When Competitiveness Is a Problem

One association's big bet---and subsequent failure---offers a few lessons about how to consider ambitious ideas.

A competitive attitude, leaders are told, is essential to doing business. But how do you know when that competitive attitude has gone awry?

Last week at his blog Wired 4 Leadership, Kerry Stackpole, FASAE, CAE, president and CEO of Neoterica Partners, shared a kind of belated Halloween nightmare tale around that question. Revisiting a story he shared with Associations Now in 2008, he describes a nonprofit that wanted to boost its fortunes by pouring half its reserves into tradeshow that would compete with the biggest competitor in its industry. Protests get shouted down—after all, as people like to say in the association world, “we’ve always done it that way” is dead-end thinking.

Stackpole pinpoints the error that attaches to this kind of go-big-or-go-home thinking. “Competitive behavior often compels people only to acknowledge information that confirms their position while ignoring that which undermines it,” he writes. “Increasing one’s commitment to a previous course of action demonstrates predictability, which is often viewed as a favorable attribute by others. In truth it’s closer to being a ‘rookie mistake.’”

“Competitive behavior often compels people only to acknowledge information that confirms their position.”

Perhaps needless to say, the story didn’t end well for the ambitious organization with a confirmation bias problem, which pursued its tradeshow goal without much evidence it could actually fulfill it: After fewer than 50 new registrations came in, the association offloaded its CEO, ad agency, and staff.

Lesson learned: Never be ambitious.

OK, not quite. But the story suggests that we need a different way of thinking about competitiveness. As it happens, I’ve been reading Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography of Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs. The holy glow that surrounds Jobs’ legacy at Apple, especially since his death the same year the book came out, belies the fact that during the first stage of his career he was a top candidate for the worst CEO in America. He had plenty of ambition, to be sure, and competitiveness in spades. Through charisma alone he was able to seduce a cult of staffers and supporters to get behind his think-big vision for the Macintosh computer. Yet he was also a bully who pitted employees against each other, poached others’ ideas and claimed them as his own, released a shoddy and overpriced product that didn’t sell well under his watch, and fought with the board and CEO. Barely in his 30s, he found himself out of a job of the company he founded. By the time he’d returned to right the ship at Apple in the late 90s, he’d matured enough to not be so scorched-earth about applying his vision to the company. He helped the company bury the hatchet with Microsoft, and thought more strategically about what products consumers wanted.

You may not be Steve Jobs, but easing up on the throttle during the decisionmaking process is within everybody’s capabilities. As Stackpole points out in his post, the deliberation that comes with big decisions can be a drag: Putting together a formal business plan for ambitious projects are time-consuming and force deliberation, he writes, but “the process also serves to protect the decsionmakers and the organization from catastrophic risk and failure.” He also helpfully points out a useful way to identify when a big idea is beginning to jump the rails—if you’re hearing a lot of “never” and “always” in the discussion (“We’ve never done something so important!” “We’re always holding back!”), rhetoric may be overwhelming good sense.

This is why a lot of associations don’t like talking about their failures, I suspect—the mistakes may reflect less a strategic or tactic error than a moment when, embarrassingly, leaders lost their heads and got caught up in a vision they couldn’t fulfill. If you recover from that mistake, though, you have a good lesson to share—about how you won’t let charisma and big ideas trump a sensible plan. Better to be competitive at less than full-tilt, after all, than out of commission entirely.

How do you know when your decisionmakers’ reach is exceeding their grasp, and what do you do to manage the ambitiousness of your big projects? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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