Finding Shades of Gray in Rivalries

Andy Rutledge has an essay about rivalries, positing that two, and only two antagonists are the root of interest in any context - sports, business, culture, politics, literature. Since he doesn’t allow comments on his site, I’m going to respond here.

As an example he cites the Apple/Microsoft rivalry:

Much has been written about how Apple succeeds because of its enlightened designs. Bunk. Good design fails every day in the marketplace. No, friends, Apple succeeds because it has come to represent the diametrical alternative to that represented (or perceived to be represented) by its chosen and logical rival: Microsoft. Apple succeeds because of contrast.

There are a couple of things amiss with this line of reasoning:

  1. The simplification of design being the 100% cause of Apple’s success. Design is very much key, but it is not the sole reason for Apple’s success or failure. The retail channel strategy, advertising campaign, component vendor relationships, and so on are all ingredients that add up to the success also. When other well-designed products fail, equally design is not the sole contributor.
  2. The assumption that people would not be successful without the contrast of Microsoft. Heck, I’d buy Apple products regardless of whether Microsoft existed or not. I like the way they look and work, regardless of whether they are the “anti-Microsoft” or not.

He talks about the Apple 1984 commercial, seeming to imply that it defined Microsoft as the Other that Apple was contrasting itself to. In fact IBM was the target of that ad, as Microsoft was not a dominant player on the scene at that point. In fact Apple and Microsoft were collaborating on application development at that stage. Microsoft’s main competitor historically was the free CP/M OS, which MS-DOS 1.0 mimiced quite closely, and then later the IBM OS/2 which IBM developed after they realized they had created their greatest competitive threat by inviting Microsoft inside the machine. The rivalries of the time were somewhat more complex and intertwined than Rutledge makes them out to be. Today Microsoft’s major competitors are Google, Yahoo and Linux, not Apple.

He next cites the fact that there are two major political parties in the US as proof that Americans only want two parties, and will only ever want two parties. That’s quite a stretch. America is the only major democracy to have only two major parties - why is it different than everywhere else? It’s a structural features of its electoral system that is winner-take-all, rather than proportional in representation. The Green party in Germany, for example, has come to be a mainstream party there by gradually increasing its seats in parliament due to proportional voting. And in the US, the conservatives in particular have played up extremism in order to paint the choice as black and white, whereas the moderate middle is sizable in reality.

Moving on to business, he encourages people to think of competitors in binary terms - you and one other. 

Focusing on a single competitor keeps your attention off the upstarts coming at you from the edges. You do a disservice to yourself if you simply your competitive environment to tunnel vision - rarely is that the case. (It does occur sometimes - unlike Rutledge I rarely use “never” and “always” because I find they simplify or overstate reality.) If you are GM, it doesn’t make sense to only focus on a single competitor, say Toyota. You have to keep your eye on lots of competitors, and they are different in each country. It is exceptionally dangerous to focus all your attention on a single competitor assuming that it will never change - disruption comes at the edges. And the transition from one set of competitors to another tends to happen gradually not overnight. Hyundai has become a key competitor but it started out as a maker of unreliable rust-buckets that no-one was worried about.

Binary may be the easy way to explain things and to make your arguments and positions look credible, but it is not always the realistic and honest approach. If I’m advising a client I prefer to be honest and complete with them, rather than packaging reality neatly in a false bow that obscures complexities that affect their business. The world is a complex place full of shades of gray, people are complex and self-contradictory, so let’s acknowledge and embrace that rather than pretending it’s as simple as “you’re with us or you’re against us.”

Rutledge anticipates that his writing style will generate a binary response. Well, his argument about binary rivalries is correct - some of the time. It’s also wrong - some of the time.