Eating your own dog food? Pfft. Try mine, then get back to me.

Don’t ask me why, but right before drifting off into a fitful sleep last night, the thought came to me about the often heard declaration made by companies that they “eat their own dog food”. Symbolizing the process of using the tools/processes/products they market to others internally, as a way to demonstrate their understanding of the problem and ability to solve it. Most of us would aspire to be considered a great cook in our own home. But it’s only when we go out to a decent restaurant that we realize how close or how far removed we are from our potential. There are a few companies I’d love see take a 100 of their employees and for 30 days subject them to using their competitors products solely. Then, their “solution” for 30 days. Alas, I think many fear the outcome and would rather spend the effort on marketing instead.

What I realized, and had to try hard not to stay up and think more of, is that this is all wrong. Just think about it: what does one gain in terms of insight, relevance, authority, through a myopic view of the problem and then solving it? At best, you get a solution that works well for you, but misses key capabilities for others. At worse, you not only produce a solution that fails to meet the needs of your targeted audience, but also shows a lack of humility by not acknowledging the efforts of others. Many times, a solution is not about starting from scratch, but rather building upon the work of others. That’s humbling, because we’d all like to think that 100% ownership of a solution is always attainable, when in reality most of benefits come from tweaking 20% or less of what’s already out there.

I see this quite often with the companies I do business with, extolling the benefits of their latest and greatest but when pressed have little knowledge of what their competitors are doing, why their customers like their solution, and what gaps there are for them to capitalize on. Instead, many take the approach of aligning their capabilities to compete toe-to-toe with the features of everyone else and expect their salesmanship, pricing, or industry prominence to make them look a little taller. The reality today is far different: so much of technology today starts with a growing commodity layer that those companies that refuse to put in the effort to differentiate themselves through an understanding of the “value gap” will find themselves stuck in the muck and slowly sinking to obscurity.

Myself, I try to keep this in mind with the businesses I work with and manage. When I am presented with a problem to solve,  instead of starting with a blank sheet of paper, I began by listing the benefits or seemingly good aspects of what my competitors are doing. Then, I go back to the customer to understand where the gaps are, and focus on that. Not as glamorous as pontificating for hours on a whiteboard, or rallying the troops to create The Next Great Wheel, but it works. The result? More often than not, we get to a 100% solution that the customer finds value in, with only 20% of the effort typically required. That can turn into potential cost savings, greater efficiencies, higher profitability.

This isn’t rocket science, I know. But it came to me last night, and I wanted to make sure to write about it before the moment was lost. So the next time someone mentions that they are “eating their own dog food”, challenge them with “Why?” and offer them someone else’s to try instead!