There has been a carbon copy approach to business for some time, and business schools are at least partly to blame. Management is now a taught vocation. OK – we all have to learn, but the problem is that everyone’s taught the same things and taught to work in the same ways. Same ideas. Same principles. Same rules.
As Dr Dan Herman observes, “All those managers who are supposed to compete with one another … are using the same data; they conduct the same focus groups and the same surveys, analyse the data with the same tools, and use the same concepts and approaches in order to create distinctive products and brands. The result? … [they] achieve the same results, simply because they think the same way. In other words, they are MBA clones.”
Today, we teach process rather than the ability to process information. We form models rather than opinions. We rely on frameworks rather than asking people to extrapolate by drawing on experience. In this context, differentiation is a risk.
Too many managers, it seems to me, think they can rely on precedent, risk minimisation and sheer volume and speed of actions to achieve steeper and steeper results. That approach is a black swan bird-strike waiting to happen. Imitation may be the most sincere form of flattery, but looking to produce more of the same than everyone else isn’t the most effective way to compete. It just makes you more and more replaceable.
And in precisely the same way as people in commerce are encouraged to think alike, they are also taught to measure success and relative competitiveness in the same way.
Let me go out on a limb here. I see benchmarking as possibly the most dangerous tool businesses have. Not because comparison is wrong in itself, but because of the way companies use it to yardstick all the wrong things. Instead of referencing what other companies are doing by the numbers, my view is that they should be examining how effectively top performers are thinking. And instead of focusing on just players in their own industry, they should be comparing themselves with other industries – adopting what has been proven elsewhere, and using those learnings to change how they can succeed.
The irony of replication is that once you think alike, look alike, process alike, distibute alike and message alike – there’s nothing left to like. Every ounce of charm has been carefully and methodically ironed out.
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