Why there are more than six steps to success

Book publishers often favour simple recipes to success, but real success involves something far more complex.

by Alastair Dryburgh
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

It's strange. There's money to be made publishing books that offer six steps to 'living the life you deserve' or eight steps to 'effective change management', but you couldn't sell a book offering 'seven moves to win any chess game'. Punters would laugh. They know there are no guaranteed moves - it depends on where the pieces are on the board, and who your opponent is.

If we know simple recipes won't work for chess, why are we so attracted to them in much more complex areas, such as organisational change or our whole lives? It is precisely because these areas are so complex that we succumb to the lure of the over-simplified answer. We believe that we can, or at least could if we wished, master the game of chess, but we don't have that confidence when it comes to life. So we resort to that age-old consolation: magical thinking. Just follow the steps and want it enough - somehow, by a process we do not understand, things will work out.

In the short term, this can be an attractive alternative to engaging with the messiness and sheer bloody-mindedness of reality. But in the long term, only thinking based on that reality, however uncomfortable, will actually produce results.

As a motivational message this has little to be said in its favour, except that it is true. The best we can do is to try to extract some principles from the chaos around us. Principles don't tell you exactly what to do, but they do point you in the right direction. There's no way to assure success in sales, but there are some sound principles like 'try to listen more than you talk', or 'see things from the customer's point of view'. Understand their problems and desires and try to show how your product helps them get what they want.

Real success involves taking a great many steps, many of which will ultimately prove to have been in the wrong direction. To achieve it, resist the lure of magic, and stick to uncomfortable, messy reality. Use principles, and leave recipes for the kitchen.

- Alastair Dryburgh is chief contrarian at Akenhurst Consultants and author of Everything You Know About Business is Wrong (Headline, £13.99). More at www.alastairdryburgh.com

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