Innovation is a bike ride
I have a yearly tradition — a century bike ride along the beautiful beaches of New Hampshire and Maine.
The ride, all of 100 miles, is really really long as you can expect. It feels much longer if one is in the worst shape of one’s life (I, hereby, not-so-proudly announce that I am the One).
So, I had a lot of time to ponder a lot of thoughts. Almost half way through the ride, I came across a bunch of riders (or a Peloton as they are called) — and that got me thinking.
Bikers in long rides often group together to maximize draft — or in other words, minimize friction. As long as you are with the bunch you are guaranteed smooth sailing and you can reduce friction, fatigue and exhaustion.
But in the case of bike races — where you ride to win — sticking with the pack will ensure that you will never be able to guarantee your lead. To do so, you need to jump from the pack. You need to breakaway.
And breaking away is hard — you are charting your own course. There is no one to draft behind. All the air friction is yours to deal with. You risk exhausting yourself and if you aren’t careful, you may fall behind and open a gap or may be forced to pack!
So, choosing when to breakaway is critical. You need to know your strengths. Some wait till the peloton is tired and kick it.
Some wait till a descent.
Some just do it out of Panache — a lot of courage and self-confidence, and style!
And there are the ticket collectors — who sit comfortably at the back of the pack mostly. They rarely get ahead of the field. Rarely kick it. Rarely find themselves in an uncomfortable situation. They have an enjoyable ride, but can never win a race.
That was my labored analogy to innovation, and sustaining competitive advantage of a business. Get it?
If you are an established company, or if you are a business employing tried-and-tested means of making money, you are in the pack. You benefit from the shared benefits against friction and mostly go untested. You may even sometimes spend that little extra effort and get to the head of the pack, only to fall back to the tail sometime soon.
Such businesses have a minimal or non-existent business advantage. They may not be doomed, but are always behind others in innovating and pioneering new products and services.
Then there are the breakout specialists like Tesla and Apple, who quickly step ahead of the race with a kick, and keep pedaling circles and maintain tempo. And them there are lead outs like Microsoft who may not be the first to breakaway, but they trail behind other sprinters and eventually mount a massive lead as the sprinters fall off the back.
Such businesses focus on the kick — a transient advantage, but one so huge that you get to dominate an entire market segment. They also face tremendous headwinds, challenges due to prevailing culture within the marketplace, friction due to obsolete legal and compliance policies. One recent example that comes to mind is Uber. They were, along with Lyft and a handful other services, the pioneers in ride-sharing. And the amount of scrutiny and legal hurdles they had to endure reflects their position — far ahead of their nearest competitors.
Stretching the analogy further — here are a few tips for business teams looking to innovate, or startups looking to disrupt an existing field of incumbents.
Watch where you are going
Always know where you are going. Stay aware of the competition. Stay awoke!
Never give up
You may end up the wrong road, and may suffer a nasty fall. But get back and keep spinning. If you persist, you can breakaway! Keep innovating, and keep up the positive spirit until you make it big!
Find the right bunch
Spot the squirrels, and the inconsistent riders. Stay away from disorganized and uncoordinated bunches. Find the peloton that is just the right tempo for you.
Be prepared to collaborate for shared success
There are various bicycling formations that help spread the wind resistance/friction and help maximize the performance of all members of the formation.
Collaboration is critical for success of a business in a competitive environment with complementary capabilities.
Know when to breakaway
Know your strengths. Keep testing your limits, but do not commit yourself to the sprint unless you are ready.
Believe in yourself
Long rides can be draining, and especially the last hour of the ride is especially challenging. When looking to win a race, that is where you can lose all your hard work.
So, when things get tough — tell yourself you can step up. Believe in your potential.
Competition can be tiring and draining. But you can do yourself a favor by making the journey fun.
Have fun, and let others have fun. That’s the best way to win!
If you liked the cycling analogy or utterly hated it — do leave a comment. Join along for the ride…