How Success Can Become Your Enemy

by Tom Koulopoulos

How Success Can Become Your Enemy

One simple test that will show you how easy it is to be held hostage by a pattern of success.

If you’ve started a company chances are pretty good that you saw a pattern of opportunity emerging in the marketplace that most other people hadn’t yet noticed. Identifying that pattern and then capitalizing on it meant convincing investors, employees, and customers that the pattern really existed–well before it was obvious. All of that preaching requires so much effort that once you’ve established a pattern for success you’ve just about etched it in granite. Not only have you created products or services around the pattern but you’ve also shaped your company culture around it. The more successful you are the more immutable the pattern becomes. It’s why Thomas Watson, IBM’s Chairman in 1943, said that there would never be a market for more than five computers; why Ken Olson, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, dismissed the potential for personal computing; and why H.M. Warner said “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” in 1927.

“The fact is that patterns of past success are extraordinarily difficult to change–long after they have outlived their usefulness.”

These patterns of past success eventually are seen as immutable. It’s almost as though they become unwritten laws of nature that we can’t consciously break free of. When MP3 players started to gain in popularity a number of manufacturers of MP3 players, such as Sony, had defined the very successful CD marketplace. So, it was no surprise that their MP3 players looked just like portable CD players!

The fact is that patterns of past success are extraordinarily difficult to change–long after they have outlived their usefulness. Both the companies who create the products and the customers who buy them end up being held hostage by what they know. But wait, I can you hear you now, “I’m much too smart for that!” It’s not about smarts, instead it’s about purposefully architecting disruption into your organization.

Let me use a simple thought experiment to prove the point–trust me you will find this well worth the few minutes it will take and you will be blown away by how often you’ll refer back to this from here on out.

Still with me? Good! Start by watching the animated video below of a spinning rose. As you’re viewing the video answer the question, “Which direction is the rose spinning; clockwise or counterclockwise?”

I’ve done versions of this simple experiment in real-time with well over 100,000 people in my keynotes. Want to guess which direction most people see the rose spinning? 45% see it spinning clockwise 45% see it spinning counter-clockwise. And 10% can’t make up their mind; they see it spinning both ways.
So, which way is it really spinning? It’s not!

“Identifying patterns is human nature, it’s what we do to survive.”

There is no inherent spin. Instead, what you are viewing are a series of still image silhouettes that would look identical from the front or back in both directions of spin. The implied spin is what you bring to the picture; it’s your pattern bias. Here’s what’s even more fascinating. After just a few seconds of deciding on the direction of spin less than 5% of the 90% who saw it spinning one way or the other can reverse the direction of spin at will, without somehow gazing away or covering up part of the image to disrupt the pattern. Identifying patterns is human nature, it’s what we do to survive.

But here is the thing about patterns; they shape our perception of reality and what’s possible. Studies have shown that if you wear a pair of glasses whose optics make the world appear upside down you will at first be totally disoriented. Yet after just a few days something amazing happens. Your brain adapts and suddenly the world is right side up again. Wait a few more days to take them off and do you want to guess at what you’ll see? That’s right, everything is now upside down! The same thing happens to your employees; they are indoctrinated until they too see the world they way you do.

The only way–at lest that I’ve ever seen or experienced–to break free of a pattern is to disrupt it. There are two ways to do that; through a crisis that forces you to reconsider, for example what happened to Sony when Apple stole the keys to their music kingdom; or through a conscious effort to create disruption, for example, what Netflix and Amazon have done repeatedly by cannibalizing their past business models before someone else does.

“Seeing patterns may be what we do to survive, but disruption is what we do to thrive.”

We constantly diminish the power of a new perspective. We try to tame it and discipline it. Yet the only way we learn, grow, and sustain success is by disrupting our field of view. Like the spinning rose, the longer you look at it the harder it is to break free of yesterday’s success. You have to turn away, reconsider what’s possible, and then look back at it. Ultimately your choice is not disruption vs. no disruption, but rather will you disrupt or be disrupted?
Seeing patterns may be what we do to survive, but disruption is what we do to thrive.

This article was originally published on Inc.

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Thomas KoulopoulosTom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.

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