So much of life, business and management is the art of survival. However, we rarely discuss the importance of hanging in against the odds and outliving the competition. We suffer from a survivorship bias. We are disproportionately focused on the outcomes and methods of those that survive as if they delivered success but rarely consider what actually enabled them to survive long enough to succeed. Survival becomes invisible.

Surviving to the Second Half

Riding off into the sunset

I worked with a leader who constantly reminded his team that “the white hats only win in the second half of the movie”. While that is a neat summation of dramatic narrative, it is also contains a few reminders about life:

  • success is not easy: there will be ups and downs and shocks along the way. There will be moments when it feels like it is over or when the opposition to your success is too much.
  • survival counts: you have to survive to the ‘end’ if you want to be on the winning team. Persistence and resilence matter but so do other survival techniques like husbanding your resources, picking battles and even playing for time. If luck comes occasionally, the more you hang around the luckier you will be.
  • survival isn’t always doing: Survival is mostly being, still being. It can be a matter of who you are, who you know, where you are standing, what you have and so on. Health, networks, wealth and wellbeing can be as important as your strategy for survival. This is what success and privilege have strong correlations – privilege increases the resources to survive.
  • each story is just one part of phase of play: beginnings and ends of movies are chosen for narrative reasons; the most interesting bits of action lie in between. However, there is always a lot that goes on before, after and off screen. Much of that uninteresting stuff is the work of survival and only makes it into the movie version in passing or a quick montage – preparing, accumulating capabilities, learning and practising skills, winning support and waiting. It is also important to remember to leave enough to survive beyond the ‘end’.

Looking Beyond the Frame

I had an insight into the value of survival in the 1990s dot com crash. I was working for an Australian ecommerce player in the lead up to Christmas, the biggest sales period of the year. Our business had capital to survive to the new year and spent it carefully. We watched our two highest profile competitors run out of money in the month up to Christmas spending money aggressively to win. Because of their spending, they needed more capital and investors had become nervous because of a number of high profile global collapses. All of sudden we were the largest remaining player. We had the market almost to ourselves, we had time to adapt and it propelled that business to survive for years afterwards. Our willingness to ‘lose’ the battle for Christmas online was our winning proposition.

When we start to look at the role of survival in success we see other examples where our studies of successful individuals and organisations suffer from a survivorship bias that we rarely consider:

  • The Talent that Leaves: Most successful people benefit from better talent leaving the organisation for better opportunities or because they couldn’t stand the culture. No CEO profile mentions their luck in this regard.
  • Competitor Stumbles: Almost all success stories have examples of competitors who were better placed at some point but stumbled opening an avenue for the survivor. In many cases, that is all the difference between success and failure. Execution matters but it can also be that relative execution is what matters.
  • Survivable Setbacks: Setbacks are not evenly distributed. Some get small setbacks early and big ones later when they are better able to handle the challenges or manage the impact on reputation. Big setbacks early can drive people and competitors out of a game before they get a chance.
  • Adaptation takes time: Successful businesses and people have had the time to recover from setbacks. Others don’t always get the time and space.
  • Risk Avoidance: Many survivors avoid risks but benefit from the risks taken by others to propel them or their organisation forward. You can look like a star just by having your peers crash around you and leveraging their work to propel the organisation to success.
  • Delegating Danger: Leaders who view their teams as expendable and fungible resources will have a tendency to delegate danger to the team or another business to protect themselves. Those who try to save others are rarely as well rewarded for their efforts as they should be and often blamed for their involvement in a problem that they did not create.
  • Study Failure: We can learn from failure, but we rarely deeply consider the drivers of success let alone failure. Our temptation is to quickly adopt a heroic narrative. Once the white hats go on, the outcome was inevitable.

We better understand strategy, success and failure if we seek to understand the role of survival in life and in business. Working out how to hang in there and prepare to survive is an important skills. We can also help to address inequities that are lost in the narrative when we only study survivors.

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