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.
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…