I was watching the Tour de France yesterday, where the British sprinter Mark Cavendish yet again won the stage. Cavendish doesn’t ride alone, however: far from it.

In fact Cavendish relies on his HTC teammates to create a slipstream for him to ride in for all but the final kilometre of the stage. Riding in a slipstream means that Cavendish expends only half the energy of the rider at the head of the race, allowing him to maximise his speed in the final few yards.

Many businesses try to act like Cavendish, attempting to slipstream the market and innovation leader and then rapidly follow what the leader does. Some companies, such as Samsung and Zara, are excellent at pursuing this ‘fast follower’ strategy.

But this strategy requires that you are close enough to the leader to enjoy the benefits of the slipstream. Too many organisations are off the pace and out of the slipstream, which means that the going is just as hard for them as it is for the leaders – but without any of the benefits!

While Samsung has had some success with the Galaxy tablet that it launched in rapid response to Apple’s iPad, for example, the tablet offerings of most companies are just too weak and too late to generate any real consumer interest or revenue streams.

Being a fast follower doesn’t mean you can simply cruise along. You need to get out of your saddle, crank through the gears and get close enough to the leader to ensure that any sprint for the line that you make has a tangible impact on the result of the race.

© Stuart Cross 2011. All rights reserved.