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"Follow the leader' is labeled a losing game

The mantras of the management gurus don't change much from year to year at Florida's winter business conferences. Usually, the big cheese who skips a session to practice sand shots on the golf course can sagely fake it over afternoon cocktails.

The executives who do put a sport coat over their plaid madras shirts and sit through the sessions generally hear something like the following: Put quality into your products, remember the customer always comes first, think globally and act world-class.

But anyone who played hooky for Gary Hamel's keynote presentation at the Nolan, Norton & Co. conference here last week missed out. Hamel has a refreshingly novel perspective on sagging U.S. competitiveness.

Hamel, associate professor of strategic and international management at the London Business School, told executives at the Innisbrook Resort they need to make a fundamental shift in the ways they manage their companies.

Instead of protecting markets, they must create new ones, he said. Rather than imitating competitors, they must outpace them. Rather than being customer-led, companies must offer products people didn't know they wanted.

Hamel's point is that popular movements, such as the quality initiative now being embraced in the United States, tend to address old problems that competitors _ mainly, the Japanese _ have already mastered.

Hamel talked about Toyota Motor Co.'s efficient "lean production" process that makes it cheaper to build quality cars than bad ones. Manufacturers around the world are copying the Toyota system.

"General Motors imitates Toyota," Hamel said. "What I'm deeply concerned about is why it was Toyota, not GM, that came up with this."

He added: "Consultants have always had the right ideas, but they've just been 10 years too late. We have to go from the latest catch-up trap to get back on the offensive."

The first step, Hamel said, is that companies can't remain competitive by relying on business units oriented toward specific products, such as computers or compact disc players.

A music store chain that now sells compact discs and tapes should imagine a world where customers instead pay a monthly bill for the right to make crystal-clear recordings digitally transmitted over state-of-the-art telephone lines.

"IBM defines itself as a computer company," Hamel said. "But Sony would never define itself as a consumer electronics company."

Hamel said Japan's Sony Corp. looks at technological developments not in terms of specific products that can be placed on the market immediately, but in terms of general attributes that will help planning over the long run.

To Sony, he said, the transistor has translated to pocketability; videotape to a "time shift" for consumers; and high-definition television, the next-generation technology, to lifelike realism in every segment of society.

At Sony, Hamel said, the people who think of the ideas for new products are not isolated in laboratories. They study human behavior at places like the boardwalk in Venice, Calif., mecca to an offbeat beach culture, where young people regularly skate to tunes on their Sony Walkman stereos.

And Hamel said companies don't learn if ideas will work unless they test them in the marketplace. He cited Toshiba Corp. as an example of a company that established a leadership position in laptop computers by continually introducing new products.

"Toshiba has withdrawn more laptop models than anyone else has launched," Hamel said, noting that the Japanese don't tend to blame individuals for failed projects as much as they attempt to learn from mistakes.

Hamel cited Cable News Network as a rare American example of such ambition in recent years. In introducing new products, Hamel said, it is important not to wait for the fog to clear over emerging technologies.

Once the future seems clear, he said, someone else has likely staked out a leadership role in the market.

"You must be first in the market," he said, "creating space versus defending space."