I know this is not how it is supposed to work. But nothing about how things are supposed to work prepares us for how today’s business works. In the past, businesses have grown by looking sideways. If you were Glaxo, you looked at Merk; if you were BP, you looked at Shell; if you were Avis, you looked at Hertz; whoever you were, you looked at your competitors. There was always a handy list of them, and always companies ready to sell you benchmark data to ensure you that your sideways vision was in focus.
Benchmarking (which, many years ago, I called ‘a race against somebody who had already won’) created a place called Mr. Above Average, which represented a kind of comfort zone that would allow you to sleep well. And well did we sleep.
Today, looking sideways, at your competitors, misses the point. If you keep doing so, you are bound to look, feel and smell like them. Perhaps better in such and such, but mostly like them. Your mind is bound to copy them even in structural terms: a sales force, a centralised services, a social media strategy. And then, what? Is that it? Well, you may earn the incredible prestigious label of The Next Kodak.
To seriously succeed and seriously create a legacy, in 2014, your comparisons need to be outside that list of ‘natural competitors’. The answers, the imitations, the inspirations, the mirrors, the ahas!, the drivers, the aspirations all lie somewhere else: in other sectors, other industries, other geographies, other models. It is an incredibly creative exercise, and more than just a bit audacious. It’s also fun.
This rule is applicable whether you are a multinational, a medium size company, a local one, a professional services firm or a one-man band consultant. Looking sideways is the temptation, but looking up and down and anywhere else, is the path to being remarkable. The competitive advantage lies not in trying to gain advantage over your competitors. Although I dislike grandiose and predictable examples, I am compelled to say that Apple did not look at Sony or Dell, and Amazon did not look at Barns and Noble. However, Nike, Addidas, Puma, and Reebok still look at each other, sideways. Hilton, Marriot, and Hyatt still look at each other, sideways. Get the picture?