'Never let them know what’s coming next'
Marlon Brando was one of the greatest actors of his era. To me this power of portrayal stemmed from his ability to keep his audience guessing; you never knew what he was going to do next in a scene. In keeping the audience guessing, he portrayed a timeless strategy, to the screen, that has been written about for millennia. It sits there for us all to absorb and maybe learn from. Explained beautifully here in a video by Vanity Fair.
“Never let the audience know I was gonna come out. get them on your time… And when that time comes, knock em’ over with an attitude, with a word, with a look. Be surprising; figure out a way to do it that has never been done before.”
Marlon Brando, Me Marlon.
I recently re-watched Heath Ledger’s perforce of the Joker. One of the greatest scenes in this movie was when The Joker crashes a party at Bruce Wayne’s fund raiser. The Joker immediately dominates the scene; seemingly playing with his audience as toys. If you study that scene closely, one thing will stick with you, you never know what he is about to do next. Turn around? Deliver a line to an unknowing extra? Spin on his heel back around, instead delivering that line to someone else. All the while moving to an area of that room with a deliberate purpose. Yet, the path he takes to get there, keeps you guessing. This idea portrayed here so well by some of the best actors ever known, and buried within, is one of the great pillars of business strategy, or strategy in any setting.
Next time you watch a movie by these two, or any great actress or actor, the less you can anticipate their actions as an audience, the more enthralled you will become; as it seems more genuine. Some movies and TV series are so generic you can pinpoint the exact moment an actor will do something in reaction to a stimulus, be it a co-star reacting to an object in their environment; despite that action designed to be portrayed as random.
Bobby Fischer, Pawn Sacrifice & Game Theory
Take this example to chess (one of Heath’s many loves), a good chess player is not only X amount of moves ahead of their opponent; they’re also willing to completely act in a different way than their opponent might expect. Scientific evidence surrounding game theory specifically supports this.
This technique works very well in a strategic setting if you know your opponent is smarter than you; when no matter how hard you try, they will be able to out-think and out manoeuvre you. Here, as Kevin Zollman, among other Game Theorists point out, the action one might pursue to gain the upper hand is counter intuitive to logical thinking, a ‘mix strategy.’ Where and when one employs completely random decisions, so their moves and patterns cannot be guessed or reliably anticipated. This sort of strategy, ensures your opponent can not out-think you, because you do not allow out-thinking to be a reasonable strategy for success. In order to really understand the depth of this thinking, here’s the link to a short video which succinctly explains the raw idea. Interestingly he points out if you are dealing with an opponent who is not very sophisticated there is no “one size fits all” strategy.
Bobby expertly deployed this in the 1972 World Chess Championship, utilising tactics he’d never used before, acting completely unexpectedly. In the end winning through using a move he had never played before. He dazzled his opponent. It is necessary for a chess player to think deep into the future, crafting an overall strategy says Robert Greene in ‘The 33 Strategies of War.’ Bobby, by acting in this way didn’t allow his opponent that opportunity to plan an overall strategy, and thus was able to win.
How can a movie teach me real life strategy?
This is why it works so well on the screen, when we are sitting there and willing to absorb what is being exposed to us. These great artists were able to use this strategy of random action to expose the genius of their work and portrayal of a character in a genuine sense on screen; when so much is already pre-ordained and structured scene to scene.
Apply this to the startup world, where day to day small companies are pitted against larger corporations who undoubtably are smarter, due to a myriad of factors; and the application of this strategy can be quite exciting. Using the nimbleness and speed of a small startup, and throwing in some of the techniques described, it is reasonably easy to gain the upper hand on your opponent. Once you have deployed these actions in a fitting scenario, they will have no defence against them. Opening you up to deploy a series of more complex strategies to daze and confuse through a series of blundering attacks.
This is by no means a new strategy, but by applying it to a medium of film, and taking that application and overlaying it onto the business world I hope it might be more easy to understand. The classic line of ‘keep your enemy guessing’ doesn’t tell one much in the way of why this would work. I hope this sheds some light on that. If you are a student of this area, what i’ve said here is so simple it’s almost meaningless. Yet, as one can begin to understand how strategies relay to the real world, they might begin to use them.
Navigating the StartUp world requires a great deal of strategic prowess, the more you can absorb, the better you will get at being able to attack and defend from a position of strength (even if you might show yourself as weak, as a signalling strategy, but that article is for another time).
About the Author: Aron Brar is PLATO Intelligence's COO. Aron loves strategy, film and business. He is also fascinated with how AI can be applied to every industry and almost every problem