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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • April 5, 2014
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3 Ways You’re Trapped By Past Success 

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A version of this article first appeared in Inc.com

You may be familiar with this old story (Zig Ziglar’s I believe, but Wikipedia may say otherwise): 

After they get married, every Sunday for years, a man watches his wife trim off both ends of the pot roast before putting it in the pan and cooking it. Finally one day his curiosity gets the better of him and he asks why, every week, she trims off what he suspects may be the best parts of the cut. “I’m not sure,” says his wife, “it’s just part of the recipe – it’s how I watched Mom prepare it for years.” 

So, next time they visit Mom, together they ask her why she did that. Does it help the juices flow better? Or perhaps it equalizes the cooking temperature throughout the cut of meat? Or maybe it makes slicing easier once it’s cooked? “Nope,” says Mom, smiling benignly, “It’s just that when you were young we didn’t have a pan big enough to hold the whole roast.” 

Yes, it’s an old story, and one which evokes a lifestyle and cultural norms of a bygone age, but it also points up a crucial aspect of organizational growth and leadership. We all do and say things the meaning of which, are, frankly, lost in time.

We develop habits and tics that first appeared for reasons that have long since lost their relevance or validity. (I know of one person who pulls every electrical plug in his house from its socket before going to bed, for fear the electrical wiring will overload and burst into flames – a fear with perhaps some validity 60 years ago, but both unlikely and impractical these days.)

Organizations – real businesses, like yours – are no different. Over time they accrete habits, routines, beliefs and protocols that may once have had real importance, but which, over time become not only irrelevant (like slicing off both ends of the pot roast because once upon a time the pan was too small to hold it), but time-consuming, impractical, expensive and potentially dangerous (like shutting down every piece of equipment overnight for fear of an electrical fire).

Here are three specific places to start looking for what was once vital, but is now detrimental:

1. Systems and processes. 

An obvious place to start: put simply – what are you doing as an organization that no longer has the relevance that it once had?

And don’t think this only applies to older businesses. I’ve seen startups put routines and protocols in place that just a year later are outdated and suboptimal, but which carry on because no one has the time (or, sometimes, the foresight) to alter them.

Fight the temptation to conduct a soup-to-nuts, top-to-bottom review of your entire catalog of systems and processes – it’s way too overwhelming and places inordinate strains on the business. Pick one function – sales, marketing, manufacturing, shipping, whatever, and place everyone on ‘review alert’ for a month.

Don’t overthink it – open a shared text file on your computer system and ask everyone to dump any and all thoughts about systems relevancy in that one function for the next thirty days. Spend a half a day reviewing the results and implement the three changes that seem most obvious and impactful.

2. Meetings. 

Same problem, same process – pick one meeting a month and let anyone who wishes contribute their thoughts on its relevance, and how it can be improved. An hour or so’s reflection on what they say should yield positive changes.

3. Myths and legends.

This is trickier. Systems, processes and meetings are ‘clunky’ – they’re there, in full view for everyone to see, and are therefore more readily subject to analysis and review.

Lurking in the background, however, less obvious and harder to gauge, are the stories you and others tell about the company. These myths and legends – about its history, its victories, its past glories – are fun to tell and retell, and act as motivators to others. But at what cost?

What if the precepts they convey, the performance norms they imply, the cultural expectations they underline are no longer in the best interests of the business, or are no longer aligned with the growth challenges you currently face?

As an example, I regularly hear leaders who are trying to get their business to Predictable Success retell stories of heroic leadership, usually from the Fun stage of the business’s growth, when, exciting as those stories are, they encourage a mindset that will hold back the organization’s future growth.

So, next time you pull up a chair and start reminiscing about the incredible feats of yesteryear (or last year, for that matter), ask yourself – does what I’m about to share reinforce a habit, once excellent, that is no longer helpful?

If so, it’s time to build some new legends.


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