Instant success is the wrong incentive

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As humans, we love instant success and instant results, but it is the wrong incentive. We just love the story of the prodigy as a hero, running over the established with little knowledge but an insane level of skill and smartness. The problem: Instant success and overnight success are one in a million, random and not repeatable. We can not rely on this to happen. Also, very few successful things were created as instant success. The attraction of instant is simply satisfying the same part of the brain as sugar. Instant is basically addictive. We have to check our organisation for wrong incentives for instant success. It sounds strange and we have to master the art of not depressing highly ambitious people by removing those incentives. Carefully, we have to replace them with incentives for perseverance and continuous learning.

A short story from a kite surf instructor

A friend of mine is a professional kite surf instructor. here is a story he likes to tell. Each week a new course starts. Students are asked about their experience and expectation. There is one group he has to look for. Mostly of the time, these are beginner courses. No one can do kite boarding yet. But some feel closer to it then others. But in fact, all of them start at zero. The group to watch out for is “willing unable”. Overly ambitious people, triggered by experience in a (as they think) similar sport or simply vanity.

If they don’t get to the “water start” (the prime candidate of achievement to be expected), they lose. And everyone else in the course. They will even suffer from not being first to do it. Prodigies.

In fact, when you will do the water start is more a function of randomness than talent. No reason for pressure.

When you start kiting, there will be frustration. There will be adverse conditions for the beginner: Low wind, high wind, cold, rain, waves. The point is to just try again, over and over. You will shout at yourself because you feel so clumsy. Because you lost control. Because you know what to do, but you can’t, because you are lacking coordination between what your feet, your hand, your shoulder and your head and your brains have to do. There are all these reflexes to overcome: swimming in water, grabbing and pulling a handle when we lose control. And now, all of these are wrong. And to master it all, you have to un-train these reflexes.

What my friend tells people is: This is all about perseverance. It does not matter when you do the water start. It does not matter if you do it at all. It’s nice. It is motivating, for sure. But what matters is your approach to learning this new sport. The one thing that counts is to overcome any frustration and despair and just start all over again and again. Keep going. You will look stupid and clumsy. Don’t let that be any our way.


And it’s just like that in our professional life. We will not guess the next successful feature. we will not guess the best architecture blueprint. We will not be right on our forecast. We will not build it right the first time. Success is built on going at it again and again. On doing things over and over again. Improving piece by piece, step by step. The first version of our product will look lame after a year. We still have to go for it. Then we have to improve.

Overnight success does not happen. It is one in a million. Pokemon Go had a 20 year build up. Facebook was founded in February 2004. Google earlier, in September 1997 (yes, that’s more than 20 years already). Patagonia was founded in 1973 by Yvon Chouinard, based on Chouinard Equipment founded in the 60s, simply building better climbing pitons in a small workshop.

Get used to it. The one in a million overnight success (name one, please!) is not repeatable and it is not reliable. A prodigy will not save your company. (A prodigy wouldn’t even stay in your company?)

Check your orgs’ incentive systems

This tells us that we should not incentivise for instant success. People will make up instant success and embody toxic behaviour, just like the over ambitious students in the kite surf training. You have to rake care to remove incentives of instant success and the according behaviour from your organisation. Replace it with incentives for perseverance and continuous learning and collaboration. Perseverance, continuous learning and collaboration are repeatable and reliable.

Don’t spend bonuses on instant success. If you have to rely on the danger of incentive systems (I do understand!), focus on:

  • Do people have a “model” of what they are doing? No model means no understanding of the underlying assumptions. This means no comparison of outcome with expectation and finally no learning.
  • Do people stick with their goals? Give people bigger, long term goals and less short term goals. Let short term goals only be coupled to long term achievements. A good way to pick a few “low hanging fruits” from all these opportunities. A way we can make sure, we stick to a more strategic direction.
  • Can people show you how they peer reviewed approaches and results? Did they coordinate with other people and teams? Did they consult other people and teams? Can they show how they improved other people and teams work?
  • Do people and teams help other teams in achieving their goals and in getting better?


Over ambition and focus on instant success creates toxic, selfish behaviour. Check our organisation and own behaviour to eliminate incentives for instant success. Instant success is guessing and neither repeatable nor sustainable. Replace incentives for instant success with ones for perseverance, continuous learning and collaboration.

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