Think sideways to move forward

images-23In an earlier post I wrote about the “stack fallacy“, which in short is the thinking that since I’m already doing the “hard” part, I can and should move up the stack to do more of the complete product, typically in order to capture more revenue. I want to talk a little about the flip side of this coin. By that, I mean the inherent under-appreciation of what we do well.  It is a strange combination of thinking that what I am doing is the hard part yet at the same time is not enough in & of itself to make a business of.  I wrote about this a bit in my post called Strengths & Weaknesses.  To break out of it, and get to the business version of “Be Yourself”, try thinking sideways…

It is human nature to look over at “the other guy” and envy how good he has it, and wish we had what he has. Not only is this common & damaging in our personal lives (and fostered by advertising!), but it happens in the business world as well.  Chemical companies look with envy upon the finished-goods providers, component suppliers want to be device makers, and device makers strive to create whole ecosystems.  Each believes the promise land is to move “up” from where they are now.  Whether they realize it or not, in doing this, they are (perhaps dangerously) undervaluing what they do well already.

3M is a good example to talk about here, for several reasons–they are not often referred to as a corporate example (please, no more Apple comparisons!), they are a very successful material company that has made some full-product attempts, and I worked with them personally for several years on one of those attempts.  I worked with them on making small so-called “pocket projectors“.  These projectors, as well as larger projectors, use their specialty film.  They are 3M’s attempt to “move up the stack”.   They explored doing this without sacrificing their core worth as a company, even though it was “only” as a material supplier.  They do still sell some of these, but the revenue is a rounding error on their main business, which they have successfully stuck to for over 60 years.

Acres of Diamonds is a parable that explains how the path to success is often already possessed by us, right under our nose.  It is indicative both of how long this has been happening as well as how often we need a reminder.  So how do we practice avoiding this behavior?  For me, I “think sideways”.  By this, I mean our normal thinking, which includes envying what others have or can do while underestimating our own abilities, is what I call “linear thinking”.  It is easy, fostered by society around us, and un-subtle.  So, when I catch myself doing it, I try to think sideways, which is to start with what I already have or can do, and think of how to expand it.  It is a bit like playing to your strengths, but even further, and thinking how to expand them.

In your business, trying to move up the stack is linear thinking.  Everyone’s doing it, investors all seem to want it, and it is easy to go with the flow and assume it is the right path.  Sideways thinking is saying “What if, just what if, I can only do what I am already good at?  This is my unique value-add, my competitive advantage.  I don’t have to learn it or buy it, I already possess it.  What ELSE could I do with it?”  It is amazing what you can come up with.  If you have done this, please chat about it in the comments.


  1. Andrew Azadian says:

    Well said. Take a look at Steve Achor on TED Talk, and I think you will find his work/thoughts align.

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