How Businesses Can Create the Snowball of Success Effect
The five forces that can transform average companies into industry champions
Have you ever wondered why some entrepreneurs “make it big” while others — who are just as bright and hardworking — don’t? This question is one I’ve studied for the last 30 years.
As an innovation design consultant, my colleagues and I have worked with over 600 business leaders and management teams from a wide variety of industries. And over the last three decades, I’ve encountered every type of organizational culture imaginable.
Just add any adjective you can think of — brilliant, bureaucratic, efficient, dysfunctional, corrupt, or visionary — and I’ve worked with them before. However, “frustrated” is the word I would use to describe most businesses that I encounter.
Despite their drive and determination, many companies feel stuck because they cannot move beyond their average position into a leadership position in their industry. These leaders can’t figure out what they’re doing wrong, and this feeling of not winning can take a toll on the morale, confidence, and self-esteem of their organizations.
Business success is not as simple as turning up the volume knob or pushing down on the gas pedal harder. Instead, it requires understanding how five forces come together in just the right way to create a snowball of success effect.
Three forces are internal and manageable, but the other two are external and more challenging to control.
Let’s break these five forces down individually first, and then we can talk about how they coalesce to create the snowball of success effect.
The Three Internal Forces
While it may not seem fair, some people are just born with incredible raw talent, which gives them a significant advantage over the rest of us average folk.
Suppose you were born with the inventive scientific mind of Elon Musk or the computer coding skills of a Mark Zuckerberg. Or the singing talents of Mariah Carey or the comedic timing of Jerry Seinfeld. Given those talents, you’d have a head start at becoming a top contender in your field. But having talent alone isn’t a guarantee of success when competing at the pro level.
Many talented people don’t know how to study, practice, or train because they’ve succeeded all their lives without developing those habits. And this lack of training skills explains why some “C-students” end up surpassing “A-students” later in life because they know how to practice and improve.
Some talented people struggle to play on a team with others. They’re so accustomed to being the star player and making all the shots on their own that they find it frustrating to coordinate with other players.
And some talented people can’t keep their heads together because of the admiration and fame part, which makes them a liability to themselves and others. (Think Tiger Woods, Matt Lauer, and Louis CK, to name just a few.)
While not everyone is born with the raw talents of, say, Tom Brady, Celine Dion, or Serena Williams, this doesn’t mean they can’t compete in their fields’ top leagues. How? By developing, honing, and perfecting their capabilities through discipline.
A tennis champion like Andre Agassi had to compete against players endowed with more physical assets and athletic talent than he had. But few could match Agassi’s discipline to overcome his limitations, perfect his game, and outsmart the competition.
Fans of the well-known business books by the author Jim Collins — such as Built to Last, Good to Great, and Great By Choice — approach their career path from a disciplined approach.
Collins helps organizations master a discipline-oriented mindset through the use of catchy concepts such as “Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAG),” “The 20 Mile March,” “Hedgehogs,” “The Flywheel Effect,” and “getting the right people on the bus.”
Legendary college coaches like the former John Wooden of UCLA basketball fame and Nick Saban of the current University of Alabama football dynasty are experts at building championship teams. But they’d be the first to tell you that discipline and the ability to play on a team are far more important than talent.
However, while disciplined leaders are especially good at taming the complexities of an existing industry, they often struggle with the challenge of entering unknown territories where there are no rules or precedences for how to compete.
Creating new market opportunities out of thin air is the specialty of the more eccentric thinkers — like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. They don’t care about limitations, boundaries, or rules like most of us do. And they aren’t willing to compromise their vision for what’s possible.
But these two leaders struggled in the past with the discipline part, which is why Steve Jobs brought in the highly disciplined executive, Tim Cook, on his second go-around with Apple. And Musk has a court-appointed Twitter monitor to oversee his social media behavior.
While they may not have the talent or discipline of their competitors, some leaders possess so much sheer will, determination, and conviction about their intentions to win that it can seem impossible for competitors to beat them.
These more convicted leaders don’t have the words “quit,” “give up,” or “acquiesce” in their vocabulary. And as a competitor, it’s no fun playing a game of “chicken” with them because they won’t flinch, much less back down from a challenge. They’re often willing to bet it all to win a point or deal.
Both Steve Jobs and Elon Musk represent these convicted thinkers who went against financial conservatism and took on giant industries. Jobs went from the computer industry into the foreign territories of cell phones, music, TV, and more. And Musk has taken on the big automakers and aerospace titans with impressive success.
The Two External Forces
Having strength in any of these areas is a great place to start, but it usually isn’t enough to create an industry champion.
To compete against the likes of the golfer Tiger Woods or the MMA fighter, George St. Pierre, or the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos of Amazon — you have to master all three internal forces of talent, discipline, and conviction.
However, many businesses have mastered these three forces but still haven’t found success yet. Why not? Because there are two external forces — timing and luck — which play a significant role in determining a company’s success.
Had Mark Zuckerberg been born three years earlier or three years later, there might’ve never been a Facebook. And we might all be living in a world of MySpace.
But Zuckerberg’s timing and discipline for learning how to program computers along with the rise of the internet, connectivity, social media, and generational issues — not to mention meeting the Winklevoss twins at Harvard — all came together perfectly.
