The success trap is a common problem for organizations to overcome. It occurs when we achieve success in some way, and then become so wedded to the behaviors and practices that led to the initial success, that we fail then to change when circumstances dictate we should.
Studies identified three distinct forms of inertia:
- Favoring the familiar over the unknown.
- Preferring what is established over what is new.
- Failing to search for new solutions.
What’s more, the bigger the success, the more damaging it was to the long-term health of the organization.
A recent study of the aircraft industry suggests that companies often employ what the authors refer to as ‘astute self-selection’. This is when they stumble upon something that works well, and then repeat it over and over without any real learning going on.
“In some cases, companies don’t learn so much from what they’ve done in the past as carefully choose to only repeat those activities with which they have been the most successful in the past and expect to be the most successful in the future,” the authors reveal.
It isn’t a particularly healthy way of working as it self-selects only positive experiences. It’s something that was also found in a study I covered recently whereby negative feedback from customers seldom made its way to line managers, and therefore change rarely occurred.
With change such a constant presence in our lives, the relative inflexibility of organizations is something that should be a significant concern.
“It is all very self-reinforcing. Companies repeatedly self-select the activities with which they have been the most successful in the past and expect to be the most successful in the future,” the authors say.
This is particularly damaging in areas such as product launches where each one is usually unique, yet managers would typically deploy the same tactics that worked last time out.
So how do you get out of this vicious cycle? Earlier this year I looked at a study from London Business School that outlined three practices to promote innovation (and therefore strong learning).
Three Practices of Innovative Organizations
- Reward innovation – the study found that the most innovative companies often incentivized innovation more than the laggards. Of course, this shouldn’t be thought of in purely financial terms, with all manner of non-financial incentives available.
- Strong champions – a second key behavior seemed to be the existence of influential and gregarious champions who will help to push through innovations. It should be noted that such people were found in all organizations, but in the innovative ones, they had clout and power.
- Internal autonomy – there is a growing appreciation for autonomy inside our organizations, but most still run in a manner more akin to a dictatorship. The innovative organizations in the study tended to promote internal competition and autonomy however.
Of course, I suspect that none of this is really all that new, which reminds us how much harder it is to do something as opposed to merely knowing something.