Success Means Redefining the Race

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 07-25-2005

Success Means Redefining the Race

In the last column, I discussed one of those rare authors who produces business books that provide actionable information that is still useful years later, and whose range covers many subject areas. I said I'd cover another of Edward de Bono's books, one very different from the last.

"Sur/Petition" (HarperBusiness, 1992) is a real classic, despite its clumsy title. There are two things that make it special. The first is its contrarian subject, but the other is completely separate from the author's intent when he wrote it. I'll get to that inadvertent value at the end of this discussion.

De Bono wrote it in response to the pop books of the time that were pushing their ideas of "competition," most notably those of Harvard University's Michael Porter and his followers.

Without hammering Porter directly, de Bono suggested that people who read the books and thought they were following the proper path were falling short, perhaps fatally.

"The paradox," he said, "is that you cannot truly be competitive if you seek to be competitive."

He asserts that Porter-esque competitive efforts aim to assure survival, and that's a solid first step, but a first step only. These kinds of efforts keep your focus on current things: environments, customers, products, messages. The contrast, "sur/petition," that de Bono argues for is more like changing the elements on which competition is based.

The objective he advocates is creating a "value monopoly," a place that normal competitive behavior or brand development can't reach successfully.

He believes the likeliest paths to sur/petition are "integrated value," research and development for generating concepts, and creativity. The book attempts to describe the underpinnings of each enough that a C-level executive without a lot of applied imagination could possibly generate some innovations by using de Bono's concepts as patterns to follow.

He piles on real examples, some of which were events around the time he was writing his book but also some proposals of his own. Like most people who are creative, he tends to be a little more in love with his ideas than others will be, but they are eminently solid and worthwhile.

Here are a pair of examples, clever concepts for auto manufacturers:

One is to integrate services for customers' automobiles (the way the big automakers already do with financing) by owning and operating parking lots in parking-challenged urban areas. The only cars that could buy spots in such a lot are those of that manufacturer.

Another is to have the manufacturer assign a guaranteed buy-back price for its cars. In both cases, these are not standard competitive techniques such as "employee discount pricing" that others can implement within a week or four. In both cases, as he would say, this is trying to beat competitors not by running the race faster, but by creating a different race.

He cites a similar example that got past the concept stage and was implemented by the Canadian wing of Prudential Insurance: a form of life insurance that could deliver "living benefit." Policyholders who had been diagnosed with a fatal condition could get 75 percent of their death benefit immediately.

It's a very clever differentiator. A lot of people don't like the traditional idea of life insurance because there isn't anything in it for themselves personally.

In a culture such as the current North American one, with increasing self-interest and declining interest in the future, a product like this could fit right in.

And the change in the financial and actuarial development needed to make this work is nontrivial, so although it's totally possible to follow, it reduces the likelihood of another company doing it before you make the whole concept associated with you.

I have an idea that, as its inventor, I love a bunch, too.

I call it the Cleveland Indians' "When the Talent Is the Product Model for HR." It's another one that in concept looks easy to imitate, but in reality, few have the courage or skill to follow.

The Cleveland baseball team pulled off a sur/petition coup right around the time this de Bono book came out, and I think it'd be a magnificent coup to pull off in a software-development shop.

Baseball free agency remade the market for players in the mid-1970s, and the normal employment behavior that evolved around it was very dysfunctional.

Next Page: Grow your own stars.

Own Stars

Bring up young players, paying them as little as possible on the way, and when they get really good and mature, they become free agents and sign with another team for a ton of money. While you let them go, you sign others teams' equivalents. An expensive form of discontinuity, guaranteed to force retraining and resocialization.

In contract, John Hart, the general manager of the Indians, put together a talented group of scouts and assistants. They invested in extra evaluations and training, brought players up more quickly to expose them to the fierce crucible, accurately judged which were the best. They traded the others for younger players or older rôle players, and signed the best to premature contracts that paid a little more early on, but delayed free agency and therefore cost considerably less over the player's career.

Instead of the standard work-for-hire—a wacky ghost-dance behavior that looks promising only to those without imagination or skill—the Indians contracted their young talent to long-term employment at a discount. In exchange for a little flexibility, they gained a ton of capability.

Software-development shops should consider scouting and training young talent and signing them to three-year or longer contracts. Build in enough for bonuses to keep them happy if they're as good as your projections say they will be.

As they grow in talent, you get to keep them during their prime years, while they are fresh and enthusiastic and before they are dulled by boredom or diminished in productivity by their career ambition.

But enough of John Hart's and my great idea; you're already sold. I told you there was another factor to "Sur/Petition" that made it worthwhile.

Edward de Bono inadvertently wrote one of the more accurate futurist books anyone has written in 20 years. In describing what he judged to be the trends and problems of 1992-93, he is actually describing today's "crises" and hot-button issues almost perfectly.

He was way ahead of the futurists on declining margins, offshoring, focus on competition by price, the limitations of American customer-service investment, and a dozen other things that started coming to pass just a few years after he wrote the book.

Because de Bono is a relentlessly structured creative mind (and understands that the kind of creativity you can apply in the workplace arises from a structured environment), he is capable of generating better-than-expert-level forecasting merely as a byproduct of his other efforts.

Remarkable talent. Remarkable mind. Remarkable book.

Jeff Angus is a management consultant and has been working with IT since 1974. He has held IT management positions in user interface design, marketing, operations and testing/analysis. Look for his book, "Management by Baseball: A Pocket Reader." Jeff's columns have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Baltimore Sun. He can be reached at jeff.angus@comcast.net.