I should acknowledge that I am indebted to a conversation that I had with John Collins on his blog, Views from the Bridge, for some of the themes I discuss in this article.
Towards the end of a recent article on perseverance I referred to people’s desire to find recipes for success. Here’s what I said:
Sometimes we want to find a magic recipe for success, or – to mix the metaphor – a silver bullet. We want to discover a series of defined steps to take that, if repeated religiously, will guarantee that we get to the desired goal each and every time. That’s why articles entitled “The 5 ways to […]” and “My top tips for […]” are so well-read on the web.
As well as my examples of internet top tips (see any number of articles claiming to tell you how to use twitter successfully to get the idea), this phenomenon is also a major factor behind the enduring popularity of celebrity business books. As far as I can see, these fall into two categories.
1. The Ex-CEO
This is where the extremely successful and well-known Mr Brown (and sadly it is still mostly Mr, rather than Ms Brown), now retired but previously President and CEO of Big Company Inc., writes (or more likely has some one ghost-write) a memoir explaining the secrets of his success. While the book may dwell on their upbringing, education, role models, or character-forming events in their lives, much of the work will probably focus on them just being much smarter, more risk-taking, or having greater insight than the competition (most likely all of these). Of course there may well be some interesting tit-bits amongst the reams of self-aggrandisement, but it is worth questioning just how applicable these might be to your own situation.
Are the things that Mr Brown ascribes his success to really what led to his glittering career? Are there perhaps other factors that are not captured in the memoir, but which, if absent in another organisation, would render implementing Mr Brown’s explicit recommendations valueless? Did Mr Brown’s greatest achievements actually have a big slice of luck attached to them (stumbling upon a market or a product by accident, a major competitor losing their way, events beyond anyone’s control shaping matters and so on)? Would the things that Big Company Inc. did under Mr Brown’s esteemed leadership actually work in another company, in a different market or country and with a distinctive business culture?
Put it this way, if you work in Financial Services, would copying what worked in Retail be a good idea? Alternatively, if two companies are both in Retail, does it make sense for a less successful company to slavishly adopt the strategy of the market leader – wouldn’t it be more sensible if they tried to develop a different strategy in order to differentiate their brand?
Of course there is always value in learning from the mistakes and successes of others, but surely there is a limit to how useful a business memoir can be in forming a business strategy.
2. The Academic Expert
Here Professor Green (probably still male), has a long and distinguished career in academia, reading and deconstructing the memoirs of Mr Brown and his peers, identifying common themes between them, doing primary research and constructing recherché models of business strategy development and execution. If there is a new management fad out there, Professor Green is sure to know about it – in fact it may well be based on an article of his that appeared in HBR.
Well there is certainly some value in trying to tease out commonalities between successful companies, but this is probably a lot harder than it might seem. While there may be some recurring themes, maybe many of our champions of business are one offs, successful for reasons other than their business models or strategies. In fact they may well be as unique as the people who lead them. Maybe there is no equivalent of the standard model of quantum mechanics (to say nothing of a deeper grand unified theory) that underpins business success – perhaps the science of business is different from the more reductionist sciences, such as physics. Maybe there isn’t a formula for business success; perhaps it is more like Darwinian natural selection (I’ll come back to this idea later).
Whichever way you look at it, again there is probably a limit to how much insight you can glean from this type of book.
Of course this phenomenon extends into many other areas of human activity. As a youth I can remember only too well poring over cricket manuals in an (ultimately fruitless) attempt to improve my batting or wicket-keeping. My father, at the age of 72, still does the same with golf manuals.
The endless array of cooking books also in the same category and where would we be without the panoply of self-help books such as The Seven Habits of Annoyingly Organised People? All of which goes to show that reliance on recipes for success is a deeply ingrained human trait.
Recipes for success in IT
Having established that people like turning to both “My top tips for […]” and “Mr Brown’s Glittering Career” (available at all good booksellers) how does this aspect of human nature impinge on one of my main areas of endeavour, IT?
Well it has a major impact in my opinion. In fact it is difficult to think of an area of life more obsessed with frameworks, blue-prints, road-maps, procedures, best practices and methodologies (to say nothing of ontologies and taxonomies). All of these are intended to take the risk out of activities – well at least to provide the people following them with the ability to say “well I did what the methodology told me to do”. Of course IT projects and IT development are very complex things and standards of design, coding and behaviour of systems are of paramount importance; but it still seems that IT people have a more visceral relationship with the above-stated areas than would be dictated solely by ticking the necessary boxes.
Nevertheless, having been personally responsible for instigating a thoroughgoing process of standardisation and quality control in a software house (and thereby obtaining an ISO accreditation), it would be churlish of me to argue that that there is no benefit in rigorously applying methodologies in IT.
When it comes to some aspects of project management and to change management in particular, some of the scepticism that I exhibited about celebrity business books returns. It’s not so much that a methodology or even a list of items to tick is not valuable, but that it cannot be an end in itself. The important thing is the thinking that goes into drawing up what you need to do and how you are going to do it, not the method that you use to record these and monitor progress. Sometimes these crucial ingredients get lost. Indeed there does seem to be an entire class of people who focus just on managing lists, rather than the ideas behind them, or the people actually doing the work.
The benefits of a Darwinian approach
I raised the idea of a Darwinian approach to business strategy earlier in this article. There do seem to be some crossovers with how we observe businesses in operation. We are familiar with the image of companies competing with each other for limited resources (our wallets, mine being very limited at present). We understand the pressure that organisations are under to come up with better, cheaper, more functional and sexier products (that are now carbon neutral and ethically-sourced as well).
The language of business is suffused by jungle analogies. The adaptation of Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw” to capitalism being just one of the most well-known examples. The companies that are best at this game survive and thrive, those that are not fail and are forgotten. Companies in more mature markets are even often referred to as dinosaurs or fossils. The idea of never-ending refinement and progress pushing on is an essential part of business.
However, perhaps this evolutionary approach, so evident at the macro-level can also work on a micro-scale. Maybe, rather than relying on the thoughts of Mr Brown or Professor Green, a better approach would be come up with some ideas of our own, test them, discard the bad ones and nurture the less bad ones. In time, with appropriate development and alteration, the less bad may become good and then even great (hang on, I seem to have found my way back to business books with that phrase!).
To me, such an approach is more likely to result in something novel and valuable. Following a recipe for success can only ever be as good as the recipe itself. Thinking for yourself can transcend these limitations and I would argue that the downside is no greater than attempting to ape someone else’s ideas. In both cases the worst that can happen is only extinction.
Disclaimer – sort of
Of course this article has a degree of self reference. Relying upon your own intellect (hopefully refined and improved by other people’s input) is of course another recipe for success. However I hope it is a less proscriptive one. I recommend giving it a try.
Continue reading about this area in: Synthesis.