Rethinking success: what really makes a business successful?
Updated: Jul 20
Over the last few years, I’ve read a lot of advice about how to start up and/or run a successful business. After a while, I started to notice certain themes kept coming up; not so much in the advice, but in the language in which it is couched. A business owner, when I asked how she competed with bigger, more established, and better funded competitors, simply replied “guerrilla warfare”. I found myself reading former General Electric CEO Jack Welch’s book, entitled Winning. More recently, I watched this video, in which Simon Sinek explains why businesses should play an infinite game, rather than a finite one. I find the frequency with which war and games are brought up quite curious.
There is a lot of wisdom in the advice. It comes, in general, from people with many more years of experience, running far bigger and more complex operations than I have. I have no doubt that they understand business and business management better than I do. I take issue, though, with a lot of their presuppositions about what constitutes success.
Business is not war. The purpose of war is to defeat your enemies. Their loss is your gain – and, indeed, your objective. This isn’t – or at least shouldn’t be – the case with businesses. I am also wary of thinking of business of a game. The purpose of a game is defined by the game itself – it has its own internal objectives and rules which players are supposed to be playing to. And, crucially, games are amoral. They may have consequences outside the game itself (including, for example, exchange of money through prizes and betting) – but these don’t really factor into the tactics employed in the game. Teams still try to win, or achieve whatever the objective of the game is. And that is OK, because that is the point of the game. Business by its nature affects peoples’ lives. And those people often have no say in how. It matters, in a much more real sense. Businesses should not be playing to arbitrarily defined objectives.
The purpose of business – at the very least the purpose of this business – isn’t to defeat its competitors, to ‘win’ in any clearly defined sense, or to survive and “perpetuate the game” (incidentally, the use of survival as a metric for success is an interesting topic in itself, which I’ll expand in a future post). It is to solve problems, and make the world a better place.
As a basis for measuring success, this is a little fluffy and difficult to measure. This should not dissuade us from using it (another point I’ll expand on in a future post). Because it’s also all that really matters. A business that doesn’t not do this ought not to exist. A business that does, ought to.
In a lot of cases, this perspective doesn’t really change what businesses ought to do. Any organisation that does good can do more good by surviving longer, raising more capital, and even making more profit.
In some cases, though, it might allow us to see companies in a different light. For example, when I was younger, I spent a fair amount of time in CD shops. I bought some CDs, I listened to them, they made me happy. That I no longer use CDs and that the shops no longer exist doesn’t negate that. These aren’t failed business, as some would argue – they are successful businesses that ran their course. On the other hand, one could argue that tobacco companies, no matter how vast and profitable, are failed companies.
More importantly, when we talk about businesses as wars or games, we disconnect ourselves from the reality of the effect they have. When this happens, well-meaning, competent people are liable to do harm.
So, here is a blog, ostensibly about money and a business, but couched, I hope, in the language of ethics. I hope you find it refreshing. I hope you enjoy it. And regardless, please feel free to get in touch with any thoughts or comments you might have.