“God only knows
God makes his plan
The information’s unavailable
To the mortal man
We work our jobs
Collect our pay
Believe we’re gliding down the highway
When in fact we’re slip slidin’ away
Slip slidin’ away
Slip slidin’ away
You know the nearer your destination
The more you’re slip slidin’ away”
Slip Slidin’ Away – Paul Simon
Well, ain’t that a kick in the pants. Seems like Mr. Simon is telling us that we’ll never arrive where we wanted to go. Maybe. I suppose that could be the case. However, I find a slightly different message in the words to Mr. Simon’s tune. One of my “Big Answers” in strategic management classes is “If you make a profit, ‘they’ will come.” See, if you arrive at your destination (let’s face it, one can be near enough for government work, at the very least) of success at creating value and being rare in the competitive space, you’ll make a profit. You’ll create more value than you consume, and your accountants will show you black numbers, positive numbers that indicate you’ve made… a profit. WOOHOO!!! And then… THEY… will come. Like the zombies in pretty much every zombie movie ever made, THEY will keep coming and your competitive advantage will slip slide away. Okay… who / what is THEY? What isn’t THEY? (That is the better question here!) Competitors, new technologies, the government, various stakeholders, media, activists, long lost relatives, and everybody else (and their aunt) who wants a piece of that value you have created. Guess what… THEY are all various flavors of eroding factors. Eroding factors are the things that work against your ability to create value and maintain rareness in the competitive space. THEY always come. Your business strategy needs to count on it.
Erosion… that word pops an image or two into most people’s minds when they read it or hear it. Some of the more common images I hear about are things like water tearing away at a roadway, a mudslide taking a house for a ride, or the wind blowing the topsoil away from a dry, lifeless field. I like to use that word regarding value and rareness. The word develops images that are good analogies to what happens when value creation and rareness are subjected to the creative destruction of the competitive environment. Joseph Schumpeter is credited with popularizing the concept of creative destruction in the market. Market participants are constantly seeking to destroy (they are eroding away) what exists today to create something better tomorrow.
At the societal level, that’s all to the good. Think about it. Having better quality cars over time is more desirable than having the same quality of cars that were made sixty years ago, correct? (Check out Havana for a quick example of that sort of frozen-in-time technology.) As a society, people want improvement in quality and productivity over time. People want the old to be eroded away and destroyed so that a better creation of value can happen tomorrow. That is the “magic” of the free market system when it operates well. Things get better. Fast. The competitive behavior and the eroding factors within that competitive environment serve to create more and more value over time, and often with much more productivity along the way.
But at the personal and organizational level, eroding factors… suck. Yeah, I said it. The official management / economic term in my lexicon is SUCK! Eroding factors are going to come. Your value creation is going to be attacked, perhaps from many different directions. Your rareness is going to be assaulted. That distinctive competency you had out there in the world? Well, that’s going to fold like a cheap wicker chair under a sumo wrestler. Any competitive advantage you had will be crushed. That profit you saw with those nice black numbers. Gone. A competitor is going to one-up you with new technology or better marketing… or something. The government is going to change a tax law that blows up your ability to use debt effectively… or something. An activist group is going to claim that you are the devil incarnate because you didn’t contribute to “the right cause” or advertised “in the wrong place”… or something. The consumers who loved your particular brand will decide a newer brand is cooler because some celebrity ditched your brand for that newer one… or something. I don’t know what will hit you, but eroding factors will hit you.
And that’s what I think about when I hear Mr. Simon sing about “slip slidin’ away” as he gets nearer to his destination. It doesn’t really matter if I ever reach the destination or not. The point for me is that I must realize eroding factors are going to come all along this life’s journey of creating value and being rare. I want to spot the eroding factors, know them, think about them, and do my dead-level best to come up with ways to stop them, dodge them, or flip them around and make them useful, if possible. That may mean that I erode away at myself, just like the leading edge technology companies tend to do. They release a technology while they are working on a better technology to replace it. After all, who could be better to replace the way I’m creating value today than… ME!... tomorrow!
I enjoy the storyline in the movie “Hidden Figures” that follows the human computers as they learn to become computer programmers and increase their value creation as their old jobs begin to disappear. The machines could replace what the women who were known as “computers” at NASA had been doing for years, but the women learned to program those machines. They embraced creative destruction, took the eroding factor of the machine computers, and turned it into a great opportunity.
Similarly, today there is a lot of discussion...an in come cases, panic...around the coming of artificial intelligence. It's a classic case of creative destruction, and I suppose it is natural to be a little uneasy as we all....and I mean all...stare obsolescence in the face. AI will change the world as we know it. It will erode your value and rareness. THEY will come.
Don’t let THEY catch you, eat your profits, and turn you into the walking dead. Think about how you create value, how you maintain rareness, and then think about the eroding factors that will pursue you. Think about enabling factors that will slow down, redirect, or flat-out stop eroding factors. Get those enablers moving. Increase the longevity of your distinctive competency (if you have one). And if you must, go ahead and be the one to replace yourself with even better value and rareness, embracing the opportunity in erosion if you can grab it. I developed the V-REEL way of thinking (Value, Rareness, Eroding Factors, Enabling Factors, Longevity) to help people stop “slip slidin’ away” from their destinations and, hopefully, hang on to competitive advantage for just a little bit longer.
Want to learn more about the V-REEL Framework? Think Beyond Value: Building Strategy to Win is now available as an e-book from Amazon and Barnes and Noble. You can also learn more via my podcast, Thinking Beyond: Conversations with Strategic Thinkers. If you find either useful, please offer a review and help others think through strategy all the way to the win.
Posted on Tue, January 23, 2018
by David Flint