Escape the Box: Three Great Ways to Use the Petal Diagram for Strategy

One of the most perpetually valuable parables I’ve come across is the Indian story of the six blind monks and the elephant. Presented with the creature, each of the six was asked to touch the elephant and describe what kind of structure it has based on what he felt.

“It is a sturdy pillar,” said the one who touched only the leg. “It is a smooth, hard pipe,” said the one who touched only the tusk. “It is a thick tree branch,” said the one who touched only the trunk. “It is a coarse rope,” said the one who touched only the tail. “It is a broad, thin fan,” said the one who touched only the ear. “it is a firm wall,” said the one who touched only the side.

Of course, they were all right. By combining their perspectives they were able to achieve a more complete truth about the elephant.

I think of that story when I use the trusty “Petal Diagram” tool to help someone think through a competitive analysis of their product or company. The diagram places your unique company or product in a center circle, and then surrounds it with petals, each one containing competitors in a distinct category adjacent to the company. It forces the person using it to look at the problem of competitive differentiation from each of several distinct perspectives. To illustrate the concept, one of our team members put together this quick and abbreviated example using Slack, which calls itself “a platform for team communication.”

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Steve Blank introduced the Petal Diagram approach in 2013 as a better way to assess the competitive landscape when a start-up is “trying to re-segment existing markets or create new markets.” Blank’s point, in my own words, was this: Any new category (or category in the midst of redefinition) is surrounded by several intimately adjacent and distinct categories; to understand your differentiation and value—and identify your ideal hypothesis first customer—you need to look at all of them.

This is the kind of analysis that leads to a-ha moments.

This isn’t just fit for start-ups. And it’s not just fit for CEOs or CMOs. In fact, it’s not even fit just for competitive analysis. It can benefit leaders from tiny, visionary start-ups and from the largest of enterprises, across roles in marketing, product, strategy, HR, marketing, you name it.

Here are three ways you could try using it today.

1. For competitive analysis by people who don’t have "competitive analysis" in their job description

Enterprises: Say you’re the CMO, head of innovation, or Chief Revenue Officer of an enterprise. What about a product manager who’s dealing in day-to-day feature granularity and customer interaction? How might she know that one of her decisions is pulling – or could pull – the product, or even the company, into new revenue terrain? How does she best position that fabulous new feature, given that it pulls the product toward a different petal than the product competed in before? Try completing the petal diagram competitive analysis and having workshops with your teams in product management, customer service, marketing, communications, sales, and other arenas to make it come to life for them. Ask them to be mindful of how decisions they make impact the company’s stance relative to each petal on the diagram. Invite them outright to bring ideas to you for how the business might encroach on any petal, given what they know about how their products or customers are evolving.

Start-ups: I’m looking at you, too, start-up CEO. Especially at you. You’ve got a hot idea and a big hypothesis on where that idea will have the best market fit. One of your employees might be the first to discover an improvement on your hypothesis. Do they know how? Do they know what tangential innovations are happening just beyond the obvious direct space from which they came? Have you engaged them in thinking about your business in the context of the world around you? If not, it’s time.

2. For predicting customer needs and desires 

What are your customers going to want next? Before Meerkat and Periscope introduced always-on live-stream broadcasting to the social media realm, celebrities and 15-year-old girls didn’t know to ask for it from WhatsApp, SnapChat, or Twitter. The same kind of thing happened in smartphone hardware. Mainstream consumers didn’t know they needed touchscreen mobile devices until Apple taught us that we can’t live without them.

Obviously, companies have a competitive edge when they better predict what their customers will want, maybe even before they know they want it. The best companies predict this through their own vision, which comes by knowing themselves, their company, their customers, and their position in the landscape. They don’t predict it just by watching the competition. But the petal diagram competitive landscape can be a great way to organize an ongoing conversation about customer needs with your leadership. Complete the petal diagram, and then, petal by petal, ask:

* What are the leaders in this petal doing next? What’s new there? * How does their customer base seem to be evolving? * What value that they deliver seems to be getting the most attention from the marketplace? * When their customers get the new and emerging things coming from these companies, how will that change their expectations for what we provide? What are the advances in this petal teaching us that our customers might want? Do this petal’s advances impact our value? Do they create new opportunity? Do they spark ideas?

3. For evaluating what you need from your next executive hire

First, consider who you’re looking to hire. You likely do the following exercise intuitively, and completely in your head, when you shape the role and evaluate people. Doing it with a Petal Diagram on a whiteboard could help refine your thinking and align your team.

Put the role in the center, and on each petal, put the name of an executive with whom the new team member will work closely. Then, petal by petal, ask:

* What are this person’s biggest strengths? * If I could add one dimension or skill to this person’s petal, what would I add? * Thinking of the role in the middle, what could the person in this petal adequately cover, if the person I hire can’t? * Is there anything that the people in the petals have in common? Is it important that I bring that common quality in with the person in the center?

And second, consider from where you’ll recruit. Go back to your competitive petal diagram, the one with other companies on the petals.

* Are you trying to encroach more on one petal’s terrain than another? * Are you changing the game for a petal’s players? * How important is it to complement your existing leadership team with expertise in this petal’s domain?

As with any model, this circle with some other circles around it could be used in any number of ways. It just takes thinking to use it, and understanding the benefit of trying something beyond the two-by-two grid we all fall back on.

It’s easy but dangerous to walk up blind to something, put your hand down, and declare that you know what you have in front of you. Don’t fall victim to tunnel vision. Look around you all 360 degrees. Talk to all six monks about their point of view of the elephant to get to a more complete truth.