Lessons Learned from Birds and Being the Tallest Tree

I arrived at my Silicon Valley office at 6 a.m. on a cold (42 degrees Fahrenheit), dark, winter morning. Our humidity was nearly 100 percent. With that temperature and humidity, 42 degrees is cold.

About 30 feet from the elevator, I spotted a lone bird sitting on the cement sidewalk in a state of suspended animation. I checked the creature—it was alive but clearly bewildered. I would not wish that experience for myself or the bird.

I took the elevator to my second floor office to start my day and enjoy the sunrise. As we entered civil twilight, I noticed that, one-by-one, small birds flew to the very top of the tallest deciduous tree to just sit there on spindly little branches waiting for the sun to rise and warm them up. An adjacent, slightly shorter tree was completely ignored by the birds. As I watched the sunrise unfold, I was reminded the sunlight hits the top of the tallest trees first as the sun rises.

I don’t know if it is instinctual or just a bird’s common sense that they head for the top of the tallest tree day after day. It’s not just a morning phenomenon—this behavior is often repeated on cool, sunny evenings as the sun begins to set and the process reverses itself.

Isn’t this natural phenomenon paralleled in the business world? Isn’t it often the case the most prominent player is heads and shoulders above its rivals?

I’m a fan of Amazon.com—the only website I frequent to purchase books online. I’ve never bothered to go to barnesandnoble.com or borders.com—I got into the habit of doing business with Amazon. Amazon is my tallest tree.

Google is my search engine. Microsoft introduced a new search engine: Bing. I looked at Bing—once. Did I give Bing a fair shake? Probably not. The truth is I’m not dissatisfied with Google. Google is my tallest tree.

Alex L. Goldfayn, The Technology Tailor, offerings the following insight in a blog posting:

Apple’s iPad announcement yesterday has a number of lessons for consumer electronics manufacturers. The biggest one is this: Once again, Apple will make a boatload of money on a product it is perfecting, not creating. The tablet PC has been around for ages.

There were many MP3 players before the iPod perfected the device. And there were hundreds of smart phones before the iPhone perfected the category. And now, Apple is doing it again with the iPad.

It is not necessary to invent new products, or even functionalities, to be perceived as the best. It is only necessary to improve dramatically upon what’s already on the market, so that you can argue reasonably that you are the best.

Apple may have just grown a taller tree in this space.

So, what are the shorter trees going to do to attract the birds? They can’t. It’s just not what the birds want.

If you aren’t the tallest tree, what can you do to grow so you become someone else’s tallest tree?


David Gardner is a management consultant, speaker, author, blogger who specializes in eliminating business execution problems that threaten profitability and growth. In January 2010, he was inducted into the Million Dollar Consultant® Hall of Fame. He can be reached through his web site at www.gardnerandassoc.com.

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  • Adrian Ott

    Dave, great thoughts. In a world where time is scarce, customers seek the "tallest tree" because they want to know that the product will have the quality and capabilities that they need. They use the tallest tree as a proxy to help them decide because they don't have time to wade through the smaller trees. This is also why customer reviews for products are so popular these days.

  • Danny Wong

    this is a great observation. whoever YOUR tallest tree is will hold that position indefinitely.

    But one way smaller trees can topple the tallest tree is by not fighting with the biggest tree at all. In fact, differentiate your offering so that you're fighting a different fight.

    I got this from a Mixergy interview with Craig Donato - "If You’re The Challenger, You Have To Play A Different Game"

  • Vickie Sullivan

    Great insight. We get so focused on innovation from a blank page that we miss building upon what is already there. And that building upon can be just as fun -- and profitable -- than creating from scratch.