Back in the early 1980s, when I was a student at Princeton University, one of my heroes was Pete Carril, the legendary (and now Hall of Fame) basketball coach. During his 29-year tenure, Carril’s Princeton Tigers regularly squared off against (and often humbled) powerhouse programs whose players were taller, faster, and stronger than the players on his team.
How could an Ivy League school with rigorous admission requirements and no athletic scholarships succeed against the likes of Georgetown and UCLA? By realizing that the team could never out-muscle the competition, but it could out-think the competition. “The strong take from the weak,” Carril’s mantra went, “but the smart take from the strong.”
What was true for basketball then is true for business today. We are living in the age of disruption. In an era of hyper-competition and non-stop innovation, the only sustainable form of market leadership is thought leadership. Originality has become the essence of strategy.
That’s why ideas matter so much in business today. Tme popular media remains enthralled by gizmos and gadgets — the stuff that Clayton Christiansen so famously calls “disruptive technologies.” But when it comes to building companies, the real killer app is a distinctive and disruptive point of view — a bold new line of sight into the future of a market or an industry.
Call it strategy as advocacy: Who can redefine the terms of competition by challenging the norms and accepted practices of their business, before disgruntled customers or reform-minded regulators do it for them? Who has the most persuasive and original blueprint for where their business can and should be going — not just in terms of bloodless economics, but also in terms of emotion and imagination?
Who can unleash and campaign for a set of messages that shapes the future of their industry and reshapes the sense of what’s possible for customers, employees, and investors?
Winning companies don’t just sell good products or provide good-enough service. They stand for important ideas.
What ideas does your company stand for?
William C. Taylor co-founded Fast Company. His book Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win, written with Polly LaBarre, was published October 2.