There is a pervasive misconception in college athletics that has hindered many programs’ ability to create sustained success – that the very essence of competition requires there to be a winner and a loser. While we endeavor to instill a belief within our student-athletes that they must be at their best at all times if they intend to triumph over their foes, in the business world, such a philosophy couldn’t be further from the truth. When it comes to building prosperous teams and organizations in almost any context, there is simply no such thing as “the best.”
To illustrate, let us for a moment step away from college athletics and into a seemingly mundane industry like grocery stores. While you are likely aware of the distinction between the types of products your local Kroger might carry as compared to say a Whole Foods, the average shopper likely assumes that both stores have similar layouts. In reality, every supermarket chain configures their stores in different ways. For example, higher end super markets tend to place their produce sections near the entrances of their stores so as to immediately communicate the freshness of their products to shoppers. On the other hand, value chains like Walmart will often place their bakery sections closer to the front of the stores so as to create a sensory and salivary experience upon entering (and force you to buy your toddler a cupcake before leaving). There is no best way to layout a store because each chain aims to create different experiences for their target customers.
If we can agree that there is no such thing as the “best” grocery store layout, then we can apply the same principle to just about any area of business. Wherever we look, we begin to realize that being the best is a narrative that serves to satisfy only our own notions of achievement. There is no best movie for your family to watch. There is no best restaurant for you to dine in. There is no best way to sell season tickets, and there certainly is no best way to run a college athletics program.
Whether we want to admit it or not, our football team can be successful even if our arch rival is too. Winning in college athletics is not a zero-sum game because it follows the same rules as any other industry – rivals can both co-exist and thrive together if they appreciate that there is no one best way to compete with one another. Yet administrators and coaches almost universally assume that their program’s success can only come at the cost of their adversaries. Even more so, the industry does nothing but feed fuel into this notion by constantly forcing schools to benchmark themselves against one another. Didn’t finish in the Top 25? Must have had been a down year. They ranked where in the Directors’ Cup? Shame, shame, shame.
But if we’re not supposed to measure ourselves against our rivals, then how do we become better? According to Harvard Business School professor and renowned business strategist Michael Porter, it starts with competing to be unique. As discussed previously, organizations that focus on identifying and exploiting a superior value proposition almost always fare better than those who are too busy worrying about what their competition is doing. Once you understand that you can’t attract every type of student athlete, nor can compete at a high level in every single sport, then you start the process of achieving the results that are actually within your reach.
Nevertheless, while you may think that you understand how buzz wordy concepts like “competitive advantage” and “unique value proposition” work, chances are you don’t. Management consultant Joan Magretta, who wrote the definitive book on Porter’s work, spent time with senior executives from dozens of Fortune 500 companies and in the process discovered that even the most in-tune and educated of the group wrongly assumed that their elaborate business plans actually constituted a viable differentiation strategy. Magretta’s core findings can be narrowed into three common mistakes executives make.