It’s Complicated…

Everyone loves the certainty of a simple answer – you can see them on the front of most magazines. The winning investment strategy. What makes Apple great. How to fix the economy, lose weight, find happiness… All in a few pages of magazine article. Politics is even worse – “fix the deficit”, “balance the budget”, Republican or democrat.

But the words I find myself saying more and more is “It’s complicated”.

One of the most popular business books was published in 1982 – Tom Peters’ “In Search of Excellence”. My dad had it. It looked at the companies that his buddies at McKinsey (oy,  trouble…) identified as dominant and “genuinely getting it”. Then they identified the common things they shared that led to their success. And the recipe for your own success was to replicate those factors. Seems like a solid plan. Unfortunately, even just a few years later it was clear that many of the star companies were not exactly outperforming – NCR, Wang, Xerox… How could that be? The success factors look about right, even today. The countless other business books creating recipes for success regurgitate similar themes. If they aren’t wrong, what is it?

Maybe it’s about the leader? The countless books on how to succeed by CEOs at their peak would seem to suggest that’s the key. Yet many companies buck the trend and persevere and thrive over time through drastic leadership changes – GE, IBM. While others rise and fall under the same leadership – Microsoft, Cisco.

Apple and Steve Jobs is an interesting study. Apple rose with Jobs but was well down the path to ruin while Jobs was still on duty. Then Jobs came back in 1998 to introduce the, drumroll, iMac! In pretty colors. For 3 years that was it. Then they hit on the iPod thing and it got better from there. Now he’s gone again and it’s not clear whether what was working will live on. So far so good. The obvious lesson learned is something like “make insanely great products that people love and they’ll buy lots of them”. But that’s like saying the way to lose weight is to… lose weight. The interesting part is how to do that.

In general, it’s clear that individuals can inspire and lead. But if this is a key attribute of an organization’s success then that inherently creates an organization dependent upon them. If the individual spirit can be transmitted to the organization as a whole and it can live on without them, then the key attribute is really the organizational culture.

I’m taking a mini-MBA class next week and as pre-work they talked about Net Present Value. It’s a great way to take a really complicated opportunity and boil it down to one number – the dollar value in today’s dollars. But the numbers on which it’s based involve a whole lot of assumptions that are often subject to major change. The calculation takes that reality and complexity, buries it deep, and presents an impressive facade of plain numbers. The math replace the truly meaningful attributes with simplifications all the way down to a single dollar value. Easy to understand, actionable, just completely disconnected from what’s actually going on.

I think the only general rule is “any general rule is wrong”. If there were any formulas everyone would converge and do that. Look at investing strategies. Countless books and magazines herald the best way to pick investments, even as an amateur investor. Yet the most sophisticated banks and hedge funds in the world have yet to beat the market consistently over time.

In contrast to this kind of analysis is intuition.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is now largely an odd footnote of history. At the time I was inspired by their passion, yet completely disdainful of their almost complete lack of tangible vision or execution. The plan began and ended with “camp in parks and talk about what bothers us”. It ended up being ineffective, but they got something right. The intuition that something needed to change, and that involved wresting control from the big banks. In many ways this is more valuable than the opposite – an effective plan without the right intuition. Heartless. The occupy movement was all heart and no brains, but at least they nailed something. The challenge is how to turn intuition into tangible change.

Intuition is powerful and certainly a key part of success. That part of us that seems to know what to do even when we don’t understand. Part of the solution must be to channel that intuition – create the conditions that allow it to thrive and speak. Meditation comes in here. But the other part is to pair that intuition with the right amount of analysis, due diligence, and practical execution. My summary of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink is that intuition is incredibly perceptive and powerful, except when it’s just the opposite and you’re just being racist, sexist, or just stuck in your old ways. Knowing which intuition to trust and which to ignore is key, which of course, makes it…  complicated.

Which is the semi-unsatisfying point at which I attempt to end this mostly wandering post still searching for the take-away.

Clearly doing the right things is important, and the right things are generally fairly well known. Do them, it’s better than doing the wrong thing, but it’s also no guarantee.

Intuition is really useful. Feed it and listen, but also know when to question it.

Leadership is important but is not everything.

Great people are key but can still mess things up badly.

And so on down the long list of good ideas that fill countless books.

But in the end the answer is that there is no answer. Instead of looking for the answer, embrace the complexity and explore what works. In the words of my good friend Barak: “Notice, Get Curious, Play”.

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