In his book, The Infinite Game, Simon Sinek talks about the value of rivals versus competitors. Companies often focus on beating their competitors—in a pitch, for annual market share, or for profit performance. And while superior competitive performance is important, focusing on being better than the competition is limiting. Beating a competitor means you’re only better than them. It doesn’t mean you have achieved your company’s true potential. It can give a business leader a false sense of satisfaction. A rivalry is better because it pushes you to constantly strive for long-term excellence. It pushes you to think outside of the narrow boundaries of one competitive situation.
When you think about the Duke-Carolina Final Four NCAA game on April 2nd, the actual outcome of that one finite game mattered less for the programs than their long-standing rivalry. You may think it’s easy for me, a Tar Heel, to say that given the outcome of the game. In truth, it’s the rivalry, which is more than one game or even one season, that pushes each program to even greater heights. That rivalry is partially measured by wins and losses in individual games but it’s also measured in how both programs have continued to push their sport to higher levels. The innovations from both programs—practice and training methodologies, one and done players, new game strategies—all elevate both their programs, other conference teams and college basketball. And while fans of both teams were either euphoric or crushed at the end of Saturday night’s game, deep down most know that it’s the rivalry more than the game outcome that should be cherished.
The same can be said for great business rivalries. Look at Apple vs. Microsoft and the transformative impact that resulted from both companies looking beyond the competition in one quarter or even one market segment. Apple moved far beyond its competition with Microsoft to expand beyond into new categories like mobile phones, music and even photography. It transformed the customer experience as well as the business models in those industries. Microsoft has become the go-to platform for empowering business and individuals to do more with software, gaming consoles and developer tools. Neither would have achieved nearly as much if they had simply focused on winning the PC vs. Mac game.
So my advice to business leaders, especially those who like me have some free time now that March Madness is over, is to find yourself a good and worthy rival—one that will push you to think bigger and aim higher.