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Beware of Insightful Advice

You are sitting in a seminar called “How to Win the Race.” You recently took up running, and set yourself a goal of running a 5K. You found a training program, and followed it diligently for the prescribed twelve weeks. You took off from the starting line with excitement, pushed yourself through the mile two slump when your body started telling your brain to stop and grab a doughnut instead, and then you felt the endorphin-laden elation when you crossed the finish line. Now you are hooked, and not only want to run more races, but you want to run them for time, and maybe even win a division medal someday. You want to learn how to run faster.

The local running store advertised this free seminar, to be given by a unique talent. He’s earned over thirty medals, in races of 5K, 10K, 15K, half marathon and marathon distances. Not only is he an experienced runner, but he’s a scientist, too. His seminar is going to reveal the findings of his research on the best runners the world has ever known.

“Ladies and gentleman,” he begins, “I have been studying the greatest runners of the last century, from Jesse Owens to Usain Bolt. I have studied in great detail the footage of the gold medalists in all of the Olympics and world championships for which recordings are available. I have discovered that all of the gold medalists, both men and women, in every single race I’ve studied, did three things the same, without fail. Would you like to know what they are?”

You join an enthusiastic group of runners in responding “yes!” You feel yourself lean a bit forward, ears ready to take in the wisdom that will put Mercury’s wings on your feet.

“Each one of them,” he continues, “wore shoes, alternated feet with each step, and increased their breathing rates during the race.”

“What?!?” you think. “Seriously?!? What kind of ‘research’ is that?” You are stunned that anyone stays around to listen any further, as you get up and walk out.

Okay, I admit, this scenario is a bit silly, but I tell the story to make a point: we can all be led astray by focusing on “winners.” There’s something about reading a biography of Warren Buffet or seeing a biopic of Jack Welch on some cable channel, and thinking “if I start doing what they do, I can be as successful as they are.”

That message will often come from legitimate authorities, too. One of my favorite examples is the annual “How They Did It” issue of Inc. magzine. Now I have nothing against that magazine. In fact, I’m a big fan. But that one issue drives me crazy. Reading story after story, it’s basically the same message – “I worked long hours with great people,” “I persevered through personal and professional crises,” “I never gave up,” “I had a wonderful, supportive family,” “I learned from my early failures until I found the right recipe,” and the like. The stories are engaging and motivating, but they do not tell you the real reasons that these people succeeded where others did not. For every one of those stories, there are a hundred or a thousand people who did not succeed even though they did essentially the same things under similar circumstances.

Studying what the winners do may give you insight on what is necessary to play the game – “the ante” in poker terms. But to learn to really succeed, you need to identify the differentiators that got them there instead of others. You need to identify the things that separate the best from the rest. The things that the best do that the rest do not. You need to study both the winners and the not-so-much.

So put on your skeptical filters when you see or hear proclamations about what successful people do. Are those things also things that unsuccessful people do? Are those things really differentiators, or just the entry fee to the race? Are those things what really led to success, or are they byproducts of success? Are those things drivers of success, or just coincidence?

Apply this thinking to your innovation efforts, too. Are your products and services differentiated, or are you doing what everyone else can do? What keeps others form doing it? Are others doing things differently that is separating them from the pack?

These questions are a good place to start. Beware, though, that they are not sufficient in themselves. More to come on heeding advice in future posts…

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