September 25, 2008
the complexity war a.ka. "success is more complex than failure"
Rudyard Kipling once described Triumph and Disaster as "Imposters, both". The longer I stay in the working world, the more I start to get what he means.
It's funny how you can have two guys sitting next to each other in an office, both doing the same job. Both using the same computers and phones. Both with the same academic qualifications. Both with a similar IQ. Both working the same amount of hours. But why does one guy take home five times more sales commission than the other guy? What's going on? Is it luck? Skill? Justice? Injustice?
The question of what separates success from failure, is something I've always liked to ponder on. Suddenly this week, out of nowhere, the following line hit me:
"Success is more complex than Failure."
Think about it. Being a failure is a no-brainer. All you have to do is sleep till noon, get out of bed, scratch your balls, have your morning visit to the bathroom, turn on the Star Trek re-runs, help yourself to some breakfast [Leftover pizza and a bottle of Jack Daniels, Hurrah!], light up your first joint of they day, download some porn, and already you're well on your way. Sure, a few inconvenient variables may enter the picture here and there, to complicate an otherwise perfect day of FAIL, e.g. what you're going have to say to your brother in order to convince him to lend you that $300, so you can pay off the telephone bill, that kinda thing. But for the most part, the day-to-day modus operandi of your "Average Total Failure" is quite straightforward.
Being successful, however, is a whole different ball game. Breakfast meetings at 7.00am. Conference calls at midnight. Visiting twelve cities in five days. Fielding question from a swarm of hostile journalists. Dealing successfully with an enraged, multi-million dollar customer who's screaming bloody murder over something rather trivial in the grand scheme of things. Dealing successfully with an enraged, multi-million dollar investor who's screaming bloody murder over something rather trivial in the grand scheme of things. Making sure there's enough money in the account to meet the payroll of all your legions of highly-paid, highly-effective, highly-talented employees. All these hundreds of unrelenting issues to deal with, all day, every day. You get the picture.
And as always, what's invariably true of people is also invariably true for businesses. So when I see a small but insanely-successful business suddenly implode overnight [it seems to happen quite a lot in Silicon Valley], I'm guessing chances are it wasn't inability to manage growth per se that destroyed the business [a favorite reason cited by those writing business obituaries], but the inability for the business to manage complexity. Complexity increases exponentially with growth, most small companies can culturally only handle incremental increases in complexity. As I'm fond of saying, "Human beings don't scale".
Which is why walking around the hallways of large, successful companies can often seem so oppressive to somebody new to it. All that cultural regimentation is there for one reason only: To fight "The Complexity War". Sure, it might feel a bit ghastly to the more idealist and free-spirited among us, but until somebody can come up with a better way to win this Complexity War at a Fortune-500 level, I don't see it ever going away.
Posted by hugh macleod at September 25, 2008 2:01 PM
A variation I've been using for some time now:
"Success tends to take longer than failure."
That still doesn't explain the fact that one guy takes home 5 times more sales commission than the other guy. Is one just working harder than the other? Working smarter? Is one better at kissing ass? Does one just have more charisma?
Getting promoted in the Fortune 500 world isn't just about hard work, talent and smarts. If it were, Wall Street would be in much better shape today, and the Advertising world would be every bit as cool a place to work as it ought to be. I'm sure you've known your share of sub-par execs who were clearly promoted or elevated to their highest level of incompetence, and many of them go on to have long "successful" careers. Is there really a connection with complexity in those instances?
reminds me of the "Karenina principle" lifted from Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina":
"Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way".
Success is dependent on all aspects working - failure needs only one aspect failing, any of the many...
There is something to be said for a "perfect day of FAIL". If you are going to do something you might as well do it right, including slacking.
The solution to business complexity is simple. Who said you have to grow beyond the level at which your model is effective? Just don't.
I've been a 'success' and a 'failure'... It is MUCH more fun being a success. :-) But sometimes you just CAN'T hang on to it - no matter what you do. The 'Complexity War' might be one of the best phrases I've ever seen for that problem. It instantly evokes the next concept "Fog of War" and the 2 images certainly tell my story very well.
Once again, another home-run of pithy one-liners. Seriously, you could write your whole next book on clever one-liners that force people to think. A book of 'twitter-sized' thought problems...
Take care, and keep up the good work. I look forward to reading (and BUYING and you getting paid for it) your first book.
"Space Elevator Guy"
no one learns anything from success. one only learns from failure, when things fall apart. and that is when you'll see some real complexity.
you have it backwards. success is doing one thing intensely, in all its facets.
failure is complexity in action, and not simple at all.
For some a "perfect day of FAIL" could be considered a luxury. If FAIL means eating a slice of last nights pizza... while watching Bugs Bunny cartoons and blowing bong hits at the dog. I want FAIL. There were times in my life where I would given my eye tooth to turn off my cell and email and make it stop. Just for a day. If that is FAIL, I want EPIC FAIL at least once a month.
Even Jehovah took a day off. I wonder what he did on his down time. I think that is where the platypus came from.... a bottle of Jack, a couple of joints and some quality FAIL time... no pressure, no stock holders.... just a box of spare parts, a Sunday afternoon and singular mission of "WTF is THAT?".
Hugh, does today's post hold the answer to the question you asked in your "Back from the Road Trip" post?
*How the heck am I going to manage all the stuff I've currently got going on, AND find the time to draw cartoons.*
To overcome failure one needs to succeed in recovering, which suggests that in a way failure breeds complexity (provided that the one who failed will seek to recover from the situation in the first place). Complexity of recovering from failure can be harderd by several magnitudes as you have to first get back to zero before continuing your climb upwards.
I disagree with this, I think the two are orthogonal. The complexity needs to be there for a reason, it shouldn't be a result of archaicisms or superstitions, and often complex organisations are laden with both.
Yes, success is more complicated for the simple reason there are a near infinity of ways to do it WRONG. Finding out how to do it right is *one* of the complexities.
On another note of right ways; I don't see a pre-order coupon for the book, is that on the publisher's site?? And who's publishing??
Keep it up.
I believe some of the invisible contributors to success are in the lessons that parents teach their kids. My motto: if we don't teach our kids how to succeed they can only do so by accident.
That is so true. Many people are afraid to succeed more than if they fail. While it is true, some people are such perfectionist, that they are afraid to try in fear that they will fail, most people rather dodge success. They cannot compute how things will change for them and the level of hard work you must put into a venture once you truly succeed! Good post.