When I was a kid I played chess, or at least a game that used the same board, pieces and rules that chess players use. I wasn’t all that good at it: I lacked the aptitude, I lacked the necessary patience, and mostly I was too lazy to study the game.
I substituted ingenuity for study of the game. Pitted against a superior antagonist, I copied his moves, figuring I’d stay even until I spotted an opportunity. Clever, don’t you think? I figured that since only tens of thousands of people had played the game over the centuries since its invention, the odds were good nobody had ever thought of this strategy before.
My opponent thought it was clever, too. “Mirror chess, hmmm?” he asked. Then he moved. “Checkmate,” he commented.
Mirror chess can’t win, which is why most companies that copy the strategies of more successful competitors don’t succeed. Right now you see this with technology companies entering the services business. IBM makes more selling services than technology, after all, so it must be a good strategy, mustn’t it?
Well, no. It’s a very bad strategy, precisely because it’s a good strategy for IBM. IBM is already there. So are EDS, CSC, Accenture, my old compadres at Perot Systems, and a zillion other companies as well. The services marketplace is overflowing with entrenched competitors. It’s mirror chess, and a losing strategy.
Does this mean a company should never copy a competitor’s moves? Not at all. There are at least two very good reasons to do exactly that. One is defensive: Sometimes the game is poker, and a competitor raises the ante — perhaps by improving service, or reducing time-to-market, or finding a way to dramatically cut costs. You can’t win by copying the move, but you might lose completely by failing to do so.
The other reason is offensive. Early in the life of a new marketplace a competitor proves a concept, then gets fat, happy and complacent. Whether it’s Microsoft taking over WordPerfect’s and Lotus 1-2-3’s turf, intranets taking over from Lotus Notes (see a trend?) or AOL taking over from CompuServe, moving into a good marketplace dominated by a weak competitor is a great strategy.
In chess the opponents start off with equal strength. In business that’s almost never the case, and level playing fields are for those who lack the wit to find one tilted in their favor.