The Myth of Commoditized Excellence

If you give it a name, people will expect you to hand it to them in a box. - Attributed to W. Edwards Deming, but unverified

A New Idea

When we learn new things from grappling with problems, it is natural for us to want to share those learnings with others, in hopes that they will face similar challenges with less of a struggle.

How do those well-intended new ideas so often evolve into movements that seem to lose their way, and at times do more harm than good?

In the course of observing and at times being involved in this phenomenon, I sought to understand what I saw happening time and again. Almost a decade ago, I arrived at an explanation that I named The Myth of Commoditized Excellence. What follows are the steps that can lead down this unfortunate path.

Desire to Share

Perhaps you turned around to the rest of your team to explain your new idea, or wrote out a quick diagram on the whiteboard. Sometimes your idea sounded much better in your head, and the minute you’re explaining or diagramming you begin to see the flawed assumptions in your model.

But sometimes your new idea is expressed in such a way that it immediately resonates with most of the people with whom it is shared. You can’t help but wonder how many other people your new idea might benefit.

Affirming Response

Having your new idea affirmed feels great. Affirmation from a smaller group usually leads you to present your new idea to an incrementally larger audience. Each success usually inspires another cycle of sharing to a larger concentric circle: from your team, to your department, to your local meetup, and perhaps even on to regional conference topic submissions.

You may find other like-minded individuals who embrace your new idea and begin to share it as well. They may even have complimentary additions to or iterations upon the idea, and thus it begins to be fleshed out and expanded further.

Within this initial audience, there is usually enough shared context that people understand how to apply what you are sharing in an appropriate manner. They understand that it works best in certain situations, and that it’s less impactful under certain conditions. They also know that the new idea requires a level of discipline and rigor, and isn’t necessarily easier.

The Naming

Initially, your new idea is shared in terms of discretely observable behavior. You focus on conveying what is being done, and how this idea is different from what you were doing before. As the particular practice, tool, or technique grows, it becomes harder and harder to express the new idea concisely.

Invariably, people you are sharing with will ask, “What do you call this?”

Perhaps you respond with something like, “It’s just how I approach [whatever the domain or activity is].”

And those people will say to you, “This should have a name.”

Eventually, you come up with a name. Names are useful; they give us a convenient shorthand to reference a thing. Going forward, I will refer to the new idea as The Thing.

From now on, some amount of your time will be spent defending and clarifying what the name refers to instead of merely sharing The Thing.

The Movement

Now that it has a name, it is easier for those who have heard about it to tell others about The Thing. This is both good and bad, because the only parts many people pass on about The Thing are the benefits it gives and which people or companies they admire have embraced it.

At this stage, people who adopt The Thing (or what they think it means) will attach some portion of their identity to it. You may hear them reference it as part of how they approach their work, saying things like “As a practitioner of The Thing,” or “With The Thing, you don’t have this problem,” or “The Thing is how anyone should approach this.”

And now The Thing has become a movement. The advent of the movement is a particularly tricky time. People joining the movement are usually doing so to address a perceived need of theirs. This need could be what The Thing was meant to address, or something the need wasn’t meant to address.

The most dangerous type of need that brings people to a movement is the need to belong to something viewed as cooler or superior to whatever the person was doing before. The tendency of people with this need is to weaponize The Thing, and to wield it against those outside the movement and those they do not deem as worthy of inclusion in the movement.

Pressure for Simplification

As your audience broadens, the number of people with contexts vastly different from your own will greatly increase.

These new potential converts have heard about the benefits of The Thing, but have likely not heard about the required effort and conditions that produce the benefits. This contingent of less-invested people want to hear more about the benefits, but generally do not wish to be bothered with caveats about limitations and appropriate use.

When trying to impress upon newcomers what it takes to appropriately apply The Thing, you’ll be met with responses like, “Well what is the simplest way to use this? What are the minimum essential parts I need to use in order to apply The Thing to my situation? What if my leadership has no interest in adopting The Thing?”

This is an uncomfortable situation. People want you to say that they can receive all the benefits of The Thing without also incurring the costs.

