“If I were a brand manager at P&G, could I have come up with the same idea (of launching a Method-like brand)? No, definitely not. If I did, I would look at the business as an insider, I would know too much.” Eric Ryan, Method.
Paul Brown explains that experience is over-rated in his article in the Winter edition of The Conference Board Review entitled, “Beginner’s Luck,” giving us numerous examples of successful start-ups and brands that not only survived without fully understanding the industries they were entering, but thrived because they weren’t bound by the rules they clearly didn’t know.
The idea that ignorance can be a competitive advantage is compelling, given the evidence. In Killing Giants: 10 Strategies to Topple the Goliath in Your Industry, my interview with Method’s Eric Ryan hit this nail on the head.
Asked if he could have been successful launching a Method-like brand as a corporate intra-preneur, he replied, “I would accept the way it was defined and move on. I was naïve to cleaning. I was able to not recognize that this is how the game is played. I looked outside the category and said you could treat cleaning the way you treated personal care. And if I did have that idea, I would have struggled to be able to prove it.”
Being naïve to cleaning and bringing in a sensibility from elsewhere is a defining characteristic of this complex and interesting brand. This simple act of appropriation – of treating a household detergent as if it were a personal care product – breathed new life into a fairly uninteresting category and made Method a hard brand to compete against.
There is a groundswell of support behind the oft-overused “think outside the box” exhortation. Harvard Business Review tells us, “We need out-of-the-box thinking, audacious goals, and lots of experiments. Today’s entrepreneurs bring all that and more to the table,” Brown points out in his article. “Implicit, and often explicit, in these articles is the message that the old ways don’t seem to be working well, so we need new ways of solving business problems… What all this amounts to is an attempt to eliminate traditional thinking.”
In Brown’s exhortation to us to think like a beginner, he gives four concrete ideas to help us:
- Think like a 3 year old: Ask “why?” and uncover the underpinnings of why things “are” how they are.
- Bring in outsiders: Perspectives that aren’t tainted by over-familiarity retain the perspectives that can help you see things hidden in plain sight.
- Ask the new people: As with the outsider, the new “insiders” are invaluable while they still have their newness as an advantage.
- Steal: As with Eric and his appropriation of someone else’s industry norms, stealing ideas and applying them to your industry is a time-honored practice.
In this same Winter edition, Dr. Steven Feinberg and I co-authored a piece called, “Seeing What Others Miss: Creating Advantages Through Tactical Shifting,” within which we present an idea that hits this bulls-eye – namely, shifting structures.
Add to the above the following to-do’s:
- What are the driving forces at play outside your immediate industry – but that affect your customers? What technologies, practices or behaviors are normal now that weren’t a few years ago – and that impact how your product or solution can be used?
- Can you replace the existing reward structure with one that gives you a natural advantage? How can you promote this alternative structure and design a win?
Apparently, being an insider isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Let’s revel in our outsider-ness and embrace total ignorance as a competitive advantage.