by David K. Hurst  |   11:00 AM October 2, 2013

Every organization that aspires to greatness has something to learn from relevant success stories of the past. But how should managers go about unlocking the lessons of those efforts? Many of their consultants advocate an engineering approach:

  1. Find multiple examples of organizations that have coped with equivalent challenges successfully.
  2. Reverse-engineer the reasons for their success, looking for features that they share in common.
  3. Present these shared “success factors” as precepts, rules, and principles that should be implemented by all those who wish to achieve similar levels of success.

This approach sounds great, and the growth of the consultancies pushing it cannot be gainsaid. But it simply doesn’t work. The engineering approach can be described but not practiced.

Start by considering an extreme and high-visibility case. At the outset of the Iraq War, President George W. Bush expressed the hope that Iraq would become a federal democracy and a beacon to all the totalitarian states in the Middle East. The Americans then set about creating facsimiles of various institutions – the critical success factors of its own democracy. But if these were necessary conditions then clearly they were not sufficient. Iraq is far from a viable democratic system.

Similarly, in the management world, we constantly see the engineering approach being urged and falling short. As just one example, academics W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne examined the emergence of outrageously successful companies like Cirque du Soleil, and claim to have discovered the keys. While never claiming that their case organizations, with their idiosyncratic histories and unique contexts, had consciously implemented their “blue ocean” principles, Kim and Maubourgne argued that it was “as if” they had. How else could they have moved their businesses into positions that so thoroughly defied competition?

Unfortunately this approach has done no more for corporate strategic success than it has for nation states. Managers are presented with inspiring stories from the past that they quickly discover cannot be replicated, and with abstract principles that sound incontrovertible yet cannot be implemented. They might, at best, produce facsimiles of certain features of great organizations, or get learn to say all the right words about what it will take to succeed. But while they can talk the talk, their organizations can’t walk the walk.

The fundamental problem with the engineering approach is that simple mechanics do not drive outcomes in complex systems. Where causes and effects are constantly subject to dynamic adaptation, as they are in ecosystems, societies, and organizations, conditions cannot be reproduced.

Moreover, we have yet to see an organization succeed by deliberately hewing to some equation for sure success. An example from baseball (or cricket) helps us understand why. Professional fielders in these sports catch most fly balls successfully. From the perspective of a physicist it is “as if” they can calculate the velocity of the ball off the bat, predict its trajectory and run to the spot where it will land. We know that they don’t actually do this; instead they maintain a constant angle of gaze between their eyes and the ball. If the ball rises in their field of view they run away from it; if it’s dropping they run toward it. A constant process of adjustment allows them to be at the right place by the time the ball becomes catchable. They gain this skill through practice and feedback, built upon a platform of native capability powered by high motivation. They improve their performance through deliberate practice and expert coaching. Teaching them physics and how to calculate the trajectories of ballistic objects is not only unnecessary. It can only distract them from the efforts that will truly help them catch more baseballs.

It’s the same with successful companies (and nations); while they all seem to arrive at the right place strategically, they don’t get there by “implementing” any abstract engineering principles. They get there by high levels of motivation (and at the corporate level no one gets up early to maximize shareholder value), a guided process of trial of error, practice and feedback. Trying to teach them abstract principles derived from other successful companies or nations is not helpful in this effort.

What is needed is an ecological approach to learning from the past, which is rather different from the engineering one:

  1. Study successful organizations to appreciate the rich contexts and processes involved – their histories – but not to distill generic precepts and principles from them.
  2. Focus intensively on the organization at hand to understand the opportunities and challenges – the potential – inherent in the current situation.
  3. Resolve to control the controllable, preempt the undesirable, and exploit the inevitable to produce outcomes that none could have anticipated.

Unfortunately, there are no short cuts to excellence. We should always try to learn what drove the success of other organizations, but never believe our own success can be as simple as borrowing the keys. We must pay attention to the innovation bubbling up in our own organizations, and work to spread it further – not try to transplant what has grown up elsewhere, in very different contexts. Our focus should be on fostering communities of trust and practice, disciplined yet free, from which brilliant strategies can emerge organically through doing and learning. In short, we need to recognize the inherent complexity of organizations and work to cultivate excellence within them, not try to engineer it from without.


This post is part of a series of perspectives leading up to the fifth annual Global Drucker Forum in November 2013 in Vienna, Austria. For more on the theme of the event, Managing Complexity, and information on how to attend, see the Forum’s website.

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