Manufacturing Your Worst Enemy

I was reading on Fast Company about a company called ePrize that didn’t have a sufficiently large competitor so they created one to keep themselves innovative. ePrize created a company called Slither complete with logo, an industrial espionage group and history of competitive campaigns. (Though I am not sure about the latter two. That may have been the writer taking poetic license on ePrize’s poetic license.)

By asking its employees what they think their counterpart at Slither would do differently, Linker says ePrize “creates a fun, safe opening for continual discussion about what the company could do better.”

Ask yourself these three questions to see if a threat can unblock your business’ innovations.

1. Who or what is our worst enemy?
2. What is our enemy doing that we can do better?
3. Can we create an enemy to spark new ideas?

Arts organizations have no lack of competition of every shape and size so they have no need of creating an entity for that purpose. I was thinking that perhaps creating an imaginary competitor might be helpful in removing emotional elements which may present an impediment to objectively approaching problems and generating solutions. As I noted a year ago, there is a lot of emotion investment by those working in the arts.

In my personal experience, there is often a lot of envy for our arts neighbors: The other guys are favored yet undeserving of the grants they receive. The other guys are the darlings of the community. The community will give lots of money to save the darling from their missteps but don’t give us a second look. The other guys are bloated, arrogant and outdated; we are lean, innovative and the wave of the future.

In some places this attitude is more prevalent, other places it is less.

By creating an imaginary enemy, you can concentrate on responding to events without the emotional subtext lurking beneath the conversations. Yes, there are plenty of groups out there eating your lunch, but your biggest problem is The House of Extraordinary Matinee idols. (THEM) Your fictional enemy, THEM, noting the trend of sold out shows has decided to program seasons of 100% musicals. How do you position your next season in relation to this imagined challenge?

The fictional enemy doesn’t have to be a proxy for an actual rival in the community, it just has to present a credible challenge to your organization in order to spur innovation and creative thinking. I will confess there are three local organizations that do musicals 100% and others that include a couple in their seasons. I don’t see them as a direct threat to my audiences as I am annoyed by the fact they are essentially forced by the dearth of commercially viable musicals to mount a show another has done a year or so later. It drives me crazy to see the same titles coming around again. (One recently had to promote their production of High School Musical as the first community theatre production in the state because at least nine schools in the county have mounted it in the last three years. Last February & March, three schools performed it in the course of two weeks.) I frankly feel less agitated and more rational when I think of how I would approach the problem of the disembodied THEM.

Now as I said, I don’t see these groups as a direct threat to me. Other than being philosophically offended when I see their advertising, on the whole I don’t have any ill-feelings for them. I rail about the lack of diversity in local offerings for 5 minutes, mostly to entertain myself, and then get on with my day. There are others groups and factors I see as more direct competition. I don’t really harbor any ill will for them either. However, if I were going to design a hypothetical competitor, one of the things it would probably do is produce all musicals all the time. This is because it would have the characteristic of being a popular draw competing for people’s free time and disposable income but not have more elements in common with those I perceive more directly as rivals. Making the fiction resemble reality too closely might impede my ability to stay dispassionate.

Give it a try as an intellectual exercise. Think of a hypothetical entity with characteristics that might challenge you and decide how you would respond. When you have completed your thought process, think back and see if you actually acted that way in a similar situation. I will admit, hypotheticals can only help you so far. It is one thing to talk about how you would handle an irate customer and then discover how you really react in that situation.

In a sense though, what I am suggesting is a sort of reverse engineering where you reflect on the challenges you have faced with the emotion removed. That is why you need a fictitious opponent. When you engage in hindsight, you bring the emotional memory of what happened into your decision making process. Analyzing a situation in terms of “when he said X, I wish I had responded with Y,” can involve anger, resentment and self-recrimination. Also well phrased retorts, while satisfying, don’t solve the larger problem. Coming to the realization that your policies appear inconsistent to a hypothetical segment of your patrons can lead to communicating the policy differently or scrapping it altogether.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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