Competition, sometimes it helps us to improve our businesses and sometimes it paralyzes us.
What got me to thinking about competition was my drive back to Bangalore from Mysore this weekend. In the space of 5 minutes on the highway I counted billboard size advertisements on the sides of buildings for 10 different cement companies, WTF?! Coromandel King; JSW …eco friendly; ultra-tech… the engineers choice; Jaypee….solid; ACC; JSW; Karthic; Ramco…supergrade; Dalmia; Zuari; And all this in an area of only moderate construction. Wait a minute, cement is a commodity and even if there are differences in quality, the users are contractors and builders not the average guy who sees the billboard. So why is all of India plastered with advertising for cement companies? Why do these companies spend thousands and thousands of dollars on generic, poorly targeted advertising? I think it’s simply because their competitors do it.
On the same trip we came through the small town of Channapatna known for producing wooden toys. In the front of many roadside stores there were rows upon rows of small wooden rocking horses and other figures. The same products in each store, displayed in the same way, side by side down the highway and all with no customers in sight. Why? I think they are keeping their eye on the competition instead of on the customer and the product.
In business sometimes we get paralyzed by our competition, we are so focused on competing we forget to innovate…… think BlockBuster video. Or sometimes we think we have no competition and we get flattened by an innovator …… think the Yellow Pages vs Google.
At Glass Rite, the window manufacturing business my brother and I built over the past 25 years, we constantly look for ways to innovate. We changed window designs to enhance energy efficiency, increase aesthetics, reduce water penetration, we improved installation methods, added security, etc. etc. These innovations and improvements were often the most exciting times and most satisfying accomplishments. The fact that it helped us dominate our competition was icing on the cake. So why do businesses go flat in the face of competition? Is it the same reason why people “retire on the job” while they are still working, and why relationships go stale?
Peter Robertson, an organizational ecologist, specializing in leadership and transformational issues and who is affiliated with the Monterey Institute of International Studies, sent me a link to a fascinating article he recently published. (A Performative-Extended Mind and a Law of Optimal Emergence) Any summary I make would not do his paper justice but Peter talks about how the intangibles like values and innovation diminish as the growth curve (S curve) of organizations and individuals matures. One way of dodging diminished values is to start another growth curve, or (in my words) to re-invent yourself and/or your organization. Most of us know from our own experience that change and growth are good and invigorating but we need to think of it as a necessity, not just something that might be a good idea. Stagnation is dangerous. It brings with it corrupted values, rigidity, and an end to our dreams.
Different is not always better but better is ALWAYS different