Can Success Cause You To Fail?

Lance Osborne, our Director of Simulcast, sent this post from Greg McKeown, contributor of The Harvard Business Review. I thought you would be interested in seeing it.

The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Why don’t successful people and organizations automatically become very successful? One important explanation is due to what I call “the clarity paradox,” which can be summed up in four predictable phases:

Phase 1: When we really have clarity of purpose, it leads to success.
Phase 2: When we have success, it leads to more options and opportunities.
Phase 3: When we have increased options and opportunities, it leads to diffused efforts.
Phase 4: Diffused efforts undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.

Curiously, and overstating the point in order to make it, success is a catalyst for failure.

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While this is a gross generalization of business, I do tend to see this quite often. The energy put into making a business successful tends to become focused on what is our next great thing. So many times I have watched a business fail because they “forgot” what it was they were doing that worked.

If your definition of success is your next opportunity, you’ve probably already failed.

Question: What is your take on The Disciplined Pursuit of Less?



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Meet Chris LoCurto


Chris has a heart for changing lives by helping people discover the life and business they really want.

Decades of personal and leadership development experience, as well as running multi-million dollar businesses, has made him an expert in life and business coaching. personality types, and communication styles.

Growing up in a small logging town near Lake Tahoe, California, Chris learned a strong work ethic at home from his full-time working mom. He began his leadership and training career in the corporate world, starting but at E'TRADE.

78 thoughts on “Can Success Cause You To Fail?”

  1. I totally get this. Every new opportunity or step or decision point takes us somewhere. That somewhere often isn’t where we need to be and potentially distances us from our core mission or purpose of being in business. Unless you’re really good and track at least every major decision and assess it periodically, you can quickly reach a point of no return. Or at least a point where you have to undo a lot of work.

      1. If Apple stays true to its calling and passion-center they’ll be fine. But they’re run by humans and the likelihood they’ll drift and suffer is high in my view. This may happen over decades though and be very slow and unnoticeable to the average person but there will be indicators along the way. We’ll see if I’m right down the road, assuming we live to see it. =)

  2. Thanks for reminding me of why my 2nd business failed Chris. Very nice.

    Let’s examine:

    Phase 1: When we really have clarity of purpose, it leads to success.

    Totally. In 3 years we became the largest privately held company in our field…in the nation. $18,000,000 in projected 2008 revenue. $11,800,000 in actual 2007 revenue. Best in Business Award from Nashville Biz Journal. From 1 employee in above the garage to 52 and a posh office…in 3 years.

    Phase 2: When we have success, it leads to more options and opportunities.

    Ooooh, options. Like starting a call center. Good idea. No one else is doing it. We should. Despite that none of us have experience in that area.

    Or going into “just a little bit” of debt to buy literally the 2nd best domain name in the industry.

    Or working with a competitor that we KNEW would hurt our quality and cause us to lose customers…but those $250,000 monthly checks were so pretty!

    Or…I could go on.

    Phase 3: When we have increased options and opportunities, it leads to diffused efforts.

    Like trying to run a call center. Spending more and more money on it and it only getting worse.

    Like trying to run our core business, with a faulty IT infrastructure that we easily could have rebuilt with cash on hand…and then trying to work our way out of debt to build a new business.

    Or fighting to keep customers due to poorer quality when previously they begged us to stay.

    Phase 4: Diffused efforts undermine the very clarity that led to our success in the first place.

    Like operating out of a place of FEAR.

    Debt leads to fear in business. Failure is suddenly an option. Your home is on the line. Your retirement fund is up for grabs.

    Businesses cannot operate in a state of FEAR. It is impossible. It will destroy you. It will usually lead to the very thing it is trying ti avoid…failure.

    Clarity is non-existent through FEAR. FEAR is a dense fog through which no leaders can see.

    We introduced FEAR when we opened a call center.

    We introduced FEAR when we bought the domain.

    We introduced FEAR (and loathing I might add) when we worked with that competitor.

    Yeah, success can lead to failure…and I have learned now, it can also lead to more success…but that, my friends, is a story for another time.

    1. Thanks so much for your honest assessment of what happened to your business, Matt. Most of us never like to admit when we have made wrong choices – but the truth is it helps us in the long run when we can. When we take a long, hard review the actions we took and see how those actions contributed to the failure – then that is a path we don’t want to travel again. Ever again! Beautiful comment and I thank you for it.

    2. Great comment, Matt! Thanks so much for sharing. I’ve been thinking about this stuff recently as it relates to going slow (tortoise vs. hare). My biz partner likes to remind me, it’s not just about going slow, it’s about going smart. Sometimes I feel I need to slow down to become smart about something.

      I love your insight on how fear enters the equation. It can be difficult to say NO to new features and opportunities (especially when your customers are the ones asking for them), but staying focused on the core competency is so critical. We’re trying to do that every day while moving in the direction we feel is best (with confirmation from our customers).

