it can just as easily provide the keys to the castle and a detailed access map to the treasury.

The tool is designed encourage out-of-box perspectives aimed at defending -- or exploiting -- highly focussed strategic inroads into the market share held by a dominant leader. We count twelve potential avenues of assult. Some are obvious invasion routes. Others more akin to the perilous ascent up the cliffs by which Wolfe led his troops into the backdoor of Fort Quebec to end France's dream of an empire in the New World. To dominant leaders, the procedure can identify unrecognized points of vulnerability and suggest ways to either lock the portals shut or take an affirmative action necessary to pre-empt a would-be usurper from initiating the effort.

For competitors struggling to cope with a dominant market leader with whom they lack the resources to win a nose-to-nose confrontation, the tool discovers high-yield / low-cost opportunities to exploit vulnerabilities…and perhaps a few the leader is strategically unable to defend without jeopardizing a greater source of volume.

The process itself is deliberately uncomplicated. Participatory. Orderly. Without losing track of pragmatic business issues it manages to be imaginitive and engagingly reminiscent of the childhood game from which it takes its name. It's also intellectually stimulating and more fun than golf -- which makes it the kind of team-building exercise that lends itself to off-campus weekend retreats.

It takes a fair amount of imagination and coordination to make things both fun and productive. A series of internal meetings with key functional personnel flush out suspected opportunities to protect -- or attack -- a dominant leader's market share. The input suggests the key issues, pertinent facts, new perspectives, "for-instance" case histories and guest speakers relevant to the defined areas into which the corporate brainstorming will be channeled.

By the time the troops arrive, a carefully orchestrated collection of presentations has been developed to stimulate the imaginations and background participants with hard data and/or battle-proven strategies. Guided by the principles of ancient Chinese Warlords and actions of contemporary Corporate Wizards -- with an occasional nudge from process coaches -- cross-functional teams devise their own Machiavellian strategies to engage corporate assets in newly perceived opportunities...outline battle plans to their colleagues...and adopt the ones most likely to wreak havoc on an unwary adversary.

Purina discovered brands targeting half the brand share objective mandated by corporate policy for a new product could be profitable -- but only for the category's high-volume producer. Which was, coincidentally, Purina. They also discovered the loyalty of an all-important ally -- the retailer -- was in jeopardy and a defection would leave them vulnerable to attack on their price flanks. Within a year managers began preempting competitors with a integrated assortment of premium and price brands targeting the emotional and nutritional needs of key niches of the pet owning population. Without the new perspectives small -- but profitable -- brands that Purina owns today could just as easily been developed by Quaker, Grand Met or Gaines.

Microsoft, Intel, ConAgra and Nike have perfected the art of building -- then preserving -- a dominant leadership. Toyota, Wal-Mart and Southwest Air are three examples of formerly small companies that outwitted bigger competitors. Conversely, Epson lost a kingdom in the printer/peripherals business. And who remembers in the deodorant soaps category, Dial once was the king-of-the-hill and Lever was only a minor contender? The king is dead. Long live the king.

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