“We do not merely want to be the best of the best.
We want to be the only ones who do what we do.”
- —Jerry Garcia, The Grateful Dead1
The old mantra, “differentiate or die,” is no longer relevant. In fact, I’d argue that, today, there’s actually too much differentiation going on. By steadfastly clinging to the “differentiate or die” mantra, businesses large and small have made it extremely difficult for their customers (and prospective customers) to tell the difference between deep, meaningful change and shallow, superficial novelty. As a result, with an excess of similar offerings in the marketplace all claiming to be “different” (which, theoretically, was supposed to add value to a company’s products or services), it’s nearly impossible for businesses to get their products noticed and command a premium for their efforts.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not against differentiation as a business strategy. In fact, as creative director of a global innovation firm, frog design, I spent a great deal of my time helping clients differentiate their offerings in the marketplace. Unfortunately, people are usually most comfortable with what’s most familiar—and the product, service, or business model that they’ve experienced most often is the one that seems intuitively right. They become trapped by their existing perceptions, unable to recognize things they haven’t seen before. As a result, I’ve watched too many clients spend huge amounts of money and resources trying to gain an edge on the competition by making incremental changes to their existing products and services.
This pattern of behavior is particularly common in successful companies operating in mature industries. They embrace incremental change because it supports their current business model. Reluctant to spend a bunch of money modifying their existing operations so they can make new things that will compete with their old things, these companies become complacent and stop innovating. Big mistake. Because when a business makes only incremental changes, they find themselves on a path that gets narrower and narrower. Eventually, they reach the end of the path, and by then, their customers have forsaken them for a new offering that nobody saw coming. In cases where companies do take disruptive risks, it’s often because they’re backed into a corner and there’s no other choice.
Here’s the bottom line: Companies that try to differentiate themselves by focusing on incremental innovation instead of game-changing, disruptive innovation will differentiate themselves right out of business. Companies simply cannot afford to wait until they get backed into a corner. They need to be consistently making bold moves, even at the very peak of their success. So, instead of “differentiate or die,” the real mantra should be “differentiate all you want, but figure out a way to be the only one who does what you do, or die.” Okay, that’s a little cumbersome, but you get the point.
Thinking the Unthinkable
Figuring out a way to be the only one who does what you do is a provocative goal, but it’s absolutely unobtainable unless you make some significant changes to the way you think about competition and the business you’re in. I’m not talking about little tweaks here and there. I’m talking about a way of thinking that surprises the market again and again with exciting, unexpected solutions. A way of thinking that produces an unconventional strategy that leaves competitors scrambling to catch up. A way of thinking that turns consumer expectations upside down and takes an industry into its next generation. It’s what I call disruptive thinking.
In the literature of innovation theory, the phrase “disruptive” is associated, in part, with the notion of “disruptive technology,” which Clayton Christensen outlined in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma. Christensen observes that disruptive technologies often enter at the bottom of the market, where established companies ignore them. They then grow in influence to the point where they surpass the old systems.2 But, in our process—the one you’ll be following in this book—disruptive thinking is not so much about how to spot and react to disruptive changes in technology and the marketplace; it’s about how to be the disruptive change.
Being the disruptive change in an industry is exactly the sort of thing that new start-ups and small-scale enterprises are best at. But, as you’ll soon see, it’s a way of thinking that can be learned and applied just as effectively by large organizations and industry incumbents—in fact, by anyone who’s willing to challenge the status quo wherever they are.
There is no better time to challenge the status quo than right now. Winning organizations in the next decade will be those that produce and implement ideas that are not easily conceived of or replicated by a competitor. Companies will create new categories and redefine old ones. Customers will fundamentally change what they want from the products and services they experience. The Internet and the infrastructure of massive connection have already reinvented many industries, but we’ve barely scratched the surface. We’re still surrounded by countless products, services, and business models that are built on the logic of the past. (Just think of the current challenges for magazines, newspapers, and books.) Many of the decisions that define these businesses were made years ago, in a different age, and a different context.
Globalization, accessibility to an overwhelming array of products and information, and technological innovation are already rapidly changing the marketplace in significant ways. As a result, consumers are changing the way they buy, and businesses need to change the way they compete. We need to rethink the habits that have made us successful in the past, and challenge the conventional wisdom and industry models that have defined our world. In the words of marketing expert Seth Godin, “Industries are being built every day (and old ones are fading). The revolution is in full swing, and an entire generation is eager to change everything because of it. Hint: It won’t look like the last one with a few bells and whistles added.”3
To thrive in this new era, organizations and institutions, executives and entrepreneurs need to learn to think and act disruptively. To put it a little differently: Think what no one else is thinking, and do what no one else is doing.