A mirror for larks

A mirror for larks

How often do we walk into the trap? How often do we get lured into fighting the wrong fight?

I thought about this when I came across an old Italian phrase, “specchietto per le allodole” – a mirror for larks. Intrigued, I researched the origin of the phrase and learnt that it was customary to use mirrors to lure larks into traps.

This reminded me of the recent time we needed to call a professional bird catcher to relocate a brush turkey from our garden. If you’re not familiar with these birds, the only fact relevant to this blog post is that male brush turkeys build nests the size of a small car. Out in the wild, that’s fine. In a domestic garden, it’s less than ideal. The bird scrapes up every loose leaf and twig within 50 metres to construct its mound – often exposing plant roots as it does.

The bird catcher arrived with a large cage, open at one end and with a mirror at the other. The male turkey spies another male turkey in its domain and does what we males seem to be programmed to do. He rushes the intruder to drive it from his territory.

Once inside the trap, the bird was taken to bushland a kilometre away and released.

Sometimes in business we fall for the same trap. We think we identify the enemy, our competitor, and we focus all our energy on gaining the advantage.

Often, two competitors end up talking to each other, boasting, prancing, attacking, belittling and undermining each other.

The needs of the customer are forgotten. The hand to hand combat is all-consuming.

In the fight between Ford and General Motors, the winner was Toyota. In the fight between Russia and the USA, the winner was China. In the fight between Apple and Samsung, each victory was small and mostly irrelevant, but also costly.

In the bad old, companies sought competitive advantages through R&D. R&D labs were off limits to most staff and could be entered only with a security pass.

And that’s how things were for much of the 20th century. Then, something happened. The smartest companies discovered the value of collaboration.

Apple realised their iPhone’s appeal depended on apps. The more apps in the marketplace, the more iPhones they’d sell. Apple could have kept all app development in-house. They chose to let other companies create apps to work on the iOS platform. In mid 2013, iPhone apps passed the 1 million mark.

Elon Musk could have kept Tesla innovations secret. But he knew that Tesla’s success would be accelerated if the whole electric vehicle market grew. There’d be more places to recharge a car, for one thing. And it would be better for the planet.

The Tesla head office in Palo Alto used to have a wall of patents. These were removed in 2014. All of Tesla’s innovations are now open source. If you’re interested in developing your own electric vehicle, you’re welcome to Tesla’s once-were-secrets.

Telsa’s competitors aren’t other electric vehicles. They are the old energy cartels with a vested interest in digging and pumping until there’s nothing left to dig and pump. In the fight between BP and Shell, electricity will likely be the winner.

Next time you see an opportunity to gain a competitive advantage, stop before you’re drawn into conflict.

Ask yourself if this is a worthwhile fight, if it’s the real enemy, or if it’s just a mirror for larks.

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