Success is boring

A distressingly large number of business books I have read suffer from a strange form of survivorship bias that I call “success rot.”

It goes a little bit like this:

  • Company X is very successful.
  • Company X uses Process/Technique/Tool Y.
  • Therefore, Process/Technique/Tool Y is what made Company X successful.

I’m never quite sure how one is supposed to learn anything from these books. For one thing, success is very context-dependent, and it involves a lot of luck and being in the right place at the right time. A particular tool or technique may only work because if fits the specific circumstances in which a company exists, and may well be useless to anyone else.

In fact, success is also time-dependent. What works at a 10-people company is likely to be very different from what works when the same company employs 1,000. If all you see is the end result, it’s really hard to tell what lessons you should learn for your needs. In other words, unlike you’re the one experiencing it, success is boring.

What great looks like

I don’t like to speak ill of the work of others, so let me give you a couple examples of what I think of as well-written business books instead.

The first is Andrew Grove’s High Output Management, a classic that is as relevant today as it was in the Eighties when it first came out. It is obviously based on the success of Intel, which Grove managed for many years, but it hardly ever talks about the chipmaking industry. (In fact, to drive this point home, the very first chapter talks about cooking breakfast.)

Grove’s book is great because it distills the practical lessons that he learned while turning Intel into an industry giant into the principles that underlie its success. It teaches you to think about business as machines with inputs and outputs, about business abstractions, reporting structures, and so on. Regardless of the size at which you operate, it’s easy to learn from this kind of book, because the lessons it teaches are not context-dependent.

A second example is the much more recent Working Backwards by Colin Bryar and Bill Carr. Unlike Grove, the authors of this book write specifically about their experience working at Amazon as it went through its hypergrowth phase and scaled to tens of thousands of software engineers.

What makes this book useful is the fact that the authors don’t just describe what Amazon does; they trace the entire history of their efforts around areas like hiring, cross-team communication, and planning, showing where they made mistakes and how the various techniques that they adopted had to change over time as the complexity of the company’s operations increased.

Imitation is the sincerest form of ignorance

Ultimately, what I really don’t like about books that suffer from success rot is the fact that the only way to learn from them is by imitation: Company does thing; Company is successful; therefore I must do thing in order to also be successful.

The idea that something will work because it has worked before probably explains why there is so much imitation in the world of business. Accomplishing anything is hard, and it inevitably involves a certain amount of luck—a random factor that deprives those in charge of control. Thus, it’s easier to parrot what others have done, because, I suspect, it somehow discharges the responsibility of failure on them (“It worked at that very successful company… how could I have possibly predicted that it wouldn’t work for us?).

When someone peels away the veneer of success and shows you how the sausage is made, however, you can learn their guiding principles, and those can, in turn, inform your own solutions.

The fact that Amazon has two-pizza teams doesn’t mean that your team also has to have them. The fact that two-pizza teams exist to help keep communication tight and development effective, on the other hand, teaches you something that you can very well apply to your own brand of organizational structure, even if you end up with a completely different approach.