Why you trying to move from Good to Great is a waste of time

A quick browse through the management section of any book shop will reveal the extent to which we like to think that following winners is a good strategy for success.  There's an obvious rationale behind it.  After all, these people and organisations have done very well, so learning from the things they've done to achieve that success will help us do likewise.

Except in all likelyhood it won't.  New research from the University of Warwick supports the view that following the leader is in fact folly.

Rather than those that succeed being the most skillful and therefore someone we can all learn from, they suggest that the role of good old fashioned luck is criminally underplayed.  The research, conducted by Chengwei Liu, assistant professor of strategy and behavioral science at Warwick Business School and Jerker Denrell, a professor at Oxford Saïd Business School, instead suggests that success is merely a result of exceptional circumstances, with the winners often just luckier than the rest of us.

Bill Gates is used as an example in the research.  Clearly enormously successful he has no doubt been used as an example in business schools and management books the world over.  Consider however how the graphical interface that drove the desktop revolution was a Xerox invention stolen by both Microsoft and Apple, or how Gates’s upper class background enabled him to gain extra programming experience when less than 0.01 percent of his generation then had access to computers; his mother’s social connection with IBM’s chairman enabled him to gain a contract from the then leading PC company, generating a lock-in effect that was crucial for establishing the software empire.

Of course Gates is a very smart and talented individual, but then history is littered with smart and talented people that haven't succeeded.  Talent and effort are likely less important than the circumstances (e.g., network externalities generated by customers’ demand for software compatibility boosted Gates’s initial fortune enabled by his social background) in the sense that he could not have been so successful without the latter.

Rather than learning from the winners therefore, they suggest instead that we would do far better to learn from those further down the pecking order.  They reason that these people and organisations are less likely to have benefitted from supportive circumstances and therefore more of their achievements can be attributed to their own efforts.

“Humans, however, often rely on the heuristic of learning from the most successful. Our research found that even though observers were given clear feedback and incentives to be accurate in their judgment of performers, 58 percent of them still assumed the most successful were the most skilled when they are clearly not, mistaking luck for skill,” says Liu.

“This assumption is likely lead to disappointment—even if you can imitate everything Bill Gates did, you will not be able to replicate his initial fortune,” adds Liu. “This also implies that rewarding the highest performers can be detrimental or even dangerous because imitators are unlikely to achieve exceptional performance without luck unless they take excessive risk or cheat, which may partly explain the recurrent financial crises and scandals.”

So rather than trying to move from Good to Great a more constructive approach for managers would be to try and move from Poor to Good.

Adi Gaskell is Head of Online at the Process Excellence Network


This is very interesting research, as I would expect from WBS, but I wonder if the conclusions might have missed something.

I like to use this definition for luck: 'luck is the coincidence of preparation and opportunity', and thinking of luck this way suggests that, although we can all agree that Bill Gates was 'lucky', we need also to realise that he was astute enough to recognise his opportunities when they came, and had prepared sufficiently well that he could take them. 

So whilst it might be more constructive to try to move from Poor to Good, we should still be prepared for the opportunity that would allow us to move to Great!

Honestly, one would appreciate your deposit only if one has gone through the terrain of poor  and  rich continuum. That is the up and down of life. We know thing to be done  or achieved  are usually conceptualized , executed and appraised along the continuum  of progress. Many things do happen along the line. It could be economical, political, natural disaster and even an act of God. That is why I partially  agree with Adrian on the Warwick University research. Luck cannot be ruled out of business. But that is not to say that we will jettison experience in getting new things done .

I think the most important thing is that we should strive to improvise our current decisions with past lessons extracted from past event as we execute or take actions along what I call poor/rich continuum.

Going through all Leadership thoughts, you will agree with me that past is relevant for the present. This is evidenced in the evolution of man and in all inanimate things of the world. Name it; plane,cars,computers,ship etc.

What I will not agree with is following  or trending  on old part with out adjusting for previous lessons. It is usually well with those who adjust  in this direction.

Hi Peter, thanks for your comment.  I suppose the key is to maintain an understanding that it is all a matter of probability.  Circumstances may increase your odds, as might preperation and aptitude, but nothing is ever a sure thing, which may explain why many of those lauded as 'greats' find it so difficult to either maintain or replicate their success.