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March 29, 2023

Evading the Success Trap

By Gordon Institute of Business Science

07 Nov 2022

Most companies accept that innovation is essential to ensuring long-term sustainability, but most struggle with the practicalities of integrating innovation into their ‘business-as-usual’ mantra.

One of the many paradoxes of business is that success exposes a company to the risk of ultimate irrelevance. Companies that are conscious of this risk avoid the success trap by integrating disruption or innovation into their business models. The trouble is that it is fiendishly difficult to do, and many fail to get it right. As always, understanding the problem is the first step in solving it.

It’s easy to see why success can act as a trap. While business success is typically built on the back of innovation, the reality is that when it all pays off, the focus shifts from thinking out of the box to creating an institution – the focus shifts to putting in place the processes to maximise profits and minimise costs. Conceptually, the business’ mindset moves from how to get ahead to how to stay ahead. The two can seem mutually exclusive, especially if, as is almost inevitable, the company structures itself in traditional ways.


To cite one glaring example: the typical corporate structure of business units focused on meeting targets can work well in the short term, but it actually militates against innovation. This article aims to understand why that should be so and how to put a company into a stronger position to build innovation into its “business-as-usual” structure and mindset.

First, one needs to understand how innovation works. Then, based on this basic understanding, we can begin to extrapolate some principles for how a company could integrate innovation into the way it does things. At the same time, it will become clear how traditional ways of doing business are often inimical to the development of innovations.


Workplace design

Steve Johnson’s insight about the English coffee house as the epitome of a space that nurtures design suggests how inhospitable to innovation the industrial design of many workplaces is. By contrast, the “cool” workplace of the archetypal technology company, with its chill rooms and campus atmosphere, starts to make more sense. Such companies depend on par excellence in fostering innovation.

But for more conventional companies, all is not lost – Johnson cites the work of researcher Kevin Dunbar, who filmed how work was done in several science labs around the world. On analysing the videos, he found that the most important ideas did not emerge from the classic lab environment. Almost all of the breakthrough ideas emanated from the weekly lab conferences. Everybody got together to share their latest findings and thoughts – often, it was sharing mistakes or frustrations that sparked the innovative thought. Johnson calls this environment in which different people from different backgrounds and interests come together to share what they are doing during a “liquid network”.

So it might not be necessary to spring for acid-green beanbags and a ping-pong table – the good old-fashioned conference table with everybody around it regularly will work just as well. It’s all about creating a semi-chaotic environment that allows people to see how seemingly disparate things could collide and create that spark of something new.

Organisational design

Equally important is organisational design. The typical organisational design tends to create silos (business units, functions like marketing, sales or IT), making it very hard to create the kind of physical environment, as described above, in which a wide variety of ideas, data, and interests can fruitfully collide. The silos (inadvertently) created by typical organisational designs also prevent people from seeing the company as a whole. Useful insight comes from Dr. Russell Ackoff, an organisational theorist: “In any system, when one improves the performance of the parts taken separately, the performance of the whole does not necessarily improve and frequently gets worse.”

Great innovations in marketing, for example, do not necessarily translate into innovation that makes the company more competitive or serves its customers better. One should never forget that most of the important business processes are horizontal, and that way of thinking needs to permeate the organisational design.

It’s no exaggeration that this problem of silos and the negative impact they have on all aspects of a company’s performance, not just its ability to innovate, is one of the perennial business challenges. The often-heard desire for as flat a corporate structure as possible is essentially a wish to solve the silo problem.

One way to encourage employees to see the company as a whole, as a codependent and interdependent system, could be to look at how performance is measured. Too often, performance measures mirror the organisational silos or the crude bottom line, but careful design could link them to common goals and objectives. This approach could nudge people to think about running the business better and how to change it for future relevance.

Corporate culture

Culture is a notoriously slippery concept and difficult to change, but it is a potent force in any organisation. A company that wants to integrate innovation into its DNA certainly needs to take steps to promote a culture of reinvention. As discussed in the previous point, rethinking how performance is measured will lay the groundwork.

Another important foundation for a culture of reinvention would be to change how failure is viewed. As Steve Johnson argued, it is often when people discuss their failures with colleagues that connections are made that spark innovation. One of the things that people have always noticed about the business culture in the United States, compared with that in the United Kingdom or South Africa, is the diametrically opposed way that failure is viewed. Typically, in the United States, failure is seen as a learning experience that makes entrepreneurs better able to succeed; here, it is something to be swept under the carpet. In the corporate environment, in particular, failure is very much a dirty word. In contrast, in the United States, it can be seen as identifying an individual prepared to try new things. (I suppose the quantum of failures would be important!)

To read the rest of the article click on the following link:

Evading the Success Trap


Posted by ACASA on March 29, 2023 at 11:37 PM in blog post | Permalink


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