A common compromise is to begin to dissect The Thing into core elements and peripheral elements. You know the “core” is quite compromised without the “peripheral” elements, but perhaps this will satiate the insistence of these apparent skeptics for a simpler, more accessible version of The Thing.

Fear of Stagnation

The success of The Thing can be intoxicating, addictive. What began as that idea you shared with a few folks has now grown into this large movement. Perhaps there’s a book about The Thing. Maybe there are job titles at companies that now include The Thing. There might even be an entire conference dedicated to The Thing.

Amidst it all, there you are as the avatar, the spokesperson of The Thing, heading up the movement. Your social media following has grown exponentially, and people recognize you occasionally in public. You are invited to deliver keynotes. Job interviews have become casual conversations with fans. Sure, newcomers still press for a simpler, easier version of The Thing, but you hold your ground, shored up by the assurances of your stalwart core followers.

Refusing to oversimplify The Thing is generally unpopular with your growing audience. As they hear more about it, they can be turned off when they learn that the benefits of your idea are dependent upon a great number of variables. This is especially true if you admit that much of the success you experienced with The Thing was dependent upon the culture of your particular team or company.

At this point, you may notice a plateau in interest for The Thing. Your social media and site analytics fall lower than you ever thought they would. Conference submissions are met with responses like “Do you have any new material?” or “Are there new developments with The Thing, or is this the same stuff?”

What to do? Will all of this momentum you have built up simply erode? Has all the time and emotion you have invested been for naught? Has The Thing reached the limits of its usefulness and audience?

What are you willing to do to avoid the decline of The Thing?

Commoditizing the Excellence

And so you come to the pivotal moment. Refusing to oversimplify The Thing, resisting the temptation to oversell it, will likely mean a waning of the movement, and for you, the loss of some if not most of this newfound notoriety, prestige, and attention.

Commoditizing the excellence is rather straightforward. You simply begin saying yes to all the questions about what benefits it provides and no to all the questions about limitations of The Thing. The Thing is for everyone, it provides great benefits, and it does not come at a significant cost.

You have now employed The Myth of Commoditized Excellence. Brace yourself, for an inevitable next phase lies before you at some point in the future.

Crescendo of Disillusionment

When you step back and view the situation from the outside, it’s no surprise that commoditized excellence is a myth. The effort applied and the context in which you applied it originally were what yielded the benefits of The Thing, so of course this repackaged, compromised version fails to deliver.

When people drawn by the myth begin to experience results that do not meet their expectations, they seldom keep it to themselves. As a figurehead of the movement, you’ll be one of the first in line when they look for someone to explain why The Thing did not work for them.

At this point you’ve backed yourself into a bit of a corner. When you chose to commoditize the excellence, you abandoned the initial tenets that made The Thing successful. People want all the benefits, but they do not want to hear that far more effort is involved than they were led to believe. They especially do not want to hear that The Thing only works best in a particular setting or culture.

It’s at this point that disillusion sets in, and things like “The Thing is a failure” and “The Thing never worked” become the refrain of the public chorus. Regrettably, they are often right, because the version of The Thing which they were sold had little chance of delivering a major positive impact without great effort and appropriate contextualization.

Some version of The Thing will linger on, perhaps even for years, but it will bear little resemblance to itself from back when it was first named. By that time, The Thing is usually a concept largely attached to commercial products that co-opted The Thing, styling themselves as the guaranteed way for companies to realize the benefits that the former incarnation of The Thing had promised. Many have leveraged The Myth of Commoditized Excellence to great financial gain.

Conclusion

The irony that I gave a name to how I explain the risk of naming things is not lost on me. I have deferred writing this piece for almost a decade, in part because I wanted to avoid the risk of modeling the antipattern myself.

I think there is great value in sharing things, and even in giving them names sometimes. Movements can also have a positive impact. But as the recognition and acclaim begin to build, careful stewardship and diligence are necessary to steer clear of The Myth of Commoditized Excellence.

All along the journey, as you entertain changes and adaptations to the ideas you are sharing, ask yourself, “Why am I entertaining this change?” Is it because the idea is evolving through learning, or are there less noble pressures and temptations outside the idea that threaten to steer you off course?