How do we generally figure out how to achieve a goal?  Most of the time we do what worked last time.  If what we did last time didn’t work, we keep trying different approaches until we find one that works, and then we keep repeating what worked.

I’d like to suggest that in today’s ever-changing world, doing what worked last time is often a very bad idea. 

Time To AdaptWhat enables people to succeed at any given time is not the course of action they took, but the thinking that led to that course of action.  If the real source of success was the actual strategy, then that strategy ought to work in any circumstances, all the time.  But it often doesn’t and the faster the environment changes, the faster the old strategy becomes outmoded.

Teens are not the same as adolescents

For example, parents are always trying to figure out how to deal effectively with their children. If they keep trying different things, they often come upon a strategy that works.  And then before they know it, the strategy stops working.  Why?  Because what works with a toddler is not the best way to deal with an adolescent and what works with an adolescent is not the best way to deal with a teenager.

The same principle holds true in business.  More than one company has failed because it kept doing what used to work, for example, Kodak, which kept selling film after digital cameras had taken over the market.  Another example is Microsoft, which kept focusing on selling software to be used on individual computers when the Internet, mobile devices, and the cloud were clearly the wave of the future.  An alternative approach would have been creating new business models that were appropriate for the new environments.

As circumstances and the environment changes, new strategies are required.  What worked in an old environment or with earlier circumstances probably won’t work when they are very different.

How to win the Super Bowl

An excellent example that demonstrates this point is the way a football coach comes up with a strategy that enables his team to win the Super Bowl.  A good coach looks at all the relevant aspects of his team’s environment: the players, the assistant coaches, the competition in his division, the competition outside his division, and so on.  After this analysis he makes whatever changes he can to improve his environment, such as trading for new players.

Finally he needs something that would determine his playbook and virtually everything else he did for the remainder of the season.  What is that?  No, not an all-pro quarterback, although that certainly would help.  What he needs is a game plan, in other words, a strategy that he thinks will get his team to the Super Bowl.

Assume he chooses a ball control ground game.  (You don’t have to understand football or what a ball control ground game is to follow this story.)  Now assume further that he wins the Super Bowl.  What should he do next year?  Most people, including a lot of coaches, would answer: a ball control ground game.  Why?  The answer you’d get would be: because it works.  (If you follow professional football you would have read since the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl that other NFL teams are looking to copy the type of defense it fielded that pundits say enabled the team to win the Super Bowl.)

When the environment changes

You are now about to discover how it’s possible to win the Super Bowl one year and not even make the playoffs the following year.  If the coach’s strategy is really the reason the team won the championship, it should work the following year.  But what if several of the best assistant coaches, who made the ball control ground game so effective, leave to go with other teams.  What if a few of the players crucial to the ball control ground game become free agents and leave and a few others retire or are injured?  What if you are able to acquire a quarterback known for his ability to throw long and an all-pro wide receiver?  What if the competition knows how you won this year and is designing game plans specifically designed to stop your strategy?  In other words, what if there is a total change in the environment that originally led the coach to conclude that a ball control ground game was the best strategy?

Here’s the point: what makes a coach successful over time is not the specific strategy he chooses in any given year. It is the questions he asks of his environment and his ability to provide good answers that lead to his strategy.  If he does that the year after winning the Super Bowl, he will be able to choose the most appropriate strategy for that year.  It may be the same strategy or it may be completely different.  But it will be chosen in light of the anticipated environment; it will not be repeated merely because it worked before.

How do I apply this to daily life?

When you are trying to figure out what to do to get what you want in any situation—be it in your job, your relationships, your social life, etc.—don’t look to the past for a solution.  Obviously there is nothing wrong with learning from prior experience, but don’t merely assume that what used to work is the best strategy for today.  It often won’t be.  It also is a mistake to assume that what didn’t work in the past can’t work in the future.  Look at all the relevant aspects of the current situation and figure out what makes the most sense today.

Thanks for reading my blog.  Please post your questions or comments about what is required to create winning strategies and why merely copying what worked in the past is usually doomed to failure.  Disagreement is as welcome as agreement. Your comments add value for thousands of readers.  I love to read them all and I will respond to as many as I can.

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Copyright © 2014 Morty Lefkoe