      Sure would be nice if we could move a little faster though. 🙂

  3. Hi Chris,
    THANK YOU for posting.

    “When we really have clarity of purpose, it leads to success.”

    This was a MUCH needed message for me to be reminded of. So much so, that I am going to post with my goals, priorities, and mission statement. I am one that has to “visually” be reminded of these things on a regular basis – by doing so, it really helps me stay laser focused which is VERY hard to do when starting in a new venture.

    Live Beyond Awesome.

  4. Yep – I absolutely love this. Thanks for sharing with your tribe, Chris.

    My biggest takeaway: You simply cannot be focused on a thousand things, as tantalizing as those other options sound. Don’t lose sight of that original purpose.

    To make a football analogy (hey – it’s almost fall!), it’s not the quarterback’s job to do everything on the field. Ultimately, the successful QB narrows his focus to: 1) what makes the touchdown happen, and 2) what gives him enough peripheral vision to not get sacked. (And, wow – the defense/team analogies here could go on forever…)

  5. Dude, this is everywhere, especially in the technology sector.

    A company will succeed with a product, only to die when they start trying to come up with follow-on ideas that aren’t anything like their original success.

    The only reason, IMO, that Microsoft is still in existence is sheer intertia. They’ve created so many products in so many different areas that have nothing at all to do with their core Windows offerings (their big success) that only serve to suck resources away from that effort. Yes, XBox is an exception, but the list of resource-draining failures is even larger. Zune, MS Bob, Windows Mobile, to name a few.

    Google is in danger of this as well, though experimentation has arguably always been part of their DNA. And they’re not selling these experiments as products, they’re using them as avenues to recruit more eyeballs (the product) to sell to advertisers (their real customers).

    Facebook is succeeding in this respect because they haven’t yet succumbed to this desire. Their acquisitions have all been about enhancing the core application which, like Google’s, is all about recruiting eyeballs (product) to sell to customers (advertisers).

    Lotus: Created 1-2-3, then diversivied and died.

    Oracle: Makes databases and that’s about it. Still a juggernaut.

    The list goes on. I won’t bore you any further except to say that this is one case where you have to be careful when applying that old saw about “what got you here won’t get you there.”

      1. Apple’s product is exceptional user experience. They’ve produced a number of items which deliver this — the Macintosh, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad. Some have not, and they were quickly killed off — the Newton, for example.

        This was not always Apple’s product, though. It’s the focus that Steve brought to them during a period of floundering and “diffused effort” with ever-dwindling results which led them to the place they are today, so being in those places you mention isn’t a death sentence. It can be recovered from, but it takes great leadership and great focus.

        1. What I didn’t say well here is that it’s all in how you define your product. Apple’s is user experience. Facebook’s product is us. Zappos’ product is happiness. We only _think_ these companies are about gadgets, social networks, and shoes, respectively.

  6. It is so tempting when we see a need to try to fill it. Here at my nonprofit, we see so much need, and what we do and do well seems like a bandaid. It’s a constant battle to stay focused on our mission and not try to be everything to everybody. We tried that years ago and it didn’t work. Thanks for sharing, Chris.

  7. This is straight up Jim Collins from “How the Mighty Fall”:

    Hubris born of success leads to the undisciplined pursuit of more.

    Which explains why so many businesses fail, why the mortgage mess happened, and why so many families end up being broke. The sad irony of all this is that our society encourages us to engage in hubris born of success and the undisciplined pursuit of more, only to mock us when we crash because of it. hmmmm.

    1. I mostly agree Matt. But let me push back just a little. I don’t think all companies fail by doing this because of hubris. A TON do. But I think some companies really think the only way to succeed and keep growing is to spread themselves so thing with projects that they end up losing focus on what made them successful.

      With that in mind, what do you think?

      1. I think it is a question of “degree of failure” (look at me, inventing business terminology!). My hunch on this is that the spectacular failures that involve the death of a business stem from hubris born of success.

        I think that there are a number of far more minor failures that are far less spectacular that fit into the hubris-less category. I think the hallmark of these “failures” is the leadership exhibiting the humility to say “we were wrong, and need to course adjust.” These guys are guilty of losing focus, nothing more.

        What do you think?

  8. Here’s a question for @ChrisLoCurto

    How did Lampo avoid this as more opportunities came along and it diversified. EntreLeadership itself was brought about because Lampo diversified and delved into an area outside (at least on some level) of its core area.

    I think I know the answer and almost answered it myself but I want to hear from you Chris.

    1. Truthfully, we didn’t for awhile. There was a time that we did every great idea that came along. Sitting in a leadership council meeting one day I made mention that we don’t need to pull the trigger on all great ideas. We should focus on a few great ones and put the rest line if we ever get to them.

