A strategic approach for the smaller business

Here, we look at "judo" business strategy and provide an overview of seven techniques that you can use to compete effectively with stronger, more established rivals.

If you work as an in-house lawyer at a small organisation that’s competing with bigger businesses or market leaders, a good working knowledge of "judo" business strategy will help you make a meaningful contribution to its success.

Judo strategy: a judicious approach for the smaller business

Judo business strategy builds on analogies with the sport of the same name.

It has been around for many years and provides a framework of strategic principles that help small companies outmanoeuvre stronger opponents.

Judo strategy emphasises skill and speed rather than size and strength through three key phases:

  • Movement: seizing the lead in markets and making the most of your early competitive advantages;
  • Balance: engaging with your competitors and responding to their attacks in a measured way; and
  • Leverage: turning your competitor’s strengths into strategic liabilities.

To make judo strategy work for you, consider these seven techniques.

1. Play like a puppy dog

As a small organisation, you need to build momentum in your sector steadily. At the same time, it’s wise to cultivate an unthreatening image to avoid provoking a counterattack. In judo strategy, challengers keep a low profile and stay clear of head-to-head battles they can’t win.

However, to make your mark, you will have to attract attention and gain credibility among customers, partners and, probably, the media. This is particularly true if you’re in a business-to-business industry or a market sector where network effects are strong.

2. Define the competitive space

Use this technique to plan the most effective way to go on the offensive. Define a competitive space where your organisation can take the lead. Most market leaders establish their position by excelling at a few key skills, so taking a stronger player on at what it does best is a losing game. However, every market leader has areas where they are weak, often precisely because they have invested so heavily in their core strengths. As a new entrant, identify these weak points and position yourself to take full advantage of them.

3. Follow through fast

By combining the first two movement techniques above, you’ll create a window of opportunity. However, market leaders will eventually flex their muscles and try to bring their superior size and strength into play. This means you’ll need to follow through fast to make the most of your lead - and postpone your day of reckoning.

Consider tactics such as aggressive pricing, fast product cycles and strong focus. Judo strategists understand, however, that speed is a means, not an end. While they move quickly, they remain wary of overextending themselves or creating openings for the competition. Equally important, they realise that speed should never become an obsession at the expense of product quality, customer satisfaction and long-term profitability.

4. Grip your opponent

By gripping an opponent early, you can pre-empt competition. Alternatively, you can build relationships with rivals that limit their room for movement. Both options undercut the market leader’s ability to attack you in the future and reduce the chances of a near-term battle.

Ways to grip your opponent include:

  • Giving them a stake in your success through partnerships, joint ventures or equity deals; and
  • Offering them your services through a white-labelling arrangement.

5. Avoid tit-for-tat

No matter how well, or for how long, you keep your rivals at bay, if you’ve been successful in the movement phase of judo strategy, sooner or later, they’ll mount a fightback. This is where balance comes in.

Avoid the instinct to match your opponent’s every move as you may find yourself getting locked in a war of attrition with escalating responses. The superior approach is to:

  • Understand which of your rival’s tactics work and which are merely marketing ploys;
  • Separate their compelling propositions from the mere chaff;
  • Decide which of their initiatives you can match without getting bogged down; and
  • Craft counter-attacks which play into your organisation’s own strengths.

6. Practice ukemi

In judo, ukemi is the technique of falling safely and with minimal loss of advantage in order to return to the fight in the best possible shape. So, if you have a temporary or partial defeat, aim to follow your opponent’s momentum rather than resist it and risk losing control.

However skilled you become as a strategist, you’re unlikely to win every skirmish. However, losing a battle need not mean losing the wider war. By refusing to fight a losing battle and beating a strategic retreat, you can conserve your resources, regroup and equip your organisation for future confrontations.

7. Leverage your opponent’s assets, partners and competitors

The threat of a direct attack from the market leader, or any other competitor, will always be present. Be ready for it by having a plan in place to undermine their strengths.

One way of doing this is to leverage your competitor’s assets, partners and competitors.

Aim to turn anything that represents a significant investment for your competitor into a barrier to change. By leveraging their assets, you can transform a competitor’s strengths into sources of weakness. By leveraging their partners, you can turn an opponent’s allies into inhibitors of tactical response. And, by leveraging your opponent’s competitors, you’re challenging them to cooperate with its enemies.

Your competitors’ network of suppliers and distributors will be significant source of strength for them. However, by exploiting differences among these networks, you can turn these partners into false friends of your rivals. Creating situations where old allies’ interests become misaligned can set these businesses at odds with each other. This could be as simple as:

  • Adding value on top of your rival’s products;
  • Building service coalitions; or
  • Serving as a distributor.

All these seven techniques can be effective on their own. However, the most effective judo strategists use them in combination. This does, of course, call for mastery of a large portfolio of techniques and a readiness to learn new ways to win.

This article is not a definitive account of judo strategy, as it takes deep understanding and learning over a long period to capture the full richness of this approach. Similarly, there’s no easy formula that fits every situation. Judo strategy demands discipline, creativity and the flexibility to mix and match techniques.


Smaller business can compete – and win – against larger, more established rivals in the market. By using skill and speed they can trump size and strength. Judo business strategy provides a range of techniques, each of which can give the smaller organisation the edge over a larger rival. However, the real benefits of judo strategy come when they’re combined in a balanced way appropriate to each individual challenge. Mastering these techniques takes time, but pays handsome dividends.