Let me elevate the question of ‘differentiation’ to a higher level. Product differentiation? Sure. How different is different, that is the question. No, wait a minute, this is not the question. The question is how others (consumers, clients) perceive the difference.
Service differentiation? Sure. Again, is the difference in the service itself, or in the experience of the service? More questions. What if your world does not want anything different? What if the perception of reality is contaminated by sameness?
We, in our consulting work, have this issue all the time. People want a workshop, or a keynote, or ‘three days consulting’, because they don’t have any other form to articulate a need. Keynotes, workshops and ‘days consulting’ are what all consultants offer. It is hard (but we succeed) to elevate the discussion to a higher level: value. Once this is done, the ‘activity’ (vehicle, tool, presence) is secondary. And I still do those keynotes…Lots of them.
What about leadership differentiation? Is it the degree of charisma, the ability or deliver? To me is (1) what the leader stands for and (2) how unapologetic he is about it. Nice words? Let me be a bit unkind here: I am finding more and more difficult to find leaders who really, really, really stand for something. That is, beyond the word permutation automatically generated in a mission statement engine. But the ones who do stand for, they also stand out. I don’t have to agree within them but, of those, I know where their heart and soul is. Chapeau.
In the world of sameness, the right hearts and minds stand out quickly and easily. There was a time, not a long time ago, where it was fashionable to say, ‘why different for the sake of being different?’ I think today the answer is clear. Because the sameness virus. That is.
A few years ago, the top of a top corporation hired me as a consultant. I knew what their challenges were. I had articulated them. They kept hiring me to a point where it was not clear anymore to me what I was supposed to do. So I asked. Why are you still hiring me? The answer surprised me a bit at the time: ‘Because you think differently’. I tried hard to get to the bottom of that. Surely, there will be a ‘so what’ and then another ‘so what’. No there were not. The top executive kept saying: ‘Because you think differently’. I was quite flattered, but that did not last long. I have my ego a bit domesticated. But it made me think. The point was, simply, to think differently. There was no ‘so what’, not immediate ‘delivery’ (I really hate that word), not serious ring binder report to be handed out. But, I am pleases to report that I provided quite a lot of value.
Before that time, I was perhaps of the school of ‘what is the point of thinking differently for the sake of it’. Not anymore. Pushing product, services, ideas, operations, process, systems, conversations to the ‘different’ dimension is the only way to go. It’s a discipline, a praxis. Even if, after the push, the conclusion is not to cross the Rubicon (yet) and continue with established things. I am more than OK with that. But the question must be asked: ‘can we do this differently?’. It’s discipline, vaccination against sameness, quest for standing out and standing for. It applies to all we do. It applies to being a leader.