      We now have a system where we pick only a few ideas a year. Keeps us focused for sure. 🙂

      1. So even the shiniest object…I mean best new idea gets in line like the rest. I like it. Kind of reminds me of that word…what was it? Discipline. Yes, indeed. (Says the man who just ate 3 Pop Tarts…)

          1. Great. Give me an excuse to eat 3 more later why don’t you? No milk (actually don’t drink milk period…unless it’s soymilk). Yum, Pop Tarts and Silk for dessert. Sigh.

      2. Matt, they’ve also gotten pretty good at using their mission statement to help sort, sift and filter ideas. Their mission statement is “to empower and give HOPE to everyone from the financially secure to the financially distressed.” You could say Entreleadership doesn’t fit at first blush but I believe it does because it’s all about empowering and giving hope to entrepreneurs and teaching them to grow a Godly business.

  9. What a powerful message today – and one that could be life-changing. The phrase – “undisciplined pursuit of more” hit me in the chest like someone shot me with a double barrel shotgun. It reminds me of what I already knew – the enemy of “great” is “good”. How many times have I chosen to work on a “good” project – which distracted me from a “great” project. I also am going to meditate on the words ” ….reducing, focusing and
    simplifying…” Powerful words. And the author is right about the few who actually implement this in their lives and business: “Few appear to
    have the courage to live this principle, which may be why it
    differentiates successful people and organizations from the very
    successful ones.”

  10. I think that at times as we get more success in what we are doing, we definitely have a tendency to stop keeping “the main thing the main thing”. The law of familiarity sets in where we are and then we can start overextending ourselves trying to pursue something that may not be our calling, at least not yet.

  11. This is why I love the hedgehog concept from Jim Collins. Find the one thing you’re really good at and stick with it! Odds are the more you work on your strength skill/product/service, the more you will find out how little you know about it. I’d rather be a superstar on one area than a jack-of-all-trades.

      1. YES!
        When I initially sent this article out to Chris and others on the team, I started with “File under the ‘Focused’ part of the Momentum Thereom…”

  12. Reminds me of the Innovator’s dilemma article by James Allworth in HBR about how Apple almost went upside out by ” .. was to let profitability outweigh passion: “My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. The products, not the profits, were the motivation. Sculley flipped these priorities to where the goal was to make money. It’s a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything.” and drives home the point of ” Similarly, Apple talks a lot about its great people. But make no mistake — they are there only in service of the mission.”
    Its a great reminder to use your focus to filter your objectives through your mission or core values- if it fits- proceed with caution- if not stay on track and don’t look back.

  13. Great post. My mentor and I actually talked about this last time we met. People become successful, and it seems almost immediately they stop doing the very things that made them successful.

    I love that way of looking at it “the disciplined pursuit of less” its not a matter of not doing as much as it is disciplining yourself in what you DO!

    Thanks or sharing Chris.

  14. Great post. My mentor and I actually talked about this last time we met. People become successful, and it seems almost immediately they stop doing the very things that made them successful.

    I love that way of looking at it “the disciplined pursuit of less” its not a matter of not doing as much as it is disciplining yourself in what you DO!

    Thanks or sharing Chris.

  15. Less is and always has been associated with more! As entreprenuers we constantly add to our plate of options while beating to the tune of our own drums. Then we get stranded at our own perfomances and less crowds which makes us search for what we are doing wrong. The answer is probably, “your not doing anything wrong” rather, your just doing to much It’s tough when you know you are capable of doing so much…Great post!

    1. You made me think of how someone, I think it might’ve been Michael Michaelowicz, once said that you could grow you business best by saying “no” to people. His point was to stay within your wheel house and maintain your focus, but the point seems especially relevant in this discussion!

      I think it was in his book, “The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur”. Maybe.

  16. I can see this happening Chris and I think it’s the reason a lot of bigger businesses bite it. Looking at places like Circuit City and seeing how they began to spread themselves with varied product, new services, etc until they eventually collapsed (well, not to mention some other missteps).

    How would you recommend someone handle this type of situation in their business?

  17. Wow, did I ever pick a bad day to be busy! Great topic, and great comments (as always.)

    I’m reading “Love Works” (Chris, thanks for sending it!) (Does anyone want to start a reading group on it? Hmmm?) Anyway, this quote from chapter 1 jumped out at me, got highlighted, Tweeted and now shared here because I think it fits:

    “Profits are a product of doing the right thing- over and over again.” – Joel Manby.

    Have you identified, become clear on, and organized around your ‘right thing?’

    It’s interesting Manby doesn’t say: doing the right things….

    I am now trying to make room on my already post-it cluttered forehead for this blast of wisdom. Thanks!

      1. Well, I was just wondering if there’s a way you can tell that you’re starting to take on more than what you should be. When does a great idea start being your first step away from your core?

        Hope that helps.

  18. Yes sir you are right. I have been the master of success and dilute. your podcast are like a mirror and I appreciate you.

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