One of the most important business lessons I try to teach is also one of the most confusing: Success can breed failure. If a company achieves success, how can that success lead to failure?

The answer is pretty simple -- success shapes the founder's mind in a powerful, yet self-destructive way. Success triggers confirmation bias -- the tendency to ignore information that contradicts what you believe to be true -- because it locks in the founder's initial success strategy.

When faced with fundamental changes in the market, confirmation bias causes founders to ignore evidence of the change. A case in point is Blockbuster Video -- a chain of retail stores that rented VCRs and DVDs. When Netflix developed its DVD-by-mail business, Blockbuster ignored its success.

In fact, Netflix -- which in 2000 was short on cash -- offered to sell itself for $50 million to Blockbuster, but the company brushed the offer aside. Blockbuster did not see the existential threat Netflix represented to the business of renting movies in retail stores. Ultimately, Netflix's online streaming business overtook DVD-by-mail and Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy in 2010.

Just because you are successful, it does not mean you are doomed to become a victim of your confirmation bias. As I learned in researching my book, Disciplined Growth Strategies, the key to sustaining your company's growth is to maintain intellectual humility. 

This means you must look at your company from the perspective of those outside your firm who are always asking themselves, should I keep doing business with your company or switch to a rival who provides me with more value?

One company that did this well was Amazon, which created the cloud services industry by seeing that companies would save money and serve customers more effectively by outsourcing much of their computing to Amazon Web Services.

Companies with that mindset fight their own confirmation bias by taking these five steps.

1. Identify future headwinds and tailwinds.

Leaders should form a team of experts -- including sales people, marketers, and product developers -- charged with recommending the best growth markets on which to bet the company's future.

The team should conduct research into the most powerful changes -- using the Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Environmental, and Legal (PESTEL) framework -- that are outside the company's control.

After gathering data on each trend, the team should identify which trends are headwinds (forces that will impede growth) and which are tailwinds (forces that will spur rapid growth).

2. Interview outside experts about the headwinds and tailwinds.

The team should analyze the headwinds and tailwinds and pinpoint the ones that are most likely to represent the biggest threats and opportunities for the company.

Then the team should identify and interview outside experts -- such as professors, financial analysts, industry experts, startup founders, and influential customers -- on these outside forces. The team should ask the experts questions such as:

  • Will this force strengthen or weaken in the next five years? Why?
  • What are the biggest risks to your forecast?
  • Which industries will benefit from this force and which will suffer?
  • What capabilities are needed to win in the industries most likely to benefit?

3. Brainstorm options for new sources of growth.

Next, your team should brainstorm options for new sources of growth -- using these ground rules:

  • Frame options as big problems that need to be solved -- such as relocating people who are displaced by climate change
  • Encourage team members to propose blue sky ideas
  • Build on ideas, rather than judging or eliminating them 

4. Screen the options for fit with your company's values and mission.

Brainstorming should result in 10 to 20 possible big problems on which to base new growth opportunities for your company.

Eliminate the ideas that don't fit your values and mission, because even if it is a large opportunity, your people will not be engaged with an idea that conflicts with your company's enduring purpose. Pick the big problems that are most consistent with your company's values and set aside the other ones.

5. Pick the option with the biggest potential market and best fit with your strengths.

How should you decide which of the options to invest in? The team should rank the remaining options by investigating the following questions:

  • How large is the potential market available to companies that solve the problem?
  • How strong are the tailwinds propelling demand for that solution?
  • What capabilities are needed to win a significant share of that opportunity?
  • Does our company excel in these capabilities?

In this way, you can keep success from limiting your company's future growth by investing in the options with the largest potential markets in which your strengths will help you gain significant market share.