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The chains of past success shackle us

Suppose you went to a doctor who said: “I’m going to do an appendectomy on you.” When you asked why, the doctor answered, “because I did one on my last patient and it made him better.” We suspect you would hightail it out of that office, because you know that the treatment ought to be for the disease, regardless of whether or not the treatment helped the previous patient. Strangely enough, that logical thought process happens less than we might care to admit in most companies.”

JEFFREY PFEFFER and ROBERT I. SUTTON, Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense (2006)

I return to Professors Pfeffer and Sutton’s very engaging book this week. They are here highlighting something that rings many bells for me: the tendency by so many executives to do what worked in the past.

I’ve lost count of the number of CEOs who have told me they want to implement a management practice in a company simply because it worked in their last one. The executive in question might have moved from a bank to a supermarket, or from a media house to making tyres, but never mind: it worked there, so it’ll work here.

Why do so many managers imagine that you only need to experience something successful once, and after that it’s embedded in your head as a tried-and-tested, all-seasons formula for success? Why are we so shallow in our thinking? Why can’t we apply the same rigour in thought in business that we do in science or in other professions? The business world is full of brash leaders who have simple-minded answers to every conceivable management problem.

The authors of this tough-talking tome ask: “How many of you are using performance appraisal forms that your executives brought with them from another company?” So true. And executives even carry the same strategies with them from company to company. The notorious “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap seemed to have one strategic practice wherever he went: sack a load of workers.

As Pfeffer and Sutton point out, there is nothing wrong with learning from experience and developing proficiency at certain strategies and tactics. But we have to LEARN from experience, not repeat it mindlessly. Often we encounter new situations that are completely different in nature from anything we’ve encountered before – but our “experience” blinds us to the difference. We carry the same hammers, so we see the same nails wherever we go.

You don’t even have to move across businesses to keep repeating the same old formulae. Look at some of our retail shops: they look exactly the same as they did when I was a boy, decades ago! The same old display layouts, the same surly proprietor watching everything like a hawk and handling all the cash. That style worked in the seventies, so there’s apparently no need to change it. This is a different world, and everything in it is different: the products, the customers, the competition. Why on earth would you want to stick to something that’s fossilised?

The truth is, a brief period of success seems to freeze our managerial brains. It worked, we made money, so now we’ve cracked it. We have our formula and our methods, and we deploy them for evermore. Business life is way more complicated than that. True, there are certain fundamentals – dealing with people, cranking out a profit, understanding customers – that we all become better at over time. But to chain ourselves to management methods, tools and practices is folly indeed. We would be far better off maintaining an alertness and acceptance of change around us.

To finish, let me disclose that back then when I was a boy, a doctor did prescribe an emergency appendectomy for me. My appendix was duly excised, and came out completely healthy…

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