“Success is not measured by what you accomplish but by the opposition you have encountered, and the courage with which you have maintained the struggle against overwhelming odds.” — Orison Swett Marden
It is no secret that many information technology leaders were disappointed with the Windows Vista operating system. The experience was not what we remembered of Microsoft. A company that had consistently delivered leading edge products appeared to cease to innovate. I shared this sentiment with a group of leaders at Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington headquarters last month while conducting project management training. I asked the esteemed group to reflect on how the “big-company disease” may have slowed Microsoft’s continuous quest for superior quality. Fortunately for Microsoft, their leadership zeroed in on Vista’s weaknesses and the recently launched Windows 7 promises to tap into latest technologies. Mark Durso, Project Lead at Microsoft, says that Windows 7 also provides compelling usability improvements and some progress in security. Moreover, the value of world-class, on-demand services that are being provided by an industry leader like Microsoft is not going unnoticed.
Few businesses are able to avoid the “success ruins everything” syndrome. Some firms over-expand and fail to maintain consistent standards, a fate that has befallen numerous enterprises that have spread themselves too thin. Others lose sight of their quality and performance standards in the push to grow quickly. Toyota, which built its reputation and economic success on its quality and design processes, recently admitted that it had let those standards slip in its quest to become bigger than General Motors. Toyota’s CEO Katsuaki Watanabe promised to return the company to its roots, fixing its quality problems and reinvigorating its technical innovation. Today, Toyota is one of the most respected car companies globally. It can only maintain that spot if it avoids the pitfalls of having grown too quickly in North America. The company’s relentless expansion has brought unwanted attention due to recalls, environmentalist activities and concerns of being seen as an arrogant corporate empire.
Some companies respond to success by resting on their laurels and ceasing to innovate. Microsoft, with its dominant position in many software markets, failed to improve security and other features on its browser after it crippled Netscape. This gap in product development permitted Mozilla to rise from Netscape’s ashes, build a more user-friendly browser, and in the process, gain almost a quarter of the browser market.
The complacency that often comes with success provides a window of opportunity for underdogs and upstarts. Witness Apple’s recent dominance over former cell-phone kingpin Motorola and Ryanair’s profits in a European airline market where its larger competitors are losing money in the face of declining revenues.
It is not just companies that suffer from success. So, too, do personal and professional relationships. When a group achieves great success, it can split apart with professional and personal jealousy as individuals each seek credit and a disproportionate share of the resources from their collective accomplishments. Individuals in firms often come to feel that they could make it on their own and really do not need their colleagues. Such is the story behind the numerous splits in law firms, investment banks, and management consulting companies. As Tommy Chong, part of the counterculture comedy duo Cheech and Chong, remarked in an interview in the Toronto Star, show business, and maybe all business, is like mountain climbing, “When you’re climbing up the mountain, that’s when you really need each other. Then, when you get near the top, it’s over.”
But it does not have to be this way. The key is to understand the basis of your success, whatever that happens to be, and retain a laser-like focus. Leaders should try to be as generous with recognition and credit as possible, work on maintaining these important relationships, and always be on the lookout for those who can complement their skills.
It is also important to stay tapped into the current economic scenario. With business spending having fallen off a cliff and newly thrifty consumers reluctant to open their wallets, now might not seem like the time to embark on a hiring spree or a huge expansion. But what if the optimists are right and recovery is just around the corner? Then what might appear to be reckless binge buying can start to look more like calculated corporate bargain hunting.
Yes, maintaining focus and discipline in the face of success is difficult. Yet the companies that maintain their performance over time do what it takes to maintain what made them successful to begin with. So many other enterprises fall by the wayside, lured by success into forgetting what made them great in the first place. The scariest symptom of the “big-company disease” is that complacency will breed in the company. To be satisfied with becoming the top runner, and to become arrogant, is the path leaders must be fearful of.