How Success Hinders Learning—and How to Address It

by Feb 27, 2024Culture, Entrepreneur, Leadership

It’s stating the obvious to say that every company aims for success. After all, that’s typically why we take the lead or start a business in the first place, isn’t it?

But there’s a hidden dark side to success. It can ultimately lead to your downfall.

Wait, you might be saying to yourself, I can fail by being successful? Yes, that’s correct. And the reason why is that success suppresses learning.

Slowing Innovation

As we get a business off the ground and up and running, we’re constantly experimenting in pursuit of something that works–whether that’s a product, service, or process valued by a customer.

In a survival mode like this, we’re willing to try everything to pursue success. That means we’re willing to test every assumption we have made and to learn anything we can about a possible new angle of attack we can exploit in the marketplace. The business, and our approach to running it, is agile, nimble, and adaptable.

But what happens when we begin to have some success? People start getting comfortable. We begin to double down on the things that work well to achieve more success. We also stop experimenting with new angles or even new technology. New ideas become more of a threat than an asset. We shift from attack mode to more of a conservative and defensive mindset.

We switch from playing to win to playing not to lose.

When this switch has been flipped like this, you create the conditions for a more aggressive competitor to come and eat your lunch.

Think about what happened in the data services industry recently. Companies became successful by selling their customers a set of services they valued. And then, seemingly overnight, new technology driven by large language models like ChatGPT arrived and disrupted the entire industry.

Those companies who have ignored the new technology until now might find it’s already too late, and their customers now consider them obsolete. They let success blind them to change, and now they’re paying a steep price.

Keeping The Innovative Spirit Alive

As a leader, you can’t let success lead to complacency. But you also need to make money and generate cash inside the business. That’s why remaining experimental and innovative while maintaining your success is a difficult equation. You need to do both.

You must keep your eye on the horizon, scanning for the next product, service, or process that might disrupt your business–and then embrace it in a way that fuels your company’s continued success.

Consider the example of Grammarly, which I use to help correct my spelling and punctuation when I write blogs like this one. It’s a great product sold via a renewable subscription model, which ranks high as a business model choice.

Grammarly could have easily rested on its laurels and continued to provide the same service it always has. Only that’s not what they did. More recently, they have released a newer version of their service that embraces AI and large language models to help writers with more advanced features, such as crafting their unique voice and style. It’s a game-changer and will help Grammarly stay at the front of the pack in terms of offering the service that it does.

But they didn’t have to make this aggressive move. Remember, they were successful in doing what they did. But as a company, they understood that standing still is the same as waving a white flag to their competitors–letting everyone know there is room to innovate around them.

 So, when it comes to your business, don’t let your success breed complacency–especially when it comes to suppressing your thirst to keep learning and pushing forward into the future.