Often the greatest failures come about not as a result of a failure to attain success, but from the inability to retain success once achieved. Many confuse success with the end of the road, when it is really only a sign that you are on the right road.
The music industry even has a term for this type of success. It is called, a “one- hit wonder.” Scores of singers work hard to achieve the success of a hit song, do so and then disappear forever. There’s even a web site dedicated to these here today, gone tomorrow phenoms.
The business world has its own pantheon of “one hit wonders” as well. These are individuals and businesses that achieve success and then quickly fade from view, never to be heard from again. And I’m not just talking about all those dot-coms that became dot-bombs in the 1990s.
In a way, this should not be surprising. The reality is that it is much more difficult to build on success than it is to build success. Success brings its own set of challenges that few in the search for success anticipate. Few understand this and thus are unprepared to respond to the natural changes that come with success.
On a regular basis we hear about individuals in the entertainment industry who have toiled hard for years to achieve the success, and then, once they have it, throw it all away. They were focused, dedicated and worked hard to attain their goal of celebrity, only to then see their fates spiral downward into lives of drinking, drugs, broken marriages and worse. The fact is they worked hard to achieve success, but were not prepared for success. And it happens every day in the business world.
Success in business brings with it many changes, but none more powerful than the onset of bureaucracy and a growing resistance to change. In short, successful individuals and businesses begin to fail when they stop doing what it is they did to be successful.
For any company, bureaucracy is a natural by-product of success. As the company grows more complex a need develops for varying degrees of rules to standardize employee behavior and company procedures. That is all well and good, but sometimes following the rules becomes the objective rather than a path to the objective. When that happens, they begin to dampen the spirit and effectiveness of the organization. Bureaucracy of some form will invade any successful company and that cannot be avoided. But, it is the form of response to bureaucracy that determines if the company will continue to grow and succeed or start down the slippery road to failure.
Usually, it is sensitivity to and responding to change that creates the opportunity for the success that has been achieved by an organization. But a strange attitude seems to befall organizations that attain success by leveraging change. They become change-deaf.
For some reason, those who have benefited from the fact that the business environment is never static, begin to act as if it were when they achieve success. Those who challenged the status quo and benefited become reluctant to change it. They begin to develop mind-sets that allow them to ignore, minimize or discount information that suggests change is constant. They act as though the world stopped changing at the point their success was achieved. They begin to believe, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” When this happens they put themselves in position to be the victim of the next company seeking success.
It is nice to see that some companies are recognizing this success syndrome and are trying to do something about it. In a September, 2009 issue of The Economist, Google was cited as a company taking steps to keep its main product innovation flowing.
The article points out, “For years Google has had a fairly informal product development system. Ideas percolated upward from Googlers without any formal process … Teams working on innovative stuff were generally kept small.” The Economist made the point, “Such a system worked well while Google was in its infancy. But now that it is a giant with 20,000 employees, the firm risks stifling potential money-spinners with a burgeoning bureaucracy.”
Google’s response to this challenge has been to hold regular meetings at which employees are encouraged to present ideas directly to the CEO and co-founders of the company. That might be scary stuff for fledging innovators, but remember this: Google doesn’t punish these brave souls from embracing new ideas; they encourage it. Google has also increased the resources and the independence of groups designed to create new innovations and products.
It is not certain that this action will keep Google on the cutting edge of their industry, but the management certainly should be given credit for recognizing that the environment is not static and for making the effort to ward off the conservatism that can set in as companies mature.
And the Moral of the Story …
People like to say that “success is fleeting,” but that is not correct. It is not success that is fleeting; it is the attitude, effort and mind-set that can become fleeting, once success has been achieved.
Those who do attain success will have a better chance to retain this precious achievement only when they constantly remind themselves that the environment that allowed them to become successful is never static and they should not be either.