How much time do you spend doing things you aren’t good at? Really think about it. Five hours a week? Ten? Twenty?
As humans, we spend an inordinate amount of time focused on the things we’re bad at, and we’re conditioned to think and act this way from a young age. Take math, for example. Throughout our schooling, we’re forced to engage with areas of struggle. Hate fractions? Too bad. Terrible at calculus? Tough luck. As students, we spend much more time working on the areas of math we’re worst at, and little time mastering the areas where we excel. It’s how the curriculum works.
As adults, we fall into the same trap with our companies. Decision-makers are entirely too focused on downplaying company weaknesses and fail to invest in areas of differentiation from marketplace competitors.
The kicker? Companies don’t have a curriculum to follow. There’s nothing that stipulates that businesses must focus on their weaknesses -- this is a self-elected behavior. And it’s a bad one.
The bigger the business, the harder it falls.
It’s a strange phenomenon, but well-established companies -- technology companies, in particular -- are the worst at investing in their differentiators.
Certain tech titans have reached such success that they’ve, in effect, shielded themselves from weaknesses. However, that’s often because they’ve done such a good job of continuously investing in their differentiators.
Take Apple, for example. By nature, everything Apple does is groundbreaking, but that’s no accident. Each new iteration of the iPod or iPhone is a direct investment in Apple’s biggest, and first, differentiator -- Apple itself. The company has deviated into other ventures, but it’s main priority has never strayed from providing consumers with leading Apple technologies and devices. This clear focus (albeit sometimes questionable -- headphone jack, anyone?), keeps Apple ahead of competitors and customers extremely loyal. Even at the top of its game, Apple continues to invest in its differentiators and improve its offerings (rumor has it that the company may soon get rid of the "home button" on its devices).
However, the vast majority of companies do not have Apple’s advanced pedigree and instead develop technical debt over time. Every company starts off with differentiation -- that’s the premise of founding a business. However, the cost of popularity and profitability is often the ingenuity and passion that drives original, leading product offerings in the first place. Major organizations rest on their laurels and allow competitors to mimic their successes, forgetting the differentiation they were once praised for.
With a glut of tech firms offering similar products and competing in the same verticals, it is more important than ever for companies to stand out. There’s no time to take poor offerings and make them comparable to competitors. To keep pace with competitors and best engage consumers, companies must take what they are already good at and push these offerings toward excellence.
Avoid the "yellow card."
If there was an exact best method for supporting differentiation, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, and companies wouldn’t go under. That said, what businesses must do is avoid the “yellow- card zone.” Right now, many companies straddle the fine line of doing enough to stay in the game, but are very close to being kicked out. One more misstep -- or another quarter spent focused on the wrong factors -- and the red card it is.
To avoid this outcome, companies should:
1. Identify differentiators.
This may seem like an obvious first step, but it’s one businesses should approach methodologically. In order to chart true points of differentiation and think critically beyond what you like most about your company, develop an objective scoring system that takes into account many dimensions and data sources of a business.
For example, it’s valuable to review internal factors like competitive intelligence and support tickets. External opinions are also useful, and businesses can turn to customer and prospect surveys to pinpoint what real-world shoppers value most, and why.
An in-depth analysis of all business components counterbalances what decision makers already believe to be true about their companies and, ultimately, legitimizes true points of differentiation. Ideally, companies should settle on three or four best differentiators.
Revisiting areas of investment is an especially useful exercise for established companies, as they are the most likely to have severe technical debt and disconnect from consumers. A fresh take on mission statements or product documents may affirm what is already know. Or, better yet, it may reveal a new growth opportunity.
2. Establish the right team.
Some companies will be lucky enough to reinvest in differentiators via budgetary shifts, but the majority must develop new teams dedicated to differentiators, and support them with resources as possible.
When seeking out employees, it’s always better to find the right individual and form a role around them, rather than forcing the wrong individual into a predetermined role. As such, those spearheading differentiation revival efforts must have a solid pulse on those they work with and where their passions lie.
A business is its people, and in order to drive business solution, you must also drive the people who make them happen. You must speak to the sensibilities of those you’re asking something of, and the best way to uncover what motivates people is by spending more time with them. Ask someone to lunch. Get to know a new employee over coffee. Whatever you choose, increasing face-to-face time throughout your entire company will pay dividends when it’s time to get to work.
3. Get to work.
With the right goal and team in mind, the next step is to get at it. As you do, however, it’s important to be realistic about what you will achieve, and how fast you will achieve it.
Progressing differentiators can feel like your very own heroic tale. David and Goliath, Sisyphus and the stone -- the work ahead seems insurmountable. On top of feeling overwhelmed, it can be easy to feel underappreciated, too.
Two years from now when the job is done, chances are high that there will be no grand confetti parade. However, the silent work is often the most important work, and that’s where your satisfaction should start. As a part of the team responsible for sustaining differentiation, you have to find gratitude in knowing you’re doing the right thing for long-term company health, not in monetary rewards. You have to put in the hours, get the work done and be your own source of inertia, as well as the inspiration for those you're working with.
Again, this is where finding the right team is so important. When you’re asking individuals to go above and beyond their pay grades, passion underpins everything.
Running a business is no time to be humble, and companies must avoid getting buried in technical debt at all costs. Making changes to invest in the right differentiators may seem daunting, but it only gets harder to dig your way out over time.
Don’t get buried in technical debt. Get on top of it.