April 10, 2013

Success Is Never Final

We like to think that history has an inevitability to it. We like to believe that there is an arc that goes from the bad old days to the good new days; that things move toward virtue; that freedom and prosperity will inevitably triumph and evil and depredation will ultimately be vanquished.

There is absolutely no reason to believe this. And yet we do.

It's the same type of silly belief we have about evolution. We believe that the purpose of evolution was to lead to a grand conclusion -- us. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are just the result of thousands of little contingencies. The world existed for 4 billion years very nicely without us, thank you.

Winston Churchill came as close as any one individual ever came to saving the world. Without him, the Nazis and their pals might very well have won WW II.

He was hailed as a hero. But was promptly evicted from office when his party lost the elections in 1945.

But Churchill was a realist. He said, "Success is never final."

The point is this -- you never know. You think you know, but you don't.

How else can you explain the astounding failure of Ron Johnson as ceo of JCPenney? Johnson was fired yesterday.

You couldn't possibly draw up a better candidate to lead that company. He had a bachelor's degree from Stanford in economics, an MBA from Harvard, he lead Target out of the dark ages, and headed up the most successful retail juggernaut in the history of retail juggernauts -- the Apple stores.

And yet his 17-month tenure at JCPenney was a disaster of unprecedented proportions. According to Business Insider, Penney's performance in the 4th quarter of last year was "probably the worst quarterly performance ever in the history of major retail."

Johnson took everything he learned at Stanford and Harvard and Target and Apple and applied it to JCPenney. And it was a catastrophe.

Success is always contingent. It has to do with where you are, who you are with, what the circumstances happen to be, and which way the wind is blowing.

The people who speak at conferences and write blogs and books and think they know something universal about advertising and marketing are all full of shit. What they know is what worked at one particular moment, at one particular place, under one particular set of circumstances.

To believe that anything about business, or any other human endeavor for that matter, is universally true or all-embracing is a philosophy for fools and a prescription for failure.


Shanghai Shinbone said...

As 14th Century French clever clogs put it "All I know is that I know nothing...and I'm not even sure about that."
Certainty scares the shit out of me.

Martin Headon said...

I think reading Stephen Pinker is an interesting counterpoint to this, if not an direct argument against what you're saying - particularly his detailed analyses of how humanity has been on a constant civilising curve from prehistory onwards (yes, including the holocaust and the two world wars). We are a far more tolerant, safer, disease-free and peaceful world than we have ever been.

So while I agree with the point about marketing, I do have confidence, if not absolute certainty, that freedom and prosperity will (eventually) inevitably triumph.

davetrott said...

"The problem with the world is that the ignorant are arrogant and cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt" - Alfred North Whitehead

Georgie Casey said...

You've a fantastic command of the English language Bob.

Jon Shallcross said...

Or even more pithily by Yeats: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity"

Kumara S Raghavendra said...

Ron Johnson was fired because he applied everything he learnt at Stanford, Harvard, Target and Apple. He didn't seem to have a clue as to how those learnings fitted with the reality of JC Penney. So yes, I agree when you say that the situation matters as much as anything else.
Moral: Focus on understanding the situation first. Then bring in your knowledge, experience and whatever.

Chris Seiger said...

True, success isn't final. Failure, however, often is. If the company was circling the bowl when he got there, the motivation for his approach may have been desperation, not knowledge. I'm sure they showed him the books, and it doesn't take a degree from Stanford or Harvard to see the writing on the wall. Maybe this was all a desperation play for differentiation. Or some such drivel. I dunno. I've followed this story and found it disturbingly perplexing. Glad to see you post on it.

speake said...

Johnson was the victim of blind luck and circumstance and of being at the right place at the right time. Then, times changed and he couldn't.

xhowarth said...

Good post. Unfortunately, your conclusion logically implodes on itself:

"To believe that anything about business, or any other human endeavor for that matter, is universally true or all-embracing is a philosophy for fools and a prescription for failure."

What if I believe this statement?

Sean Peake said...

Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist delves into that area with great vigour, Martin. I have given away four copies of it so far.

Anon said...

I actually really liked the changes he was making. I always hated JCP, frumpy, stuffed and ugly clothes. Went through it recently and the stores are bright, clean, well laid out and started to carry interesting European brands. His problem was that he alienated his regular customers but didn't educate effectively potential new customers who just weren't told that the new JCP had a whole new feel. Better TV advertising would have achieved that goal. Not the the ads were bad, they just didn't give new customers a reason to give it a try.

Sonny said...

You mean he was the victim of blind luck and circumstance and being in the right place at the right time at TWO different companies? Wow - more than most CEOs who typically can't even do it once.

Red8 Interactive said...

Our team worked with JCP folks on a project for Levi's. Their culture seemed rooted in who could say "not my job" fastest. While I agree with your point, he also needed to make a wholesale change to the corporate culture. Turning this beast around was and is a huge task.

Charlotte said...

Amen! to both of you. I liked the changes and they were desperately needed. Absolutely right - he did not educate his customers. He didn't talk to them at all. Did you ever see any evidence of a PR department? The bad press was NEVER addressed. Their core customers were addicted to sales, then the simple pricing strategy was introduced. Customers couldn't make that switch. They needed the signal that it was okay to buy = SALE.

As for culture, where to begin? I can only imagine what it was like to work with that group. When I first read Johnson was taking the helm I started following their job openings. Over and over, the same jobs. (they're still rotating) And that's a sign of significant internal problems. I've worked in the marketing department of a major retailer and learned culture runs deep - especially in a company that's over 100 years old. People are slow (and fearful) to accept change.

It does take more than a shift in merchandise and pricing strategy. He was 'remaking' the company, but forgot the company part.

Charlotte said...

...and of course the Bill Gates quote:
"Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can't lose."

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