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Stand out, don’t embrace average

Dec 12, 2021 Strategy, Success, Sunday Nation

Picture this. 

You are part of a large group flying to Kenya’s world-famous Maasai Mara game reserve. Your plane is gliding down, and the vast green expanse opens up beneath you. You approach the tiny airstrip from the air, and what do you see? The four-wheel-drive vehicles waiting to receive your group have all been arranged in a fan shape at the end of the airstrip. At ground level, they just look like they are parked in a certain order. From the air, the sight is arresting indeed—a big surprise, an unexpected wow.

That doesn’t just happen naturally, by the way. Someone somewhere has to conceive it and insist that it happens, time after time. I was told this story, of how one tour operator used to insist on that parking arrangement for all large-group arrivals. The tour lead would drill the drivers and ensure it happened in time for the every incoming flight. It was done tour after tour, year after year.

I wanted to stand up and applaud, even though I’ve never seen that parking arrangement myself. That, folks, is called going the extra mile, adding an artistic flourish to your work, refusing to do just the basics. It may seem frivolous—it’s just vans parked in a certain way, after all—but there is greatness there, in both thought and deed.

It is easy to just do the basics and no more. Do what’s expected; do what competitors do; do the norm; stop there. It is easy to be mediocre. Most people are. A few folks, however, view words like “mediocre,” “standard,” “average,” and “par” with serious distaste. Doing just the basics horrifies them. They want to add surprises to their offerings. Some extra touches, some additional care, some unexpected concern.

You may not know this, but there is a huge business case for these extra touches. They don’t add much to the cost burden, but they create a spike in the recipient’s emotions. When we are pleasantly surprised by those we buy from or interact with, we become much more congenial and appreciative ourselves. A relationship with a difference is initiated by those who show they went beyond the norm.

These extra touches can be artistic and aesthetic; they can be about adding some zing to a process; they can come in the concern shown to the humans we interact with; they can be in the remarkable ease of doing something online.

Why don’t more of us do these things? Two reasons: guts and effort.

It takes nerve, firstly, to disengage from the herd. To be in the crowd, clustered around the mean in the bell curve, is reassuring. We are like everyone else, and so no one will jeer at us. To be an outlier, though, is to leave the warmth of the campfire and venture into the dark. It takes courage to try to do things differently from the rest. Most people fail the guts test.

Second, being different is hard work. It means extra time and extra effort. That’s just too extra for most folks. Why do more than is needed? Why waste precious hours doing stuff no one else does? Why not just do what’s needed and hit the minimum acceptable level of product or customer experience?

Because difference is the basis of strategy. Standing out is what competitive advantage is all about. Every rip-roaring success story in the world—organisational or personal—did not come from an acceptance of average, or from satisfaction with mid-points. It came from a person or persons who showed both the pluck and the oomph to to be different. Think about it: the great figures of human history were not staying safe. Apple, Netflix, or Google did not get to where they are by being normal. M-PESA was not birthed by risk-averse people; Equity Bank did not come out of feeble intentions; East African Breweries is not about to hit a centenary because it doesn’t take risks.

What about you, then? Can you think different? Start somewhere small, like in the example I began today’s piece with—park the cars differently. If you’re serving food, don’t just plonk it on the plate; take the time to introduce art to the offering. If you’re dealing with frustrated, worn-out customers, add some extra care and concern to the experience you give them. If you’re working with great team-mates, give them a little gift of appreciation for being in your life. 

Little differences lay the foundation for big differences. Big differences lead to standout strategies and uncommon reward. Start small, then play big. But please: be different.

(Sunday Nation, 12 December 2021)

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