Or let’s look at the remarkable but often under-appreciated story of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
When Arnold started lifting weights in 1962, he lived in a small town in Austria called Graz. He was a mere 15 years old and had little knowledge about an obscure sport called bodybuilding. No one would’ve ever believed this skinny kid from Austria would someday come to define, dominate, and symbolize bodybuilding as its most famous spokesperson.
But Arnold believed (conviction) he’d someday live in America — Hollywood specifically — and that his meal ticket to get to the “land of opportunity” was via the high-profile but low-paying field of bodybuilding.
Blessed with raw talent, Arnold’s big muscular frame, physique, and unique angular looks gave him a good start in bodybuilding. But those inherent assets alone weren’t enough to win against the more sophisticated pros from the big city gyms.
Arnold had to develop the discipline to outwork all of his famous competitors. He was one of the first competitors to establish a training routine of 4-hour workouts twice a day and adhering to very strict eating, sleeping, and supplement program. On top of all this, Arnold had a conviction and determination, unlike anything the bodybuilding sport had seen.
When Arnold got into competitive game mode, he rarely lost, even when a competitor outmatched him in terms of raw talent or discipline. Arnold was famous for getting into his opponent’s head.
But what made Arnold’s approach so remarkable is that his rise in bodybuilding coincided with the growth of the emerging fitness craze in America, popularized by the likes of Jane Fonda’s workout videos.
Had Arnold come to America five or ten years earlier — like his bodybuilding idols Steve Reeves, Reg Park, or Johnny Weissmuller did — he might have never enjoyed the riches, glory, and fame that came from the rise in popularity of bodybuilding.
Because of his talent, discipline, conviction, and timing, Arnold ended up becoming one of the most successful bodybuilding champions ever. And he’s still the icon people think of today when the word “bodybuilding” comes up.
But The Story Doesn’t End There
Going from a successful bodybuilder career to fulfilling his dream of becoming a movie star took an even more ridiculous leap.
Arnold’s thick Austrian accent, limited English-speaking skills, hard-to-pronounce (much less spell) name, and lack of acting skills made the likelihood of him becoming a successful actor nearly impossible. Or at least that’s what his agent and advisors told him.
But that didn’t detour Arnold’s conviction and drive to “make it” in Hollywood. It just so happened that Arnold’s larger-than-life image and accent fit perfectly into the rise of a new film genre: the Action Hero.
In the 1980s and 90s Arnold starred in blockbuster films like Conan the Barbarian, Terminator, Predator, and Total Recall. And his famous accented lines like “I’ll be back!” and “Hasta la vista, baby!” are part of the cultural lexicon.
Not only did Arnold make it into the league of action heroes like Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal, Chuck Norris, and other tough guys, but he dominated this genre for a long time. Arnold’s timing in catching the action hero wave was impeccable.
However, if dominating the field of bodybuilding and becoming one of the highest-grossing international action heroes wasn’t enough, Arnold then achieved another impossible dream — becoming the Governor of California. This story is yet another example of having perfect timing.
Of course, timing can also work against you, as it has for many brilliant entrepreneurs and startups like Pet.com, Webvan, and other impressive companies that got caught during the Dotcom crash of 2001. And unfortunately, the same thing happened to countless startups during Covid.
We often mythologize successful leaders as having incredible foresight and perfect vision. But just about every successful leader or company can tell you a fascinating story of their “lucky break” moment that catapulted them into the upper echelons of success.
Such was the case for Bill Gates and his new business venture.
In 1980, IBM was looking for a new operating system to meet the emerging market of personal computers. The industry leader for providing this kind of software was Digital Research, Inc. But IBM didn’t like the solution they proposed or the financial terms.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Jack Sams, an executive at IBM, asked a very boyish-looking gentleman by the name of Bill Gates — who created a new startup called Microsoft — if they’d be interested in taking on this challenging assignment.
Microsoft didn’t have an operating system, nor were they planning on developing one. But Bill Gates saw this invitation as an opportunity to grow his company. He was willing to take on the assignment and commit his young, 40-person staff to build a new operating system. But Gates didn’t have the job just yet. He still needed one more lucky break.
IBM was not comfortable handing over a contract of this magnitude to such a young and small supplier. But when a project manager at IBM mentioned the Microsoft name to IBM’s president, John Opel, he said: “Oh, that’s run by Bill Gates, Mary Gates’s son.”
Opel knew Mary Gates because they both served on the board of the charity, United Way. And that personal connection was enough to tilt the scale in Microsoft’s favor. Bill Gates got the contract, and the rest is history.
The small, unknown startup, Microsoft, became one of the most valuable companies in the world. And Bill Gates is still one of the wealthiest people on the planet.
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than brilliant.
While Bill Gates had a stroke of luck, he also had the talent, discipline, conviction, and timing to go along with it, which is vital to becoming a champion.
Putting it all together
Most businesses I work with have one or even a few of the five forces running smoothly. But to become an industry powerhouse, you need to have all five cylinders working in unison to create enough torque to overcome the gravity of average.
Instead of doubling down on core strengths, companies can increase their horsepower by evaluating how their organizational engine performs within these five forces. And once armed with this diagnostic analysis, organizations can focus on the areas that need improvement — and rub their rabbit’s foot for good luck.