Success Can Be a Problem, Too…

Sometimes, learning from your successes can be the hardest learning of all.


“History is written by the victors.”

– Winston Churchill

The most difficult leadership disease to overcome is one that springs from success. A victory—whether it be in business, war, or sports—is a victory. A win is a win. The disease I write on here is what I’ll call the “blind man’s bullseye” disease or BMB disease for short—the ability that leaders have during time of success to recast a win…any win… as intentional and well planned. We read a lot about how business and political leaders have learned from “adversity” or from failure. It is less common to hear how these leaders learn from their lucky breaks, particularly if they are in an environment that doesn’t respect luck.

BMB disease—this tendency to recast luck as acumen and to avoid learning from it—kills agility and learning; and it does so when the organization just might have the most to gain from being more agile and focused on learning. In its most extreme form, this disease destroys trust and implants a ticking time bomb of false confidence that will trigger when tough times hit.

Why the name? I use the analogy of a blind man’s bullseye because this leadership affliction is akin to a blind man firing an arrow from a bow and then painting the bullseye around the arrow—no matter where it hits—after the fact to match the hit. Apost hoc fitting of strategy to results vs. measuring results and adjusting strategy.


In reality, this concept is an offshoot of well-known cognitive biases outlined by Daniel Kahneman and others. In particular, BMB is a type of survivorship bias—it’s a way of promoting success at the expense of learning from failure. It is a cousin of the “Texas Sharpshooter” logical fallacy that derives from a similar, but different, projectile analogy.

So where does the affliction come from?

A true irony of the information age is that spin has become easier than ever. The availability of data, networks, relationships, and ostensible transparency ought to result in an environment where escaping hard truths is increasingly difficult. It’s logical, right? Give me enough information about any problem, and I should know the truth.

It’s just not so.

Today, leaders of all stripes have tremendous power to form, propagate, and change messages at any given time. At its best, this power allows for obvious flexibility in moving an organization forward—influential control of a mission-based approach. At its worst, it forms the basis for the meanest sort of revisionism at both a personal and organizational level—Orwell’s memory hole writ large. “I meant to do that” becomes not only a means of self-promotion, but also of self-defense and self-delusion.

Where might we see this in the business world? Here are a few examples from my experience:

The Strategic Management BMB:

I had the opportunity to spend my early career in the venture capital space during the rise and fall of the dot com. During that era, many corporations got into the game of venture capital investing in the name of it being “strategic,” particularly while it was profitable, only to find that the game is not only difficult but also highly volatile. Many companies who accumulated large venture capital portfolios on their balance sheets ended up with a bucket full of write offs when the market turned. Incentives being what they are, we tend to define as “strategic” that which is immediately profitable versus that which is sustainably profitable.

This is going on in your office today, and it is a natural bias—In fact, you may be mining a highly profitable small account today (bullseye!) at the expense of a more difficult but potentially much larger account your strategic aims say you should be mining. We paint the bullseye on the things in our portfolio that pay off now, and downplay the risk-adjusted strategic approach that may have been our target in the first place.

The Talent Management BMB:

One of the more malicious aspects of the BMB is its tendency to drive out diversity of thought and experience. In the run-up to the sub-prime lending crisis, most anyone who had the gall to question lending standards or the lunacy of some securitizations ran the risk of being squarely ostracized. Many people who were bearish on the securitized debt market as a whole spent years and a tremendous amount of capital convincing others that it was overvalued. A few of them made a killing in the subsequent turmoil. The reality is that understanding the value of “minority reports” in an organization or market sector is a key leadership trait. If we spin our success as intentional, we will push these thoughtful perspectives to the side and drive them out of our organization.

In your own organization, there are people who think differently about your success. They should be embraced for their diversity and not ostracized because they “don’t get it.” We paint the bullseye (mark them as “successful,” that is) on the employees who are immediately productive—or, in the worst case, simply sycophants and acolytes—in the current environment vs. those whose points of view, talent, and mindsets will move the organization forward in different states of the world. In times of plenty, people who have a cost and risk discipline are valuable counterweights; just as people who are entrepreneurial, creative, and growth-oriented are in times of cost control and retrenching.

