Walk into any major bookstore, or visit major news and business websites and chances are that you will be able to find several studies, articles or books dealing with modern day success stories. A whole industry has developed where the success of an organisation or individual is noted, described, and then dissected in minute detail. All of this so that we can understand how the success was achieved and what we need to do to replicate it for ourselves.
Should we be the focus of the investigation or manage to have effectively achieved a level of success within our environment we need to be aware that success can have a shadow side. The shadow of success is when we risk defining ourselves by it and unintentionally end up limiting future possibilities, and new ways of succeeding by replicating the factors we identified as contributing to that past success.
In the world of sport we see this drawn to a logical, if sometimes extreme, conclusion. When a sport star holds onto past patterns of success in a very rigid way it is called a ‘superstition’ – “Never change a winning formula”.
Some superstitions of famous sports stars:
- Goran Ivanisevic the tennis player would duplicate his actions from before a winning game at the next game he played. During one Wimbeldon tournament he watched Teletubbies every morning.
- Rafael Nadal skipped a royal appointment with the Queen during 2010 Wimbeldon because he hadn’t done it the day before.
- Neil MacKenzie the Proteas cricketer would attach his spare bats to the ceiling of the change room with adhesive tape, convinced that he wouldn’t play well if he didn’t.
- Baseballer Jim Ohms put a coin in his jock strap after every winning match. By the end of the season opponents said they could hear the coins jangling as he ran.
- David Campese of Australian rugby fame insisted that he sat next to the bus driver on the drive to every away game.
- Kolo Toure the Arsenal footballer insisted on being the last player to leave the dressing room after half time. In one game his team mate William Gallas needed medical treatment. Toure would not leave before him forcing Arsenal to start the second half with only nine players on the field.
- This coalesces in the explanation Venus Williams used to explain a surprise defeat in the 2008 French Open. “I didn’t tie my laces right and I didn’t bounce the ball five times and I didn’t bring my shower sandals to the court with me. I didn’t have my extra dress. I knew it was just fate; it wasn’t going to happen”
We may chuckle at these examples but they have their roots in logic. In some cases success does depend on the repetition of a series of actions e.g. the perfect golf swing, until the action is second nature. In this case past success is used as an element in the development or evolution of future success. But, when it is held on to so tightly that it becomes superstition, as with these sports stars, it becomes a hindrance for an effective future, and frankly smacks of a lack of common sense.
In business we don’t find ourselves using the word “superstition” to describe repetition of the factors that led to past success, but we are often just as captive to it as these sports stars. While we may not tape past business plans to the ceiling, or make sure that we get out of bed on the same side as last year on the day we do our annual strategy review, we nonetheless trap ourselves in other ways. Our language often indicates this entrapment. It comes out in sentences like: “We don’t do it that way here”; “It has never been done like that before”; “This is the way it has always been done”. In a more subtle way we constrain our strategic conversation by building on the dynamics that led to a successful past year as the foundation / strategic drivers of our strategy for the coming year.
History is littered with companies and individuals who were brilliant at what they did and were feted for a time, but who carried on doing what they were good at and didn’t manage to shift their success with a changing world. Eventually the very success that enabled them to rock the world became the snare that led to their final disappearance into insignificance.
As we look forward and consider the strategy or actions we need to adopt and execute we need to put everything under the microscope and ask if it will still contribute to our ongoing success. NOTHING should be left unexamined, or excused from review based on what has been achieved historically. But, this is easier said than done. Success is like a “strategy opiate” with the effect it has on our ability to rationally look at it. Success also looms large in our rear view mirror and influences what we see looking forward.
We need a tool to free us from the unintended limitations of our past success. Counterfactual reasoning is one tool to try. This process reviews the past by asking how could we still have got where we are today if we remove one fact of history. Historians use this to run thought experiments on history asking things like: “How would America have entered WW2 if the Japanese hadn’t bombed Pearly Harbour?”, “What if the US supreme court confirmed Al Gore as president and not George W. Bush? How would America’s response to 9/11 have been different?”, “What if the judge in the Rivonia treason trial had sentenced Nelson Mandela to death rather than imprisonment? How would we have developed into the modern nation of today without Nelson Mandela’s influence?”.
Applying counterfactual reasoning to your past successes means looking back and asking how you could’ve achieved the same or similar rewards / growth if the main driver of your success was not present. Rethinking your past without the massive footprint of these real elements will liberate your business to look forward unencumbered by the, admittedly positive legacy, of past success.
Whatever the corporate or business equivalent is of watching Teletubbies each morning, or making sure to bounce the ball five times before each serve…… re-examining the past counterfactually will assist you and your organisation to design a future that takes forward the best of the past, leaves the rest behind, and doesn’t get hobbled by building corporate superstitions based on past successes.