Carlson Executive Education Blog

Finding One-of-a-Kind Strategy in a Dime-a-Dozen World

Posted by Aks Zaheer on Jan 24, 2018 11:00:29 AM

Aks Zaheer, Professor and Curtis L. Carlson Chair in Strategic Management in the Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship department at Carlson School of Management.


The best thing about the digital age is that information is easily shareable. The worst thing about the digital age is that information is easily shareable. Nowhere is that more true than in the area of business and corporate strategy. With just a few clicks and a bit of digging, your competitors can easily learn about your latest strategic plans, leaving you ripe for encroachment and imitation.

The Zappos example: 10 hours and counting

Even in this good news/bad news scenario, there’s a ray of sunshine: all you need to do is create a strategy that is not easily imitated. No, it isn’t easy, but it is possible. A shining example is Zappos, a company that describes itself as “a service company that happens to sell shoes.” In a hypercompetitive market, they’ve stayed head and shoulders above their competition because their unique culture is so ingrained in their strategy that is makes them impossibly to copy – or, as I like to say, “inimitable.” How do they do it? In a world where you never, ever seem to be able to find a live person to talk with you, Zappos has created a fully staffed phone bank of friendly, helpful associates who are encouraged to spend as long as possible talking to customers.


The company recently logged its longest customer service call, ever, clocking in at 10 hours and 43 minutes. The employee who handled the call, Steven Weinstein, was commended.[1] CEO Tony Hsieh was quoted as saying: "In many other call-center environments, an employee's job performance depends on how quickly they can get the customer off the phone. At Zappos, we encourage employees to stay on the phone for as long as the customer wants, even if it's over 10 hours long. We know it sounds crazy, but as long as the customer is happy, then we are happy, too."

How to create an “inimitable” strategy

If you’d like to learn some proven techniques for creating inimitability around your own corporate strategy, then I hope you can join me for our upcoming Creating and Executing Strategy course. We’ll be covering the steps needed to create a bulletproof strategy, including the effect of culture on strategy, the execution process, how to encourage alignment, and how to address resistance to change. 

Preparing for The Red Queen principle

Of course, as soon as an effective strategy is in place, you must continue to renew and enhance it, since competitors will be getting closer and closer, no matter how “inimitable” you were at the start. As the Red Queen said to Alice during their famous game of croquet: “My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.” We’ll be covering the need, and the tools required, to run faster than ever, and we’ll be looking at research and case studies about companies – including Zappos – who have managed to succeed despite an atmosphere of constant market disruption and hypercompetitivity.

See you May 22 to 24

During our three-day session, we’ll also cover some common misconceptions surrounding the creation and execution of strategy. For example, you can’t acquire your way into a winning strategy. And you can’t get there by chasing after shiny objects like new markets or line extensions. It’s a long-term process, not a short-term event.

One of the most common misconceptions I encounter is the notion that strategy is exclusively the preserve of top management. In fact, the entire organization has to believe in, understand, and execute strategy at all times. Saying it is one thing, but making it happen is another. That’s why I hope I’ll see you in class May 22 to 24 for a program that takes strategy from concept to reality.

Enrollment Open Now

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