CONTRIBUTOR : Alastair Dryburgh
Looking back at all the instances of organizational and individual failure I have seen – and having done what I did I have seen a lot – it’s clear that in nearly all cases failure doesn’t just follow success, it is caused by that success. How does this happen?
First of all, think of examples;
General Motors, which in the later years before it went bankrupt, was notorious for knowing exactly what was what, and being impervious to any idea that might have challenged that. Now clearly they didn’t know exactly what was what, because they went bust, but why were they so set in their ways? It was because for many years they had been a hugely successful company.
A chief executive of my acquaintance whose response to any problem (even in areas he didn’t understand) was to dive in and demand immediate action. Actually, that is the charitable way of describing his behavior. You could also have characterized it as “jumping up and down and screaming.” He did this because he had come up through operations, where that can be an effective way of getting things moving.
Now, what is the general pattern?
First of all, the organization or individual has some success. This may be the result of skill, or of luck, or a combination of both – it doesn’t matter which.
Second, the behavior that produced that success is repeated. If conditions remain the same, which they mostly do in the short term, this also produces success.
Now habits are set up. We forget that the behavior which made us successful was an adaptation to a specific situation, and may have been the result of a lucky accident, or a systematic process of experimentation during which we tried and discarded many other things.
Once habits are set up in the individual, they are then transferred to the organization. If senior people do things in a particular way, they act as role models. People emulate them because they believe that what they do works. But they also emulate them because that is the lowest-risk thing to do. If you do things in the right way, then even if they don’t work out that well, you will mostly be OK.
In this way, over time we move from an idea of “this is what worked in that particular situation and so might work again in this new one which seems rather similar” to a habit of behaving in a particular way. If you asked someone to justify why they did things this way rather than another, you would not get an explanation in terms of what worked. You would get “that’s the way we do things round here.” Or often you would just get a blank look – the habit is so deeply ingrained that it becomes impossible to conceive of doing things differently. Notice that “how we do things around here” is one definition of “organizational culture.” But that is all that culture really is – a collection of habits and beliefs
So in a nutshell, this is the story. Success creates habits, which become culture, which fixes those habits even when the world changes and they no longer work. Which results in failure. Is this inevitable? Of course not. There are ways of ensuring that success does not breed failure, and that is the subject of my next post.