Management Articles


Why You Want a Strange Workforce

By: Daniel M. Cable

Daniel M. Cable is the author of Change to Strange: Create a Great Organization by Building a Strange Workforce (Wharton School Publishing, April 2007).

Dr. Daniel M. Cable is Sarah Graham Kenan Distinguished Scholar and Professor of Management at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School. His consulting and teaching focus on aligning a wide spectrum of human systems with company strategy; his consulting clients have ranged from Sony Ericsson to The Bureau of Naval Personnel. Dr. Cable has served on the editorial boards of the Academy of Management Journal, Journal of Applied Psychology, and other leading publications; and holds the McCormick Award for Distinguished Early Career Contributions from the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. He holds a Ph.D. from Cornell.

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Do you want to build a great organization? Then you need to build a strange workforce. Does the word “strange” next to your workforce bother you? Strange means “out of the ordinary; unusual or striking; differing from the normal.” Maybe having a strange workforce sounds a little risky to you—being different from normal doesn’t sound comfortable and doesn’t sound like you’d fit in. But when it comes to winning customers and beating down competition, you don’t want to fit in. Success will not come from being like your competition. You need your organization to be out of the ordinary, unusual, and striking. If your workforce is how you beat the competition, then you can’t build a great organization unless you build a strange workforce.

When customers interact with great organizations, they notice something different about their products, prices, or services that makes them say “Wow!” and tell other people about their experience. What do you think makes an organization’s products, services, or prices noticeably different to customers? If your workforce creates or delivers the thing that your customers want, and your workforce is just about the same as your competitors’, what exactly will customers notice about you? Nothing. What will make them excited about your organization? Nothing. Let’s face it: You need your workforce to impress customers deeply and profoundly if you want to build a great organization. Welcome to the concept of the strange workforce. A strange workforce creates something customers notice and makes them say, “I want that.”

How Can a Workforce Give an Organization a Competitive Advantage?

Three things: First, your workforce obviously must create something valuable to the marketplace—that is, there must be customers who want or need what your workforce does or creates, who are willing to pull dollars out of their wallets or budgets and give it to your company. However, if there is money to be made doing something, then other organizations are likely to do it too. Even if you are the first company to offer the desirable product or service, competitors will be drawn to the money like moths to light. Using a workforce to create something valuable simply represents the table stakes of being in business, not for beating down competition.

Second, your workforce also must create something rare, something unique that sets your organization apart. Your workforce needs to create some special sauce that makes customers say, “Sure I could get this from seven different companies, but this one does this certain thing that I like best, so I’m giving them my money.” It might be the lowest price, the quickest delivery time, or the comfort of talking to a person who remembers customers’ names and what they usually order. It might be any number of things, but there needs to be something that differentiates your organization and adds special value in the minds of customers.

Third, if your organization’s special sauce—the unique valuable thing that you offer—is easy for competitors to copy, then you don’t have a sustained competitive advantage. Wal-Mart was an early initiator of some supply chain management practices that were quite valuable and rare. By partnering with suppliers and pushing much of the stock management onto them, Wal-Mart created value for customers. How? It was more likely that product would be in stock when consumers walked in the door. It allowed Wal-Mart to lower prices because they didn’t need to pay as many people to manage the stock, and also because suppliers could offer cheaper prices to Wal-Mart when they had more lead time. The supply chain process gave Wal-Mart a competitive advantage, but only for a little while because other large retailers were able to copy Wal-Mart’s practices.

To develop and keep a competitive advantage over a long period of time, you need to offer something valuable, rare, and hard to imitate—something that competitors can’t see or maybe can’t understand. Or perhaps even if they can see it and understand it, they are not willing or able to actually do it in a way that customers appreciate. For your workforce to be a sustained source of competitive advantage, your workforce needs to do something that is valuable and unique in customers’ eyes and hard for competitors to imitate.

Your workforce needs to create some special sauce that makes customers say, “Sure I could get this from seven different companies, but this one does this certain thing that I like best, so I’m giving them my money.” For your workforce to be a sustained source of competitive advantage, your workforce needs to do something that is valuable and unique in customers’ eyes and hard for competitors to imitate.

I call this a strange workforce: Definitely out of the ordinary and unexpected; unusual or striking; slightly odd or even a bit weird. If you want to beat down competition and win, then you want to cultivate a strange workforce that is obsessive—intensely preoccupied with something. Obsessing means worrying about something unevenly, much more than other things and much more than other normal people who might be mildly concerned with that same thing.

You want competitors to look at your workforce, shake their heads half in wonder and say, “We wouldn’t be able to do that.” Have you ever worked with someone brilliant who seemed to have a “strange genius,” “unique gift,” or “weird instinct” for creating results? You knew you could never keep up with them because they were so talented and so obsessed that they made the others look like they are just playing around. You want to create that same reaction in your competitors and customers, but with your workforce.

Are you starting to get turned on to strange? You want to be strange. Naturally, not just any type of strange obsession will win your customers’ business. Your workforce needs to obsess on things that customers value but that other workforces—in particular, your competitors’ workforces—do not obsess on. Cultivating a strange workforce that obsesses about things that customers care about is a necessary condition if you are going to get a sustained competitive advantage through your workforce.

© Copyright 2007, Daniel M. Cable

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