Purposefully limited

Tom Simpson
February 19, 2024
2 min read
2 min read

The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.

Apparently it’s Melbourne’s coldest August morning in five years.

I really felt it as I washed the ice off my windshield and drove in to work.

I’m writing to you as our studio warms up and I’m starting to feel my fingers defrost.

There's an idea that has been particularly pressing for me lately.

It's the idea of limitations.

Sometimes external circumstances come in and disrupt the normal.

Have you ever tried doing something and then someone else succeeded at it and you didn’t, or it didn’t turn out as you’d hoped, or it took longer than you thought it would?

We can wind up assuming we need to do more, or be different.

Maybe that’s you now.

It’s in these times when we come face to face with our perceived inadequacy.

Our limitations can seem like a negative; something that blocks our success.

But in actual fact, our limitations are a critical piece of the puzzle.

They don’t limit success, they reduce our capacity which in turn forces decisions.

And this is the essence of strategy.

Michael Porter puts it this way in his article for HBR,

“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Making a clear decision about what not to do is just as valuable as choosing what you will do.

It’s making trade-offs, which means you choose one direction over another.

And the biggest trap is to believe that making a trade-off is a limitation that constrains growth or progress.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Trade-offs are powerful because they turn the potential downside of limitations into a stronger position.

Striving to be more efficient is good management and it’s helpful to a point, but it’s not strategy, and if it’s mistaken for strategy, then it will most likely lead to generic outcomes.

Instead, what we can do is make a series of choices that work together.

It’s prominent in business. Choices become a system of activities where each one fits together and reinforces one another, becoming a strong position.

This is a real competitive advantage because others can’t quickly or easily emulate a system.

If they did, they would have to restructure all their activities to compete, which is something most wouldn’t be willing or able to do.

Instead, they might emulate one activity, but without overall fit among a system of activities, there is no distinctive, strategic position.

And it's just as pertinent for a personal mindset.

First considering a longterm goal and accumulating small choices that fit and contribute to the overall vision.

The challenge is to choose a path and stick to it.

Aligning each decision, action and effort with each other so they compound and work together to create the whole.

With this mentality we can avoid the illusion that doing more equals growth, but instead remove the excess to reveal a distinct and powerful system that moves us forward.

To purposefully limit ourselves because it's our intelligent choice, not our weakness.

That’s the essence of strategy.

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