Stop focussing on your competition

How abandoning a competitor-focused mindset helps organisation‘s resilience.

Competition has led humanity to outstanding achievements. The USA raced against the Soviet Union to the moon. Athletes strive to shave off milliseconds to beat their competitors, providing thrilling entertainment. 

I’m not against competition. However, in the business context, we often get it wrong, I think.

In every medium or large media company I’ve worked for so far, I’ve observed a specific behaviour: an almost obsessive focus on the competitors.

There are good reasons to check the stories of other newspapers. Journalism is a complex network of information gathering. Every journalist is contributing to paint a fuller picture. And it would be undoubtedly valid to ask: “Newspaper X wrote about issue Z. Is there another aspect of Z that we can cover?”

Practically, there’s more copy and paste involved. A substantial amount of resources go into writing off competitors’ stories. Partly because it’s a cheap way to fill your platform with content. Partly because newsrooms are terrified of not reporting something.

Here, a vicious cycle shows:

  1. Media companies lose ad revenue and lay off journalists.
  2. The remaining journalists struggle to keep the same amount of information flow.
  3. As original reporting takes more time and money, the copying starts, and it feels like every news platform is reporting the same.
  4. The audience is unhappy and loses trust, creating even a more dire situation for the newsrooms.

The cycle is well-known, at least amongst media scientists, educators, and journalists themselves. “Do what you do best and link to the rest,” said journalism professor Jeff Jarvis back in 2009 while describing his vision for the future of journalism.

And if you take the textbook definition of journalism, the lack of diversity is already a huge problem.

However, there’s a second aspect impacted by the focus on competitors: product development. 

Newsrooms are struggling to establish a product-driven mindset anyway. Since journalists and “product people” like developers or designers need to work closely together, it’s essential to understand the competition-focused perspective of the newsroom.

The newsroom has a lot of influence within a media company. They are the engine room of the operation. Without it, there’s no audience. And without an audience, there’s no business model.

As the obsession with competition ran wild for years, this mindset is deeply ingrained in the organisation. As a result, the outcome for product development is even more severe than for journalism – at least from a business perspective. If you create your product roadmap by looking at the competitors, you will always stay in second place. And this is very expensive.

Photo: Braden Collum

Coming back to the sports analogy: Think of a racing driver that only drives precisely the lines of the driver in front of him. Will there ever be an opportunity for overtaking?

Maybe, but only if the other one makes a crucial mistake. And that’s just a lousy strategy counting on that.

Obviously, taking a different approach than the competition is inherently risky. There’s a good chance that a new feature may fail, and that’s never a desired possibility for an already financially stressed industry.

On the other hand, I would argue that there’s also a chance of failure if you just copy your competitors because the audience might differ heavily. For example, if your audience is between 40 and 60, copying a feature from a news site that focuses on 20-somethings might not be the best idea.

However, leaving the competitor focus comes with benefits. You’ll tap into something that Simon Sinek calls the “Infinite Mindset”, where you’ll focus on your organisation’s individual needs. 

Finite games, like football or chess, have known players, fixed rules, and a clear endpoint. The winners and losers are easily identified. In infinite games, like business or politics or life itself, the players come and go, the rules are changeable, and there is no defined endpoint. There are no winners or losers in an infinite game, there is only ahead and behind. (Source)

Instead of being driven by competitors, you’ll fasten the seatbelt yourself and become the driver. Then, you start looking for the fundamental answers: How might we create a sustainable business model? Or how is our service adding value to people’s lives? These questions and the answers companies find help to build a resilient organisation.

So, is competition all bad? No, not at all. Having a worthy competitor means you’ll stay on your feet and don’t get lazy. 

But competitors should never be your leaders. Competition is an inspiration.