Why settle for average? Steal from the greats to be great

strategy as uniqueness

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nevenka/3061982219/

The challenge with copying uniqueness is that is takes a relentless commitment to excellence.

Whenever I’m asked about innovation, a list of names always comes up: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook.

Why, I always ask, are these the ones that always come up?

Nothing wrong with bringing up those companies, but surely, there are others. This is an issue when discussing innovation, because there is a very narrow view about what innovation looks like. And, when this gap in definition exists, people naturally look around for examples of what it looks like. They can’t imagine anything else.

Recently, there’s been some commentary (I will argue that everyday) that one should aim for average. The point being that one should take action instead of taking the time to become great. Nothing wrong with taking action, but I don’t like the framing about being average.

For me, it sends the wrong message, for I’m the type who will challenge you to model greatness, not sameness. Sameness is best practices. Greatness is “your own practices”.

Stefan Lindegaard, and other commentators, have argued that companies should not model themselves after Apple because, well, they are unique. I, on the other hand, believe you should copy neither the Apple’s or the non-Apple’s. Again, my belief is that you should come up with your own point of view of how the world should be, and then selectively steal and adapt ideas that worked for others. In other words, if you choose to model yourself after anyone, it should be with the focus of being hard to copy.

The challenge for those who pursue the average is innovation done by following best practices and frameworks, ends up looking like innovation mimicry. And, innovation inertia is sure to follow because anyone can do it.

So what does the alternative look like?

Being hard to copy = unique

As I was telling a peer recently, competition is about creating separation. Not in terms of a one on one race, but in terms of standing alone. I’m talking about companies like Disney, Cirque Du Soleil, Wegmans and others. How many of them are there?

Just one.

For example, W.L. Gore is a management innovator of the highest order. You will rarely hear about them because they don’t sell directly to the customer. Yet, I would argue, that they are more radical than Google and Apple. People who have worked their whole professional lives in the cocoon of a traditional hierarchy would not be able to operate in Gore’s “leadership by accountability” culture. At Gore, everyone has the title of leader. And if people don’t follow you, you have no business being inside that company.

Why is this interesting?

Well, as extreme as it may sound, think about being a NAVY SEAL. Not everyone can be one. You got to really want it.

That is the type of uniqueness and separation that I’m talking about. Not differentiation by tactics and words. But differentiation by commitment. And, that is why most won’t be able to copy uniqueness. It requires commitment. In most traditional companies, people are trained to develop skills to fit in more, not to break the box. And when there is an opportunity to break the box, it is because of a crisis. Basically, we have no other option.

This is what kills employee engagement, and what ultimately kills companies. No doubt, strong leadership is imperative to navigate the ups and downs of business and human nature. As the late Steve Jobs said: people are not used to working in an environment where excellence is expected.

Companies that are committed to excellence want to stand the test of time. They measure themselves by the impact they make on the world.

So, if you want to evaluate yourself on your commitment to excellence, you have to ask yourself: is my company like this? Is my company lead by the mindset of financial freedom or by the freedom to think we can change the world?

Turn shit into sugar

The purpose of making money is tired. And, it turns out, the best way to make money is to have a higher purpose. Copying is shallow. Think about it…everyone copies good ideas, but most of the time they are badly executed. And this is a great opportunity for that same reason.

I’ll argue that it is best to turn shit into sugar. So, why not turn bad ideas (poorly executed) into great ideas (better execution)?


Instead of outright copying, ask yourself:

  • Can I identify great ideas that are badly executed?
  • What sucks about this idea?
  • What can I change/add/eliminate to make it better?

This is what Walt Disney and Steve Jobs did.

They noticed something that wasn’t complete, put their own twist on it, and transformed it into something of their own making. But, to put it in play they had the discipline and commitment to do so.

Bottom line: The reason copycats exists is because of the success factor. If something works for someone else, it will probably work for me too. It’s all about the money…But that same motivation makes dumb asses out of everyone. For if the original idea is hidden with “crap”, you’ll also copy the crap. The discipline to innovate, as well as continuously pursue excellence, belies most copycats. Doing the grunt work requires discipline, even to deconstruct what looks, to most everyone, like an oasis in the middle of the desert.

  • Great post Jorge. A good friend of mine’s personal motto is SIS: Steal Ideas Shamelessly.

    I think another way we must consider existing ideas is how to connect narrow-focused ideas from different industries into something new altogether. Some ideas are already sugar-worthy, but they were built for a specific use, industry, organization. There is usually an opportunity to connect those ideas with a new industry or to combine it with another idea to create something new. Using your analogy, take that sugar and add it to other ingredients to bake something new.

    • Hi Jason,

      Good stuff!

      You are right, it is those industry specific strategies that are interesting to analyze and play with that could translate into game-changers if borrowed and implemented elsewhere.

      Do you have an approach to do so?



      • I think the approach is similar to your “shit-to-sugar” strategy. The difference being the angle we look at the problem. Rather than find something and think, “I can do that better”, find a good idea and say, “that’s great, I can use that here instead.” A company may have a great idea for their industry, but they do not have the resources, passion or unique industry knowledge that you have to use it for a different application.

        I agree that Apple is overused as the innovation example, but take a close look at the iPod. It is simply the combination of several existing ideas in a great design. They get a lot of credit for repurposing someone else’s ideas.

        • Cool! Yes, Apple is overused but I’d argue that they are the poster boy for tweaking what sucks into a unified whole, and all with a point of view.



          • Apple, the team we love to hate because they’re just too darn good 🙂

            I happily buy their products though…