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ARTICLE: Design for Your Strengths

Olympic medalist John K. Coyle at the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway Photograph courtesy of Coyle

In their efforts to compete, business strategists often forget a basic principle: Build from your strengths. The most successful companies have a clear, well-articulated view of what's important to them and their customers. They understand that the way to win consistently is through what they do rather than what they sell.

These companies also understand that “what they do” is unique to them; they have their own capabilities and practices that no other company could quite duplicate. In that sense, building from your strengths is the most reliable way we have found to differentiate your company—advice that is easy to state and difficult to follow—not just in business, but in every aspect of human endeavor. Focusing on what you are great at doing is intuitively compelling, but few companies drive their strategy this way. It’s too easy to get caught up in chasing what others do—fixing the inevitably long list of weaknesses in your company, or seeking out what’s new in a world of change.

But when you understand what you’re great at, and design your capabilities and strategy accordingly, you can define how you want to compete, and shape your own future rather than waiting for others to do it for you. John K. Coyle understands this. He has been through grueling challenges to his competitive edge, both in his profession (as a design engineer and consultant) and as an Olympic athlete (in speed skating). Read Coyle's story, in his own words, about how he came out the other side with new triumphs and a sharper understanding of the best way to prepare to compete.

Read on for John Coyle's four key rules inherent in designing for your strengths:

  1. Accept Your Weaknesses. All of us—individuals, teams, and organizations—have weaknesses. These are not skill gaps; those can be corrected with learning. Weaknesses are inherent deficiencies of talent or capability that do not change even after aggressive efforts to improve them. Pride and our ingrained work ethic may cause us to deny our weaknesses, but acceptance is the first step toward designing for strength.

  2. Recognize Your Specific Strengths. Weaknesses tend to be universal and broad. But strengths are often extraordinarily specific. As an individual, or as an enterprise, knowing the specific nature of your strengths is incredibly important. Perhaps, as an individual, you are a good communicator. But can you be more specific? For example, are you best at articulating simple concepts underlying complex topics? As a narrator of emotionally powerful stories? Or at analyzing facts and data? Are you better with big audiences? Medium-sized audiences? Small groups? Videos? Visuals? Or words? Are you better as a facilitator or one on one? Are you a coach? A challenger? A comedian? Or perhaps a listener? All of these are implicit in the catch-all term “good communicator,” but if you don’t know your specific superpower, you can’t leverage it to full advantage.

  3. Solve the Right Problem. A moment of magic accompanies the willingness to quit. It involves gaining a better perspective. Prior to this moment, it is almost impossible to be objective about your challenges. Too many emotions and pressures intrude. But now, you can evaluate your options more dispassionately, and—in the language of design thinking—learn to ask better questions. The problem you are trying to solve may not be the right one to address.

  4. Double Down on Your Strengths. Strengths and weaknesses are often mirrors of each other. Indeed, these two attributes often go hand in hand. The key to change is recognizing your specific strengths, solving the right problems and design your own way of winning.

Our biggest failures can become a source of success, because we all need to find our own distinctive path to success. It is not easy to know your strengths, and it is even more difficult to put them to use and build on them. It may require you to look outside standard approaches to getting things done. This way of going through life is perhaps not for everyone, but neither is the struggle many of us put ourselves through—the struggle against our own innate capabilities.

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