Trade-Off, by Kevin Maney

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Trade-Off is a book which explores a simple, but useful, way to frame the world. Kevin Maney plots products along two dimensions, fidelity and convenience, and then spends the rest of the book discussing how products end up in different places on that graph, from the “fidelity belly” to the “fidelity mirage”

Fidelity is essentially quality – what makes a product unique or an experience. Examples include luxury goods that identify the owner as a person of taste, or live rock concerts where the sheer sensory overload is unmatchable by one’s stereo.

Convenience is, well, convenience – how easy it is to get the product. This includes both physical convenience as well as cost – places like Wal-Mart aim to maximize convenience by being a one-stop shop with the lowest prices.

Maney makes a few key points:

  • There is always a trade-off between fidelity and convenience. Trying to position the same product as being the highest quality as well as the most convenient is oxymoronic (one of his interviewees quips that “A successful business is either loved or needed.”). He calls this the “fidelity mirage” where a company attempts to maximize both dimensions at the same time, which generally leads to failure in the marketplace.
  • The products that win pick a dimension to maximize and stick to it. Either they aim to be the high-end of the market, like Apple has with the iPhone, or they aim to be the commodity provider, like Wal-Mart. Being clear about where a product is positioned is essential to success.
  • Products that fail to distinguish themselves along either dimension end up in the “fidelity belly”, neither high enough quality to distinguish themselves, nor convenient enough to compensate for the perceived lack of quality.
  • One useful observation was that technology continually expands the boundaries of the “fidelity belly”. The feature that made your product unique and special a year ago will get copied by your competitors and is no longer a distinguishing characteristic – the fidelity advantage has been lost. Similarly, a supply chain innovation that enabled lower prices can also be copied, losing the convenience advantage. Companies must keep innovating to stay ahead of their competitors, and only by staying focused on one dimension can they outrace the “fidelity belly”.

That’s basically the whole book right there. He tells a bunch of stories about how companies succeed or fail framed with this viewpoint, but you get the idea.

The book was a good reminder about the importance of focus and positioning; understand where you can get a step on your competition, and then find ways to maintain or extend that lead. The same applies to personal positioning, as Maney mentions in an epilogue. All in all, it was a quick read from the library, but I can’t particularly recommend it.

P.S. Jim Collins, the Good to Great author, wrote the introduction, and had a nice paragraph explaining the value of finding new mental models as tools:

A strategic lens … does not in itself give an answer about what you should do, and not do. Rather, and much better, it forces you to engage in a powerful question, from which you derive your own insight and make your own decisions. If you engage your team in a vigorous debate stimulated by the questions that naturally arise from the ideas in these pages, you will gain deeper understanding not just of what you should be doing (or not) but, even more important, why. The power of a strategic concept lies first and foremost in giving us a lens and a stimulus for hard thinking and hard choices. The critical question is not its universal truth, but its usefulness.

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