Consider the oft-repeated statistic that about 90% of people self-identify as above-average drivers, a clear impossibility. Well-documented factors such as confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, and the fundamental attribution error mean we — in the words of the Talmud — don’t see the world the way it is; we see the world as we are. (See Heidi Grant Halvorson’s recent blog post “You Are (Probably) Wrong About You” for more on this challenge at an individual level.)
As organizations are collections of human beings, it is perhaps not surprising that most lack grounded awareness about their capabilities and deficiencies. This isn’t an academic issue. My latest HBR article (“The New Corporate Garage”) details examples of large companies that have had massive impact by intertwining difficult-to-replicate assets and entrepreneurial behaviors. Companies that pick truly unique assets as the backbone of transformational growth efforts stack the odds in their favor; those that don’t put themselves in head-to-head competition with legions of startups around the globe.
That means the fundamental question you have to ask is, What makes your company special? Most of the time, this question draws awkward silence before someone blurts out “our brands.” I innocently follow up by asking the last time an industry upstart called looking to license a corporate brand (typical answer: never). The next contender is typically scale. While scale can create real advantage, it also can carry downsides such as molasses-like decision making processes or inflexibility.
Luckily, strategists have studied the “what makes you special” question for some time. Gary Hamel and CK Prahalad laid out their view in the Harvard Business Review classic “Core Competence of the Corporation.” Michael Porter’s trilogy of Competitive Strategy, Competitive Advantage, and The Competitive Advantage of Nations sits on every serious strategist’s shelf. And Bain and Company’s Chris Zook has written several useful books on the subject as well.
Scott D. Anthony is managing director of Innosight Asia-Pacific.