The Strong/Weak Link Framework, and How It Can Guide Your Prioritization

Have you ever struggled to choose what projects to prioritize? Capital and people are scarce. The world is constantly evolving. So what things should you focus on? The concept of strong and weak links can provide a lens on how to consider these types of questions. 

But first, a short story from the world of basketball. 

In 2018 the Toronto Raptors finished first in the Eastern Conference with a 59-23 record but for the second straight year, lost early in the playoffs. Team president Masai Uijiri did something radical. He traded his best player and fired the Coach of the Year.

"Team president Masai Ujiri decided that Toronto deserved better than a series of valiant regular seasons and familiar playoff disappointments. He traded his best player, DeMar DeRozan. He fired his head coach, Dwane Casey, just a month before Casey was named Coach of the Year. The Raptors then rested Kawaii Leonard, the superstar they got in return for DeRozan, for a full quarter of the regular season...The goal is, ‘How do we compete at the end?’ ”

We know how it ended. The Toronto Raptors became the first Canadian team in NBA history to win a championship. Ujiri’s bet on the strength of a single player, Leonard, propelled them to victory.

Here's what is interesting. The reason why this strategy worked has much more to do with the specific attributes of basketball itself as it does the specific players in the story.

Let’s unpack that a bit.

What soccer can teach us about  strategy

In the Numbers Game, authors Chris Anderson and David Sally completed a deep dive into the analytics of soccer. As part of this exploration they defined a strong link sport as one where the team with the best player usually wins. In contrast, a weak link sport is one where the team without the worst player usually wins.

Basketball is a strong link sport. If you give the ball to Kawaii Leonard, there is a high probability he will score because he can control much of the outcome. His success is less dependent on the other links (players) in the system. You can build a franchise around a great player in the NBA.

In soccer, you are only as good as your weakest link. If your worst player is 40% as good as your best player and as a result makes a bad pass, it negates the other perfect ten previous passes. No matter how many great players you have, the strength of the team is dependent on the skills of the entire group. Soccer is a weak link sport.

This is a helpful way to look at tricky business problems. Here is Malcom Gladwell explaining further.

"I think the weak link/strong link distinction is incredibly useful in making sense of certain kinds of problems. Suppose I said to you, for example, “Here’s $50 billion. Spend it in a way that makes air travel in the United States more efficient.” The last thing you would do is to go to Denver, which has that big, gorgeous new airport, and make it even bigger and even more gorgeous. No, you’d go to the worst and most crowded airports in the country — LaGuardia, Newark, Kennedy — and make them better. Because every single day, delays at Newark and LaGuardia and Kennedy ripple across the country and delay planes everywhere. You’d spend all $50 billion in New York. If you do that, you’re essentially saying, “Air travel in the United States is a weak link problem.” We’re limited by how appalling New York airports are more than by how good our best airports are."

Thriving in a weak link economy

For much of history, business competition was a strong link game. Many companies have built great businesses from executing well in this environment. Let’s look at retailers as an example. From the beginning of commerce, the path to building a durable consumer brand was built on the back of strong retail execution. It didn’t matter if you were in Ancient Rome or Winnipeg. The ability to consistently deliver quality through your strongest link, the retail environment, drove results. The other components of the system could be substandard and you could still build a significant business. What moved the needle was maximizing your strongest link – the connection with the customer when they walked in your store. Singular execution was the bedrock of the strong link economy. For many companies this was the playbook. 

But then the internet happened.

There is a common reason why Neiman Marcus, J.Crew and Pier1 have all filed for bankruptcy recently. Consumers now demand great experiences across every link, from shipping online to customer service. This shift is both obvious and hidden, but it is converting the economy from a strong link sport to a weak link sport. Like soccer, you are only as strong as your weakest part. 

Lululemon’s insane $1,560 per/sq ft of revenue is directly related to execution across the other links in the system – the company boasts 45% growth in online commerce, a deep investment in customer service, and meticulously targeted content marketing. It's also why the company just spent $500m purchasing Mirror, a connected home fitness platform. The fitness experience was underserved by lululemon. Because they view each part of the customer journey as an opportunity to strengthen the brand experience, they moved to close the gap.

Playing the weak link game. Identify the gaps

The companies that understand how to play the weak link game will continue to outperform the ones that don’t. Its not just optimizing the best “player” – it's about strengthening the entire system to better the holistic experience for the customer. Why? Because information flows freely now. Reviews, ratings, rankings are all shaped by exposure customers have with your business across all domains. Having a solid digital experience is a priority, as is creating the right tools for self-serve.

But interestingly, the knife cuts both ways. Online retailers like Harry’s, Casper and Peloton have all had to strengthen their weakest link, physical retail, in order to drive customer acquisition. Hello Fresh, an online meal-kit service has built a big business with offline tactics. One of their secret weapons? Direct-mail. 

Now its important to give a caveat here – I am not advocating that companies should aspire “be the best at everything.” That’s impossible. But rather that leaders work hard at not being especially bad at any link in the system. Good can be good enough. The best lens to identify what to focus on and what to avoid is simple - just ask “what directly erodes the customer experience the most?”. That will dictate your priority. These tradeoffs are what makes good strategy hard (and effective when done well).

A big opportunity exists for companies to think through their individual competitive environments and seek out links in the system that could be improved. The gains from optimizing a strong link are often less than focusing on improving the capabilities of your weakest.

Allocate and prioritize on system-wide excellence – and maybe bring a soccer ball with you to your next planning meeting as a reminder.