Time as a Competitive Advantage

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An article I read in 1988 has always stuck with me. The article was “Time–The Next Source of Competitive Advantage” by George Stalk in the Harvard Business Review. The article came near the start of an era in which companies primarily sought competitive advantage through being faster than other companies.

This has, of course, coincided with the growth in popularity of the agile development approaches, including Scrum. These approaches have become popular because, among other benefits, they help companies deliver products more quickly.

Why I’ve been thinking about this lately is I’ve begun to wonder if we’re nearing the end of the era in which time is a competitive advantage. It’s quite possible: Other sources of competitive advantage have gone away.

Quality, for example, used to be a one of the strongest differentiators among companies. Thirty years ago, quality varied tremendously among carmakers. Today, a high quality car is assumed. Quality–at least in most manufactured goods–has largely gone away as a source of competitive advantage.

Price has long been a source of competitive advantage. But some authors have even argued that as more products and services are offered for free, price is going away as a competitive advantage.

Innovation has become a fertile area in which companies seek competitive advantage today. This has served Apple well over the past decade. I don’t think innovativeness will be going away soon as a source of competitive advantage. But I do wonder whether time is running out on time as a competitive advantage. If agile and other innovations lead us to a world where all companies can deliver new products and services equally quickly, companies will need to find newer ways to differentiate themselves.

Let me know what you think.