The Poison of Omnipotence

Sometime around 500AD, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite asked whether it was possible for God to “deny himself”.

Sometime around 500AD, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite asked whether it was possible for God to “deny himself”. The question was arguably the first emergence of what is called ‘The Omnipotence Paradox’ which states that:

If a being can perform any action, then it should be able to create a task it is unable to perform, and hence, it cannot perform all actions. Yet, on the other hand, if it cannot create a task it is unable to perform, then there exists something it cannot do.

Whilst it may be enjoyable to venture into a debate on whether or not it is possible to ever be omnipotent, the fact is, it’s tremendously attractive to imagine having unlimited, universal power. Not just as a person but as a business too.

I see numerous companies express monstrous capabilities to appear more competitive. Check out some of the halls at pretty much any exhibition and you will see stand after stand of slogans and tag lines including terms like ‘end-to-end’, ‘360º’ and ‘total’. I see products launched that, allegedly, are super-powered. I see services launched that, allegedly, will solve even the most challenging needs.

I wonder how much pressure comes from potential customers who, especially in new concepts, seek companies who ‘do everything’, citing economies of scale and efficiency as justification. I wonder how much pressure comes from competitors who claim omnipotence thereby forcing you to do the same to stay competitive. The whole thing feeds itself. Bigger and bigger claims, mostly based on sand.

Numerous agencies in the advertising world claim to be the ‘world’s greatest’ this or that. The ‘home of’ something or other. The writers of such statements often believe the words to be true, even if nobody else does. One could argue that such expressed omnipotence is an internal communication tactic, making staff feel as if they are in the right place to work. Here’s the deal:

I feel there is no long-term benefit of outputting claims of ultimate power or capability. In fact, claiming this is a very bad idea in many ways, and I call this The Poison Of Omnipotence. Of a cast of thousands, here are the three biggest disaster zones with this poison:

1. Over-promising. This is perpetually linked to under-delivery. Even if a deal gets won by some whizz-bang claims of extreme ability, the execution stage will be ever more painful. This is very pertinent in the current world of new advertising formats where minimum revenue guarantees are requested by potential customers who, frankly, should know better, and providers who, frankly, should do too.

2. Believability. In new areas where customers may not know what would be possible, you would think you could get away with seeming to be omnipotent. However, once levels of awareness and understanding increase, it’s only a matter of time until the parameters are better known. Then you are in big trouble.

3. Trust and Integrity. This is totally impossible when the first two minefields come into play. Trust can only come from positive interactions, augmented by consistency and honesty, which builds integrity: the mother of all goals in reputation. In the long run, it would be better to have trust and integrity than to live in the hope you never get found out for not being the omnipotent force you seemed to be. You may do less business, but you won’t be hated, derided and unable to function in the business world.

So, what is the antidote to this poison?

1. Leave it. I truly believe it’s best to leave your competitors to kill themselves off, suffering from the three areas outlined above. Then you will still exist and have a clearer market.

2. Differentiate. Do this by not claiming to be omnipotent. Focus on what you are fantastic at. This isn’t to say you should limit yourself, but only market competencies if you actually have them. If you think you need them to compete, then learn or buy them – but don’t claim you have them if you don’t.

3. Change perspective. Most companies follow competition. Markets are defined by this. This is why we so often are in a race to the bottom, trading in lowest common denominators, blindly competing for prizes that are evaporating. Just because the market seems to be going one way, that doesn’t justify you following it.

One final thought: If you actually are omnipotent, or do have ultimate capability in your space, then the competitive advantage you have will express itself, through people. By telling everyone you have superpowers, you will simply look like all the others who say they do too. Leave them to make the claims, and you can get on with being fabulous.

The truth will eventually come out.

All you are is what you are.

Taken as an excerpt from ’Business Poison’ available from Amazon as a paperback and for kindle: http://jonathanmacdonald.com/books/

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