Is your company running faster and faster just to stay in place?
Is your company running faster and faster just to stay in place? It’s a phenomenon called the Red Queen Effect, inspired by the Alice in Wonderland character. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
The Red Queen Effect is, as you might imagine, popular in evolutionary biology, but it’s a useful way of thinking about competition in business, too. It’s not enough to move forward if your competition is moving forward at the same rate.
How do you get ahead? How do you stay ahead?
If you’re in an industry not known for innovation, running faster than everyone else—or maybe just running at all—is a reasonable strategy. Insurance and healthcare delivery often top the list of industries needing a refresh, but it’s not clear that there’s a lot of incentive to lace up the trainers.
That’s changing, according to that master of juicy metaphors, Professor Galloway:
The U.S. healthcare industry is a wounded 7-ton seal, drifting aimlessly, bleeding into the sea. Predators are circling. The blood in the water is unearned margin: price increases, relative to inflation, without a concomitant improvement in quality. Amazon is the lurking megalodon, its 11-foot jaws and 7-inch teeth the largest in history. With the acquisition of One Medical, Amazon is no longer circling … but attacking.
OK, Galloway’s Jaws metaphor has messed with our running analogy. But still: shark, grizzly bear, whatever—if you are in a sleepy industry, it’s time to start moving.
Another way to stay ahead: have lots of moves at the ready. After all, this race is not a straight course. It’s chess, not bowling.
People tend to talk about pipelines in terms of new product concepts, but that’s limiting. Better to think of a pipeline as a portfolio of moves ranging from the tactical to the systemic. Amy Webb writes often on how to think like a futurist: her framework acknowledges the need for near-in tactics and strategy but encourages thinking about “far-out” systemic change as well. You need it all.
Practically, that means you need vetted new product concepts that get you out of the strategic starting blocks in a burst of energy. But you also need mid-race tactical moves: pricing tweaks or responses to changes in supply chain. The point is that you need a lot of moves in your pipeline to respond to different competitive scenarios. “Plans are nothing,” said Dwight D. Eisenhower. “Planning is everything.”
Don’t just run—take a running leap into a whole new race. Really big breakthrough change—like the invention of the iPhone or iPad—can remake competition in your favor. Of course, it’s also incredibly risky.
De-risking a giant leap is harder than de-risking an incremental one. It’s why giant leaps don’t happen that often. Big companies are usually pretty bad at disruptive change (Innovator’s Dilemma, anyone?), and Apple is a rare exception. But even if incumbents can’t disrupt, they can change their own game and adapt to disruption–it just means running extra fast and not tripping on fallen competitors. This is arguably happening in the electric vehicle market, where VW and others are giving Tesla a run for its money. And it can work: incumbents stay incumbents for longer than you think.
One other thing: disruptive change isn’t disruptive forever and, before you know it, you are back to all the running you can do to stay in the same place. Netflix, for example, enjoyed a years-long advantage in the streaming industry it more or less invented. Until it didn’t. Now, it’s employing near-in tactics—a cheaper, ad-supported tier—to run just a little faster than the competition. And companies like Disney—an incumbent who adapted quite neatly to a new game—are smiling like the Cheshire cat.