The Thought Leadership BMB:

Perhaps the most egregious use of the BMB in existence is in business literature. Every business school case study and almost every business book in existence takes what was almost certainly an ambiguous, amorphous circumstance that resulted in success and attributes it to structured planning, vision, and “good business thinking” that can be summarized in 10 bullet points or fewer. The success of an organization can be written into a tidy story suitable for consumption by a business school class or an aspiring professional; but the ambiguity of actually muddling through a difficult business environment—the many shifts, turns, decisions, and blind alleys—almost never get displayed for consumption.

Storytellers being as common as they are, the thought leadership BMB is likely right under your nose—it may even be your own work product. Internal case studies and after action reports often exhibit BMB disease because they fail to confront the lessons learned that will make the organization better the next time around. “We brought the project in on time and on budget” sounds a lot better and cleaner than “we brought the project in on time and on budget but we burned-out 5 of our best professionals and alienated our two most strategic business partners in the sector.” We paint the bulls-eye on the end state of “great” companies, businesses, or projects but rarely examine the structural, cultural, or risk-taking advantages they had—along with the real failures they endured—along the way.

So what?

These are all examples where valuable learning opportunities are papered over in the interest of the promotion of success. In some instances, such papering over implants a ticking time bomb in the organization. In the first two instances, the time bomb was the future profitability or organizational health of the company. In the third, the ticking time bomb is that we imbue young business leaders with a view of business success as somehow formulaic and simple vs. ambiguous, random, and hard won.

Overcoming this disease is hard. You and I have incentives to promote success and minimize failure. Those incentives are as basic as dollars or as ephemeral as ego. Recognizing that you, as a leader, have both the motive and, increasingly, the opportunity to spin your way to a dangerously revised view of success is prerequisite to solving this problem.

The best leaders I have had the opportunity to work with and around do a few things better than others to avoid the BMB disease. In times of success, they (1) acknowledge when their arrows have landed randomly, (2) evaluate and understand why they landed randomly and why they were successful, (3) celebrate the win and the intent—the what and the why—but own and fix the process—the how, (4) seek objective counsel, and (5) aggressively eliminate spin and the habits that propagate it in the organization.

Step 1–admitting it–is the hardest for most leaders, but without it the other steps never happen.

Enlightened leaders pursue a learning mindset, a learning team, and learning organization. The leader has the power either to succumb to BMB disease or to overcome it. But, the leader has to have the discipline to assess component failures within grand successes in order to lower the probability of grand failure in the future.

One warning: Don’t take this article as an indictment of risky or random wins. Seizing on emergent opportunities is important. A win is a win, even an ugly one. As leaders, we have to embrace and bask in the joy of what John Madden called the “no-no-go-go” where a risky, unorthodox, or simply bad decision becomes a great one. We never need to scoff at off-strategy wins; we just need to know whether they are sustainable. Blind Man’s Bullseye disease is manifest in “spinning” or moving the organization’s bullseye to the organization’s results without a sound rationale to do so—fitting the strategy to the result, vs. assessing results and adjusting strategy.

As we write the history of our victories, may we all have the humility to admit when we were lucky, and to grow from the experience.

I invite you to share examples of this affliction from your own experience if any come to mind…

NFL Actuaries and Defining Moments

The National Football League’s release of actuarial estimates on long-term cognitive impairment among its players is a real defining moment.

This one hits close to home for me.

Those who know me know that I grew up playing (American) football. I played through the collegiate ranks and had a brief taste of the most elite level as a lineman in the NFL. I understand implicitly the difference in intensity that exists in the game between the high school, college, and professional ranks–they are, to me, orders of magnitude different. If the average intensity of a high school game in a competitive league is a 10, then the NFL is 1000. No kidding.

