I’ve always been a big fan of the concept of a “core competency” or “distinctive competency” — the one thing that you, your product, or your company does better than anyone else, and that is difficult to easily replicate. Unfortunately, I find that far too few organizations really understand, at a deep level, what this is — or worse, believe they do but when pressure tested the belief fails to live up to expectations. For some organizations, their core competency is obvious — Amazon has a clear competency in logistics, Zappos has a clear competency in customer service, Google has a clear competency in paid advertising. But for others it’s not so simple. Understanding and being able to articulate your core competencies is essential to success as a Product Manager, and as a product or a company as a whole.
What is a Core/Distinctive Competency?
If we’re relying on dictionary definitions, a core competency is “a defining capability or advantage that distinguishes an enterprise from its competitors.” And while boring, it’s a pretty good working definition. The only thing that I like to add to this is that ideally your core competency should also be a distinctive competency — something that not only distinguishes you from competitors but that is difficult or impossible to replicate. If your core competency doesn’t meet this test, then it may not truly be a distinguishing factor — or it may only be so for a short period of time. The goal of understanding, defining, and communicating your core competency is to understand what makes you, your product, or your company unique in the market — what one or two things completely separate you from your competitors? What capabilities, knowledge, skills, or expertise do you have that nobody else in the market can claim? This could be intellectual property — patents are often a very key and important competency, since until they expire you have a monopoly on their use. It could be a cultural focus that you believe you do differently and better than anybody else — meritocracy and “flat” organizations seem to be a common claim in this arena. But more likely it’s some focal feature set or product capability that sets you apart from your competitors, that would take months or years or millions of dollars to replicate. Ultimately, everyone in your organization should be able to explain in a brief elevator pitch just what it is that makes you different from your competition.
Why is a Core Competency Important?
I know this may sound like some kind of New Age, touchy-feely, soft-skills brouhaha, but it really isn’t. Understanding what the core competency of your company is and living by it can help simplify much of the job you do and the decisions that you make as a Product Manager. The more aligned those in your company are around the definition of your core competency, the more you can reflect back on them when being asked to make prioritization decisions. You see, core competencies aren’t just one-and-done things; they’re capabilities, skills, expertise that have to be constantly polished and updated so that they don’t become just another market commodity. Your competitors are trying to take over your core competencies, whether you know it or not — and if you consistently remove investment in maintaining these distinctive features of your organization, they will slowly whittle away into nothing. Understanding, evangelizing, and revisiting your core competencies on a regular basis really serves to ensure alignment within the organization and a focus not just on doing things well, but on doing the right things well, that keep you differentiated in the market.
What’s YOUR Core Competency?
But, core competencies aren’t just about products and organizations — every person also has one or more core competencies that they should be aware of and revisit on a regular basis. For example, I’m a pretty darn good facilitator — I enjoy helping other people engage with each other and drive toward common goals and decisions. I’m also very experienced in helping organizations through Agile transformations, having been through four or five in the past ten years or so. Knowing that these are not just strengths, but strengths that not everyone in the organization shares, I can leverage them to gain exposure in the organization, to help build relationships based on trust and respect, and basically to become a better Product Manager within my company. It’s also important to understand what we’re really good at, so that we know what we might not be really good at, and to leverage the members of our team who have different core competencies to ensure that as a whole team we’re more than just the sum of our parts.
I’d encourage you to take five or ten minutes today to think carefully about what you think your core competencies might be, and to think about what the core competencies of others on your team might be. A little knowledge goes a long way, and you just might come up with a new way to work together that leverages everyone’s greatest skills!