Competitve Advantage

Airline Competitive Advantage

When I was younger there were certain assumptions one could make when they traveled on an airplane. You needed to have the actual tickets in your hand. So called last minute bookings could only happened at the airport. A Skycap’s cart looked like a candy store with bag tags in assorted colors with three letter codes printed on them. You bags were checked and no questions were asked. I think our dogs even flew for free in their kennels. The airline tickets came in at least triplicate. There was a smoking and non-smoking sections on the plane. Hot meals and beverages were included. Certain flights had three classes of services. The headphones were goofy looking and the in-flight movies were hard to see on the single screen at the front of the coach cabin.

It struck me this morning as I booked a flight that I choose the airline based on the lack of ‘add-on’ fees. I wanted my bag and skis to travel free to a weekend ski race and United Airlines which I frequent most often does not fly directly to the city so I decided I am going Southwest. Their competitive advantage has become the “bags fly free” campaign. Who would have thought that baggage fees would be the great division upon which branding campaigns could be launched.

What would it look like if we revisited some of our organization’s assumptions? Have they changed? Have trends and customer demands altered?

Competitive Advantage

Working with the social sector is an interesting paradox. You get innovative and leading answers to causes that are supported by a variety of fans and followers. The Board of Directors for many of these organizations often contains individuals with great business experience and acumen. The disconnect often comes when the Board or supporters try to transport their business expertise and toss them at the nonprofit sector. In my consulting and facilitation role I often find myself acting as a bit of a translator between the two worlds. Some axioms work in both worlds. The notion of ‘location, location, location’ (physical presence or virtual on social media). Others are tougher. Having successfully completed a strategic planning project for an independent school, one of the thrills was to have access to a method that promoted the idea of ‘competitive advantage.’ This term resonated with the business leaders- they are constantly monitoring competitive advantage in their small business and corporate sphere. They could speak about competitive advantage in both the business and nonprofit world and it needed no translation.

Today I found myself reading Seth Godin’s blog which spoke directly to notion of competitive advantage. He frames the definition effectively. I will add to his drumbeat by saying that you cannot rely on the universe to deliver endless support if you cannot quantify how you are uniquely position to succeed. How is your organization meeting the need or addressing the root of the cause you have tackled? Be brave. You are not stealing from others by identifying and understanding you competitive advantage. I would argue that you are instilling a foundation from which all of your efforts have a launching pad.

Learning the Dance

Do you recall your first time? The first time you rode a bike, perhaps hit a ball, mastered a puzzle, went on a date, graduated, won an award, traveled to a foreign country. Do you remember the first time you tried to perform the critical aspects of your current job?

The first strategic planning retreat I facilitated, my client was a museum and the board had not held a planning session in years. I worked for a week preparing PowerPoint slides, agendas, and handouts. I stirred myself awake at night thinking about contingency plans. I wondered what I would do if a part of the retreat got off-track or failed? I was a nervous wreck going in the door.

I would venture to say that I could facilitate the same retreat today and would be many times more effective. The result of the client’s planning would increase many fold. I could be called on tonight to work tomorrow morning and I would sleep just fine. Why?

I have hours of practice now. I have worked with incredibly motivated organizations, dysfunctional boards, inappropriate venues, challenging agendas, and even witnessed shouting matches between attendees. I have a routine. I am constantly adjusting and tweaking my performance but I know the key steps. I have tried multiple approaches, learned the strengths and failings of each one. My best laid plans have been hijacked and the most despondent moments have turned into watershed victories. One client recently thanked me for guiding an engagement that memorable for being particularly ineffective. I asked them what had transformed for the organization since the retreat. The client told me that they never wanted to feel so helpless again. The enterprise had come to realize they were wasting time and resources. It took dead calm seas for this group to get perspective on what was important.

We all have a dance, we know our steps. The music may change but we can work our same moves with a new beat. The power of the fundamental steps is the difference between a sleepless night and the certainty of success.

What moves have you perfected?

Cycling Strategy from Lance

I am a fan of cycling and a cyclist. My morning routine this time of year includes trying to catch a couple minutes of coverage of the Giro d’Italia on Universal Sports (living streaming coverage of the Tour of Italy). One of the team strategies that you see executed over a three week cycling tour is the strategy of sending a supporting teammate up the road on an early breakaway from the peleton (main group). One of the advantages of doing this is to the allow your team leader a chance to bridge forward and catch the teammate in the later portion of the race. Once the team leader catches the earlier breakaway, the domsetique (or support rider) buries himself using all their remaining energy to lead the star rider as close to the end of the race as possible before pulling to the side and allowing the star a chance to win the stage or gaining enough time to win the overall tour.

What I like about this tactic (and I believe may be useful to your organization) is that you take a calculated risk by putting a team member in the early breakaway. If the early breakaway fails then you have only expended the energy of one of your support riders. If the early breakaway happens to stay away, you have a team representative to contest for the win. Or, if your team leader is able to reach the earlier breakaway, you have an individual dedicated to supporting their chances. The team leader has little to risk until they make the final push for the win.

Is your organization considering a new program or service, possibly launching a new marketing campaign, adding key new personnel? Is there an opportunity to send a smaller advance party forward to see what the reaction of your customers and clients will be? Can you send a teammate up the road and then bring the rest of your organization along if the conditions appear favorable? Much better to alter the results of a trial program than to retool an entire enterprise because you put the organization at the front of the peleton too early.

Size Doesn’t Matter

Reading the Twitter tweets of Johann Bruyneel (@johanbruyneel), the Sports Director of the Astana Cycling Team- or as most people recognize him as the manager of Lance Armstrong’s Seven Tour de France wins. He posted a tweet the other night that was humorous and yet immediately one I could identify with:

If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room.”

You never can be too small to have an impact and if you are BIG remember how quickly something small can take all your attention.

Sharing Our Competitive Advantage


I attended a meeting for an educational institution the other day. One of the items on our agenda was to discuss our competitive advantage as a school compared to other educational institutions. There was a variety of opinion initially on how transparent we should be about publishing what we believed to be our ‘secret sauce.’ Should we openly share those qualities and programs that make our approach to education more uniquely positioned to be successful than similar schools. The dialogue was collegial and then the Headmaster of the school stated that he would lean towards letting it all out in the public’s view. Why not? We are in the field of education and enhancing the learning process is a core priority. Why not share with our students, parents, community, and even competitors? When completed we will publish our curriculum map and put details behind our course work. If another institution wishes to adopt the exact curriculum map then there will be no security breach.

In reflection, I realized that we are always sharing our competitive advantage on a constant basis. Out customers and fans have an on-going opportunity to evaluate our organizations in action. Word will get around. Think about the airline industry. There are very few differences between the carriers. We all have our favorite (or perhaps it is easier to think of our least favorite). The options are very similar across the board. So far the biggest difference is that the non-legacy carriers have been able to build platforms and business models that allowed for more uniformity (same type of aircraft, fewer fare classes, fewer unions). Our best customers walk around with a megaphone on as Seth Godin says in his book Small is the New Big. They shout about our competitive advantage to everyone who will listen. So perhaps taking a lead from educational institution- being transparent is the new math.