Are You Strange Enough (for a Competitive Advantage)?

Browsing through the Knowledge @ Wharton site, which is another one of those sites (like the Economist) that is just as important as the supply and spend management sites you visit every day, I stumbled upon an article published this summer that asked If Your Workforce Is Strange Enough to Guarantee Competitive Advantage. It’s a very good question.

The article excerpted part of Chapter four of Daniel M. Cable’s book, Change to Strange that notes what characterizes successful companies these days is a “strikingly different, obsessively focussed” workforce, one that — compared to competitors’ workforces — is “downright strange”. More specifically, to get the best results, companies have to build a workforce “that is extraordinary in a way that customers care about”.

In the excerpted chapter, the author argues that a successful organization is built around measuring and gaming performance drivers – and this is what results in a strange workforce. The development, measurement, and enactment of the performance drivers is what provides the required insight into what the organization is creating, and not creating, that is required to differentiate it from its competitors, attract customers, and, most importantly, win.

The process starts by identifying the outcome metrics that provide a valid reflection of what you think your organization exists to create. Then you find a way to make these metrics move in a way that your competitors are not willing or able to pursue. For example, if you’re a procurement outsourcing organization, you might decide that what customers value most is spend under management and spend put through the system. If this was the case, then you’d find a way to integrate best of breed on-demand SaaS technology into your offering so that not only could you put every purchase you make on behalf of the client through the system, your clients could also put every purchase they make against the contract through the system. Then, used meticulously, your customers would find over 95% of their spend against a contract you cut on their behalf would be in the system and that their spend under management goes up as a result. If your competitors think that the most important metric is total leverage-based purchasing power, you’re in a unique position if you’re right as to what customers want.

It’s also important to answer each of the following questions when you believe you have identified an outcome:

  • What produces the number – and what makes it go up or down?
  • What are the two or three most important beliefs our customers need to have about us relative to our competition to affect this outcome? How do we measure our progress toward our goal of having these beliefs accepted by the majority of our target market?
  • How can we influence the outcome in a way that is valuable, rare, and hard to imitate? What are we willing to do that the competition is not in order to drive this outcome?

For example, if you were a procurement outsourcing organization, you might come up with the following answers:

  • Spend through the system is calculated as total dollars on contracted items spent through the system divided by the total dollars spent on contracted items. It goes up when maverick spend is down, and down when maverick spend is up.
  • The two most important beliefs a customer has to have is that we mean what we say and we eat our own dog-food. We do all of our spend through the system. We measure our progress towards this goal by determining the percentage of outsourcing deals we are getting invited to bid on versus the total number of outsourcing deals that are currently happening in the marketplace.
  • We can adopt an open book policy on our own spend, and let prospective clients (under NDA) access the system and verify that our claims are valid – and this is something our competition might not be willing to do. We can also offer an on-demand spend analysis solution to our clients as part of our service offering so that they can calculate for themselves how much spend goes through the system, how much maverick spend is happening in their organization, and what commodities or categories we should be handling for them.

Thus, even though it might be a little too academic for your tastes (as the book was written by an academic who used a Business School as the example – ick!), the article had a very good point and asked some very good questions once you isolated the core of its message. If you want to be the best, it’s not enough to just work harder and more productively than everyone else … you have to be just a little bit different … and maybe even a little bit strange.