Skate to Where the Puck Will Be

Hockey Breakaway W Green Copy (1)

How Category Design Gives You a Breakaway

While recently working with a client in Canada as they solve a massive healthcare problem and re-define a category, I was reminded of this quote by a great Canadian: “Skate to where the puck will be, not where it is”.    

My realization is that this is exactly what Category Design does.  It catalyses your thinking away from the current paradigm and market constructs.   It is acknowledging that where the market and category is today, will invariably change.   

Most companies, start-ups and leadership teams don’t do this; they focus primarily on company design and product design for the existing environment and category they play in.   Both of these are areas are critical to success, but it overlooks the need to also think different, not just better.   This company and product centric thinking pushes you into a current Total-Addressable-Market (TAM) box and doesn’t push the boundary on completely new economics and upside that can be unleashed.   It leaves you and your team focused on attacking the current competition, and not attacking a big audacious problem that has never been fully defined.  It focuses your gameplan around positioning of your product and features, and not exciting your audience and customers with a Point-of-View and new way to look at a problem that is relevant to them.  

Make the Play, Don’t React To It

True category leaders take a look at the current state of play, and think beyond where the current players are positioned.   It’s AirBnb changing travel and accommodation with Community Based Hospitality.  It’s the recent category play by Cogoport in India bridging the trade knowledge and execution gap with the Global Trade Platform.  Or Laiye in China going beyond automation and AI to the new category around the Work Execution System.  It’s hiPages in Australia with the On-Demand Tradie Economy, bringing efficiency and scale to a very traditional industry.

Show us a problem that we didn’t know we have.

These category designers make us realize that there is a massive problem that we didn’t even realize we have.  They deliver a compelling Point of View that breaks through all the noise.   This is not just “we’re better” and product features – it’s about being the thought-leader around the entirely new category and describing the problem at its heart.   It’s about consistently coaching your audience on the problem and category that is relevant and meaningful to them.  It’s about out-positioning the competition with a breakaway play!

Reading the State of Play

So how can we tell if we need to change our playbook and to go for a breakout play?   Put on your coaching hat and assess your current positioning and state of play:

  • I am getting beaten up in the existing market and category.
    • I am always playing catch-up.
    • I don’t get cut through with my messaging and positioning.
    • The path to significant growth in market share looks unrealistic / impossible.
    • For tech co’s specifically: The technology analysts and their categories (quadrant, wave etc.) place us in a weak position and we are not breaking away from it.
  • I will be beaten up soon: The current category I am in is likely going to evolve and change soon.
    • Market growth is slowing / stagnant.
    • A significant portion of former players have exited the category / market.
    • The category leader is milking the cash cow with little innovation.
    • A disruptive, new play is likely coming, and soon.
  • I am not getting beaten up, as I am largely unnoticed.
    • I have never reached a critical mass to attract much attention.
    • My solution seems difficult to understand or adopt.
    • Unless I achieve a breakthrough, my viability in medium-term is dubious.

If any of these assessments resonate with you, then you are likely going to see even greater challenges in the near future.    With this in mind, let me quote once again “The Great One” (Wayne Gretzky):

You Miss 100% of the Shots You Don’t Take

If you truly want to lead, and not follow,  then you have to wind-up big and take the shot.  It’s driven by the deeper clarity on what we are solving today and importantly into the future.   It’s either a fine-tuning of your overall strategy, or a complete epiphany and makeover of it.  It’s redefining the current category or an entirely new category that you are describing to the world.   And the big slapshot you are taking is the strategic intent of your company to be the de-facto leader as the “Category King”.  It’s a belief in your leadership and your team that you can define the category to your advantage and be poised to dominate it.

Breakaway and Out-Position the Competition!

And so consider this: You will always be in a category.  

The question then is:  Do you want to position or be positioned?

If you don’t define the category and the problem, then someone else will…

And to close with one final (I promise) Canadian hockey reference: 

Get a Goal Eh!

Also published on e27


The Out-Position team has experience and a track-record that you can leverage and catalyse for your category strategy and design.

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We work alongside you for this design-thinking process, from the problem clarity and category defined, to a powerful point of view.