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The Relevance Gap: Why Excellence Alone Won't Lead You to Greatness

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Here's a brain teaser: How can you make something invisible disappear?

Answer: cut off its funding.

Last July, the U.S. Congress voted to terminate further spending on the F-22 Raptor stealth jet fighter, one of the costliest weapons programs in history. The Defense Department built 187 F-22s -- at a price of $360 million each. It had hoped to build hundreds more to replace its fleet of aging F-15s, and had an army of lobbyists, procurement specialists and legislators lined up behind the project.

So why did Congress and the Secretary of Defense align themselves against the plane? Certainly not because of the Raptor's lack of capabilities. Designed to intercept and engage enemy aircraft, the plane is among the most sophisticated ever built. It can travel twice the speed of sound and evade the world's impenetrable missile defense systems. While traveling nearly 1,000 miles per hour at 50,000 feet, the aircraft can fire a 1,000 pound bomb and strike a moving target more than 20 miles away.

In the air, the Raptor is virtually unstoppable.

On the ground, however, this wonder of engineering and aeronautical excellence encountered one adversary it could not overcome: relevance. Or lack thereof. With the threat of Soviet weaponry a distant memory, the need for such a potent weapon was questioned -- even by military hawks. Their conclusion: for all its excellence, the F-22 Raptor lacked relevance in today's geo-political landscape.

What about products or services that are relevant, but not yet excellent? They often suffer a similar fate in the market. Take alternative energy. Today, only a fraction of American homes use any form of solar power, despite significant interest from the public. Given the lack of technological excellence, that's not expected to change anytime soon without major scientific breakthroughs. By 2030, Americans are expected to get just 15 percent of their energy from solar power, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The lesson here is that excellence and relevance go hand-in-hand. When they come together, remarkable things can happen. Each year, for example, 400,000 Americans die from sudden heart attacks. But now, tens of thousands fewer are dying annually thanks to the advent of automated external defibrillators. In fact, if units were more widely available in public places, another 100,000 could be saved, according to American Heart Association. Talk about excellence and relevance merging to change lives.

Unfortunately, many organizations don't fully grasp the need to pursue both excellence and relevance simultaneously. To them, the foundation for success lies in excellence, whether delivered through engineering brilliance, price breakthroughs, or other advances. But these achievements are only the first steps toward greatness. Companies must also be relevant, offering products or services that help customers achieve their own goals.

One such company is HSBC, one of the world's wealthiest financial institutions. With more than 300,000 employees, the financial giant does business in nearly 90 countries. Despite its footprint, however, it has just 8,500 branch locations worldwide -- fewer than some its rivals have in a single country. In some cities, customers must to drive past six or seven offices of rival banks just to get to an HSBC location. Why do they bother? Because HSBC offers excellent products and services that are more relevant to their needs.

Take the way HSBC provides expertise to customers. Rather than limit patrons to local talent available in branch offices, HSBC leverages communications technology to electronically transport its most knowledgeable experts to meet with customers. So no matter the help they need or the language they speak, customers can get excellent service relevant to their needs at any HSBC office. That's a compelling advantage that has won the company many sophisticated investors.

Imagine if your company could do the same? Doing both could propel you further than you ever imagined-- certainly further than the F-22 jet fighter.

Inder Sidhu is the Senior Vice President of Strategy & Planning for Worldwide Operations at Cisco, and the author of Doing Both: How Cisco Captures Today's Profits and Drives Tomorrow's Growth. Follow Inder on Twitter at @indersidhu.

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