Several years ago I found a quote attributed to business consulting guru Tom Peters, that ascribed success to hard work — if a lot of other things didn’t get in the way. I lost the quote, and the citation, and have sorely wanted to have it a hundred times since then when I found executives and administrators admonishing people for their failure to soar when the bosses themselves had anchored their employees to the ground.
It’s still worthy of noting; here is an excerpt from a Tom Peters column in 1990 featuring the passage:
“Do everything right, all the time, and the child will prosper. It’s as simple as that, except for fate, luck, heredity, chance, the astrological sign under which the child was born, his order of birth, his first encounter with evil, the girl who jilts him in spite of his excellent qualities, the war that is being fought when he is a young man, the drugs he may try once or too many times, the friends he makes, how he scores on tests, how well he endures kidding about his shortcomings, how ambitious he becomes, how far he falls behind, circumstantial evidence, ironic perspective, danger when it is least expected, difficulty in triumphing over circumstance, people with hidden agendas, and animals with rabies.”
The quote is from Ann Beattie’s latest novel, Picturing Will. It speaks directly to an increasingly important corporate issue — the peril of overestimating our ability to influence outcomes. In short, the way we recruit, organize, plan and act very much depends on how much we feel that we are in control. The problem is ageless, though as the world becomes less predictable the consequences of personal or corporate hubris are increasingly severe.
Systematically review a stack of annual reports. Without fail, a good year is explained as “the fruits of the strategic planning process your management put in place five (three, seven) years ago.” A bad year, however, is invariably the result of “the unanticipated rise in interest rates (unexpected foreign competition, etc.) which upset our planning assumptions.” But our corporate chiefs are hardly alone. A sizable branch of psychology, called attribution theory, examines the way human beings explain events to themselves. In short, we attribute good outcomes to skill and hard work; bad ones to bad luck.
For centuries, Cartesian cause and effect thinking has dominated our science — and management — paradigms. The causeless, effectless, probabilistic world of quantum mechanics that informs today’s scientific thought has still not permeated our psyches — or our approach to making corporate strategy.
Beattie’s novel is listed as an academic selection now, by Random House. Do you, or does anyone at your school, use this book?