How your strategy – not productivity – sets you apart

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Work in Progress

Work in Progress

April 28 · Issue #32 · View online

The newsletter about work


Hi there, 
A couple weeks ago, I devoted two newsletters to taking charge of your email. The gist? Reserve time to work on email and ignore it the rest of the time. I’ve since come across another tool that can help: Adios is a free service for Gmail. It ensures that new messages only appear in your inbox at the times you choose. Works great.
Now on to today’s topic: When productivity isn’t enough. Or, setting yourself apart using strategy.

Years ago, the economist Michael E. Porter wrote an article called What is Strategy? In it, Porter makes the distinction between a business’s effectiveness and its strategy: If you can boost productivity, producing the same amount in less time, you’ll reduce costs. If you have a clever strategy that adds value, you can raise prices.
He explains that companies must invest in both strategy and effectiveness to become successful. But if you want to maintain that success, Porter argues, then strategy is key.
Strategy isn’t only key for businesses. It’s something you can apply to your own work.
Productivity alone is not enough
I believe you need to operate with a certain degree of effectiveness. It’s what creates the room in your day and in your head to even think about strategy. If you live and work in chaos, then it makes sense you never get around to strategic thinking. This is precisely why the first part of my book (out in English later this year) focuses on structuring your workweek. Porter agrees. Boosting productivity is absolutely necessary, he says, but don’t confuse that with having a strategy. 
I can completely relate. After all, I love optimizing how I work. It gives me a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. And because we’re always getting productivity tips to try, it makes perfect sense to start there. 
If we want to add value, however, it’s strategy that’s essential.
Dare to be different
Chasing productivity, Porter says, means that businesses come to resemble one another and provide less unique work. Take all those food delivery services. They sure seem a lot alike. If one finds a way to cut delivery costs, the others quickly follow suit. 
It’s the same with people. Of course you can distinguish yourself by working in a smart and effective way. But such tactics are relatively easy to mimic. If you make “getting the work done quickly” your calling card, then it’s just a matter of time before someone beats you at your own game. Striving for operational effectiveness only goes so far. And it can make your work less distinct in the long run.
But a distinctive strategy is about being different. Porter: “It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value.” What do you do differently than those around you? What makes working with you stand out? How do you provide unique value? 
Author and business advisor Nilofer Merchant calls this your onlyness – the qualities and perspective that only you can bring to the table. Putting your onlyness at the heart of your strategy can make your work more powerful and get your ideas heard. It’s the key to making ideas a reality.
Strategy is simply what you do (and what you don’t)
A strategy is mostly just what you do – the activities you carry out – especially those you choose to do differently. That can be refreshing to realize, given that many people shy away from the idea of devising a strategy. A good strategy isn’t abstract at all. In fact, it’s super concrete. Otherwise, Porter explains, a strategy would be “nothing more than a marketing slogan that won’t withstand competition.”
Equally important is that a strategy helps clarify what you don’t do.
Discovering your strategy
Once we decide we’re oh-so-productive, we tend to think working strategically no longer matters. Instead, we’ll just try and squeeze more work into the same amount of time. Determining a strategy and adhering to it can mean tough choices. And so we often opt for the path of least resistance: skipping it altogether.
As I write this, I’m realizing how relevant the topic is for me personally. I tend to try and optimize my time, especially now, working at home with my family, when I’m trying to get the most out of a few scarce hours of concentrated work. But there’s lots to gain by investing some of that time in thinking about your own strategy and what sets your work apart. 
Porter grants that discovering your strategic positioning is not always easy. Finding it requires creativity and insight. In that same article, he shares some questions that can help. I adapted them to fit individuals, but I’m including Porter’s original questions, meant for businesses:
  • What do you bring to the table that’s most distinctive? (Which of our product or service varieties are the most distinctive?)
  • What do you bring that’s most profitable? (Which of our product or service varieties are the most profitable?)
  • Of all those who make use of your qualities and skills, who is most satisfied with you? (Which of our customers are the most satisfied?)
  • Of all those who make use of your qualities and skills, who is most valuable? (Which customers, channels, or purchase occasions are the most profitable?)
  • What activity of yours is the most distinct and effective? (Which of the activities in our value chain are the most different and effective?)
The more things you do that connect and align with one another, the clearer your strategy will be for colleagues and the outside world. A clear strategy automatically attracts work that suits you. This is true for independent contractors, but it’s also true for employees within organizations. 
When I was at Blendle, there were engineers who focused on user interfaces, and there were engineers who took on the software architecture. Making a clear choice and voicing that preference meant they had a much greater chance of getting work that was up their alley.
Take the time to write up your strategy. What do you do that’s different from everyone else? What’s your onlyness? And which activities of yours reflect that?
Have a great week,
Rick
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