The One Behavior That Guarantees Failure
I once sat on the board of a company that was trying to reconfigure the financial relationship that it had with its customers. The CEO was trying to transition from a work-for-hire model to one in which his company co-owned the products it produced and could resell them to other customers.
"They will never agree to those terms," the CEO told me. "We have tried many times to get it from other customers. No one ever accepts it."
"So are you unwilling to even put it on the table?" I asked. His silence gave me my answer. "OK, I understand," I said. "But this problem is not about them; it's about you."
My diagnosis was that the CEO had a stubborn case of Auto-Preemption Syndrome, a fancy name I concocted to describe a common behavior; when you convince yourself that it is impossible to succeed and then guarantee failure by not even trying.
"APS" causes brain freeze. Every one of us exhibits APS from time to time; we decide we're not going to exercise because we know we won't stick with it, or we never put together the business plan because we're sure no one will fund the idea.
Chasing Your Tail
Although delaying your new fitness plan might not derail your entire life, this kind of behavior is lethal in the entrepreneurial world. Business success is dependent upon succeeding, not avoiding. Is there a cure? As the saying goes, the first step is recognizing the problem.
APS behavior causes circuitous thinking, which results in "progress block," the entrepreneurs' version of writer's block. You become convinced a particular approach is futile, thus you refuse to even attempt it. Failure is guaranteed. To break this cycle, we borrow a page from a classic brainstorming technique.
Every formal brainstorming session begins with the group listing ideas. No one is allowed to opine on the worthiness of the ideas. The point is to create the free flow of thoughts and concepts. Every idea is admitted, no matter how far-fetched. Once the list is compiled, the merits of the ideas are discussed and edited. By taking no out of the initial list development, you are likely to surface some new approaches to break your progress block.
Suspension of Disbelief
The real key to swatting down APS is the ability to suspend disbelief. There is a famous legend about how President John F. Kennedy managed naysayers when proposing to make a manned mission to the moon a national goal. Prior to his epic "We choose to go to the moon..." speech, he had to vet the do-ability of such an audacious goal. Not surprisingly, all of his technology and science advisors proclaimed the feat virtually impossible. So JFK rounded up the best and brightest from various agencies for a brainstorming session. The lore is that he instructed them not to tell him why it couldn't be done but to humor him and make a list of everything needed to make it possible. This forced the experts to suspend disbelief and break down the goal into its actionable components. The result was a blueprint and a budget. The rest is history.
Make this tactic a part of your best practices, and you will inoculate your team from APS and clear the way for success.
Believing in Yes
I used these brainstorming techniques to help the CEO I referenced power through his deal negotiations. Our brainstorming session produced several compromise positions, but none were optimal. I then proposed something outrageous: Why not just be prepared to walk from the deal? My rationale was that at some point, we would have to stand our ground if we truly wanted to change our business model. Why not just do it now? It wouldn't be any easier next time. Plus, we could then negotiate from strength.
The CEO took my suggestion, and the outcome was good. It took some additional months of negotiating and, at one point, suspending conversations before the customer truly understood our resolve. By fighting off our APS, we gave it a shot and succeeded. Had we allowed ourselves to continue to believe it was impossible, we would not have tried, and failure would have been certain.
BARRY SCHULER | Columnist
Barry Schuler is managing director for DFJ Growth and the former chairman and CEO of America Online. He is credited with being one of the pioneers of the modern Internet.