Book Review – Trade-off by Kevin Maney

Tucked in Neal Stephenson’s wonderful book Snow Crash is this comparison in a fictional future where all highways are owned by corporations:

CSV-5 has better throughput, but Cal-12 has better pavement. That is typical—Fairlanes roads emphasize getting you there, for Type A drivers, and Cruiseways emphasize the enjoyment of the ride for Type B drivers.

Author Kevin Maney recognized that we make comparisons and choices like this every day, sometimes taking for the fastest route while other times opting for the best ride. Maney says in his book Trade-Off the only path to success is for companies to concentrate on one of two those needs. Pursuing both is the path of failure.

Maney uses the words convenience and fidelity to describe the opposing needs. The wide availability and low cost creates convenience, while fidelity combines the experience of purchase with the prestige of the brand and the way it reinforces our identity. Our choice of easiest versus best is complicated, flipping back and forth based on the needs of the moment.

Think about hiring an employee. A call to Kelly Services will conveniently fill the open position tomorrow. Pick up the phone, dial Spencer Stuart, and they’ll start a comprehensive search for the best candidate in the world. Both approaches fulfill the need in completely different ways and with understandably different results.

If this sounds familiar, the convenience/fidelity trade-off is another route at the well worn discussion of transactional versus relationship-driven businesses. Others have described the tension as price versus prestige. John Hagel and Marc Singer went as far as suggesting that companies should be broken up along the lines of infrastructure management (convenience), product innovation (fidelity), and customer relationships (fidelity) because the demands of each where so unique.

Maney addresses the challenge of trying to do both, describing it more as an impossibility. In the dual pursuit of convenience and fidelity, Maney says companies chase a mirage and over time are sucked into a place of increasing irrelevance where customers understand less and less why they need your products. 35mm film, movie theaters, and Starbucks all serve as anecdotes.

Some are going to read Trade-Off and say they have seen this play before. Maney is surely tapping a recognized strategic tension, but the updated vocabulary and examples are refreshing, a good reminder to the challenge that all companies face between satisfying the convenient now and the high-resolution, 700 horsepower, oceanfront, 24K gold plated image floating in their customers’ heads.

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