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The Behaviorist: Why it's worth finding the difference

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I was recently in a restaurant on Philly's vibrant Walnut Street. In the hip little bathroom mirror, floating above my head, appeared the message: YOU DO YOU.

The words were painted backwards on the door so it’s only readable in the mirror’s reflection, exactly the moment when one most needs this powerful reminder.

My days are mostly spent building high-performance organizational behavior through enhanced collaboration, communication, leadership and culture. However, there is a practice from the field of strategic planning that serves organizations well in imprinting the best behaviors.

That practice is differentiation, which involves discerning how your company is different and even better in some unique way. By celebrating and marketing how its identity differs, an organization can accomplish a competitive advantage. In other words: You Do You. Let the other companies figure out their differentiators, but you focus your energy on what makes you special and how that intersects with your market’s interests.

In the exceptional bestseller “Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works,” Lafley and Martin explain that differentiation is an alternative to having to compete based on lowest cost. Loyalty emerges when the customer’s underlying interests and values line up with a company’s differentiator.

Differentiation makes a company or product more valuable in customers’ eyes, often to the point at which they are willing to pay more. Discerning what is unique about your company will enable you to identify your ideal customer, delivery channels and price point, along with other elements of your business model.

Kedren Crosby
Kedren Crosby - ()

While differentiation is typically considered to be a strategic planning tool, I have been impressed by how it can also be used to shape organizational behaviors and habits.

To use a local business example, Lemon Street Market in Lancaster has intentionally discerned its own differentiation strategy. Its uniqueness hinges on its deeply community-responsible business practices. In the market’s case, as with most organizations, understanding the characteristic(s) that made the founder successful at the organization’s beginning is the key to identifying a core differentiator. In fact, customers highly value Lemon Street Market’s communitarian practices.

As a result of this realization and differentiation strategy, owner Trish Haverstick is now designing means to manage talent and build behaviors, habits, culture and even a built environment that further establish the company’s focus on the triple bottom line (people/planet/profit). There are plans for a leave policy to volunteer for local nonprofits, a marketing campaign that highlights core values and recruitment based on alignment with the organization’s differentiator.

Another example is the celebrated design firm IDEO, whose “human-centric” products include the computer mouse and stand-up toothpaste containers. IDEO’s human-centered design informs how it crafts its organizational behaviors. IDEO employees are steeped in developing ‘empathy for the customer’ to understand the psychology, motivations and design challenges of customers. IDEO employees have a cultural norm for intense brainstorming and rapid prototyping to try many ideas with rough versions of products. These organizational behaviors are crafted with the intention of bolstering and solidifying what already makes the company different and special.

Those in highly competitive industries with razor-thin margins are wise to focus on differentiation for both strategy and culture shaping. It prevents the wasteful splashing around ‘making the water wetter,’ which occurs when we attempt to be all things to all people. Differentiation is also helpful in that it curtails the temptation to excessively compare your company to others. Comparison often robs both our joy and our creativity, leaves us feeling jealous or defensive, and blinds us to our unique capabilities.

A company becomes a more potent and engaged version of itself through differentiation. By internally and externally messaging what’s different about your organization (whether it be human-centered design, socially responsible business practices, or whatever your own company’s differentiator is, leaders can hire, incentivize and engineer behaviors to align with this uniqueness. Ask yourself and your team, “What made us successful in the beginning?” “When are we most exceptional?” “What are the stories we have on heavy rotation and the ones that we tend to share with our new employees?” “What are the stories that outsiders tell about us?”

Once you land on your differentiator and uncover how this can be meaningful to your customers, be creative about how (through hiring, behaviors, environment, branding, words and habits) you can collectively become the next better version of yourself. You Do You.

Kedren Crosby is President of Work Wisdom LLC, a Lancaster-based firm specializing in organizational culture, communication, collaboration, conflict and coaching. She can be reached at kedren@workwisdomllc.com or 717-327-7780.

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