There are many lies about success. It's easy to believe these lies, and doing so will distort your perception of what real success is.
The first is the inclination to make what psychologists call fundamental attribution errors. When we succeed, we're likely to conclude that our talents and our current model or strategy are the reasons. We also give short shrift to the part that environmental factors and random events may have played.
The third impediment is the failure-to-ask-why syndrome—the tendency not to investigate the causes of good performance systematically. When executives and their teams suffer from this syndrome, they don't ask the tough questions that would help them expand their knowledge or alter their assumptions about how the world works.
In 2003, Bologna-based Ducati entered the Grand Prix motorcycle racing circuit (or MotoGP") for the first time. Being a newcomer, it approached 2003 as a learning season," its team director
told us. The goal was to acquire knowledge that would help it develop a better bike for future seasons. To that end, the team fitted its bikes with sensors that captured data on 28 performance parameters (such as temperature and horsepower). Riders were debriefed after every race to get input on subjective characteristics like handling and responsiveness. The team looked like a model learning organization.
The successful season caused the team members to believe Ducati could win it all in 2004. After all, if they could finish second as rookies, why shouldn't they take first now that they had some experience? This confidence manifested itself in the decision to radically redesign the team's bike for the 2004 season rather than incrementally improve the 2003 model.
More than 60% of the 2004 model's 915 components were new. But at the outset of that season, it became apparent that the bike had serious handling problems and that the team had made a big mistake in changing so much at once without giving itself the time to test everything.
After studying Ducati, we went on to conduct research in the entertainment, pharmaceutical, and software industries and performed experiments in the laboratory and in executive education classes. Again and again, we saw the same phenomenon. Ultimately, we recognized that there was a common cause: the three impediments to learning.
In racing, many interdependent factors affect outcomes. Without a detailed analysis, it was impossible to know whether the Ducati team's performance in 2003 was due to its bike design, its strategy for particular races, its riders' talents and decisions, bad choices by other teams, luck, random events like the weather or crashes, or some complex combination of all those things. And without such knowledge (and given Ducati's long history of winning in other venues), it was too easy to attribute the team's excellent performance to the quality of its decisions, actions, and capabilities.
In business, likewise, any number of factors may lead to success, independent of the quality of a product or management's decisions. Yet it is all too common for executives to attribute the success of their organizations to their own insights and managerial skills and ignore or downplay random events or external factors outside their control. Imagine, for instance, that you are leading a team whose numbers are great: It's tempting to credit yourself or your team's actions for that achievement, though it may actually just be a stroke of good luck or the result of your competitors' problems.
Research (including a classic study by the psychologists Edward Jones and Victor Harris) has proved that this is normal human behavior. Moreover, when examining the bad performance of others, people tend to do the exact opposite. In exercises that we conducted in executive education classes at Harvard, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Carnegie Mellon University, most participants, when evaluating the success of others, minimized the role of leadership skills and strategy and maximized the role of external factors and luck.
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