This week, the National Football League released actuarial documents that show that its players are likely to develop significant cognitive problems far more frequently and at younger ages than the surrounding population. This article in the New York Times summarizes it nicely. 28 percent of the player population will develop “compensable injuries.” That’s right–nearly a third. What is more striking is the comparison of rates of disease. From the article:

“[Actuaries’] calculations showed that players younger than 50 had an 0.8 percent chance of developing Alzheimer’s or dementia, compared with less than 0.1 percent for the general population. For players ages 50 to 54, the rate was 1.4 percent, compared with less than 0.1 percent for the general population. The gap between the players and the general population grows wider with increasing age.”

Let’s be clear: That’s more than ten times the base rate of illness…with nearly a third of the player population likely to be affected. These are big, stark numbers that rise above the noise. Which brings me to my question: What is an ethical business leader to do when it is revealed that his or her product, which is creating social value for so many, is with statistical certainty destroying some of the lives involved in creating it?

We have what appears to be the NFL’s formula for action:

Step 1: Deny the link and glorify the at-risk population as “warriors for the cause.” Convince the warriors that they are part of something bigger in the moment. Argue that the already-affected stakeholders were compensated for the risk they took under contract.

Step 2: Isolate and make anecdotal the really egregious and sad cases (if you have free time, do an internet search for “Mike Webster Pittsburgh Steelers” on this topic). Make changes to working conditions and work rules to limit future injury (but without stating a link). Hand out pamphlets. “Study the problem.”

Step 3: Assess the litigation impact. Offer settlement. Release the actuarial data on a Friday. Get ready for Sunday’s games.

Is there a better way?

Perhaps, but the answer depends on where the affected stakeholders are in a business’ grand strategy. Sure, an organization can state that worker (or player, in the NFL’s instance) safety is a core value; but defining moments of a strategy occur when core values are in conflict.

Defining moments are when you, as a leader, have to choose between two “priorities.”

So far, the NFL appears to have chosen the “product” as its highest priority. If the product on the field is actually the result of a veritable meat grinder for the men playing it, then that’s what it takes. This is a rational, economically sound near term decision.

However, as its spectators and consumers start to see that they are cheering on the demolition of men’s minds to the tune of 7 out of the 22 men they are watching on the field, the NFL will face its next defining moment. That defining moment will be a choice between a quick profit strategy of cashing in on the remaining, dwindling fan and player base (boxing comes to mind as an analogy) versus a sustainable profit strategy that ameliorates the cause of stakeholder dissatisfaction–restructuring the game, equipment, and rules.

The NFL depends not only on its fans, but also on its product lifeblood in terms of a relatively diverse pipeline of player sources. As words gets out, both groups have higher potential to walk away–one could argue it is already happening at the margin. This is particularly true in the player source case, as the major feeders of talent to the NFL are colleges and universities who have no interest in propagating explicitly debilitating sports. In practical terms, the NFL should be going through a painful reordering of its hierarchy of core values (including product, health, sustainability, reputation, social value, etc.). The old hierarchy is obsolete over the intermediate term.

I’m not very old, but I grew up during the time when a guy getting concussed on the football field was kind of amusing–scary, yes, but not a life altering moment. Times have changed. The NFL has to change as well.

I’m not a lawyer and have no personal stake in the outcome of NFL litigation. This article is merely a reflection on the business implications of the NFL’s predicament. All errors as to action or timeline are my own.

Strategy is Execution…And Vice Versa

Overcoming the intellectual separation of strategy and execution by testing whether you’ve “packed for the journey” can unlock flexibility, creativity, and action.


At a conceptual level, the strategy to execution gap is real. I’ll leave it to the reader to search The Internet for “strategy to execution gap” and to then peruse the studies that show that execution matters…deeply.

But, with all due respect to the percentages derived from executive surveys and the implications they provide, separating strategy and execution in this way amounts to a waste of valuable time. The strategy vs. execution dichotomy is an overly convenient tool used to separate the thinkers from the doers. At its most dangerous, the strategy/execution split leads to recrimination vs. reconciliation—attack and defense vs. collaboration—when it (purposefully or accidentally) pits stakeholders against one another.

As strategic leaders, we must grasp that strategy encompasses execution. Execution is strategy. Strategy is, quite simply, knowing where to place the right kind of pressure on one’s environment to achieve a given set of objectives; but also—and this is important—how much pressure to place and how and when to trigger adjustments.

