Much of the conversations we get engaged in with customers often involve discussion of “How did other companies do it?” – discussions around benchmarking processes. Yet most of the emerging ideas in leadership and talent development we hear from eminent thinkers, researchers and writers warn of benchmarking to mediocrity. Stuart Hart, author of Capitalism at the Crossroads, has a dynamite quote buried in the middle of his book:
“A smart strategist gravitates toward ill-defined and ambiguous opportunities. That is because once everything has been defined and reduced to standard operating procedure, there is no money left to be made.” – Stuart Hart
The point he is making, and the same point Jeffrey Pfeffer, Jonas Ridderstrale, Lynda Gratton and others have made in our interviews, is the same – to be the market surprise, instead of be surprised, you need to create unique and original ways of conducting your business. Lynda Gratton calls this “signature processes.” Red Hat is a great example. We were chatting with a senior executive at Red Hat and I explained part of a presentation we could provide which would showcase companies with leading implementation practices and he stopped me and said, “Look I don’t mean to interrupt but I can’t bring that story in here. At Red Hat we do it the Red Hat Way.” He went on to say of course they don’t ignore the market landscape or operate in some creative oasis, but that once they make a bet on a product or service, they execute their way. By doing it the Red Hat Way, they also build great culture and engagement because everyone feels they are part of true creation.
A lifetime ago around 2001, while leading a small start-up we got together our customer research and stories and dreamed up an online system which could aid the learner and leader to use, apply, track, and campaign on our video learning assets. Then we built the system and when we took it on the road test, people said, “Oh you’ve built an LMS.” A what? “You’ve created a a Learning Management System, although it’s got some stuff we haven’t seen before.” We had indeed built an LMS before we had ever heard of one. Instead of benchmarking LMS vendors (whom we didn’t know existed), and listening to our customers instead, we created something unique and did it with passion and energy because we believed in our originality and our ability to create a killer app. The tip coming from emerging leadership is this: pay attention to the market yes, but be bold and original in what – and importantly how – you execute.