So some of you may know that I’m a big of fan of TV’s The Simpsons (though the quality is down a bit, IMO). If you troll through past postings, you’ll find the odd reference here or there. Before you condemn my TV viewing habits, understand that it’s one of maybe 2 or 3 things I actually watch so I can afford the indulgence.
Every now and again I’ll be watching and the odd phrase or line will resonate with something at work. They’re usually totally irrelevant and unconnected, and this example is no exception. But I do believe that Bart Simpson has some good advice for some of the technology vendors out there; it’s certainly advice that I think is relevant to what we do.
In this particular episode, Homer decides to move the family to Cypress Creek to work for a James Bond-style villain (but great boss) named Hank Scorpio. Those of you who are fans probably know the one I’m talking about.
Anyway, following the move, Bart finds himself woefully behind the rest of his class, not knowing the multiplication tables, cursive, etc. As a result, he gets moved over to a remedial class, called the “Leg Up Program,” which is populated primarily by child arsonists and kids who fell off the jungle gym. After seeing how much time the class is spending learning the letter “A,” Bart says the following: “Let me get this straight. We’re behind the rest of our class and we’re going to catch up to them by going slower than they are?”
Now it might seem a bit strange to be turning to the Simpsons for strategic thinking, but then again, it’s Friday afternoon and I was travelling yesterday. In any event, I believe that that one line is a point that could use some amplification within many of the would-be disruptors out there. Implicit in that statement is the guerilla realization that playing by the rules – in some contexts anyway – a likely path to failure.
For all of the bubble era or Web 2.0 talk of ‘disruptive’ technologies, you’d be surprised at just how many vendors we speak with who anticipate closing marketshare or other gaps by simply outexecuting or outperforming their competitors. Or by taking conservative strategic advice from third parties, usually delivered in the form of a “vision” slide that speaks in the dry, safe lexicon dominated by terms like product bundling synergies, realigning the channel, or building compelling enterprise solutions.
Setting aside the fact that it’s unlikely that one firm’s management team is that much better than a dominant competitor’s – or that the advice they’re receiving from outside is that unique, the fact is that with few exceptions, those strategies are not aggressive enough. Why? Because they’re playing by someone else’s rules.
As Sun Tzu says, “You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places which are undefended,” and yet we see on a regular basis firms committing the technology equivalent of Pickett’s Charge.
Examples? How about most every competitor to Microsoft Office, with the notable exception of solutions like SubEthaEdit or Writely. Just about every package that comes along to unseat Microsoft Office over the years has been just as complicated and feature overridden as the real thing, so why switch? Price? That’s usually not enough.
There are businesses that get this; MySQL, for example, has built a growing if not immense business out of expressly not competing with the likes of IBM and Oracle – by being simpler, and easier to use. By not competing where they are, in other words – but where they’re not. Linux works as well; in no way, shape or form does it attempt to compete on a feature by feature basis with Microsoft Windows. And so on.
Why do I mention this now? Because I think there are a couple of massive island hopping opportunities for firms that can be a bit creative, and a bit aggressive – or firms that have little else to lose. Just because Red Hat didn’t take that path doesn’t mean that others can’t.