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Is the Best Predictor of Future Failure Your Past Success?

Success and failure sign Shafeen Charania makes an intriguing suggestion--that the best predictor of our future failure is our past successes. His premise is that when we've found a course of action that proves successful, we are more likely to become wedded to it. We then resist changing our approach, even when circumstances have changed.

This is related, of course, to the tyranny of dead ideas. But there's a twist. In Shafeen's formulation, we're invited to anticipate that our past success will predispose us to future failure. This means we have the opportunity to build into our processes those strategies that can help us avoid resting on our laurels.

On an organizational level, Shafeen has a few suggestions for doing this:

One approach to helping companies stay open to new ideas, while making sure they extract maximum return from existing events, might tie back to that blog entry Size Does Matter.

What if there was also a policy that once a successful business line in the main company hit a certain profitability and had achieved a specified return (say 200% of the original investment), it was required to spin off 20% of its employees and fund that "start-up" with 5% of the profits for 2-3 years? The start-up is  charged with beating the incumbent and taking down the mother-ship. If after those 2-3 years there are no promising results, the start-up is on its own. But if it succeeded, the parent company would have a choice of bringing them back in-house, or sticking to the program as defined in Size Does Matter, and creating a whole new revenue stream, while milking the last drop out of their cash cow.

Individually, we can take action too.  We can engage in  ongoing reflective practice, which provides us with a framework for examining our assumptions. This is a necessary and critical component of any individual plan to avoid being imprisoned by our success. 

We can conduct regular After Action Reviews. These, too, provide a structure for reflection and evaluation and allow us to see where we should and shouldn't consider other alternatives. 

One of the dangers of success is that it can lead to "When all you have is a hammer, everything is a nail" syndrome. I see this with new users of social media, for example, who, enamored of the benefits of blogging or wikis or Twitter, suddenly see a social media solution to every individual or organizational issue.

While applying new ideas or tools or approaches in different realms can be a great strategy, we should do so with a spirit of inquiry, rather than with the belief that it "should" work. This is where we need to develop the habit of engaging in personal learning experiments , regularly engaging ourselves in asking questions and testing our ideas. 

Being aware that in our past successes lie the seeds of our future failures gives us a tremendous opportunity to avoid this fate. 

Is this something you think about? What have you done to make sure you don't cling to outmoded approaches when circumstances have changed?


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Great post! Remember also that it's very easy to make research/data/analysis reflect strategy (and this can color the after-action review).

If everything does look like a nail then all your data's going to prove that hammers are what you needed, need now, and will need forever more.

Having an externa viewpoint, who looks at your business as the competition helps you see things more clearly.

Not an easy thing to do though...

The idea that "future failures are in our present success" is great meme. The challenge is getting at those "habits of mind" that don't let you see potential future failures.

I find that self-reflection & AARs are limited because it's hard to get out of one's own head to examine one's assumptions. I need something more disruptive, more visceral.

So I go somewhere I have never gone before -- whether that's a trip to a new country (or county); or reading about area that I don't know or don't care much about (like basketball: http://tinyurl.com/djug2s). Or attending a new conference such as GDC, or just talking to people I never usually talk to about certain topics. Similar to your personal learning experiments.

Break the old habits; transform thinking.

Shafeen and Rani, I think you're both making a similar point--that we need something outside of ourselves to really disrupt our thinking. Inviting in new people, reading in areas we don't normally read about, etc. are ways to challenge ourselves to avoid the homophily that can imprison us. Great comments--thanks!

Thanks for the great post, and for linking to so many other great posts! It was very timely material for me.

I agree that reflection is key. What you're reflecting upon is also key. I think that talking with other practitioners is important, but I also think we need to reach much farther for input on a regular basis.

I accomplish much of this with my RSS feed. I built and habitually (obsessively?) keep up with a diverse one. Yes, nonprofits, nptech, and teaching (my spheres) are represented. But also present are lifehacker, The Simple Dollar, several librarians, several students, business communications, food, crafts, interior design, travel, and a random homemaker in Georgia.

Keeping an eye on the wide realm outside my sphere helps me be always aware that my sphere could look different.

Also, I think a lot of people do this to some degree. Does it count as "personal learning" if they don't recognize it as such?

Another pertinent quote here is:
Failure changes for the better; success for the worse. ~ Seneca

Thanks for the perceptive post about the tyranny of dead ideas.

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