I have to admit to being a chronic process observer and critic. Every time I sit in a restaurant, go into a store, arrive at a hotel, go to the doctor or shop online I pay attention to what staff and managers are doing and I judge. Sometimes I am deeply fond of what I see and other times I am vicious in my critique. While I am a little obsessive about all this, there is some virtue in the exercise. As a consultant, it’s important to have had exposure to tactics and process that work especially well in order to make stronger recommendations for clients. It’s also important, working across sectors to develop a mental inventory of what doesn’t work, what can be emulated and what can be tweaked to serve cross-purposes. Frankly, I would hope that anyone aspiring to build a business, product or consultancy in this domain would be doing the same kinds of things.
Spy versus Spy: Lean Innovation
Welcome to the age of transparency, reverse engineering and piracy. Watching the equivalent of So You Think You Can Dance on Indian TV broadcast by satellite last night, my Indian friend quipped: “They copy everything we do”. Reading about the new film Duplicity in the latest issue of Fast Company I am reminded that the “leanest” forms of adaptation are mimicry and emulation. It’s called “evolution” folks.It’s the 100th Monkey Theory in blazing sound and technicolor. In some cases, it’s downright criminal so be careful where you draw the line.
I’m sure by now you’ve heard that the sum total information in the world is doubling every 3-6 months or something like that. Similarly, in an open information age, we have the capacity to observe, re-engineer, implement, measure and observe again at dizzying rates. Knowing that competitors are observing and mimicking us should serve as a catalyst for greater and faster innovation (and ever more patent filings).
How About A Small Business?
Small enterprises can’t afford teams of engineers and analysts that prowl the web and deconstruct rival products the way Toyota and Honda tore into the Saturn. There is no virtue in piracy so what’s a small business to do? Give observation and emulation a try. Watch what others do and then think in terms of business process. What process can you borrow and pilot in your own shop?
A Benchmark is a standard and, for our purposes, the Gold Standard. The Best Practice. I want to advocate for an open process exchange that enables up-and-coming enterprises to learn from the best. This idea may never take root in the private sector but it might in government and non-profit sectors. For example, what can my library learn from the Pentagon? What can a Blood Drive learn from the Census? What can the EPA learn from Green peace?
As a small business owner, I can effectively identify the leader in my market, the highest quality product or the lowest priced competitor and I can start studying how they deliver their products and services. Similarly, I can go to the leader in a totally unrelated field and observe them in action.
Rivals’ and leaders’ strengths my not be in their products (engineering, materials, quality and performance) alone. You can look for benchmarks in the following areas:
- Suppliers – supply chain, quality, ethics
- Human Resources – recruiting, hiring and retention
- Customer Service – walk-in, online and telephone, service responsiveness policies, dress code, etc
- Marketing and Sales – packaging, pricing, branding, placement, promotions, sales tactics and pitches
- Finance – pricing, financing, terms
The point is, identify some leaders, grab a pad of paper and a pen and go observe what they do and HOW they do it. Imagine how you could mimic, emulate or adopt what they do.
Keep it Simple
A final word on simple. While their algorithms are crazy complex and probably cannot ever be emulated, Google stands as the single greatest example of simplicity in customer experience. That simple one-box web page with scarcely 50 words on it – as of today – owns 64.2% of the world wide web’s search activity. They are killing their rivals with simplicity. How can you do the same?