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What it really means to be different

“Differentiation is not a tactic. It’s not a flashy advertising campaign; it’s not a sparkling new feature set. It’s not a laminated frequent buyer card or money-back guarantee. Differentiation is a way of thinking. It’s a mindset. It’s a commitment.” –  Youngme Moon

Differentiation is a commitment to innovation. Period.

The difference between a tactic and a mindset is that when you choose to be different with tactics, you are choosing excuses to be interesting. And, when “difference making” is your mindset, because you act according to your values and beliefs; you don’t have to try to be interesting.

But, sometimes this pursuit of differentiation is confused with technology. Innovation comes in a variety of ways, of course. It isn’t just technology which enable us to do more, there is also processes and even human innovation which can be valuable sources of new value.

Take a partner I’m consulting with. They have a hosting business in Mexico, and if you were to do business with them, you wouldn’t notice a difference. They basically resell another company’s hosting service, just with a different brand name. They do their job the right way, and sadly, that’s where it ends.

With that said, at the beginning of our engagement, I asked them the question everyone has trouble answering:

  • So what?
  • Why should I care?
  • What makes you different?

After a few seconds of silence, one of the owners reached for his glass of water, took a sip and then took a deep breath, exhaled and responded “customer service”. Ok, I said. How so? They gave me a series of vague answers such as free website updates and on the clock support. Fine, but how are your customers celebrating this?, I answered.

No answer.

To illustrate my point about being committed to innovation, I then suggested they take a look at Rackspace, a fellow hosting company, since they keep no secret that they take customer support seriously. So seriously, that they registered the name “Fanatical Support” and include a good amount of pages in their website:

rackspace fanatical support

They also have a page dedicated to expressing their promise of fanatical support, which also includes a PDF where they go into full detail. Isn’t that commitment? I think it is. And this brings us to another important point about differentiation.

The differentiation Paradox

Trying to be different, in a gimmicky way, is not differentiation. And, doing something different doesn’t necessarily mean that the effect is going to be better. So, how do you overcome this?

Don’t compete, separate

For difference to be meaningful, it’s got to deviate and it’s got to resonate. In other words, you have to make it matter. This means you have to be thoughtful and think critically about it, not just mindlessly copy or emulate whatever works for someone else.

To switch your mindset, don’t think of differentiation as competition, but as separation. In other words, don’t commit to competing, but to separating yourself. I cannot overstate this point enough. So much so, that I went to GOOD Labs and  put this Venn Diagram together. Maybe this way it will stick:
difference making

The point: For me, being different in a way that matters comes down to a very simple observation about human behavior: If you are not innovative in your life outside of work, why should you expect to be in the domain of business? I bet you the founders or Rackspace didn’t choose to pursue Fanatical Support as a tactic, but as something that reflects their personal values. Now that, is something for you to think of.

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