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5 Ways to Maintain a Competitive Edge, No. 1: Learn Faster

By Motley Fool Staff - Updated Oct 12, 2017 at 11:40AM

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In today's fast-moving, constantly evolving world, the ability to adapt more nimbly than your rivals will usually pay off.

Getting ahead isn't simply a matter of having a great idea, nor of being intelligent or improving your mastery in your chosen arena. The key is to focus on the edge that you can keep for the longer term. In this episode of Motley Fool Answers, Alison Southwick and Robert Brokamp are joined by former Fool Morgan Housel to talk about figuring out what your sustainable advantages are, both in investing and in life. He lays out five possible advantages that you and the businesses you invest in might already have, or want to cultivate, in service of acquiring an edge. The first: the ability to adjust to changes that catch most folks flat-footed. Some companies are still fighting the battles of decades past, while others see around corners.

A full transcript follows the video.

This video was recorded on Aug. 22, 2017.

Alison Southwick: Having a great idea is obviously the first step in the path to success, but what if that idea can easily be copied by someone else? As Morgan Housel writes in a recent column for the Collaboration Fund -- which we all just learned about -- the key to business and investing success isn't about finding an advantage, but having a sustainable advantage. Morgan is here, today, to talk about five ways that you can maintain a competitive edge -- or that companies can maintain a competitive edge -- in business, investing ... I don't know. Anywhere you want an edge.

Morgan Housel: Stuff.

Southwick: Everybody gets an edge.

Housel: You get an edge, and you get an edge, and you get an edge.

Southwick: Here are five ways to do it. So, before we break it down, why did you decide to write about this topic?

Housel: I think it's important for every investor or every business that is trying to actively compete against other people. That's not every investor, but if you are an active investor, I think you should be able to coherently answer the question, "What is my edge? What can I do better than if not everyone else, what can I do better than most people?" And if you can't honestly answer that question, I think that's a flag that you should try to overcome because basically all businesses are competitive.

The reason I wrote the column is because I found if you ask people that simple question -- businesses, CEOs, investors -- a lot of times they struggle to answer it, not because maybe they don't have an edge but because they haven't thought about it, and articulated it. I just wanted to [talk about] what [some of the most common], sustainable sources of competitive advantage are.

And I made the point that intelligence is not one of them. Again, that is a lot of people's answer when you [ask them what their edge is]. "Well, I'm really smart, or my team is really smart." They think that's why they're going to do better. And I just think it's so clear that in investing and in business, intelligence is a commodity these days. There are so many smart people out there. Brilliant people who are looking at the same numbers as you are.

So, if your edge is you think, "I'm just going to be smarter than everyone else," that's a difficult edge to hold onto. I wanted to come up with [some other things] that are not just edges, but "sustainable" edges that you can probably hold onto over time.

Southwick: Well, let's get into them. The first one is the ability to learn faster than your competition.

Housel: In both markets and in business, things are always changing, and adapting, and evolving. And if you can learn from those changes and adapt quicker than everyone, then that, itself, is an edge. And one example that I use is what you see in companies like Sears and Kodak that have not adapted -- they have not learned -- and they're trying to solve 1980s problems today. They just haven't learned very quickly and yet you have other companies that do. When the market changes or the market shifts, they learn incredibly quickly.

I think Facebook purchasing Instagram was a really smart example of a company that just learned very quickly and learned faster than some of its competitors where the market was shifting. The same with Facebook when it purchased WhatsApp. That was viewing where the market was going and learning from others in that industry before they got to it. If you can just learn faster about where things are going -- faster than your competitors -- that's an advantage, and that doesn't have anything to do with being smarter than your competitors are. It's just looking at where the world is going and just trying to learn from it quicker. Embracing reality faster than your competitors.

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