Are Out to Get Us!
By Holly G.
Andy Grove, the founder of microchip giant Intel, once said,
“Business success contains the seeds of its own destruction.” Just
look around and it’s hard to argue with him. General Motors.
Enron. Washington Mutual. Lehman Brothers. PanAm. The landscape
is littered with once-dominant companies that have lost their
position of market leadership or gone completely out of business.
These companies withered away due to internal rather than
external factors. Convinced of their own immortality, they grew
fat, bloated, and lazy, and refused to keep up with changing market
conditions. They grew overconfident in their ability to stay ahead
of competitors. They ignored or misjudged evolving customer wants
and needs. Or, as they say in Texas, they simply got too darn big
for their britches and lost touch with their customer base.
How can this happen to such highly successful companies?
They had access to resources that most firms can only dream about.
They had capable, experienced leadership. They had well-established
brands that people knew and trusted. They had long track records of
success to continue building upon. What went wrong?
The answer lies, at least partly, in our brains.
The human brain excels at taking in large amounts of data,
sifting, and analyzing that data, and then forming patterns. Most
of this activity takes place just below the level of conscious
awareness, so that we’re not even aware when we’re doing it. Way
back in our caveman days, this kind of pattern recognition coupled
with instant and consistent response was a good thing. It allowed
us to quickly identify predators, remember the location of food and
water sources, and engage in other activities that supported our
survival. We responded to these inputs of data the same way each
time and it worked because the pace of change was pretty darn slow.
In today’s modern world, not so much.
The problem is that once these unconscious patterns and
responses get established, they can be very difficult to break,
especially when they get reinforced by all the trappings of
success. That’s why the more success we achieve, the more we tend
to do things the same way. After all, it has worked for us up to
that point. We are constantly screening in the data that proves us
right and screening out anything contradictory. Unfortunately,
the world is changing all around us, but our deeply ingrained
patterns of seeing the world a certain way cause us to filter,
distort, or ignore the information coming in, so that we only see
what we want to see. As a result, we continue doing the same things
the same way, without ever stopping to question whether the time has
come to start doing things differently.
How else to explain GM’s behavior over the past few decades?
I hate to kick GM while they’re down, but they’ve become the
poster child for ignoring the obvious. Soaring gas prices. Global
sales of smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. The increasing
popularity of hybrids and alternative fuels. Despite the evidence
surrounding them, all GM could see was a world that wanted large,
powerful automobiles. So they continued to churn out over-sized gas
guzzlers while watching their market share erode year after year and
they continued trying to negotiate in the same way with the same
unions years after the data suggested that relationship needed to
change dramatically on both sides.
Here’s the kicker: don’t think you have to attain FORTUNE 100
status to become a victim of this “success syndrome.” Simply
combine success at your level with a large dose of complacency and
the brain’s natural tendency to see what you want to see and you,
too, can enjoy a rapid fall from grace.
How can you avoid such a fate? I ran across a good article
the other day in which the author, Denise Yohn, offered three
strategies for avoiding the dreaded success syndrome:
1. Instill a
culture of truth telling.
In many organizations, data gets collected and presented in a way
that people think the leaders want to hear. Instead, leaders
must insist that people tell the truth and then reward them for
doing so, even when the truth hurts.
Successful companies often stop failing because they stop taking
risks. Leaders need to ensure that failure continues to happen even
after success is attained.
3. Be a little
Like a sentry patrolling the front lines, constantly scan the
horizon for emerging threats, and be vigilant about preparing for
To this I would add, never take your success or your
customers for granted. Constantly ask, “How has our customer’s
world changed in the past six to 12 months? Are the ideas,
assumptions, processes, and systems that made us successful still
valid in today’s world? If not, what do we need to change and how
do we need to change it?”
The brain is a marvelous instrument. But sometimes it just
gets in our way or we don’t even visit it. Don’t assume that what
you think know about your customers, your markets, and your business
is still true. Don’t assume that loyal customers will stay if you
fail to keep up with their changing demands. And never let yourself
believe that you are too big, too successful, or too important to
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Holly G. Green.
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