Authentic Competitive Distinctiveness — It’s all in the details

by cv harquail on May 19, 2011

There’s a great photo in the New York Times (May 19, 2011) of a whitepaper chart created to manage the Delta-Northwest Merger’s Long and Complex Path.

The chart is full of of post-its, probably more than 200 of them. Each post-it reflects a point where the systems and processes of the organizations need to be integrated, and the assorted colors represent the type of operational system where the integration task is to be solved.


Notwithstanding the low tech-ness of their process, this post-it chart is an amazing view of what it takes to put together two very different, very distinctive companies.

One Post-It = Two Different Cultural Expressions

Each post-it note reflects not only an integration task, but a point where the cultures and identities of these two companies are made concrete. Each post-it shows a place where the culture of one organization is different from the culture of the other. To resolve each of these integration tasks, the merger team has to decide which behavior, which system and which characteristic with be chosen for the ‘new’ merged culture, and which behaviors, systems and characteristics will be rejected.

While one spokesperson notes that these amount of work to resolve these details is ‘boring’, I see it as rather fascinating. That’s because opportunities for the merger team to create a distinctive, merged organizational culture exist at each of these points. The merger team needs to chose one concrete expression over the other.

What matters is not only which behavior is chosen, but also why it is chosen, and what that behavior is supposed to express.

Take this very subtle distinction, from Jad Mouawad’s detailed article:

Delta always thought of itself as the gracious host. Hence its flight attendants poured the requested drinks.

Northwest was the practical carrier; its attendants just handed over the can.

Distinctiveness => “Signature Moves”

When I talk with organizations about how they demonstrate what makes them distinctive, I often mention the concept of a ‘signature move’.

A signature move is a behavior that demonstrates — through its particular style– a quality that is important to how the organization defines itself.

The beverage delivery gesture is a perfect example– the same task, “delivering a beverage” is performed differently. And at each organization, that slightly different performance communicates something deeper and more meaningful about who the organization really understands itself to be.

These differences in ‘who the organizations are’ reflect how the carriers hoped (at one time) to differentiate themselves from each other and create a competitive advantage in the eyes of potential customers.

In the ideal airline industry …

Ideally, some customers would prefer the gracious culture of Delta, while others would prefer the practical culture of Northwest, all because the concepts of “gracious” and “practical” were concretely expressed in authentic behaviors by the organization and its representatives.

These signature moves, demonstrated throughout the organization, construct the distinctive identity that should differentiate the firm from competitors.

In a world where airtravel customers felt that they had positive reasons to choose one airline over another, the cumulative distinctions created by these different behaviors could have created a competitive advantage for one airline over the other.

In the actual airline industry…

However, in customers’ practical experience of these airlines, the subtle differences in style and culture were overwhelmed by the profound and disappointing similarity of bad service at both airlines. Neither the graciousness of Delta nor the practicality of Northwest made enough of a difference to set either organization apart as distinctive.

Which, of course, points to the weakness of depending on distinctiveness alone to make your organization competitive or attractive.  Distinctiveness only matters if you can deliver a decent product or service. The details matter, certainly, but only once the core business is competent.

See also:
Beyond Positioning: Establishing Authentic Optimal Distinctiveness

Is Authenticity the key to being “Meaningfully Different”?

Snippet of image by Seth W. Feaster/The New York TImes, in its full glory at The New York Times.

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