You probably know the story. In 1982, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman published In Search of Excellence: Lessons From America's Best-Run Companies. It seemed to offer a recipe for success that any business could follow, and was a huge bestseller.
Yet only a few years later, many of the companies cited as examples of excellence had faltered. Did Peters and Waterman get the recipe wrong? Or had the fallen companies stopped following it? The real answer is more subtle. They were still excellent, but their excellence was no longer enough.
Consider the story of the 12 silver cars, told to me by an exec at one of the big carmakers. It had organised a competitor-comparison day, buying one example of every rival model in a particular category and lining them up in a row. Each car was silver and the badges had been removed. Not only could the assembled experts not tell them apart, they couldn't even pick out their own car.
Now these were all excellent products, incomparably better than the models of 20 or 30 years ago. But the problem is that when everyone is excellent, nobody is. To use mathematical terminology, it is necessary to be excellent in order to be successful, but it is no longer sufficient.
Furthermore, striving for improvement in the same direction as everyone else is an exhausting treadmill, and it offers but a temporary advantage that erodes over time. The cars that do well today are those with strong heritage and great stories (such as Jaguar Land Rover), or unusual designs (such as the Mini).
It is this that gives us the clue to how to step off the treadmill of continuous improvement for ever-diminishing gains. Be as good as you need to be, but, above all, be different.
Alastair Dryburgh is chief contrarian at Akenhurst Consultants. Are you or your organisation ready to come up with ideas that are not just better, but different? Subscribe to Alastair's newsletter at www.akenhurst.com for a test that will tell you.