Sunday, July 08, 2012

Why Leaders Don’t Learn from Success

I was once fascinated by an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled ‘Why Leaders Don’t Learn from Success’.  To illustrate its point the article focussed on the case of the Bologna-based Ducati Grand Prix motorcycle team that entered the MotoGP for the first time in 2003.

Being a newcomer, it approached 2003 as ‘a learning year’ – a time to acquire knowledge that would help to develop a better motorbike for future seasons. To that end the team fitted its’ bikes with sensors to capture data on the bike’s performance and riders were asked to provide feedback at the end of each race.

Then something unexpected happened. The team finished among the top three in nine races and with each success the team focused more on winning and less on learning spending very little time analysing the data it collected.

In 2004 they decided to radically redesign the team’s bikes for 2004 rather than incrementally improve the 2003 model. At the end of 2004 they ended third overall which was considered a failure due to the team’s high expectations. Only then did the team examine the team’s approach to developing bikes.

Further research in entertainment, pharmaceutical and software industries saw the same phenomenon. There were three impediments to learning:
  1. Making dangerous attribution errors – any number of factors may lead to success. In racing it could be the rider’s talents and decisions, luck, weather, bad riding by competitors. It is all too common for executives to attribute success to their own insights and managerial skills and downplay random events or external factors outside their control.
  2. Falling prey to the overconfidence bias – Confidence is critical in business but success can make us believe that we are better decision makers than we are. Overconfidence can infect entire organisations causing them to ignore warning signs such as dips in customer satisfaction or increases in quality issues. Overconfidence amongst bank lenders has contributed to our current downturn.
  3. Failing to ask why - success is commonly interpreted as evidence not only that your existing strategy and practices work, but that you have all the knowledge and information you need. When you’re confronted with failure it’s natural to ask why disaster struck – unfortunately success does not prompt such soul searching. Toyota’s drive in pursuing higher and higher sales blinded them to the fact that quality was being compromised. This was only revealed when it was forced to recall a number of its vehicles.
Success can breed failure by hindering learning at both the individual and the organisational level. Learning from success is a great challenge and, because it’s counterintuitive, maybe an even greater challenge to learning from failure.

Going For Gold

When facing an important occasion in your work – be it an important interview, a crucial negotiation or presentation - how do you prepare yourself to be able to give your optimum performance?

Watching the world’s leading tennis players this last two weeks at Wimbledon, there are some lessons that can be drawn about what it takes to excel when things really count.

The physical athleticism and technical skill aside it’s always striking to see that it’s the mental state, attitude and preparation that can make the all-important difference.

So why not draw some tips from the Wimbledon champions for whatever your next important match is?

Make sure you relax the day beforehand – you simply cannot work at pressure all the time and have enough in reserve when you have to tackle something that may demand everything you’ve got.
  1.  As seen with Andy Murray’s coaching from Ivan Lendl – reduce the highs and lows of your emotional state. You may of course be nervous but don’t give way to over elation, anger or disappointment. Extreme emotions simply sap energy, take away from focus, and take time to recover from. Most importantly don’t beat yourself up!
  2. Have a strategy and a game plan, but be flexible and be prepared to change and adapt if it’s not working.
  3. Know your strengths and play to them, but be prepared to take risks at crucial times. Remember you’ve actually got to go for it – you can’t succeed with just a defensive posture.
  4. Be prepared to go the distance. You may face setbacks but you need to have the wherewithal and resilience to turn things around when they’re not going your way.
  5. Don’t project too far ahead. Stay with the next important moment because every small step counts.
  6. Probably most importantly - have an utter and unassailable belief that you can do it.

These tips are not a guarantee that you can just step into the elusive “zone” but it’s unlikely you’ll find that zone without them. Part of the key is in not trying to do it yourself – but trusting in your systems and faculties -  and their capabilities, training and experience. We are at our best when our bodies, brains, mind, emotions and instincts are in harmony - all pulling in the same direction. When that happens the challenge for us is to let it happen and to ‘go for gold’.