There’s nothing wrong with being “different,” or so we say. As parents, we try to teach our kids to be tolerant and accepting of other kids, regardless of their appearance or nationality. And when one of our own kids is feeling unconnected in their peer group, we encourage them that it’s okay to be different because we all have different strengths and talents.
As Canadians, we pride ourselves on being a nation of diverse cultures, and we celebrate this diversity intentionally. We say it gives our nation’s fabric its inherent strength.
Yet, with our businesses and our industries, we don’t teach the same message, and we set up systems, policies and strategies that work against the idea that being different is good. In times of economic prosperity and stability, being the same as, or perhaps just slightly better or worse than your competitors, is a safe bet. Everyone will do okay – some a bit better and some a bit worse.
In stable times, we can safely channel our attentions and efforts to things like “best practices” and “Lean manufacturing,” knowing that if we do things well enough, we will prevail. There’s enough business out there for everyone, and to make sure we continue to get our piece of it, we just have to make sure we do it right. The differences between one brand and another, or one production facility and another, are relatively insignificant. All brands, and all production facilities, are focused on keeping up with, or slightly ahead of, what everyone else is doing.
But these are not stable economic times, and few are forecasting prosperous times for our manufacturing industry. This is not the time to challenge ourselves to be the same as everybody else, or even better than everybody else; this is the time to challenge ourselves to be different than everybody else. And thought of in that context, different is suddenly a scary thing, because it brings with it words like “change” and “uncertainty.” But these are uncertain times, and change is already in the air.
Many companies have not only succeeded and survived in turbulent times, they have prospered. These weren’t the companies that survived just by being a bit better; they discovered a true differentiating advantage, and they leveraged it to the maximum. They may have found a new product to build, or a new way to produce it, or perhaps they developed a different way to profit from it – a different revenue model, development approach or distribution model. The interesting thing about the “best practices” concept is that one person, company or organization finds a better way to do something, and then everyone else copies. Once it’s thoroughly copied and routinely adopted, it’s no longer different, so it’s no longer an advantage.
In my own company’s 30-year history, the two biggest growth periods originated in turbulent times. On the first occasion, it was a different product development and revenue stream model that ignited our success. On the second occasion, it was a significant product differentiation that launched a new division. In the following years, both of these differentiations have been copied and adopted by other companies to the point that they are not really advantages anymore. The challenge to my company, just like all companies, is to not just continue seeking out differentiating advantages, but rather to not fear being different, period.
To thrive, or even just to survive in turbulent times, the willingness and desire to be different has to come from the top, and it has to permeate the whole organization. Since fear and uncertainty are already surrounding many companies, it should make it far easier for even the most traditional thinking companies to consider and even embrace being different.
Although it’s been said throughout the centuries, it truly is a different world today – a world where being different is good.
This column originally ran in the October 2011 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.