There are a lot of management and marketing books out there, and a lot of ideas and management practices currently being implemented as if there were only one way. To not be on the path, they suggest, means you will fail.

One of my biggest issues with this idea is that if everyone adopts the same tactics, there is no differentiation, and at best you can be looking for average performance. This was stated concisely a long time ago by one of the top sages of finance, John Marks Templeton: "If you want to have a better performance than the crowd, you must do things differently from the crowd."

Of course adopting any type of contrarian perspective means coming into conflict with a lot of others' closely held--if not necessarily rational--beliefs. And you can't sell many management books by telling everyone to be a self-confident individual and challenger of commonly held beliefs. Still, the often-repeated beliefs below require another look.

People are the difference

In every interview I have, and most first business meetings, I ask people what makes their company different. In over 90 percent of cases, what I hear back is that "We have better people." I generally consider this to be an indicator that there is no differentiation at the firm, and so they are trotting out the same line as everyone else.

I far prefer companies like Bridgewater Associates, which states they operate "an environment of radical openness." If you peruse a few of their employee videos on culture, you can see just how they have clearly differentiated with people and ways of working. It is definitely not for everyone, and this is good.

By starting from a different place, and with a true differentiation, this actually leads to a differentiated workforce, drawn to the challenges and rewards of the culture. And for Bridgewater this translates into a long period of stellar growth and market outperformance.

Customer service is the difference

I get a little saddened when companies state that the difference between them and others is their customer service. For those where it is true, like Zappos, it feels more like them hiding their light under a bushel. They've managed to grow profitably more due to excellent execution in their IT infrastructure and in marketing, purchasing, and logistics. Somehow these must feel even less sexy than customer service to the management, so that is what gets lauded. I am not fooled, nor should you be.

Every customer service experience means something went a little wrong in there somewhere. We now have firms like Virtusize and Fitbay helping all online clothes shoppers reduce the guesswork in online shopping, and enabling e-tailers to reduce those costly returns and shipping charges. Are you going to favor the companies best at sticking on band-aids?

When the going gets tough, pivot

It has become such a fashion with tech companies to pivot their business, desperately grasping for something that works. This seems to follow closely behind the modern governmental ideas of managing by focus group and other similar tactics. This smacks to me of not having any conviction. I am sure there have been some successful companies who pivoted and then stuck to something. Most, though, seem to simply embed in their culture the idea that when the going gets tough, pivot.

The antidote to the pivot is the evangelical visionary. Think the famous Steve Jobs iPod in a fish tank story. He stated that the original iPod was too big to the engineering team who had "reinvented inventing" to get it to the size of the prototype. Jobs dropped it into a fish tank and watched air bubbles escape--if there was air in there, then there was room to make it smaller.

Being the "Uber" for any other industry

Right now there seem to be a whole tidal wave of new companies emerging who are happy to describe themselves as the Uber for their market. Really? Are you truly disrupting a space in the way Uber is? Surely if you were you would be growing at the same rate and at the same scale, no? Many of them look like the same ideas that have been floating around since dotcom times. There is nothing inherently poor in many of them--I love HotelTonight (Uber for last-minute hotels) and Homejoy (Uber for on-demand cleaning service) for instance, and expect them to be staples in our lives going forward. Both, though, seem to be successful in their own unique ways.

Published on: Aug 12, 2014
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