CMO & Co-Founder nth company | LearnCdo | Empire Ecommerce.
As I took the hard knocks to build a meaningful and sustainable business, I discovered and used some insights that have helped me and others work through the chaos and stack the deck for success.
What I’ve found is that a lot of it depends on the resilience of the organization.
Individual and organizational resilience is different. There’s good, hard science – now mainstream in the US military – about resilience at the individual level. The gist of the idea is best summed up with a simple metaphor: a rock can be much harder than a bouncing ball, but throw it against a brick wall and it can shatter into a million pieces. What’s better when things go sideways and start flying?
How does that translate to organizations? When organizations face pressures and failures, the individuals involved may be fine, but their will to continue and contribute at a high level can be broken. The organization can disappear with unfulfilled goals, and worse, its failure can haunt the path for others considering pursuing similar goals.
While there is no guaranteed formula for success, it is possible to identify things that can kill it. Here is part one of a short list.
The Doom Loop
The doomloop is a concept defined and popularized by the prolific academic and author Jim Collins. While the data behind this is excellent, its articulation is simple and self-explanatory. Successful companies tend to slowly and systematically put one foot in front of the other. Unsuccessful companies instead tend to announce a single inspiring goal and strategy change to get the troops around, and when failing, identify a new inspiring goal to focus on. The constant back-and-forth kills steady progress, and the ability to record cumulative gains is severely hampered.
Takeaway: There is no finish line, so don’t rush.
The fundamental attribution bias
Once seen, this bias cannot be unseen. The fundamental attribution bias is the well-documented human tendency to internalize the causes of success and externalize the causes of failure. Here’s a pretty standard example in finance: you’re an “excellent trader” in good market conditions, but “markets don’t function well” when they’re wrong. We have a very natural, and possibly evolutionarily necessary, urge to think of ourselves as good people. It is dangerous in modern, powerful organizations because it can create a dissonance that hinders the recognition and treatment of problems that quietly hinder progress. There is no cure, but mitigating agents include:
1. Constant effort of individual consciousness.
2. Creating independent, objective controls on processes and systems.
3. Temper competence with humility. A few self-deprecating jokes of leadership can go a long way.
Takeaway: Good people tend to think they’re great, even you. That’s OK, but be aware of the trend.
Intentional blindness of path gaps
Although somewhat related to the fundamental attribution bias, this problem is not specific to current affairs, but rather to the deliberate blindness associated with exciting but unsustainable models and practices.
When leaders with a strong reality-distortion field confront the harsh truths of the path ahead of their team, they are often tempted to drastically ignore the difficulty and structural blockages they may face. For example, they could ignore the chance of 66% of software projects failing and say, “Who cares what the challenges are? We’ll meet them head on!” How much better is the leader who aligns with the team and says, “Look, we’re on a tight budget and we’re dealing with people tearing us apart at the first sign of weakness. We face serious obstacles in getting of financing and a path to market penetration. I am willing to do whatever it takes, but you have to know in advance that this journey will not be quick or easy.”
Takeaway: The courage to acknowledge the abyss is rare, necessary, and potentially motivating.
One point total failure risk acceptance
It is necessary to take risks, but the habit of betting on the farm usually ends in one direction. Building diversification and redundancy into everything from revenue streams to store of value, from customers to investors, is a necessary practice to limit the overall risk of failure to one point. Also applies to teams. If your business is built around one key player, what’s your backup plan if they get hit by a bus tomorrow or decide to fully follow their passion for international caving? Accepting and preparing for the possibility that things may not go according to plan is an essential part of building a sustainable business for the long term.
Takeaway: Hope for the best and prepare – diligently and continuously – for the worst.
Lack of widespread candor
Not every culture needs extreme openness about highly personal matters, but when it comes to the company and its performance, the leadership itself needs to be radically candid and support a widespread culture of candor.
Takeaway: Honesty is both expensive and valuable. It’s worth it.