How to Win by Losing Strategically

This contribution is the second in a two-part series from BLR Executive Vice President Elizabeth Petersen about business lessons learned through sports. Read the first part here.

Rugby has taught me innumerable life and business lessons, and today I pay homage to the nameless French Canadian who taught me how to lose strategically.
But first, an introduction for those of you who aren’t familiar with my past rugby life. I played and coached for 12 years, first at Boston University and then at North Shore Women’s Rugby and MIT. And although I’m unofficially retired from the sport, I still very much identify as a rugby player.
I’m uber-competitive by nature, and early in my rugby career, I wanted to win ALL. THE. THINGS. Scrums, open-field tackles, rucks, foot races—I believed that in order to win, I needed to dominate every aspect of the game.
About seven years into my playing career, I found myself as scrumhalf on a mixed side of my American team and a French Canadian club. We found ourselves trapped in our defensive end for most of the half, as our forwards were getting decimated at every ruck, and we weren’t able to spin the ball out to our speedy backs.
As the half wore on, I kept sending the entire pack into each breakdown, convinced that we’d eventually be able to win rucks with sheer numbers. But we kept losing, and I touched the ball fewer than five times that half.
At halftime, a French Canadian lock desperately tried to get my attention (she didn’t know my name, either, and had taken to calling me “Legs”).
“Stop sending all of your forwards into the ruck!” she exclaimed. “We’re losing very badly.”
“I know,” I said through gritted teeth (being called “Legs” for 40 minutes had made me prickly). “That’s why I keep sending everyone in.”
“That’s fine—if you don’t want us to get the ball,” she shrugged. “But we’re faster and better at open tackles. Lose the rucks, and get the ball back in the next phase.”
Seeing we had nothing to lose, I took her advice. I (reluctantly, at first) sent only two to three forwards into each ruck. And we continued to lose those breakdowns. But now when the opposing side distributed the ball to their back line, our centers were able to make tackles, and while the other team’s pack was still milling around the last breakdown, we were able to clean up the ball and take advantage of an overload.
In business, the art of strategically losing has proved invaluable. Every organization has clear strategic strengths and weaknesses. But when we try to double down on areas in which we don’t have a clear competency, we miss opportunities to leverage competitive advantages. Identifying gaps in the marketplace—and appropriately shifting resources from more crowded spaces—is the cornerstone for growth.
It’s a tough lesson to learn—I’ve been guilty of overcommitting resources dozens of times in my professional career, believing I could overcome the strategic odds with sheer will and numbers. But taking the time to learn your organization’s unique competencies—accepting that few companies can dominate every phase of the business game—pays dividends.
Readers, I want to hear from you: Do you employ a “fail fast” approach to growth at your organization?