Striking the balance: differentiation vs similarity

How can MMC companies strike the balance between differentiation and similarity?

Among the kaleidoscope of colours within the avian kingdom, the zebra finch holds a fascinating philosophy for survival. Despite their vibrant plumage, these birds prefer partners with similar traits, a practice known as ‘assortative mating.’ This choice of familiarity over uniqueness is not an accident but a strategic move for future generations to thrive in local environmental conditions. It seems that in the natural world, standing out has its value but only within the framework of similarity.

The 1960s, advertising magnate, Rosser Reeves, fervently promoted the idea of unique selling points (USPs) as the ultimate magnet for customers. This belief has permeated many industries, including modern methods of construction (MMC). Manufacturers strive to carve their niches with their ‘unique product solutions’, creating a vibrant, albeit perplexing, market of difference.

Yet, this distinctiveness, paradoxically, spotlights concerns of choice, insolvency risk and potential single points of failure. In a quest to break away from the pack, individuality has become a collective stumbling block.

How can MMC companies strike the balance between differentiation and similarity? The solution, curiously, might lie in John Nash’s equilibrium theory and examples from nature. Nash, a Nobel laureate, proposed that optimal outcomes occur when each member works in both their individual and collective interests. Vampire bats, surprisingly, epitomise this principle, sharing food with less successful hunters, as a long-term pact of mutual survival, demonstrating an elegant balance between competition and cooperation… co-opetition.

In truth, the majority of manufacturers share more in common than they typically acknowledge. Many systems share consistent principles, supply chains and even details – however the drive for individual survival has ironically fashioned a market barrier – a shared challenge arising from individual actions.

At Akerlof we believe a cooperative shift could reverse this deadlock. If industry leaders were to pool their knowledge through alliancing, foster collaboration and synchronise their actions, they could invoke a Pareto improvement* – in growing the pie for all.  The Seismic consortium has successfully demonstrated the principles of co-opetition, enhancing the unique propositions of Algeco and McAvoy collectively.

To carve a path towards progress, the industry needs greater synchronisation, guided by insights from game theory** and the wisdom inherent in nature. They need to discern when to be distinctive and when to align with others. By doing so, they can address the collective challenge of perception and the anxiety surrounding interchangeability.

Success is often a matter of collective effort, of walking together towards a common goal.


*A Pareto improvement is an improvement to a system when a change in allocation of goods harms no one and benefits at least one person.

**Game theory is a way of studying how people make decisions when they interact with each other in different situations. It helps us understand how people try to predict what others will do and how they choose their actions based on those predictions.

Jamie Hillier


With a penchant for tweed and jackets with leather arm patches, Jamie began his career as a quantity surveyor, before climbing the ladder to lead major projects for a Tier 1 contractor.

Eventually expanding his book collection beyond copies of SMM7, Jamie has interest in a broad range of subjects linked to delivering better outcomes for society and the environment.

His strategic insights on MMC and behavioural science have made their way into numerous government, industry and academic publications, including the Construction Playbook, Transforming Infrastructure Performance Roadmap to 2030, the Platform Rulebook and the RIBA DfMA Overlay.

John Handscomb


Construction is in John’s blood. Learning from his father who was a planner and project manager, John began his career by working on some iconic projects in both the public and private sector.

As a procurement expert and integrator of new ways of working, John has pioneered the integration of platform principles, DfMA processes and supply chain within over £5bn projects in the last 15 years, for some of the largest building programmes in the UK. Despite his considerable expertise, John keeps it simple, communicating complicated ideas with ease and helping to equip the industry with new knowledge and skills.

Outside of Akerlof, John enjoys his executive role with technology start-up ScanTech Digital, spending time with his family, taking trips down the football, playing a bit of golf with friends and the odd pint. 

Our name is shared with George Akerlof, a Nobel Prize-winning economist.

His seminal paper, Market for Lemons, demonstrated the devastating consequences of making decisions under the conditions of quality uncertainty and unequal information between buyers and sellers, increasing the chance of buyers ending up with a ‘lemon’.

This 50-year-old concept continues to retain parallels within the construction industry.

Through our insight and experience, we can rebalance this information asymmetry on behalf of our clients, levelling the playing field to deliver better outcomes.