The Peter Drucker Diary – Entry 3

The work of a genius or giant often presents an anomaly. Reverential regard obscures the real work. People know the name, but haven’t engaged with the work. In this series, we take one Peter Drucker quote or excerpt and seek to understand it.

Entry 3

“Success always obsoletes the very behaviour that achieved it”


Think about the courtship period of a couple. There is a notion of ‘cute’ that every man and woman remembers their partner having bestowed on them – during this lovey dovey period. This cuteness makes the heart go bonkers in crazy, stupid love and then..the wedding bells ring!  And then what? The same behaviour now makes your partner come after you with a sledge hammer or Thor’s hammer! You scratch your head and wonder – what’s changed?!

The great Henry Ford famously said that the customer can have a Ford car in any colour as long as it is black! Ford was the perfect practitioner of Frederick Taylor’s ‘Scientific management’. His assembly line was the embodiment of maximum efficiency so that production could be scaled up to match the demand and this by being so super productive that costs were low enough to make the cars supremely affordable. To make cars faster, it was easier to stick to one colour. Black it was. The idea was a huge success and Ford refused to diversify production, create multiple models or experiment with colour. After all, nothing succeeds like success, right?! But then, the tide began to turn. General Motors offered what Ford did not. And started capturing market share in a big way. What changed?!

Dieting is another classic example. You starve yourself and the weighing scale tickles you to bits. Mission accomplished! And then what happens? You know it all too well.

The team leader decides to surprise the team by organising a surprise outbound event one year. Her team is swept off their feet. They love their leader and swear undying loyalty to her. She surprises them with flexi-work options next year and now, they are ready to die for her. She tops herself again the third year by giving personalised gifts – a touch of class. Now, they are ready to kill for her! Fourth year, they cannot wait for her to surprise them! To be surprised and swept off their feet is now a standard expectation and surprise, surprise; she is now being judged – Was it better this year or last year? Why can’t she make out what we really need?!

Not just team-leaders. Parents, Teachers, Leaders; most people have experienced this fickle human behaviour.

Peter Drucker sums it up beautifully. Success creates new realities. It creates new and different problems. The approach that worked has been made redundant by its very success!

The cutesy behaviour in courtship period was temporary insanity that is cured by marriage, to paraphrase Amrose Bierce ! In Drucker’s words, marriage made it obsolete! The ultimate result of customer success with Ford’s cars was that customers started asking – what next? What else? The answer ( different model and colour) made Ford’s car-making approach obsolete. The irony is Ford helped the customers get to the point where they awakened to the new realisation and the new choice. Your self-denial helped you lose weight and now that success is all too evident, how do you fool yourself into thinking there is still the need to exert control in eating? just this one time, I will binge – this thought made possible by your achievement itself!  The team-leader’s surprise had a touch of familiarity and familiarity does breed contempt – you know whats coming and you devalue it. Again, success made the surprise element obsolete.

Those who value Drucker’s observation will change themselves and their behaviour before success starts creating the context for failure.  If it ain’t broken, they will break it!








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