Aside

Is Success Predictable?

Cover of "Predictable Success: Getting Yo...

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So many teams fail in growth. They blame their strategy, or their tactics, or the market, or bring up some issue about product/market/timing fit was off, or that some people failed at execution and so on. The list of reasons is almost endless for any team. As often as this happens, don’t you wonder if it’s really this random and circumstantial, or if there’s an inherent pattern in this failure? I gotta admit that I do.

I recently had a chance to talk with Les McKeown, the best seller of Predictable Success, who built 42 business before he was 35. I suspected that he had formed a pattern of ideas, so I asked him:

“Based on all that experience, what is the major barrier to growth?” His answer:

Self-awareness, above all else.

When people call me it’s usually because their business has stalled out in some way, or because they’re not getting the growth they should. Understandably, they assume the problem is to do with their strategy, or their tactics, or their product, or their market. And while sometimes it is – at least partially – to do with those types of issue, more often than not the main barrier to growth is their own self-awareness.

I don’t mean by this that all business leaders by nature lack self-awareness – rather that there’s a predictable, recurring pattern in the arc of leadership whereby a prolonged period of success hard-wires the brain into following the same decision-making processes that were successful in the past, even when the circumstances around us have changed. This leads to sub-optimal decision-making at best, and compromise, frustration and gridlock at worst.

The most effective contribution I can make in helping a leader, a team or an organization become ‘unstuck’ is often  to help them reconnect with their immediate circumstances – to see how their business has grown and changed, and how as leaders they need to grow and change in response. It’s a bit like helping a parent see that their child is no longer the goofy, vulnerable 8-year-old kid they think of them as, and is instead a beautiful, competent, fully-grown 25-year-old adult – and that they need to start relating to them accordingly.

Whatever the underlying shift is, in my experience once a leader’s self-awareness is re-calibrated and aligned with the new circumstances the business finds itself in, then the other issues – strategy, tactics, market, product – all fall in place much more easily, and to much greater effect.

What I hear Les talking about is this: Until we can see the situation “as is” rather than how we imagine it to be, we can get to work on the important work from going to X to Y. If you or I don’t know what X is, we can’t navigate a path forward. It is important to note that while Les talks about it as “self-awareness”, he doesn’t mean to apply it only to “the leader” as a singular entity. Until *we* understand issues/strategies/situations from every perspective, we miss something. Inside bigger firms, it’s much like seeing the “whole elephant”.

We each have our own limited aperture— what we’re willing to look at, or what we see. Sometimes our area of responsibility in the organization limits our perspectives. Other times, it’s a function of our own lack of understanding. It’s like an elephant. If I were to put an elephant in the room you are in right now (and cut off your olfactory powers and blindfold you for a second) and have you touch it, I could have you describe what you felt and ask someone sitting on the other side of the room to describe what they felt. As you both report it out, the two of you could appear to be in violent opposition. The tail is going to feel different from the tusk; the toes are going to feel different from the back. So one of you is going to say, “It’s smooth,” while another says, “It’s hairy.” Neither is wrong; Both are true. Carrying this back to business, it’s a truth of all cultures that innovate well: when everybody can look at the same picture and see it for what it is, together you can solve that problem. You might remember that I call the process of discovery “Elephant hunting” in Chapter 4 (Question phase) of New How.

Les’ book is appropriately titled, Predictable Success. You can find out more about this business leader and his book, here.

In the meantime, each of us can apply this principle in all we’re doing by asking ourselves the question, “What is really the current state of the “as is”?” — and be open to seeing even that which we don’t like, because only then can we make it better. Only then. Without that truth, we continue to fail.

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6 Responses:

  1. Lisa Robbin Young. October 10, 2011 at 7:15 pm  |  

    I love Les and his book. it’s one of the few I’ve repeatedly ordered in multiples. If this book had been around 5 years ago, I would have made far fewer mistakes in my business development.

    Self awareness, the ability to see things as they are, requires detachment enough to release judgment and be willing to see truth. I call it ruthless honesty. Until we can get objective, we’re too close to see the forest amid the trees.

    Thanks for sharing Les here. LOVE that man!

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. October 11, 2011 at 11:46 pm  |  

      He’s a gem, isn’t he? I’m glad we were able to share him with the Yes & Know community.

      Reply
  2. Dana Reeves. October 12, 2011 at 11:08 am  |  

    Great post, Nilofer. Love your “elephant hunting” analogy! I’ve discovered that the most successful people I know experience life & business with an “eyes wide open” kind of approach, a sense of curiosity – almost joyful anticipation – of the changes that they know will happen (and are open to navigating), and an open acceptance of the need to constantly learn and adapt as part of the natural order of things. It’s quite refreshing them in action!

    Looking forward to reading & learning more from you. Thank you for sharing Les with us!

    Reply
  3. Sandy. October 12, 2011 at 1:11 pm  |  

    Les’ is brilliant – he has amazing tools to offer EVERYONE and strategies to keep you thinking not only about now – also about what’s next. I’ve purchased 150 of his book, Predictable Success and will do same when his new book arrives in January. It’s easy to read, understand and apply. Buy it, devour it and get the changes you deserve.

    Reply
  4. Bill Cunningham. October 12, 2011 at 5:54 pm  |  

    Is Success Predictable? Les suggests a bit of a paradox; the mental models that leaders have used to achieve past (predictable) success are often outgrown and no longer apply and the previous predictability is therefore lost.
    To achieve (new) predictability one must realize that the models we use to interpret the world and make decisions are subject to becoming outdated and need to be constantly adjusted.
    The elephant often moves very slowly, realizing, and admitting, that you are now touching a different part is difficult, even for the most aware.

    Reply
    • Nilofer Merchant. October 12, 2011 at 5:58 pm  |  

      Bill –

      It is true. It’s a “Yes, and..” paradox.
      I wrote something about the feeling of this here: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/09/what_steve_jobs_taught_me_abou.html

      And the paragraph I want to point to is this:
      “As you become successful in something, you develop a feel for how to do it. You know when something is “right.” You’ve built up the equivalent of a hand callus in response to the friction and pressure of what it has taken to get to that first-market success. So, when you try to replicate that in a new context — a second market in this case — all courses of action just feel…off.”

      Les naming that we need to see the 25 year old as it stands today is so key to all growth. And I’m not convinced we can see anew all by ourselves. That’s probably why Les is so successful in his consulting work of course, and I push the idea of all voices inside a business needing to count — both are ways for us to see more clearly “what is”.

      Reply

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