Average Is Over. What’s Your Extra?
By Bill Taylor, HBR, December 19, 2011
I approach a book by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman with a mixture of wariness and anticipation. Wariness because Friedman’s books tend to go on for many pages longer than they need to, and many of those pages contain his trademark blend of Davos Man self-congratulation and cheesy metaphors. Yet I still have a sense of anticipation because in every one of Friedman’s books there are a handful of insights that are so clear, so sharp, so flat-out right that they frame how you look at the world going forward.
That Used to Be Us, Friedman’s newest book (written with Johns Hopkins professor Michael Mandelbaum) has at least one such observation—a principle so clearly true, and so crisply expressed, that it should become a mantra of sorts for leaders everywhere who want to build something great and do something important. Chapter Seven of the book is called “Average Is Over,” and it’s a rallying cry that captures what it takes to stand out from the crowd in a world that keeps getting more crowded.
"In a hyper-connected world where so many talented non-Americans and smart machines that can do above-average work are now easily available to virtually every employer, what was ‘average’ work ten years ago is below average today, and will be further below average ten years from now," Friedman and Mandelbaum write. "As a result, everyone needs to raise his or her game just to stay in place, let alone get ahead." In an environment where "average is over," they go on, everybody has to find their "extra"—their unique talent, skill, contribution, or commitment that separates them from the pack and lets them do something special.
Friedman and Mandelbaum are policy wonks, so they explore the notion that “average is over” mainly as it applies to countries and societies, and how we educate kids, train workers, and make public investments. But their insight applies just as powerfully to companies and their leaders. The business world is overflowing with products and services and designs and marketing campaigns that are adequate. The real challenge—and the huge opportunity—is to turn something adequate into something amazing. It’s just not good enough to be pretty good at everything. The most successful companies, products, and brands have figured out how to become the most of something. That is, to find and embrace their “extra.”
Most organizations don’t stand for anything special, of course. In her new book, Tough Cookies, the remarkable Kathy Cloninger, who led a multi-year transformation of the Girl Scouts of the USA, described how hard it is to take a mainstream organization and turn it into something with a distinctive and compelling point of view. If most organizations were honest with themselves, she argues, their mission statements would read, “Acme Widgets: We’re no worse than anybody else.”
I don’t care what field you’re in or what kind of company you work for, what qualified as average performance ten years ago is below-average today, and what is average today isn’t nearly good enough to create long-term success and outsized value. You can’t do something big if you’re content with doing things the same way as everyone else. In a world of hyper-competition and limited attention, the only way to stand out from the crowd is to stand for something special.
A case in point: a truly stunning parking garage in Miami Beach, Florida. The seven-story structure, at 1111 Lincoln Road, serves about as prosaic a function as can be imagined—it’s a place to park cars. But when Robert Wennett bought the homely space back in 2005, he decided to turn something adequate into something amazing. As a New York Times report explained, “Parking garages, the grim afterthought of American design, call to mind many words. (Rats. Beer cans. Unidentifiable smells.) Breathtaking is not usually among them.”
But this parking garage truly is breathtaking, so much so that it has become an in-demand venue for charity events, wine tastings, even high-priced weddings! Indeed, the top two floors were designed to both hold cars and host events, and they rent for as much as $15,000 per night. “This is not a parking garage,” Robert Wennett told the Times. “It’s really a civic space.”
Talk about positive word of mouth. I first heard about 1111 Lincoln Road when I attended the American Express Luxury Summit in Park City, Utah. That’s right—executives from some of the world’s most exclusive brands were discussing the beauty and originality of a parking garage thousands of miles away. If that’s not moving from adequate to amazing, I’m not sure what is. And it’s a great example of an entrepreneur who built an enterprise around something “extra.”
Recently, at a conference of marketers and brand specialists, I learned about a fast-growing company called Kulula Airlines, sort of the Southwest of South Africa. Like its role model in the United States, it has low fares, point-to-point routes, and a humorous staff. But its “extra”—what makes everyone stop and take notice—is the exterior of the airplanes themselves. Kulula treats them as flying pieces of art, which it decorates with all sorts of fun, colorful, sometimes downright-hilarious imagery. I have never seen airplanes like these, and I defy anyone who sees one of these planes on an airport tarmac not to stop, gaze in amazement, and want to learn more about the airline behind the planes.
Friedman and Mandelbaum have nailed it. There’s no excuse to settle for “good enough” anymore. Average is over. What’s your extra?