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Home > Business > Special


Want to succeed? Avoid these 9 traps

Robert J Herbold | September 25, 2007


Success leads to the damaging behaviors of a lack of urgency, a proud and protective attitude, and entitlement thinking. This leads to the tendency to institutionalize legacy thinking and practices. Essentially, you believe that what enabled you to become successful will enable you to be successful forever.

After reviewing this problem in many companies, I believe there are nine dangerous traps into which successful people and organizations often stumble.

Trap 1: NEGLECT

Sticking with Yesterday's Business Model

By business model, I mean what you do and how you do it. It includes such issues as deciding what industry you will be competing in and what approaches you will use in carrying out all the processes necessary to compete in that industry. Will we manufacture something or contract it out? How will we sell our products or services?

Do we go through retail channels? How should we organize our sales force? Which segments of the industry do we want to ignore, and which do we want to compete in? What is the structure of our support staff? Which parts of the organization do we out source? What are our approaches to distribution and inventory management? What are the cost targets of the various components of the organization, like information technology costs and human resources costs? Does our model leave us satisfied with our gross margins, profit margins, and other such figures?

Organizations should be consistently reviewing all aspects of their business model, looking for areas that are weak and need to be overhauled. By weak, we mean out of date, too costly, too slow, or not flexible. In which areas of the business model are you at parity? In those areas, are there any bright ideas on how to achieve a competitive advantage?

TRAP 2: PRIDE

Allowing Your Products to Become Outdated

You may be super proud of your product or service today, but you have to assume that it is going to become inferior to the competition very soon. You need to hustle ad beat your competition to that better mousetrap, and you need to do it over and over.

The amazing thing about success is that it leads to a subconscious entitlement mentality that cause you to believe that you no longer need to do all the dirty work of getting out and studying consumer behavior in details, analyzing different sales approaches, jumping on the latest technology to generate improved products, and everything else that is required to stay ahead. The attitude is often one of believing that you have done all of that and have figured it out, and now things are going to be fine.

Until the early 1970s, typewriters were used to prepare documents. The IBM Selectric model was the standard. Then along came Wang Laboratories' word processor in 1976, providing a completely new approach. It displayed text on a cathode ray tube (CRT) screen that was connected to a central processing unit (CPU). In fact, you could connect many such screens to that CPU in order to handle many different users. Wang's device incorporated virtually every fundamental characteristic of word processors as we know them today, and the phrase word processor rapidly came to refer to CRT-based Wang machines. Then, in the early to mid-1980s, the personal computer emerged. Wang saw it coming but made no attempt to modify its software for a personal computer. PC-based word processors like WordPerfect and Microsoft Word became the rage, and Wang died. Wang fell into the trap of not updating its products, even though it basically invented the word processor industry.

We saw this behavior very clearly with the General Motors example. Its cars, while highly distinctive back in the 1970s, were allowed over time to look more and more alike, and the excitement factor for the customer disappeared.

TRAP 3: BOREDOM

Clinging to Your Once-Successful Branding after It Becomes Stale and Dull

Constantly achieving uniquencss and distinctiveness for a brand and also keeping it fresh and contemporary is hard work. Once a brand achieves some success, the tendency is to sit back and pat yourself on the back, allowing your brand to become dull and ordinary.

The Plymouth automobile was introduced by Chrysler for the 1928 model year as a direct competitor to Ford and Chevrolet. It was a sturdy and durable car that attracted a legion of loyal owners. Plymouth became one of the low-priced three from Detroit and was usually number three in sales, just behind Ford and Chevrolet. For almost two decades, Plymouth sold almost 750,000 cars per year and had a solid brand reputation in the low price range of being reliable but having a bit more flair than Chevrolet or Ford. Older readers may remember the 1957 Plymouth with the huge fins, as well as its Road Runner (beep beep!) model. Plymouth had a very clear brand positioning.

In the 1960s, the Plymouth brand began to lose its uniqueness. Chrysler decided to reposition the Dodge, reducing its price so that it was quite close to Plymouth's. Chrysler came out with low-priced compact and intermediate-size models under both the Plymouth trademark and the Dodge trademark. By 1982, Dodge, was outselling Plymouth. Throughout the late 1980s and the 1990s, Plymouth offered nothing unique. Sales continued to decline, while Dodge was quite healthy. In 1999 Chrysler announced that the Plymouth brand would be discontinued. The lesson is simple: when you allow brands to get stale, they die.

TRAP 4: COMPLEXITY

Ignoring Your Business Processes as They Become Cumbersome and Complicated

Successful organizations often reward themselves by adding more and more people and allowing processes to become fragmented and nonstandardized. This is often done under banner of  refining the management of the business. It is also caused by business units and subsidiaries seeking more autonomy, which leads them to develop their own processes and staff resources. Before you know it, getting any kind of change made is very complicated.

Over and over again you read stories about organizations experiencing weak financial results, then finally coming to grips with the problem, laying off thousands of people and simplifying the organization.

We saw in our Toyota case study how aggressive that company is at constantly improving each and every process. Keeping that mindset of constant improvement is very difficult. Success usually leads to a decrease in the intensity with which you tackle such challenges. Also, success leads to a belief that since we are doing so well, we probably need to reward the people in the organization who are asking for their own building and lots of extra people to get them to the next level. Importunely, all those extra costs often lead to bloated processes and further fragmentation of how work gets done.

