Friday, February 25, 2011

The problem with becoming the next [fill in the blank]

STEVE MARTIN: Let’s repeat the Non-Conformist Oath. I promise to be different!

AUDIENCE: I promise to be different.

(Steve Martin; read the entire quote at Mike Whitmore's Blog

Businesses, or business people, often set goals for themselves. Sometimes the goals are modest, but sometimes they are ambitious. Often the ambitious goals are stated in relation to a competitor. Here are two examples of such goals:

COMPANY A: I will create a product that renders the iPad obsolete.

COMPANY B: I will produce a tablet that outsells the iPad.

There is an important distinction between these two goals. While both of the goals target a competitor, the goal of Company B is completely defined by the competitor. Perhaps Company B had previous goals such as "I will produce a music device that outsells the iPod," or "I will produce a computer that outsells the Macintosh."

Now these types of goals are not necessarily bad goals - there are tons of companies that can improve on processes and commoditize products - but it's important to notice the difference between these types of goals and the types of goals espoused by Company A in my example.

Speaking of Apple, in the early 1980s Steve Jobs and John Sculley clearly targeted IBM. But unlike companies such as Compaq that improved upon IBM's original design, Apple chose to present a different solution to the same problem, even though many people told Apple that they were dooming themselves and they'd be better off providing a computer that ran the same software that IBM computers could run.

There are many cases in which we are told that we can't do things as well as the competition can. Tara Hunt recently provided a personal example:

As I prepared my talk at TEDxConcordia last week, I was told by countless people that certain talks would be ‘a tough act to follow’.

I was told this over and over again in my speaking career. Someone is either about to get on stage or they’ve been on stage and everyone is buzzing about the talk. This will be the one that nobody wants to follow. The speaker either has an amazing reputation or amazing content that everybody is eagerly awaiting. As someone who is always concerned about being the ‘best of breed’ on the stage – this used to be a daunting task…especially if I am following that ‘tough act to follow’.

So how did Tara ensure that she measured up to those who preceded her? By not worrying about it:

But somewhere along the line, I decided to stop being the person who follows the tough act and start BEING the tough act. I thought to myself, “Screw it…Tara Hunt follows nobody…tough or not…I have the ability to set the bar high.” And so it went…and I carved my own path.
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