Avoiding the Success Bias
Emotional events can be distracting, but they don't have to be.
I’m not one to share around optical illusions, but this one is a doozy. The blue stripes in the image below are parallel to one another. I have a really hard time seeing them as parallel.
At first, I didn’t believe it. Eventually I gave up and accepted my inability to see past the puzzle. I sort of knew why I couldn’t see them as parallel — all those squiggly shapes were tricking my brain into thinking something else was happening that actually wasn’t happening. I could no longer see the big picture. Let’s take apart this infuriating illusion. Here’s a crude re-creation, with and without the decoys:
It turns out the culprits are the diamond-shaped squiggles that cover key intersection points in the diagram. My brain is looking for clean right angles, yet these clever little boxes block me from confirming that the blue lines are in fact parallel to one another. Those diamonds didn’t change reality. The blue lines are parallel now and forever.
This got me thinking about tactics and strategy and success and failure. What the diamonds did was create doubt and distraction just like the news can do — good or bad — when you’re on the journey toward a goal. The diamonds are anything that can stir up an emotional reaction: success that gives you feelings of joy and celebration; failure that gives you feelings of anxiety and frustration.
The impact of good and bad news
When we embark on any sort of journey toward a goal, we are effectively executing on a strategy. We may not call it a “strategy.” We may not sign off on it after lots of debate, or codename the effort. But, if we’ve decided to embark on an endeavor to achieve something (for example: Increase revenue by 10% by end of year!), we’ve put ourselves on a timeline toward a goal. We’ve also decided to do certain things to help achieve that goal (same example: Spend more on marketing). It is how we roll up our decisions into a grander direction that determines our strategy.
We may not call it a North Star, but let’s face it, we’re collectively going in the same direction with the goal of hopefully getting to the same place.
And so the journey begins. The lines are parallel and look parallel. And then, little diamond-shaped squiggles happen. That’s life.
Ideally, as you’re on this journey, good things happen to you. For example, you land a big client on your path to Mount TenPercentRevenue. Bad things can happen too. You may throw a big promotional event that is poorly attended. That’s disappointing and scary — but your journey is long — and both good and bad events, just like that wily little shape, can quickly disorient you.
I would even argue that a good event that occurs in month three of a 12-month journey is even more distracting than a bad event. People love to talk about how to navigate through adversity. I haven’t seen too many advice books or articles on how not to let success distract you from a long-term vision.
Success is wonderful. Bad outcomes are terrible. Both good and bad outcomes create biases and can quickly skew our perspective. Then, we no longer see parallel lines.
Coming to terms with the optical illusion
Grand strategies are inherently terminal. They are not detailed instruction manuals telling you exactly what to do when certain things happen: If this, then that. They are anti-input. They are a navigation path. Of course things happen along the way (e.g., the price of advertising goes up), and good leaders adjust as they go, but it’s the emotional events — good and bad news — that can really steer you off the path.
Leadership is still a very human endeavor. It feels awfully frustrating when things don’t go as planned. It’s a great feeling to celebrate the little wins with the team. We’re constantly measuring how we’re doing these days with all sorts of metrics and stats.
Great leadership defends a strategy and insulates the teams and organization from that bias. I’ve come to terms with the optical illusion. I still don’t see parallel lines, but I know they’re there. I’m not sure that I’ll ever really “see” them as they are. But that’s okay. I trust my understanding of what’s going on. And with that understanding, I’m able to box in those biases and keep going.
Rich Ziade (he/him) is Co-Founder of Postlight. Drop him a note at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @richziade.
Story published on Mar 30, 2022.