How To Succeed Towards Failure

or The Three Laws of Corporations

These tweets invigorated me, and I’d like to share why.

Firstly the first:

Startups focus on high value activities. As a company matures, 80–90% of time [goes to] operational factors, not innovation.

I love this quote because it makes me sad. I’ve seen it happen first-hand, and I can see it happening around me in companies I both loathe and love. Or, as I like to say, companies I loave. (pronounced “LOHv”)

The company begins with an idea. The idea germinates and spreads and inspires like-minded individuals to risk it all on something they believe in. BAM — it’s a success! This success leads to growth and expansion and diversification and scaling-up and, inevitably, the machine is driving itself. It’s no longer the idea, or the passion, or the creators, or the innovators — it’s the machine that has grown up and around them and their success — and now it’s become self-aware and only wants to go on breathing. It takes a look at all the things that it comprises and tries to minimize the risks and maximize the rewards. It breaks apart successful teams so their talent can be distributed more evenly. It pinches every penny while announcing its overflowing coffers from the rooftops, draining morale. It rewards the status-quo and mediocre while it punishes and marginalizes all the things that once powered it to the very success it’s seeking to protect. At some point, invariably the world takes notice that the thing they once adored and lauded is now old-hat, stagnant and uninteresting. The world moves on, looking elsewhere for the breath of life it once found in its old, sad friend.

Secondly the second:

What makes you successful will also ultimately be your doom.

Initially, my take on this was that it seemed to contradict the first statement, which implies, if you continue to innovate, create, challenge, and provoke that you’ll keep succeeding. But this isn’t guaranteed. In fact, it’s proven to eventually fail. You won’t hit homeruns every time at bat. This is why the mature corporate entity seeks to protect itself in the first place. But what I love about this quote is that it frames your success in humility. It’s much like the famous quote for the King to keep him humble when successful and buoy him up when he’s a failure:

This too, shall pass.

That thing that brought you so far, for so long, with such great thrill, will, as Icarus’ wings, melt away and leave you plummeting to your demise. So why do I like this quote? Because knowing it ahead of time, Icarus can pack a parachute. Or his dad Dædalus could build his wings out of something a little more heat-resistant than wax. It frames your success in humbling ways such that you don’t keep sailing merrily off the edge of the world, but pause for a moment, get your bearings, adjust your course, and keep moving ahead; but objectively.

As you move forward with your career, be ever mindful of what is making you successful, so you don’t let it blind you to what’s right.

As we build our organizations, let us adapt and teach them the Three Laws of Robotics, perhaps we can call them The Three Laws of Corporations.

The Three Laws of Corporations

  1. A company may not injure an idea or, through inaction, allow an idea to come to harm.
  2. A company must obey the orders given to it by ideas, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A company must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

And I’m not even sure we need the 3rd one.