Friday, February 5, 2010

Mediocrity Is Easy. Or is it?

There is a school of thought in business suggesting that managers should emulate others in their category. It’s called “best practices”. And “best practice” thinking has led to the commoditization of virtually every category.

Go into any consumer electronics store and you will see rows and rows of black boxes, each with a tag containing bullet-pointed features. Yet, what’s the point? The boxes and features are virtually identical. Consumers have no reason to gravitate toward one product or another. So in the end, we make our decision based on arbitrary and superficial criteria, like the way the remote feels in our hand.

Rather than try to stand out from the sea of sameness, the first instinct for most managers upon discovering the loss of a sale due to the hand-feel of its remote, is to copy the competitor’s remote. The inclination to follow is understandable; it feels safe. Mimicking something successful has a built-in justification. But all it leads to is more sameness. More mediocrity. Not necessarily safety.

Differentiation is difficult. It requires one to stand out. And standing out invites praise and condemnation alike. Yet, mediocrity has its own risks. If competitors in a category are all alike, most or all of them are expendable. Eventually, someone (typically from outside the category—a future post) will upset the cart. Apple broke the monotony of the cell phone market with its iPhone, and the “leaders” of the past became marginal players overnight. Ironically, the category has resorted back to its old ways and is now playing catch-up by emulating its new leader.

Stealing a good idea has its merit. Copying the competition doesn’t. Consumers don’t need five identical options—that isn’t choice. And redundancy creates vulnerability. Every animal in the herd derives comfort from the very thing that makes him expendable. He feels safe due to his sameness. That is, until the herd changes direction and he is the one being eaten.

1 comment:

  1. Extraordinarily well put Lance,

    I love the iPhone analogy in that a lot of the time it does take an outsider to shake up the status quo.

    Mimicking gives the impression that there is safety in numbers, when the herd analogy is proof positive that there isn't.

    The old adage that talent imitates, but genius steals applies here.
    The idea of stealing a good idea having merit is a great one. You may be interested in the book "Borrowing Brilliance" by David Kord Murray. In it, the author gives a great example of French mathematician Jacques Hadamard asking Albert Einstein to explain creative thought. Einstein described it as simply "combinatory play." The act of using of existing ideas to enhance the project you are currently working on.

    Hope all is well!