It was astonishing to watch. I was stuck in traffic, a mile-long backup that showed no sign of abating anytime soon. The breakdown lanes on both sides of the highway were filled with people trying to do a wraparound. The wraparound is an advanced New York driving technique in which you pull into the breakdown lane and zoom past everyone waiting patiently in line. Of course, this only works when the breakdown lane is empty, no aggressive drivers are prepared to run you into the barrier, and no cops are in sight. The wraparound wouldn't work today, though. All of us were stuck.
Then I saw a Hummer pull out of the breakdown lane and drive right through the rocks and weeds that are artfully tended in the wide median of the highway. Surrounded by nothing but detritus, the Hummer accelerated, blew by all of us, and reentered the highway down the road, just past the accident that was holding everyone else up.
"Now that's a good reason to have a Hummer," my friend said, as we watched in awe.
The mistake most people make is they think going just a little bit off the road — into the breakdown lane — is a good strategy. It's not. That's where you're likely to get a ticket, or hassled by another driver. More often than not, that's where you find the worst traffic. When you really and truly go off-road, though, you get nothing but admiration or just plain awe from people watching you.
When James Dyson invented the Dyson vacuum cleaner, he insisted on going off-road. The color is different. The shape is different. The way the pieces fit together is different. The collector bin isn't opaque (as it is on every other vacuum); it's clear, so you can watch the dirt cycloning around and around.
Dyson isn't trying to differentiate his vacuum from the others on the market. He's trying to reinvent the vacuum. It's funny to watch all the other brands — Hoover and Eureka, for example — try to catch up to Dyson by copying him. Too late. Dyson's company already leads the market in Western Europe in both unit sales and total revenue.
Google succeeded when its search engine looked radically different from Yahoo, Excite, or AltaVista, all of which were adding features to be "portals." Google didn't try to drive on the breakdown lane to catch up to the market leaders. Instead, it went off-road, radically reinventing the interface of a search engine to catch up. Google's latest updates, such as shopping service Froogle and Google Answers, are interesting because as Google adds more features, it's now driving a lot closer to the existing road.
Does going off-road always work? Howard Dean tried it and failed. From his point of view, the strategy was (almost) brilliant. As an unknown governor from a tiny state, he had no chance of winning the game using the old rules, so he made up new rules. His use of Meetup.com, permission marketing, and grassroots fund-raising was nothing but driving a Hummer through the accepted wisdom of electoral politics. But what did he have to lose? If he had played it safe, he still would have lost.
The irony of off-roading is that the farther away from the breakdown lane you drive, the easier the journey. Most people who think about following this strategy lose their nerve at exactly the wrong moment. They get through the hardest part, then realize just how bold they appear to be. "Quick, honey, get back on the road before we get caught!"
Is off-roading risky? Yes, if you're already in the lead and don't need to grow fast. Otherwise, it sure beats the alternative, which is losing.
Here are a few quick rules for successful off-roading at work.
1. If a focus group likes it, don't do it.
2. If you're worried about getting fired, do it anyway.
3. Doing something just a little differently is sure to get you in big trouble.
4. Your boss will never tell you to do this, because that makes it her responsibility, not yours. Don't wait, just go.
5. You'll get lousy mileage, so don't do it often.
The other day, we passed a Hummer that had been outfitted with electrified, rotating, stainless-steel hubcaps; a personalized license plate; tinted windows; and a large-screen DVD player inside. Here was a car that would never go off-road, but the owner was delighted to let us know just how big, strong, and brave he was. There are companies (and people) that think this is the way to go off-road, but it's not. It's just annoying.
Far better to be a lot less showy and a lot more bold.
Seth Godin's new book is Free Prize Inside (Portfolio).
A version of this article appeared in the July 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.