Competition is inherent in a capitalist system. In fact, competition is often even viewed as a great heroine in capitalist economies—a driver of internal efficiency that pushes down end cost to the consumer and creates the greatest number of positive social outcomes. I point out these presuppositions only because, considering the government’s involvement in enterprise since 2007, you might have forgotten that businesses actually do compete to survive.
I have observed two basic views toward competition. The first is strategic and logical—the calling card of ancient Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu. In the 8th century B.C., Tzu wrote, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of 100 battles.” While Tzu’s Art of War has been welcomed to the modern popular business canon, quoted by business gods as high up as Donald Trump, and followed scrupulously by a number of forward thinking managers, I wonder if this is truly the answer to competition that business needs—the solution that creates the greatest number of positive outcomes. The problem with war metaphors in business is the often overlooked nature of war—destructive. Does IBM really want to destroy HP? Do you really want to destroy your competition? Maybe, but I’m not convinced.
Soren Kierkegaard, in Works of Love, offers the opposite perspective. In context, his words deal with the danger of comparison in an erotic (or preferential) relationship. He says
“Do not listen to the cries or shouts which will trick you out of your enthusiasm and fool its power into labouring on the treadmill of comparisons. Do not let it disturb you that the world calls your enthusiasm crazy, calls it self-love…”
The treadmill is an interesting proof, because it implies an infinite cycle. As such, we see another important distinction between love and war. Love is inherently infinite, wheras war is finite. Given that business is a going concern, and that, at its highest aspiration, competitive advantage is made sustainable, perhaps love is a more suitable metaphor than war. Granted, you might see that ‘comparison’ and ‘competition’ do not create a 1:1 basis of evaluation. They are certainly separate concepts. But, how often do you see competition without also experiencing comparison? It seems that, while not a requisite component, comparison is unbelievably common, and maybe even inescapable, in modern competition.
Perhaps the two approaches can and should co-exist? To decide on this point, let’s examine the consequences of comparison. Kierkegaard says
“In comparison everything is lost; love is made finite and the debt is something to repay just like any other debt…What does comparison always lose? It loses the moment, the moment which should be filled with the expression of the life of love.”
In terms of our argument, it can thus be said that comparison in competition is dangerous to the going concern of a business, because in comparison, a business loses a moment it will never get back. What could have been done with that moment? Maybe nothing. But, in the aggregate, it could mean lost sales, slower fulfillment, less product development, and any number of negative outcomes. Not only do you lose the moment, Kierkegaard says you have lost enthusiasm which enables the “expression of the life of love.” Translated to business terms, you are wasting the time, money, and employee morale that makes you unique and competitive in the first place. Clearly, a business must win customers and keep them, and they must know their resources and capabilities in order to do this—but overcomparison is a great leveler that will eventually only draw you closer with the competition.
How do you compete? Do you forge a unique path based on your resources and capabilities? Or do you try to outmaneuver the competition? How much time, money and morale are you wasting in comparison—in constant gambits to stay ahead? Have you considered the inverse relationship between focus on competitors and competitive advantage? Will you now?