December 19, 2013

How Dumb People Become Successful

We are continuing our rerun of favorite posts from 2013. Here's one from May.

After a few years in the business world, something occurred to me. I realized that the majority of the people I met in business were astonishingly stupid.

Years later I was sitting around a bar with a couple of my agency colleagues. We had won a very important piece of business from a world class client. We were working with the very top people at the client and we were  astounded by their shallowness.

A few drinks into the evening one of my colleagues turned to me and said, "I keep thinking that some day we'll meet the smart ones."

At that moment I recalled a conversation I had had years earlier. A friend introduced me to a business concept he called "achieving orbit."

With enough energy, a satellite will escape the gravitational pull of earth and will achieve orbit. Once it achieves orbit, it operates on its own. It will circle under its own power for years. And the only way to knock it down is to get in its way.

Businesses are like this, too, he claimed. After a certain period of success, they can achieve orbit and stay successful without much added energy.

Many companies are powered by products or services initiated years or even decades ago. And barring a horrible accident, they will stay in orbit. They persevere largely on inertia.

That's why all the monkeys running around having meetings and writing memos really aren't doing that much harm. It's why clueless managers really can't do too much damage. It's why all the CEOs and COOs buzzing around in their golf carts usually aren't fatal.

Of course, there are some industries, like technology, that need constant updating. But think about the market leaders in automobiles, food, soda, beer, fast food, dairy, snacks, candy, paper towels, toasters...for the most part, the market leaders today were the market leaders 30 years ago.

From time to time there come along some people who are so stupid that they knock a successful company out of orbit. But mostly, orbiting companies consist of people running around in circles pretending to make contributions. As long as they don't mess with the color of the box, or build a 3-wheeler, or change the flavor to grape, they usually can't screw things up too badly.

Businesses are successful in spite of all these monkeys, not because of them.


ChesterHrob said...

Wow. So simple, so true. Yes, most client are just like this. I had one, though, whose CEO actually messed with the decades-old product and, poof, the company now is barely clinging to life. And 99% of the memo-writing, meeting-having monkeys are gone.

George Tannenbaum said...

I have a friend who said his ideal job is to be brand manager for the soda Tab. To be successful, all you have to do is sell less soda than the year before.