The rope-a-dope syndrome

Beware of falling victim to it

The legendary and self-proclaimed “greatest” boxer Muhammad Ali conceived and memorialized the rope-a-dope strategy to deplete an opponent’s energy. By leaning against the ropes, he conserved his energy, ducking and bobbing as the aggressor exhausted himself throwing inconsequential jabs. Then, without warning — K-A-P-O-W! — Ali landed a rapid succession of victorious knockout punches.

Today it seems that everyone is mad at someone about something — throwing metaphorical blows. A 24-hour news cycle hardly passes without some politician making inflammatory, accusatory statements or calling someone something less than flattering. In business (though not as bad as politics), companies and less seasoned managers periodically waste more time than it’s worth getting into skirmishes without even knowing if there’s a payoff.

In effect, they boast that they’ve got their opponents “on the ropes,” using this tactic or that, but instead deplete their own time, energy and resources in an exercise of futility. This is much akin to political mudslinging, which typically proves meaningless because it’s almost a given that name-calling and spurious claims go with the job.

“Knowing when to spar, and when to strike,” a lesson I previously wrote about in this space, can make the difference between success and failure. This means that before undertaking an all-out Machiavellian approach, make sure that the chase is worth the catch. The history of war teaches us that it is of little value to win a series of insignificant skirmishes, but then lose the war. This is something that many young managers learn the hard way — working their tails off for the sake of saying they did something, but in the end no one cares because it doesn’t do anything new or different (much akin to reinventing the wheel).

Organizations, too, must discipline themselves to take a pass after analyzing and assessing an opportunity’s pros and cons recognizing when it’s not accretive to loftier, more strategic overarching objectives. Sure, it’s fun and even gratifying to score a win, with the associated bragging rights that can boost the short-term corporate psyche. While one company is out making small headlines, however, the savvier, stealth competitor is launching major strategic initiatives that suddenly emerge as huge successes, changing the competitive landscape. Sometimes we don’t know what might hurt us the most until it’s too late.

Many admired companies seem to operate under the radar and suddenly, without warning, strike with a new product or strategy that propels them to the next level. Competitors always ask, “How did they do it? We didn’t see that coming.” The reason is they’ve been rope-a-doped by the rival, managing to hide in plain sight, leaning against the ring’s bindings and seemingly doing nothing distinguishable, while at the same time, others are out chasing opportunities that are middling at best.

It all gets down to defining what you want to accomplish. Plus, understanding the opportunity costs, the investment needed, the value of conserving assets, and knowing when and how to strike with that winning punch.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax and in 16-years, as CEO, grew the retailer to sales of $5 billion in 1,000 stores worldwide.