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The surprising secret to a competitive advantage

Gene Tanski //February 15, 2010//

The surprising secret to a competitive advantage

Gene Tanski //February 15, 2010//

One recent morning as I was dropping off my kids at their regular 4:45 a.m. swim practice, I was really struck by it: here were a bunch of kids, none older than 16, who were choosing to physically abuse themselves and were actually looking forward to it. By the time they were done with practice, they were joking with each other, playing around, talking about the weekend, what was going on at school – real energy and optimism and “Hey, what are we going to achieve today?”

It reminded me of how a 25-year-old teammate issued us a challenge that led to a transformational moment for the company.

It’s a prevalent theme in our discussions with potential customers: the corporate leaders with whom I regularly speak are tired of the uncertainty in the current regulatory environment, are concerned about growing their business and want to nurture enterprises that are win/win for employees, shareholders and their communities. But how? And how to do it better, faster, more efficiently than other well-run competitors, where smart people are asking the exact same questions that you are?

Maybe you were expecting an answer pertaining to improved forecast accuracy and everything that entails – closer relationship with customers, expanded uses of external information to more clearly delineate demand signals, better inter-company collaboration – and you would be partly right.

But it is not the only answer. In fact, true to the very basic tenets of capitalism, it struck me that there is no one right answer. The key is finding creative, individual answers and then executing properly and with conviction. I realize this seems obvious, but I talk with a lot of companies for whom the reality of “getting it right” remains elusive. How do you generate a constant stream of creative, fantastic, bizarre, untethered ideas and distill those ideas into actionable, executable building blocks for competitive advantage?

I think this is one of the forgotten lessons of the dot-com boom and bust. Against a backdrop of new technologies, a large majority of new business were founded on completely new thinking by young professionals. They were founded on great ideas that were unencumbered by fear or reality or personal perspectives of what is or is not possible. Pundits labeled the era the new Industrial Revolution, and the superlatives didn’t stop there.

However, given the end result at least of the first wave, the potential was never realized because the youthful visionaries had no fear, no sense of reality, nor a grounding in the necessary disciplines that would sustain their vision over time. I’m convinced that the companies that succeed are the ones who find a way to fuse the experience of the “old hands” with the starry-eyed, “anything is possible” optimism of younger employees and business partners.

At Demand Foresight, we got this lightning-in-a-bottle process right in what became a watershed moment for the company.

We offer a guarantee – both for overall performance of the software and a specific reduction of execution level forecast error by 25j percent both over what a client currently produces and against anything the competition can offer. No other software company offers anything even remotely similar. Why? Well, one reason is that they probably can’t back it up, but more importantly, no one every really considers it a possibility.

I know for a fact that we didn’t until a 25-year-old Xbox fanatic, snowboarder and dating Lothario named Coleman Hutchins looked up at me during a fairly heated sales meeting and said, “Dude, if we’re that bitchin’, why don’t we guarantee it?”

“What?” I asked him. “Are you nuts? Do you have any idea how software works?”

“No, not really, but I hear you guys constantly complaining about how everyone else over-promises and under-delivers. Why not do something about it?”

It was a little bit like learning how to fly, as characterized by Douglas Adams in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books: the key to flying was to throw yourself at the ground really hard and miss. It was exhilarating. I felt like we had just missed the ground.

Once we got our minds around the concept, the experienced guys on the team were able to adjust some long-held assumptions and work through how to handle the risk, build the pricing and generally operationalize a concept that has become our competitive differentiator.

You shouldn’t be afraid to take advantage of the multi-generational strengths under your company’s roof – youthful exuberance side by side with experienced implementation. Bring all of them together.

If managed and lead correctly, it could be something special – something that didn’t quite see fruition during the dot-com era or subsequently, but did generate enough signs of success to prove that this needs approach should be considered by all leaders within established businesses (constant force of rejuventation) and those starting new enterprises (competitive differentiation).

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