Heading for the Open Space

by Joe Flower

International Copyright 1997 Joe Flower All Rights Reserved
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Let me call up an image from another article in this series: The deep bellow of the male lion shatters the still of the African night, and the antelopes run, terrified -- straight into the jaws of the female lions waiting silently in the tall grass. The safer choice would have been the paradoxical one, the one antelopes never take, to run toward the roar.

Paradox, it turns out, is the place of insight, of generating new thoughts. The answer to the question, "If I must change, how do I know in which direction?" can sometimes be found in paradox: Do what you most fear. Run toward the roar. The places of weakness are the places of the greatest potential growth. Maintain your present strength, but pour your energy into whatever you instinctually avoid.

That was using paradox to look inward. Looking outward, we get another answer: go toward open space.

This is a market-oriented answer. The temptation of the market is to make decisions like a herd animal, to seek safety by doing what everyone else is doing. If everyone is beavering away building partnerships, then find a partner, quick. If everyone is restructuring, better restructure.

But we're not new at this. We've been in this turbulence for years now. Look back over the last decade and ask yourself: Of all those things that everyone else was doing that seemed so white-knuckle critical at the time, how many of them worked out? Total Quality turned out to be extremely valuable -- and maybe 23 times harder and slower than anybody ever told you it would be. That partner your organization was slavering after turned out to have a whole different definition of the market than you did, and amazing resistance to innovation -- maybe you should have spent a little more time before rushing into that one. That brilliant marketing plan that took you a year to work out with three partners ran into a brick wall of consumer resistance -- something nobody had thought to research beforehand.

It's possible that
"Follow The Other Guy"
is not the golden road
to transformation.

It's possible that "Follow The Other Guy" is not the golden road to transformation. In fact, the three questions that are most helpful in deciding your path, as a person or an organization, lie almost completely in the other direction:

1) "What am I really good at?" (Play to your strengths.)

2) "What am I afraid of?" (Run toward the roar)

3) "What is no one else doing?" (Head for the open space.)

Heading for the open space means looking for the hole in the market, searching for what no one else is doing. That roaring you hear may be the voice of the customer.

Take the Internet. The array of Internet technologies is mushrooming. Communication standards and security solutions are developing rapidly. The number of people who can access the net either at work, at school, or at home is rising swiftly. WebTV and other cheap access methods are showing up. All this means that Internet technologies are likely to be able to add value, lower costs, and increase quality in a wide variety of ways -- not only between the organization and the consumer, but between the organization and its buyers, its vendors, its partners, its professionals, and the industry as a whole -- over the coming decade. Some industries, as well as some organizations in all industries, have made great strides in using the Internet for efficiency and quality.

Yet others are hanging back. Many leaders understand the potential of the Internet, yet have done nothing significant to realize this potential. Almost every organization has email and some kind of web site -- that was the herd instinct at work -- but only a few have worked out an Internet strategy to take full advantage of the whole array of technologies. Most actually restrict access to the net inside the organization.

There are many reasons for this, including security concerns, concerns about reliability in mission-critical areas, and deep investment in legacy technology that has no way to connect to the net. But here's the market point: such techno-bashfulness is rapidly creating a huge open space. Organizations that step forward into that space by investing fully in Internet solutions are likely to create a competitive advantage over those that do not. And that advantage is likely to widen, rather than narrow, as time goes by. Adopting a technology is not like adopting a new marketing program or building a new building. Even if much of the actual plumbing is outsourced, making the strategic decisions and managing their implementation requires building up institutional capacity and institutional memory. It requires making mistakes and learning from them. Typically, in a technology race, those who start first tend to stay ahead.

The middle
of the pack
is a place
of helplessness.

Going for the open space is a risk. It's scary. Being in the middle of the pack feels safe -- but it's only safe if the rest of the pack are your allies. If they are your competitors, the middle of the pack is a place of helplessness. The middle of the pack controls no one.

Get out in front of the pack, either as leader or quarry, and you have a measure of control. How does the quarry control the pack that is hunting it? By choosing the terrain, choosing the ground on which the chase will take place. That's why most dogs, most of the time, come back with no rabbit.

Think about pricing in healthcare, for instance. Who controls pricing in a region? The low-cost supplier, not the average one. Everyone else has to deal with the fact that Joe Doaks Memorial Medical Center is selling brain transplants for a dollar three-eighty. Who sets the bar for quality in a region? The highest-quality provider, not the average one. If people call your Valley Community Hospital "Death Valley" behind its back, and someone else in town has captured the public image of Great Shining Temple of Medicine, you've got a problem. The low-cost provider and the high-quality provider have gone for the open space at the end of the cost and quality continuum. They each offer something definite and unique to buyers. They have each staked out a territory that no one else occupies. In a sense, they have no competitors.

If quality and cost run together -- if the high-quality provider is high-cost, and the low-cost provider is perceived to be low quality -- then perhaps everyone else in town can find a comfortable spot on the quality/cost continuum. But often the opposite is true. High cost is sometimes dictated by producing the highest quality. Just as often it is dictated by sloppy processes -- which also lead to low quality, which further leads to high costs. In any industry in which that is true, it is possible for one organization to capture both open spaces -- highest quality and lowest cost -- and simply collapse the marketing continuum between them. If that isn't you, you're in trouble.

Heading for that open space -- whether it's the end of the cost-quality continuum, or finding a niche no one else is occupying, or identifying particular populations to market -- is scary.

Whatever I am
wrestling with
is me.

Yet there is a magical reflective quality to taking on a challenge. In a way, the actual nature of the challenge is arbitrary. Whatever I am wrestling with is me. If I choose not to wrestle, I learn nothing about myself. If I choose to wrestle, I learn my true nature, whatever it is that I wrestle with. An organization that takes on no challenges -- even if it is top of the heap, perfect, nobody has any complaints about it -- learns nothing, and has no skill at transforming itself when the challenge suddenly shows up.

When you head for that open space, by definition you are doing something for which you don't have a lot of examples, something at which you don't have a lot of practice. You will make some mistakes. I think of a sentence I have heard three times, with slight variations, on the martial arts mat, from a Wall Street trader, and from an organizational executive: "If it works every time, you're not trying hard enough."

If you know exactly what you are doing, if you could do this in your sleep, if you could mail in your performance, that's great in walking a mail route. It's not great in running an organization trying to survive in the midst of turbulent change. In a changing environment you must be protean. You must transform yourself rapidly, intelligently, purposefully, and constantly. As Bob Dylan put it. "He not busy being born is busy dying." The true risk lies, in fact, in not changing. The true risk lies in the middle of the pack, galloping headlong over the veldt through the hot darkness into the jaws of the waiting lions.

How change works | Change happens| The five fundamentals of change | What is your goal? | Core concepts| Skills | Skill-building resources | Touching what is, touching what might be | Paradox | Habits of mind | Scenario spinning | Coming out | Breaking the trance | Finding a new path | Why it's important | Four quadrants | Psychological roots | Change Processes | Main Page