TRAP 5: BLOAT

Rationalizing Your Loss of Speed and Agility

Successful organisations and individuals tend to crate complexity. They hire a lot of extra people, since clearly things are going well, and those people find things to do, often creating layers of bureaucracy, duplicating capabilities that already exist in the organization, and making it very hard to react quickly to change.

Getting an organization to constantly think about retaining simplicity and flexibility is not easy. The account given in the previous chapter of Toyota's Global Body Line is a good example of doing it right. Toyota thought about agility ahead of time, and when it came time to build a brand-new car, such as the Prius, it didn't have to build a new plant or a new line. This enabled Toyota to get to market fast and save tens of millions of dollars compared with traditional approaches.

TRAP 6: MEDIOCRITY

Condoning Poor Performance and Letting Your Star Employees Languish

When organizations are successful, they have a tendency to stop doing the hard things, and dealing with poor performance is a really hard thing. It also becomes hard to move new people into existing jobs, because there is the burden of getting the new person up to speed and the perception that you are losing valuable expertise. Also, the really strong performers and to get ignored. Consequently, what happens in many successful organizations is that people are left in their jobs too long and poor performance is not dealt with as crisply as it should be. Unfortunately, this also leads to strong players not being constantly challenged.

Successful organizations are especially vulnerable to this trap, since companies that achieve success often have high morale and pride. And who wants to spoil the fun by dealing with the tough personnel issues, which is an onerous task for most managers? Any excuse to put it aside will be embraced.

TRAP 7: LETHARGY

Getting Lulled into a Culture of Comfort, Casualness, and Confidence

Success, and the resulting tendency to become complacent, often leads organizations and individuals to believe that they are very talented, have figured things out, have the answers to all the questions, and no longer need to get their hands dirty in the trenches. They lose their sense of urgency � the feeling that trouble might be just around the corner.

Considering our case studies on GM and Toyota, the contrast between their cultures is really striking. GM seems to exude pride  and an attitude of "we are the real pro in the industry," while Toyota has a more humble personality that is all about constant improvement.

The leader of a group really sets the tone on this cultural complacency issue. The tendency is to become very proud of your success and protective of the approaches that got you there. It is those very tendencies that lead to an insular, confidence culture that makes people believe that they are on the wining team, while in reality, the world is probably passing them by.

TRAP 8: TIMIDITY

Not Confronting Turf Wars, Infighting, and Obstructionists

Success often leads to the hiring of too many people and the fragmentation of the organization. Business units and subsidiaries work hard to be as independent as possible, often creating groups that duplicate central resources. Staff groups fragment as similar groups emerge in the different business units. Before long, turf wars and infighting emerge, as who is responsible for what becomes vague.

Even worse, the culture gets very insular, with an excessive focus on things like who got promoted, why am I not getting rewarded properly, and a ton of other petty issues that sap the energy of the organization.

Another source of turf wars and infighting is lack of a clear direction for the organization and slow decision making on critical issues. When these kinds of management deficiencies occur, people are left to drift and end up pulling in different directions. That often leads to tremendous amounts of wasted time as groups argue to have it their way.

TRAP 9: CONFUSION

Unwittingly Providing Schizopherenic Communications

When an organization is success or stable, its managers often fall into the trap of not making it clear where the organization is going from there. Sometimes this is because they don't know, but they don't admit that, and they don't try to get the company's direction resolved. They do everything they can to keep all option open, with no clear effort to get decisions made and a plan developed. Such behaviors lead to speculation by the troops, based on comments that they pick up over time. Often those comments are offhand remarks that the leaders have not thought through. Or the troops hear conflicting statements coming form a variety of folks in leadership positions in the organization.

When employees receive confusing and conflicting messages and don't have a clear picture of where the organization is gong or whether progress is being made, they feel vulnerable and get very protective of their current activities. In late 1991, IBM's CEO,John Akes, announced that in the future, IBM would look more like a holding company and that "clearly it's not to IBM's advantage to be 100 per cent owners of each of IBM's product lines."

During the next 12 months, everybody was trying to figure out what he meant. And IBM made no attempt to start publishing separate financial information by product line in preparation for possible spin-offs. IBM also ignored Wall Street's suggestion that it create separate financial entries, with their own stock exchange symbols, for the products that were to be spun off. Employees and investors were confused. The IBM board of directors finally ended the drama in early 1993, announcing that Akers was leaving and a new CEO would be hired quickly. From 1987 to 1993, IBM shareholders lost $77 billion of market value.

Communications from the head of the organization, be it a small group or an IBM, are critical. People want to know where they are headed and how things are going. When the words and actions don't match, confusion reigns.

In the remaining parts of this book, I will discuss these traps in detail. In each part, I will give detailed examples of companies and individuals that in some cases have been hurt and in other cases have avoided these problems. My objective in each part is to provide specific actions that people can take to avoid the particular trap, or to rid themselves of the problem.

Excerpted from:

Seduced by Success by Robert J Herbold. 

Copyright 2007 by Robert Herbold.  Price: Rs 495. Reprinted by permission of Tata McGraw Hill Publishing Company Limited. All rights reserved.

Robert J Herbold was hired by Bill Gates to be chief operating officer of Microsoft Corporation. During his seven years as COO of 1994 to 2001, Microsoft experienced a four-fold increase in revenue and a seven-fold increase in profits.


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