Why would anyone – or any company – choose to un-choose quality? We’ve been told that excellence is the goal, right? Beside the argument that quality generates raving fans and excellence creates loyal and repeat customers, nobody wants to be told that they suck. Let’s assume that’s the case, but let’s NOT assume that it’s a general suckiness that we’re talking about. Today we are talking about the strategic value of choosing to be bad at something.

We’re not disputing that quality is important. We’re saying that you can’t be all things to everybody – even if you knew what everybody really wanted. Certain choices have to be made. You can’t be both cheap and exclusive. You can’t be both chocolate and vanilla. Well, you can sort of do that, but that would change you to a swirl or two-thirds of a Neapolitan. Swirls and Neapolitans are different from chocolate and different from vanilla. You have to choose.

What would you be willing to sacrifice in order to be really outstanding – industry leading? Would you be willing to sacrifice design for functionality, or functionality for design? Would you be willing to trade speed for one-of-a-kind craftsmanship? How would you choose to be bad?

  • Fortune columnist and business growth guru Verne Harnish cites the example of IKEA, the company that specializes in flat-packed furniture. You take the giant boxes home yourself, and you have to assemble the furniture on your own with that little Allen wrench. What a pain! But because IKEA is willing to inconvenience you, it is able to sell you furniture that is incredibly affordable. (Verne would also tell you that their awesome Swedish meatballs make up for the giant hike you have to take through the stores!)
  • There is a gift shop in our home town that sells beautiful handcrafted pottery, table ware, pictures and the like. The price points are on the higher side, so you’d shop there for weddings or special birthday gifts. The checkout line is SLOW. It’s slow because the salesperson is painstakingly gift-wrapping the purchase of the person in front of you. The specialness of the wrap announces to your recipient that he or she is very important to you, and that the item inside is valuable. It doesn’t feel slow when you’re in the front of the line. It feels fancy. So locals go to that store, allow plenty of time, and find something memorable to give.
  • Retail chain Ollie’s Bargain Outlet (Good Stuff Cheap!) sells overstocks, products in old packaging or last year’s styles, and closeouts. On their website they describe their stores as “semi-lovely”. If that isn’t the overstatement of the day! You walk in the door into a mishmash of products stacked higher than you can reach. And you never know whether you will find what you’re looking for. Ollie’s chooses to look like it just pulled a bunch of stuff off of a truck and piled it HERE. And you go there over and over again because sometimes you can get a really good deal.

In each of these cases, the business makes a strategic choice NOT to be good at something. Resources that might go toward merchandising (in the case of Ollie’s, for instance) can go toward being opportunistic about inventory buys. The warehouse flavor when you walk in the door at Ollie’s strengthens the brand. Ollie’s strategy worked so well that the company grew from 1 store in 1982 to 271 stores in 20 states. As for IKEA, the do-it-yourself strategy has been successful. IKEA is the largest furniture retailer in the world. Not bad for offering tables, chairs, desks and kitchen cupboards (with their Allen wrenches) in flat boxes!

What would you be willing to be bad at – if it could mean that you focused your energies and resources to become REALLY GOOD at something else?