How To Create Hunger In Paradise

It was a summer evening in 2011, three years after the launch of the iPhone that I gave a lecture at a conference a few hours drive outside Helsinki. At the dinner I realised that I was sitting next to three Nokia employees. They had all experienced both the greatness and the fall. Although they were reluctant to admit it, they all now had an iPhone in their pockets. Admitting that you don’t own a Nokia smartphone is akin to being a Vatican official turning up at morning mass with a copy of Richard Dawkin’s bestselling book The God Delusion.

As we talked over dinner, I got the impression of a company which in its heyday was able to persuade employees to pursue its goals with almost religious conviction. But also a company which in the rush from its success totally lost itself, and for several years denied reality as the perfect picture began to collapse. For Nokia, there was life before and after the iPhone. In just a few years the world domination turned into a bombed ruin.

Ever since I met with the three Nokia employees that summer night three years ago in Finland, I have been wanting to write my new book “Hunger in Paradise”. What went wrong with Nokia? How could this iconic, successful company fall so deeply in the course of just a few years? How could the same people who made Nokia so successful also be the reason for its gigantic failure?

There is no doubt that at the heart of success lies the reason for failure. While we talk a lot about how to achieve success, we talk way too little about the consequences of success. About the complacency, arrogance and the fear of losing it all again, which often follow as a shadow of success. Success produces complacency. It happens to individuals, companies and nations. But how do you stay humble when the company cashes in record profits, and how do you provide people with the feeling that they are standing on a burning platform when there are no flames in sight? Or put it in another way: How do you create hunger in paradise?

Over the past two years I have travelled the world to hunt for the answers to these questions. Based on case stories about Apple, LEGO, Blockbuster, Manchester United, Southwest Airlines, Restaurant NOMA and Nokia, in my new book “Hunger in Paradise” I present the four lessons we need to learn: by putting them into practice, we can avoid becoming another victim of complacency.

The four lessons are:

1. Never Trust Your Success
Successful organizations relate too uncritically to their own success. They assume that their success is the result of good decisions, but this is far from always the case. The fact is that a company’s performance is wrapped in a thick layer of luck and contextual variables that even the best leaders have no control over. If you think you are successful because you are better than everyone else when actually your success comes down to temporary contextual advantages, you have a problem. Your problem is that you can’t consciously repeat your success if you do not fully understand or recognise what really created it. That is why any successful organization should treat its successes with the same degree of self-examination with which it treats its failures.

2. Burn Your Trophies
Companies that are struggling on the edge of failure are forced to evaluate themselves critically and to aggressively seek any opportunity for improvement. Successful companies, however, are often satisfied with the status quo. They want to see the current pattern continue. This means that while the best teams improve with maybe 5% per year, the next best improves with 10%, and thus the balance of those strategies serves constantly to narrow the difference between the two. Because the winners by nature are left with the answers, and the losers have questions. To stay on top successful organizations therefore have to fight the feeling that they have reached the top of the mountain. It requires them to mentally burn their trophies; that they be willing to stage their success as a failure in order to see the potential for improvement.

3. If It Ain’t Broken, Consider Breaking It
Successful businesses don’t fail because they lack re- sources, but because they become obsessed with protecting what they have and get locked in an emotional attachment to what worked in the past. They look at the market and think: How can we protect our existing business? Instead, they should be thinking: If we did not have a business, how could we best build one? How can we give our customers the best possible experience and product? Success often flips the focus from creating some- thing unique and extraordinary to protecting what you have. If successful organizations want to remain successful and re-invent, they must be able to de-attach themselves emotionally from what made them successful yesterday. They need to understand that if they do not have the guts to disrupt their own success, then others will come and do it for them.

4. Kill The Illusion of Perfect Conditions
Many competitive advantages are created by crises and constraints that force people to think differently than they did yesterday. That is exactly the problem with success and the abundance of resources that often comes with it. With success follows more employees, more time, more money and more power in the market, and paradoxically these privileges often make an organization less effective and less creative. The best organizations understand that if you give a team the full time they ask for, or the full budget they want, or the full number of people that they need, those teams will never execute anything of significance. They also understand that the magic happens when one is able to create a compelling vision and add some challenging constraints to it.

Posted on 23th Oct 2013 by Rasmus Ankersen

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