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.