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January 11, 2016

3 Factors That (Almost) Guarantee Success

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Every February, the truly devoted baseball fans make their way to Florida and Arizona to watch their favorite team in spring training. Spring training is when every team has hopes of winning the championship. Past flaws are forgotten and every young player thinks he’s the next Derek Jeter or Albert Pujols.

Meanwhile, the experts—the managers, the front offices, the seasoned reporters—are looking deeper. They’re trying to figure out whether their team has what it takes to make it through the grueling 162-game season. 

Businesses and organizations are the same. If you know what to look for, it’s not that difficult to figure out the ones that will be standing at the end of a stretch or long season.

When I’m trying to get my hands around a new organization or a new concept in fast fashion, or when I want to test its viability, I primarily look at three things: tailwinds, edges, and depth.

Tailwinds
What are the things lining up in favor of your new venture, product, or idea?

This Forbes list of five ways to tell whether a start-up will succeed starts with whether the start-up has validated customers. It’s pretty simple: are there people who will buy what you’re selling?

Customers aren’t the only source of a tailwind though. Did you have a recent influx of cash? Did the opportunity for a great partnership arise? Was there a change in the local market that opens a gap for you? Does your culture and team have strong momentum? Is your stock on the rise?

A person of faith who’s launching a new venture might point to these kinds of factors as evidence of a divine pull. And they might be right.

Regardless, if you can’t tell me your tailwinds, you’d better have a whole lot of extra gas in your personal and company tank because there’s not much pushing you along. Headwinds will always require more time and resources allocation. Tailwinds can be your “unfair advantage.”

Edges
Steve Jobs said, “Focusing is about saying no.” If you can ignore his mid-1990s jeans and haircut, watch this powerful three-minute video clip on the topic.

As an organization, you have to be able to answer what you do and don’t do.  What part of the supply chain will you not be involved in? Where will you not grow? What will you not spend? What kind of person will you not hire? Where will you not go?

There’s a difference between good and best. It’s Jim Collins’s classic hedgehog vs. fox metaphor in Good to Great.  As an organization, you must define what you do and what you don’t do.

Creating edges requires discipline and courage. When you go on a diet, you want edges and not curves. When you create a budget, you want edges and not spillover. When you create a concept, you need edges and not everything.

Edges are the key to not over-risking and under-planning. If you can’t tell me the edges of your concept, you’re most likely going to wake up in 18 months doing several things poorly, stripped of limited resources and dealing with a scattered, confused team.

Depth
We live in a noisy, shallow, superficial world. That’s not a slam on the 21st century; that’s just calling out one of the dangers of our age. In 2016, I can have 100,000 people who like me on Facebook and less than five real relationships.

The question is not whether I have external fans but whether I have internal depth.

A few years ago, I facilitated a retreat in Montana for a gathering of successful business titans.  We spent a few days pondering a new innovation connected to learning and education. It didn’t take long before I realized there were two groups of people in the room—those that I was less interested in the more I scratched the surface and those I was more impressed with. Some people had depth of personhood and others were just a fabricated veneer.

In similar fashion there are businesses and concepts that have depth and dimension while others are empty and shallow. Pursue depth. Build depth.

It doesn’t matter to me how good your concept is—tough days are ahead. The question is whether your idea will last on the day when there’s no money or momentum left. Does your idea have staying power? Do you have staying power?

Depth can come from any number of sources. But the bottom line is that the lack of it is evident to all.

Your idea can’t be a fly-by-night idea and you can’t be a fly-by-night person. You and your idea have to have depth.

Conclusion
There’s a lot that’s been written out there on indicators of success. Jim Collins’ book Built to Last talks about “habits of highly successful companies.” You can read his own summary of the concepts in that book here.

Michael Maubossin wrote a good article in Harvard Business Review on “The True Measures of Success.” 

These discussions often center around what you do (Collins’ theme) or what you measure (Maubossin’s aim). I’m talking instead about what you have.

  • Tailwinds: Do you have variables in your favor?
  • Edges: Do you have limits to your appetite?
  • Depth: Do you and your idea have clout?

It can be tempting to rush ahead and ignore these kinds of questions, just like it’s tempting for baseball players and fans to rush to the season and ignore spring training. But as Los Angeles Dodgers legend Sandy Koufax said, “People who write about spring training not being necessary have never thrown a baseball.”

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