The Discipline of Market Leaders by Brian Treacy and Fred Wiersema (Basic Books, 1997) had a major impact on me when I first read it way back in 2002, even though it was already about six years old then.  

Guess what? It still packs a punch.

According to the authors, to build a market-leading company, you must choose one of three dimensions of value to build that business upon.  While your performance cannot be substandard in any of the three areas, you must commit fundamentally to one, building your entire culture and operations around that core area in order to separate from the pack.  

Here are the three dimensions of value and the components of the operating model needed to excel in each:

1. OPERATIONAL EXCELLENCE (Delivering the best-cost solution)

Operating imperative: Rigorously developed and deployed systems that minimize cost and maximize predictability/reliability.

  • Emphasis on processes that are standardized, simplified and tightly controlled, leaving few decisions to rank-and-file employees
  • Management systems that monitor and reward speed, reliability and adherence to process
  • A culture that extols efficiency and demonizes waste

Examples of operational excellence companies:  McDonald’s, Wal-Mart and Southwest Airlines.

2. PRODUCT LEADERSHIP (Delivering the best-quality solution)

Operating imperative: Promotion of processes of invention, product development, and continuous market exploitation.

  • A business structure that is less formal and more fluid and entrepreneurial to adjust quickly to market developments and destabilizations
  • Management systems that measure and reward results more than adherence to process and that don’t punish occasional maverick behavior
  • A culture that encourages individual imagination, accomplishment, out-of-the- box thinking, and a mind-set driven by the desire to create

Examples of product leadership companies: Apple, Nike and Harley-Davidson

C. CUSTOMER INTIMACY (Tailoring product/service to a specific set of customers)

Operating imperative: Building and maintaining an enterprise-wide orientation towards solution development, i.e., working with and helping the customer understand exactly what is needed and developing the processes and programs to get it to them.

  • A business structure that pushes the decision-making power to those closest to the customer
  • Management systems measure and reward achieving sustainable results for strategically chosen clients
  • A culture that emphasizes those values and principles that maximize deep, long-lasting client relationships

Examples of customer intimacy companies: Nordstrom, USAA and Zappos.

The book has generated some criticism over the years, and while it isn’t perfect, I think the detractors miss the point:  The core message of The Discipline of Market Leaders is the idea that the true value of a strategy is that it provides the central organizing principal or philosophy that guides everything that the organization does.

As I have helped many of my consulting and coaching clients understand and achieve, any enterprise — from the smallest mom and pop to the FORTUNE 100 — that can show this kind of discipline and focus will enjoy have a huge advantage in the marketplace.

Which will you choose for your company?

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Every smart business makes it point to pay attention to the competition.  While you should never spend exorbitant amounts of time dissecting every minor move nor murmur that your competitors make, you do need to know broadly what they are up to.

Are they launching new products or services?  Are they entering new markets or exiting old ones? Have they established a new business alliance or partnership?

The good news is that the Internet has made keeping tabs on your competition easier than ever.  Here are some great ways to do so:

Start with Google. You can find treasure troves of competitive info on this 800-pound gorilla of web search.  Start by doing Google searches such as: “companyname” filetype: doc.  Change the file type to .pdf, .xls, or .ppt to find information in other forms, such as a pdf file or a Powerpoint presentation.   And don’t just focus on the company name. Google the names of their key people as well.

Explore LinkedIn. LinkedIn is hands down my favorite social network, and its utility for competitive analysis one of the main reasons why.  Sign up to follow a company and you will get notices when they post updates to their LinkedIn page. Those updates run the gamut from new clients to new products to new hires. You also can search a company’s name on LinkedIn to find current and former employees who have LinkedIn profiles.

Troll Twitter and Facebook chatter. If members of your industry hang out on Facebook, monitor their conversations. Many events have a Twitter hashtag that people use to chat and post speakers’ comments live. If a competitor is speaking, “listen” in, and you will often find out great early info. And don’t forget to monitor their key employees and/or partners.

Peruse job sites. Job portal Indeed (www.indeed.com) is a great place for digging out job postings because it aggregates listings from many online job boards. Watch the skills a company may be hiring for; they’re a leading indicator for new initiatives, or they may indicate that a key employee may be leaving soon.

Check out Quora. Popular with technology crowds and venture capitalists, Quora (www.quora.com) holds a huge database of interesting competitive questions on such topics as a company’s future plans. Often, company employees provide the answers, and they generally reply using their true identities, which is often no the case on other social Q&A sites.

These are just a few of the ways to keep tabs on your competitors online. Get cracking on a couple of them today!

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