Friday, October 10, 2014

How To Be Successful in Life and Business

Get Lean. Lean In. Be disruptive. Move from Good to Great.

There is much written and spoken about success. As a business. As a person. As a country.

Humans like a guiding star, and they take comfort in being told there is a map for their future journey. If you are starting a business, "how to" information is comforting. If you are a company struggling to innovate, "how to" advice is comforting. If you are starting your career as a recent graduate, "how to" information on leadership and career trajectory is comforting.

Many are happy to tell you "how to" be successful. Before rushing to read the next book, sign up for the next seminar or watch the next video posted on Facebook, it might be worthwhile to step back for a minute and ask a question:

Is this "how to" advice descriptive, derivative, prescriptive or predictive?

Descriptive: uses historical information to describe what others* have done. "This is what these successful companies** did."

Derivative: uses descriptive information to derive principles or approaches. "Here is a map that shows what these companies did to be successful." Beware. There may be many other companies that did the same things, but were not successful. No one talks about these or writes best selling books about them.

Prescriptive: uses derivative information to put forward a framework that may be applied to a new situation. "These companies used this map and were successful. You should use this map too."

Predictive: uses prescriptive information and claims correlation/causation in order to propose that those who follow the framework will be successful in a new situation. "If 100 companies use this map, 67% of them will be successful" or "If you use this map you will be successful".

There are many instances where doing what was done before can lead to a successful outcome. Making spaghetti. Opening a barber shop. Driving to work. Making another bottle of beer. In these situations, you may chose to just use prescriptive or predictive approaches, and jump right over the descriptive and derivative.

If you are attempting to do what has never been done before, descriptions may be helpful.*** Derivations, prescriptions and predictions much less so. If they feel comforting, it is a false comfort. The map is wrong.

If you want to be successful in leading a life or starting a business that has been done before, I can be prescriptive (and even predictive)- just follow the maps of others. If you want to be successful in something truly new and different, I can suggest that you treat those maps as where not to go.
* There is a sub-genre. Business biographies describing "what I did to be successful." 'nuf said.
** These days: Google, Apple, Facebook. Not so long ago: Intel, Microsoft, Nokia. A little longer ago: Xerox, Gillette, Phillip Morris. Just by looking at these companies, you can also begin to question just what success is. If so, please pause and reflect about your purpose.
*** Helpful in two ways: i) it helps build your expertise to know the history of a field/industry; ii) you may learn from others experience (as long as you recognize these are limited to their circumstances and may be filled by the biases of those relaying the information). For instance, Randy Komisar's ideas on using analogs and antilogs can be helpful ways to analyze descriptive information in your field (recognize they are derivative, and may be of limited predictive value).