“The Competition Is Doing It” vs. “Not Invented Here Syndrome”

These are two errors people make in all types of organizations.  They seem to be complete opposites, but in fact they stem from the same failure in logic.

“The Competition Is Doing It”: People in business, sports, politics etc. will often say this to justify doing something.  “We need to spend the big bucks on this.” “Why?” “Because the competitors spent big bucks on it–we don’t want to be left behind.”

The problem is, this makes you susceptible to fads and fashions.  If the other guys are doing it and it’s actually a bad idea, then you are copying their mistakes. It’s an advanced form of peer-pressure. People who don’t know what they are doing will just copy other people on the assumption they do.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see what the competition is doing–of course you should–but rather that the fact that they are doing something is not in itself a reason to copy them.  Only if it’s working for them is it a reason to copy them.

Of course, people sometimes make the complete opposite mistake…

Not Invented Here Syndrome“: This is where people are too concerned about keeping their own insular culture, and refuse to adopt new ideas. A variant is “we’ve always done it that way” as a justification for something.  People are too afraid to try something new and justify it by saying its not “who we are” or “how we do it”.

Now, on the surface, these errors are in complete opposite directions.  One is about taking ideas from the outside, the other is about refusing to do so.  But the common theme in both is that people are unwilling to do something no one else is doing. They are afraid of the risks involved with trying something no one else has tried.

So, how to avoid making either of these errors?  It seems like a delicate balancing act, where if you try too hard to avoid one, you end up making the other one.

The answer is to focus on what actually works. That way, when someone says, “The competitors are doing it”, you can say, “And is it working for them?” And when someone says, “We’ve always done it that way”, you can say, “And has it worked for us?”

The truth is, many screw-ups occur because someone was afraid to do the thing that they knew would work, either because no one else was doing it, or because they themselves had never done it.



  1. I’ve been watching Mozart in the Jungle. In one episode a guest conductor asked a musician to speed up a passage. The musician replied,”I’ve been doing it this way for 35 years.” The conductor replied, “When did arthritis set in.”
    The we’ve always done it this way mindset dies due to institutional arthritis. Think Blackberry.
    The problem of following some else is being a copy cat, if you go that way you have to be better. Betamax was better than VHS, but failed. Go figure.
    The doing what works approach is hit and miss, and expensive, because haw many times do you think something will work and it fails.
    Conclusion, it’s all a gamble.

    1. You are right; there is always an elements of luck. Maybe a bigger element than people care to admit.

      Maybe a better way of saying it as that I’ve seen people do things that they were pretty sure *didn’t* work, either because they had always done them or because everybody else was doing them. If I’m going to fail, I prefer to fail doing what I think is right than doing what everyone else is doing.

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