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I recently took a group of clients to Austin, TX. They’re sort of a "super, double-secret" club of major trade & professional associations that’s been meeting for thirteen years. We fly low under the radar.

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One of the big purposes of the club (besides having our own nifty, secret handshake) is to expose ourselves to alien experiences. I learned a long time ago from some very smart people that most, if not all, industries and markets tend to develop a central strategic orthodoxy where everybody looks alike and everybody acts alike. It’s simple to see how this happens, because most companies study their competition for new ideas. Somebody does something new (like start a frequent flyer program, or install really soft, comfortable beds, for example), and soon enough, everybody’s doing the same thing.

Where we get really new ideas is by studying people and organizations that completely unrelated to us. I call it Stealing Genius. Not a super clever title, but it fits. The concept is to study other organizations for ideas that are not found in our world, steal them and mold them into something we can use that’s brand new. Even better is when we can mold them into something difficult to copy.

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In Austin we studied a couple of really cool and successful aliens, Whole Foods Market (their flagship store), and Book People (a local independent bookstore). As I wrote in my meeting recap:

Both were designed to look very different from competitors. Both had strong local community ties and clearly announced that through signage. Both gave a lot of attention to making the customer feel very comfortable and even striving to keep the customer there as long as possible.

It was interesting to see how Book People and Whole Foods were so similar in their approach to creating and maintaining long-term customer relationships, yet visually they were so different. Book People looked like a local, independent store. A little worn, a little cluttered, hand-made signs, but very comfortable. Whole Foods, on the other hand, was all shiny and new, very high tech, classic rock playing, but still comfortable. They even served beer and wine at a sit-down counter in the back of the store.

Two different industries. Two different visual styles. But similar experiential philosophies. I couldn’t help but think the Book People stole ideas from Whole Foods, and the Whole Foods People stole ideas from Book People. Classic examples of Stealing Genius.

I often ask consulting clients and speech audiences, "Who are you stealing ideas from?" If it’s from your competition, then odds are you’re not much different from them.