In business, we all have a love/hate relationship with our competition. Sure, we recognise that competition is good for the development of new products and services and that competition makes us stronger as we seek to better ourselves to outdo our competition.
But, if we were to be really honest, we would admit that we would be happy to have no competition at all.
For the past few thousands of years since humanity has been trading, we’ve enjoyed a luxury that has recently disappeared for ever – a luxury that used to make business as we knew it a lot more comfortable.
That luxury was that we all knew who our competition was.
That might sound like stating the obvious, but the world was a lot more comfortable when you knew exactly who your competition was and what they were up to. You were then able to keep an eye on what they were doing and respond to any new moves they made. If they tweaked a product, you could quickly tweak your product, if they offered a better price, you could offer a better price.
But the luxury of knowing who your competition is no longer exists. That’s because you no longer know who your competition is.
Up until a few years ago, you would have been very easily able to rattle off one or more names of people and companies operating in the same space as you. Now, the correct answer to the question, “Who is your competition?” is, “I don’t know.”
That’s right. You don’t know who your competition is any more. And this is a very uncomfortable thought. Imagine you’re the CEO of one of the major banks in your country. Until now, you have known exactly who your competition is – the other major banks. That however is no longer the case.
As Gary Hamel put it in a 1999 article in Harvard Business Review, “Face it: out there in some garage, an entrepreneur is forging a bullet with your company’s name on it. You have only one option: you have to shoot first.”
Read that statement again, and very carefully. There’s a tremendous amount of foresight and insight in that statement.
“Face it” refers to the fact that few people want to face the truth when it doesn’t suit them. You can avoid the truth and not face it, but you’ll pay the price – a hefty one.
“… out there in some garage, an entrepreneur …” tells you that the people that, right now, are your biggest threat are not in corporate offices, thinking like corporate animals. They’re in nameless, faceless garages with no frills, no air conditioning, no fancy suits. But they’re smart. Very smart and very agile. They can think and move much faster than you with all your corporate baggage.
“… forging a bullet with your company’s name on it …” suggests that what they are planning will take you out of the game – for good, if you’re not careful. They have no respect for your size or your power or your reputation or your history. Your past is irrelevant. It’s all about the future.
“You have only one option: you have to shoot first.” If you are not able to outthink and out manoeuvre the nameless entrepreneur in the garage somewhere, you’re in trouble.
As I engage with executives facing this challenge, I see a paralysis. They are confronted by a reality no business school, no training programme has prepared them for. They. Just. Don’t. Know. What. To. Do.
They are trying more of the same old, same old in the hope that it will work, but it won’t.
Business leaders need to take their courage in both hands and find someone who can help them learn (and very quickly) how to think differently. But they must really want to.
I’ve learnt through experience that old dogs CAN learn new tricks – if they want to!