Noted military theorist Karl von Clausewitz referred to war as “merely the continuation of policy by other means.” War isn’t an end in itself, any more than our vaunted concept of “execution” is. With apologies to Clausewitz: Execution is merely the continuation of strategy.

So, when we accuse execution of derailing a good strategy, are we accusing instead our strategy as a whole? The best strategic plans hinge on a single, defining and definable question: Have we packed for the journey? Any organization’s strategy is evident in the resource and reactive decisions its leaders make on an ongoing basis. Because execution is the most honest expression of strategy (indeed, a more honest expression than any PowerPoint deck could ever be), it’s important that strategic plans encompass readiness for action and change.

As an executive who has formulated, tested, and implemented strategies across sectors and companies, I have used four practical questions to test for whether my teams and clients have “packed for the journey.” In any journey, we prepare to go the distance (enough food, fuel, water, rest, etc.) and we prepare for the unexpected (poncho, first aid kit, a bottle of pepto, etc.). Questions on resourcing and risk are fantastic acid tests for a given strategy because they move beyond a linear plan and force discussion on capability and flexibility. With that in mind, when evaluating a strategic plan, ask these questions:

1. What are the major “chunks” of activity needed to achieve the plan?

So, you want to climb Mount Everest. Okay. Got it. Where are your base camps going to be located? What is your supply chain going to look like? Where will you hide your oxygen bottles? In other words, have you defined the immediate “chunks” of resources and objectives that keep you on schedule to your strategic goals? The body of knowledge on effective intermediate term planning is immense, but shockingly untapped. Find or become an expert at hoshin kanri or its many offshoots (many organizations refer to hoshin planning, goal deployment, strategy deployment, policy deployment, or other terms for the same thing)–take a 5 year strategic plan and turn it into a one, 2, and 3 year plan. Define reality and required resourcing for the plan this way to mesh “strategy” and “execution.”

2. Do your resource allocations reflect the competitive reality of the situation?

Classical military theoreticians proposed that facing an opponent with twice your resources requires four times the quality of resources to merely achieve parity–your quality has to increase exponentially while their quantity advantage increases linearly.The so-called “Lanchester square law” applies conceptually in business, too; and it’s a scary proposition. In many business environments, quantity of customer touches can overcome quality of touch. An organizational plan that assumes twice the account penetration with half the sales personnel per customer of the next competitor needs to be tested for the personnel quality assumptions it implicitly contains. Likewise, a financial plan that reflects deployment of capital at ever increasing returns probably needs to be re-tested for the defensibility it implies.

We all (well, most of us) want extreme productivity and distinctive capabilities; and it’s easy to make that look good on paper. However, there is a tremendous difference between a lean approach to business vs. one that is merely cheap: Long term effectiveness. Test your strategy for effectiveness, not just a pretty model and the fool’s gold of unsustainable efficiency.

3. What are your pivotal assumptions?

Can you define the turning points of your strategy? For instance, do you know what your and your competitor’s strategies look like based on changes in regulations, demographics, demand, or the financing environment? Pivotal assumptions are the ones that, if flexed, cause you to take a significantly different course. Sometimes the most basic test of a strategy is whether the executive can name the 3 pivotal assumptions, in short sentences, and how changes in them cause changes in the strategy. Can you?

4. Will your strategy survive a punch in the mouth?

Former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson’s contribution to the body of strategic knowledge is a great one. He famously stated “Everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth.” Is your plan built for speed and flexibility? Can it survive a shock? What are the trigger points for improvising? When will you improvise? Embracing uncertainty through scenario thinking will make you more nimble; and it will help ensure that when the “punch in the mouth” inevitably comes, you can improvise and carry on.

There you have it, 4 questions–2 on resourcing and 2 on risk–that help link the typical notion of “strategy” with the typical notion of “execution.” Remember: Execution is strategy. Artificially separating the two may feel tidy, but real strategic leadership is rarely tidy.

Now it’s your turn: How do YOU test your strategic thinking?