You Know Less Than You Think You Do – The Complacency of Success

What do Borders, Myspace, Blockbuster, Tower Records, General Motors, Kodak and Blackberry all have in common?

All of these companies were at one time household names.

All of them were hugely successful brands that, for a period of time bossed their markets.

The cash came in like waves crashing on the shore and their executives merrily surfed the seemingly never-ending income taking big fat paycheques and even fatter bonuses. For a while corporate life was pretty sweet. They were all run by intelligent, experienced business people at the tops of their games, what could go wrong?

Just like Jack stood at the front of the ship shouting ‘I’m the king of the world!’ the CEOs of these companies, and many others past and present (you might be working for one right now) had no idea they were actually on the Titanic and couldn’t see the whacking great iceberg waiting out there in the gathering night.

 

This is all too common. Our own arrogance, ignorance or inadvertent shortsightedness blinds us to our imminent demise. As exec teams we get so focused on our own success stories or our own internal processes that we forget to take a look outside in time to course correct away from the impending disaster about to sink what was previously believed to be ‘the unsinkable ships’ of our businesses.

We get busy making five year plans, strategy documents after strategy documents, product release schedules and brand refreshes all the whilst oblivious to the fact that often we’re not the masters of our own destinies. As Mike Tyson famously said ‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’ Whilst we may have ideas of where we’re going the world may have very different plans. Competition, internal incompetence, new technologies or market fluctuations could all be conspiring against you even while you sleep soundly in your bed at night.

To state the bleeding obvious, we live in an incredibly fast moving world. To put it into perspective four of the most valuable and influential companies on the planet Alphabet (Google), Alibaba, Amazon and Facebook are all less than 25 years old – 25 years feels like a lifetime now doesn’t it. In less that a quarter of a century the world has turned on its head. Hell, it was only on January 9th, 2007 when Steve Jobs announced Apples’ latest product launch – the iPhone, effectively taking the humble phone and turning it into something that would rule every part of lives and become an addictive extension of our very being.

We now live in a world in which you can’t afford to take anything for granted. The only constant is rapid and irreversible change. The only way to survive is to build cultures which embrace this new reality, not only embrace it but thrive on it and understand that if you’re standing still you going backwards.

As animals we have one large psychological flaw. We are more afraid of losing something we have than we are of taking a risk for greater gain. As companies become successful there is a huge tendency to avoid doing the one thing that could ensure longevity and greater prosperity – taking risks. Often then very thing that made them successful in the first place becomes the one thing companies fear most. When there’s a lot to lose it’s too easy to take the safe option, to protect what we have.

This is the complacency of success.

‘Let’s squeeze the pips on this. Let’s make our processes more efficient. Let’s concentrate on our cost ratios. Let’s ride this gravy train all the way to Roast Dinner Town.’

Meanwhile, someone else is already in an advanced stage of planning to steal your dinner.

At one point all the companies I mentioned at the start of this article had the opportunity, people, brand, money and in some cases the vision to pivot into the very companies that would not only run them out of Roast Dinner Town (not an actual place) but would go on to make billions and billions of pounds and fundamentally transform the way we interact with those companies’ products and services.

Borders could have become Amazon.

MySpace could have become Facebook.

Blockbuster could have become Netflix.

Tower Records could have become Spotify.

General Motors could have become Tesla.

Kodak could have become Instagram.

Blackberry could have become iPhone.

What you have to ask yourself is, does the company you work for have the right culture to thrive?

Does it genuinely foster innovation and personal development?

People create ideas and ideas are the currency of change.

Maya Angelou said ‘You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.’ Creativity is the unstoppable force that will help you become successful and the renewable energy that’ll keep you there. Is it the driving force of your business?

Do you have the right people in the right places to ensure you are agile and fleet of foot?

Are those people empowered and encouraged to make change?

Are they allowed to take risks and fail?

Are you constantly looking for the next iceberg?

A phenomenal psychologist, called Albert Hall, (yes, his actual name), once said this to me.

‘Tim the problem with you is your like an oak tree. You’re strong, solid and dependable. The problem with oak trees though is they’re not flexible. If a big enough storm comes along it’ll blow you over. We’re going to rebuild you to be like a willow. No matter what the world throws at you, you’ll flex and bend and never be blown over again.’

Everything I have achieved in my life and career has been based on this concept and it seems more important to me than ever before. We all need to be flexible and malleable. We can all do our best to check the weather forecast to make sure we can prepare as much as possible for the oncoming hurricanes of fate but we also need to be individuals and companies resilient, creative and brave enough to flex and bend no matter what the future holds.

Tim Arthur is the Creative Director of Virgin Money. To book him (or any other speaker) for your event please contact JLA here.

 

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