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The Toughest Question in Business*

*If You Answer Honestly Yesterday, I wrote about the power of originality in business — and just how rare is it to discover companies, executives, and entrepreneurs with a truly distinctive take on their industry. Of course, few companies set out to be just another me-too player with yet another copycat strategy. But in industry after industry, that’s how most companies wind up competing, which is why competition winds up feeling so unforgiving.

*If You Answer Honestly

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Yesterday, I wrote about the power of originality in business — and just how rare is it to discover companies, executives, and entrepreneurs with a truly distinctive take on their industry. Of course, few companies set out to be just another me-too player with yet another copycat strategy. But in industry after industry, that’s how most companies wind up competing, which is why competition winds up feeling so unforgiving.

As you evaluate your company’s strategy, reckon honestly with what may be the most revealing question facing senior executives today. I heard the question from advertising innovator Roy Spence, who says he got it from strategy guru Jim Collins (he of Built to Last and Good to Great). Whoever first posed the question, it is profound as it is simple, and it may be the ultimate test of your strategy:

If your company went out of business tomorrow, who would miss you and why?

That’s not an easy question to answer — especially in an age when nearly everyone has more than enough of nearly everything. Why might a company be missed? Because it’s providing a product or service so unique and compelling that it can’t be replaced by a knockoff. Because it’s created a workplace so dynamic that employees would be hard-pressed to find a similar environment. Because it’s forged such an emotional connection that customers can’t walk down the street and have a comparable experience.

Precious few companies meet any of these criteria — which may be why so many companies feel like they’re on the verge of going out of business. Be honest: Would your company be missed? Or is your strategy still missing the original ideas that would make you a one-of-a-kind competitor?

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.

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About the author

I'm a cofounder and founding editor of Fast Company, coauthor of the 2006 book Mavericks at Work, and author of the forthcoming (January 2011) book Practically Radical.

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