A pride of lions watched two herds of cows for four years. From one herd they killed fifteen cows, from the other they killed none.

Both herds were undefended and lived in the same area of Botswana in Africa. Both herds had been attacked by lions in the past. There was only one difference between them. The cows of one herd had eyes painted on their behinds and the other did not.

It turns out that painting eyes on the back of a prey animal can make a predator feel it has lost the element of surprise. As a result, it will avoid attacking, waiting for the moment when the animal is not looking. If an animal appears to have eyes on the front and back, that moment never comes.

The lions missed out on some easy meals because they were fooled by an illusion. Similarly, in business, we often miss out on opportunities for growth due to a very common kind of illusion which we call path beliefs.

What are path beliefs?

Path beliefs are beliefs that tell you what path to follow to get a result. They tell you “this is the right way” and “that is the wrong way.” They are often created as a result of a track record of success and sometimes by experiences of failure.

Path beliefs explain why people in organizations stick with strategies even when they no longer work

Leaders in many companies have formed a belief that says, “This is the best way to do things” which also implies that other approaches should be avoided. They’ll often stick to a formerly winning strategy all the way to bankruptcy.

For example, two decades ago Blockbuster’s leaders were advised to explore partnerships with streaming providers.  Blockbuster’s CEO John Antioco even had the opportunity to buy Netflix for $50 million during a meeting with Netflix’s leadership in 2000 before it became big.  Why didn’t he?

At the time he said, “The dot-com hysteria is completely overblown.” Antioco believed that online ventures would never match the power of brick-and-mortar businesses so there was no need to buy an online company or create an online aspect to Blockbuster’s business model.

Antioco’s belief told him which path to follow and which path to ignore and this belief eventually led to Blockbuster’s demise on September 23, 2010, just ten years after the meeting with Netflix.

But can people running organizations really change their path beliefs?

My husband Morty worked with several organizations in which path beliefs got in the way. One of them was New England Telephone which was eventually purchased by Verizon.

The executives at New England Telephone had trouble getting its 800 managers to become “customer advocates” for its largest customers. The managers complained that they already had too much to do, so there was no time for this customer service assignment. They considered it an “extra responsibility” that would get in the way of their real job.

So Morty met with 20 managers at a time and discovered they believed “This customer service assignment is not part of my job.” Then they decided it made sense to expand their job description to include taking care of these high-priority customers. At that point the “extra responsibility” was no longer “extra,” it was part of their daily job description.

This led to them putting their full focus and energy into their new set of responsibilities without grumbling or resistance. As a result, New England Telephone’s new plan was a huge success. Surveys of the customers that had a management “customer advocate” showed that their customer satisfaction increased from the low 70s to the high 90s out of 100. So yes, people running organizations can change their path beliefs.

Summary

Path beliefs tell an organization what path to follow and what paths to avoid

These beliefs can be damaging as they can cause an organization to miss out on potentially lucrative opportunities in the best of cases and in the worst cases lead to a companies demise

Path beliefs can be changed by identifying the path belief and then asking questions that lead people to discover more possibilities


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