The race for Second Place (and last but one, 7th)

How vintage, you use a fax machine. I’m fairly sure I haven’t sent or received a fax in over 10 years. However… I recently handed out a business card, with a fax number on it! A long story, but it was all I had, and someone wanted my contact number. I found the ‘historical artifact’ next to some Roman Coins, buried deep in the lining of a jacket I hadn’t worn in years.

Following examination of the fax number and a quizzical look from the recipient I burst into an embarrassing burble. I was trying to demonstrate I was totally modern, and actually an early adopter of the latest tech (apparently). I’d swung too far the other way. Fortunately the recipient was a generous soul and eased my embarrassment with the anecdote about ‘I wonder who was the first person to buy a fax machine…’. Oh how we laughed.

The race to be second. That anecdote about ‘who was the first person to buy a fax machine’ was actually highly relevant. A short time later I was having a conversation about innovation and why being second often works. The second person to buy a fax machine (and everyone else after them) will at least have someone to exchange faxes with. Imagine being the first purchaser, hanging around waiting, and feeling stupid for winning first place in the race.

Interestingly my other conversation was about the nuclear industry and radioactive materials. My companion was talking about how second place was a good place to be in that world. You don’t want to take on the risks of unknown, potentially expensive and potentially deadly mistakes that the ‘winners’ might make. You are free to exploit the benefits of being second. I very much understand (and appreciate) why this is a good approach in the nuclear industry.

However, I also understand that things aren’t as clear cut as that for everything else. Things like patents, trademarks and company secrets make it possible for people to protect intellectual property, innovative ideas. They protect the benefits of taking risks and arriving in first place. It’s a fundamental part of how things work in business and commerce. But, it did get me thinking… I don’t often hear people talking about aiming to being second beyond that conversation. In fact it’s very rare.

In many organisations there’s plenty of language that talks about ‘being first’, ‘best in class’ or ‘winners’. ‘Winning is in our DNA’ is one of those slightly depressing corporate slogans I encounter from time to time. I do wonder if anyone actually thinks about this language when they put together the corporate documents and business plans. Is second place actually the best place to aim for? Should organisations think more deeply and be explicit about aiming to be in second place? Especially if:

  • It might be a dangerous area of activity where you can’t risk getting things wrong;
  • It might be too expensive to try new things;
  • They might lack the expertise to know what to do;
  • They might lack the imagination to consider doing something differently; or
  • They might lack the will to bother trying (I’ll get to that later).

I wonder if the expectations of lots of organisations are to instinctively aim to be ‘first’? This is without explicitly thinking about the negative consequences of first place and the benefits of aiming to be second.

When you’re only No2, you try harder… As a palette cleanser this is mildly interesting. For 50 years (1962 – 2012) the Avis Car Rental Company made a huge virtues of being second in their advertising. They started out with a much smaller market share than the market dominators, Hertz. The point of ‘we try harder’ because we are in second place worked well for Avis over that period of 50 years. You can have a look at the details in this article We’re No 2!. We’re No2! by Seth Stevenson in the Slate. Although Avis did increase their market share, both Avis and Hertz lost out to Enterprise as the world and consumers changed. Avis are now 3rd, which doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as ‘we are second’; but it’s better than 7th…

7th is OK, just don’t be in last place. One of the things I mentioned earlier about the things that might prevent an organisation from reaching first place was a lack of will. This intrigues me.

There are organisations in the world that are all about cruising along, under the radar, not attracting any attention. You certainly don’t want to be in first, second or third place. You are still on the ‘podium’ in 2nd and 3rd and that attracts unwelcome attention.

Using the Olympic 100m sprint example, 7th place (last but one) might be a fine place to be. You aren’t going to attract any attention as a winner or almost winner (1st, 2nd, 3rd) but you aren’t last either. Still in the race with the benefits that brings, but without any of the risks of being first or attracting any attention. And that might be just fine…

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Being ‘first’ involves risks as well as benefits. The risks might not be acceptable for many reasons and second place can be fine.
  2. Aiming for first place can be an instinctive behaviour. Stopping to pause and reflect on the reasons and consequences and being explicit about choices is a good step.
  3. 7th place might be a perfectly fine aspiration for some organisations. We can’t all be winners, and there are benefits to exploiting the mistakes and learning from the people driven to be first. There’s room for everyone in the race.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

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