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Are We UnderPerforming Our Potential?

by David Brock on May 3rd, 2011

Last month’s Harvard Business Review focus on, of all things, Failure.  One of the most interesting articles was “Why Leaders Don’t Learn From Success.” It’s absolutely a must read for everyone—but if you have been (or think you have been) very successful in the past few years, do yourselves a favor and read it.

There are three major issues identified:

  1. When we succeed, we tend to give too much credit to our talents, our model, or strategy, and too little to external factors and luck.
  2. Success can make us so overconfident that we believe we don’t need to change anything.
  3. We have a tendency not to investigate the causes for good performance.

Success masks all sorts of sins–unfortunately, it takes bad times to bring those to the forefront–and we tend to blame those issues on the bad times.  It’s often hard to see this from within an organization, we get caught up in the momentum of “success” and don’t take the time to question ourselves, our strategies, or assumptions.

Success causes us — as individuals and organizations — to underperform our potential.  There are many organizations I’ve encountered where the leaders have proudly proclaimed their success–“We’ve been growing at double digits,”  “We are the market leader.”  When you look at their success, they could have achieved more.  They should have been growing faster, they should have achieved more, they should have been more profitably.  The signs are often so clear, but from inside the organization, people have been so consumed with the success that they have missed the fact they could have done more.  Success hides this from us.

Success can cause us to slow down just when we should be moving more aggressively.  Particularly, if the success is relatively new, we may be amazed with what we have accomplished–slowing down, perhaps celebrating at the worst possible time.

Success masks the fact that we need to do things differently.  The adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  Well, the business world is littered with the carcasses of once great companies and great business ideas that failed because they didn’t fix what was broken.  See, the problem with this approach is that it is internally focused–it misses what is happening externally, but causes us to focus on what we do well–perhaps trying to do it better.  It doesn’t allow you to consider the question, “should we do it differently.”  Many organizations are struggling with the new buyer–the world has changed, the way customers are buying has changed.  Our old models aren’t working as well–and just trying to work them faster/better won’t work either–but we’re conditioned to do this since they served us well in the past.

Most of all success causes us to be arrogant–maybe not blatantly so, but it causes us to think that we cannot do wrong, that somehow we’ve become “masters of the universe.”  In rapidly growing organizations, it’s particularly destructive–those that should be most proud–though not arrogant–are often relatively quiet.  But those who have been brought on board as a result of their predecessors success and the growth, bask in the glory of success for which they had little to do with.

Like so many things, success is a two edged sword.  We should be proud of our success, we’ve worked hard for it.  At the same time, we must be wary that we become complacent, arrogant, or forget that success has a tendency of hiding the things we are not doing so well.

Are you performing to your potential or resting on your laurels?

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One Comment
  1. Another great post here with some good food for thought. I am very interested in reading the article about why leaders don’t learn from success. Thank you for sharing the link and for sucha well thought out blog.

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