• March 1, 2015
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

In Enterprise Applications, Competence and Innovation Don't Always Go Hand in Hand

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Part of my responsibility as a CRM celebrity is judging the occasional contest. I'm pretty sure I've mentioned that before in this column; I just wanted to prove it's possible to use the words responsibility and celebrity in the same sentence without irony. All kidding aside, I take judging at least as seriously as I do anything else. More so, actually, because it affects other people.

Over the years, I've noticed that various industry contests reward one of two basic qualities: competence and innovation. Competence contests are those in which we look at a whole bunch of CRM products and try to decide which are doing the best job at the expected tasks and roles. Innovation contests look for single examples of exceptional performance or creativity in applying technology and strategy to a problem. There is some overlap, but not as much as you might think, for reasons I'll address later.

Competence is the main thing in awards programs such as those you see twice a year in this magazine and in oh so many others. If you want to know what product in a given category is most likely to suit your needs, these are the results you need to see. It's a bit like the Westminster Dog Show, where judges look at each contestant from all the usual angles and decide which one best fits the ideal. (At least this is how I imagine Westminster works; as far as I'm concerned, the only criterion a dog needs to meet is lovability.) Perhaps a better example is a pentathlon or decathlon: The winner is the one who is best overall, not the one who wins one of several events.

When innovation is the aim, contest entrants select a deployment in which they did something different from the crowd, and which has led to truly outstanding results, usually across a limited range of criteria. We've switched from decathlon mode to single event—specifically the relay race, because it’s not just about individual achievement. A key component of judging innovation is real-world results; patent offices are full of ideas that are innovative but don't actually work. Top Gear, one of my favorite TV programs, which I've referenced before in this column, has been running specials that explore this idea; the title of these shows is Ambitious but Rubbish.

It's hard to do both competence and innovation well within the constraints of a reasonable budget. Competence is about covering all your bases, eliminating weaknesses, and making incremental improvements. Innovation is about taking the other road, solving a specific problem, or implementing extreme customization to fit a difficult niche. Even so, most developers consider both sides; nobody wants to be stuck in the past, nor do they want to take risks or focus on one of these aspects to the detriment of the other.

We need both types of contests, as long as you accept the need for competitions like these in the first place. CRM is about business results, and every business has different needs. Winners on the competence axis are the ones who are going to be the most reliable performers for the broadest part of the market. Individual results will vary, but the most competent product will give you the best chances for positive results. Innovation awards, though, show us what is possible with the right tools and the right attitude—they give us something to aspire to. They are the engines of progress and change.

Keep competence and innovation in mind when you're evaluating enterprise applications. You might need the most innovative solution, or the most competent one. Don't just look at award winners, though. The bases you need covered might not be the typical ones.

Marshall Lager has won an award or two in his day, because even a broken clock is right twice a day. Wind him up at www.3rd-idea.com or www.twitter.com/Lager.

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