Business Columns & Blogs

When you don’t have a direct competitor, invent a phantom one

By Nancy Napier

Special to the Idaho Statesman

Nancy Napier: Creativity
Nancy Napier: Creativity

I recently read “Dead Wake,” by Erik Larson, about the Lusitania. It is a fascinating story about the ship, its passengers and staff, and the political link to World War II. It was well-researched, written with suspense, and a great way to learn about history. I found it interesting that he tackled a topic that I thought would have been covered but really wasn’t.

So I looked up how Larson finds his ideas for what to work on and write about. It takes him a long time to find a “good project,” and he feels “in limbo” while he searches for something to dig his teeth into. But he’s deliberate in the process and uses four criteria:

The project has to be a real “story” with a beginning, middle and ending.

It has to have enough historical and archival data to access that he can research it thoroughly.

It has to be big and interesting enough to captivate him for a couple of years.

It has to have — and he uses a business idea here — “barriers to entry.” In other words, the project has to be difficult enough in terms of gaining access to resources and demanding time and energy that other authors (i.e., competitors) won’t be doing the same project at the same time. He has to be “the one” who can handle the topic.

That reminded me of a classic 1981 Harvard Business Review article by Peter Johnson, who ran Boise’s TrusJoist for years and then was administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration. In his article, Johnson talked about the value of “phantom competitors.” In an industry (or as an author!) where direct competitors may be few, it’s easy to become complacent. Johnson argued that it’s important for organizational leaders to imagine “phantom competitors” so that the organization will continue to strive to improve and generate ways to do things differently, even if no one from the outside is pushing.

If this applies to organizations — and writers — what about the rest of us?

For years, I have suggested that students need to think of their own “competitive positions” and identify assets they may have that others lack, and ways to use them to do things differently to get better. Their competitors may not be the people in the classroom but could be outstanding “phantom competitors,” which may be even better. If they can imagine some strong phantom, they can perhaps beat any actual competitor.

So who’s your phantom competitor?

Nancy Napier is distinguished professor, Boise State University,