The Moscow Rules

Competitive lessons for finishers from the world of espionage.


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It's 1978. The heart of the Cold War. The mission you choose to accept takes you deep undercover, behind enemy lines in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, to spy on the Soviet government and its diplomats, to gather information about the KGB and the Soviet nuclear effort and to discreetly report all information gathered to your superiors.

Success could give the United States the upper hand in this ongoing conflict. Being caught would mean certain death to you and embarrassment and possible harm to your homeland. You abide by your training, stay on your toes and above all else, follow "The Moscow Rules."

I became familiar with The Moscow Rules during a recent visit to the International Spy Museum, which is located a few blocks east of The White House in Washington, DC. Hanging on a wall in the "War of the Spies" exhibit is a sign listing The Moscow Rules. The sign piqued my curiosity, so I did some digging.

The Moscow Rules were purportedly developed by the CIA during the Cold War to be used by spies working behind the Iron Curtain. While studying them, it occurred to me that several of the rules have applications that transcend the world of espionage into the competitive world of business. While the surface finishing world has traditionally been one of "friendly competition"—one where finishers have been known to compete with each other by day and share a cocktail by night—it is nonetheless a competitive world. Thus, I invite you to consider how the following rules apply to your company's approach to its competition.

The Moscow Rules…

Assume Nothing. Years ago, it seems, finishers had their niches and competitors stayed out of them. That is no longer the case. Even as you read this, your competitors are trying to figure out a way to steal your customers. Assume nothing less. Never Go Against Your Gut. If your gut tells you your business is vulnerable to your competitors or that your customers may be shopping, they probably are.

Everyone is potentially under opposition control. Don't look back, you are never completely alone. Not to sound paranoid, but how well do you control access to your critical sales data, customer lists and electronic means of communication to ensure that none of your confidential or proprietary information falls into the hands of the competition?

Go with the flow, blend in, vary your pattern and stay within your cover. Inevitably, we all lose a customer to a competitor from time to time. When it happens, learn what you can from the experience, lick your wounds and bounce back to fight another day.

Keep them guessing as to what your next step will be and lull them into a sense of complacency. Tempted to announce your business strategy to the rest of the world? Why let the competition in on your little secret? Further, your competitors are most vulnerable when they don't expect you to make a bold move. Time major changes in your product offerings and business strategy in a fashion that will take the market by surprise.

Don't harass the opposition. Years ago one of my competitors used to make taunting comments to me and others in the industry every time he won a new customer or added a new process. Needless to say he taunted the competition into placing a big target on his back and making sure he tasted his own medicine. His business eventually went under and he now works in another industry.

Pick the time and place for action. "If you build it, they will come" was the line from the Kevin Costner film Field of Dreams. I have a personal adage that says, "If you build it and they come, you sure as heck better be ready for it."

In other words, if you choose to aggressively engage the competition to steal their customers, make absolutely sure your operation has the ability and capacity to deliver on its promises.

Keep your options open. Your customers, competitors and markets are forever in a state of flux—always changing. Make sure your organization has the agility necessary to stay ahead and change direction quickly.